Catholic Literature: An Introduction

Catholic Literature: An Introduction

Publisher: Tumblar House
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Format: Paperback
Pages: 254

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Why should we study literature? To learn truth, answers Margaret Summitt, and "in so far as a story, poem, or play is true, it is literature - and the deeper the truth it gets at, the more Catholic it is. In other words, the more deeply the author pursues truth, the more likely he is to find his way to the mysteries and dogmas of the Church." Summitt explores authors like Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O'Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other great writers. This book will satisfy your curiosity about these writers.

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Why should we study literature? Because it points toward truth, and because it helps us understand how to express certain truths in the medium of words. The words themselves, in literature, are chosen with great care toward making a certain effect on the imagination.  They show us something whole and entire—a story with a beginning, middle, and end, or a vision for us to contemplate.

In so far as a story, poem, or play is true, it is literature—and the deeper the truth it gets at, the more Catholic it is.  In other words, the more deeply the author pursues truth, the more likely he is to find his way to the mysteries and dogmas of the Church.  This is what the Welsh author Arthur Machen, a master of fantastic literature, had in mind when he said:  

“Literature is the expression, through the artistic medium of words, of the dogmas of the Catholic Church, and that which is in any way out of harmony with these dogmas is not literature,” for “Catholic dogma is merely the witness, under a special symbolism, of the enduring facts of human nature and the universe.” Arthur Machen, “Hieroglyphics: Notes on the Ecstatic in Literature” (1908)

Therefore literature must be in harmony with reason and natural law, at the least, and further it is expected to express some universal truth—such as the redemptive value of suffering, or the vanity of human desire.  To the extent that a writer tries to have it both ways—to arouse compassion for those who suffer, for example, but depicting suffering itself as evil—he is hedging his bets, and his literary work will be inferior.

In saying this, I’m going against my training in modern literary criticism; two years toward a Master of Arts, and nine years toward a Doctor of Philosophy. In becoming a Doctor of Philosophy, I found that modern critics have been busy for the past twenty years deconstructing universal truth, with disastrous consequences for the teaching of literature.  This is probably the fundamental reason I’m no longer in the business.  I’m also stating right here that literature expresses ideas.  Meaning cannot be denied. When a modern poet says, as does Archibald MacLeish, that a poem should not mean, but be, he is asking the impossible of language.  Language does have meaning, because words have meaning.  At the opposite extreme, I used to hear from my freshman students, in their essays, that a poem can have an infinite number of meanings.  Well, I’m sorry, it’s not true.  A poem can have a range of meanings, but that range is always limited, and the meanings are interrelated.  An infinite number of meanings is as useless as no meaning at all.

The denial of universal meaning is probably the most pervasive evil that Catholic authors today, and Catholic teachers, have to struggle against. Nowadays college courses in literature tend to skew their reading lists, and their presentations, to cater to the self-esteem of selected ‘oppressed’ groups, instead of teaching those classics of literature that became classics for a reason: because there was universal truth in them.  And if they do teach those classics, very often modern teachers subvert their meanings to show that this supposed universal classic is really promoting the modern agenda of a particular ‘oppressed’ group.

Another pervasive evil is the lack of Catholic readers.  Until about 1960, there were Americans who were producing poetry, drama and fiction on explicitly Catholic themes, and these writers were being reviewed in Catholic periodicals, a sign that, at least back then, a Catholic audience was somewhere out there. Nowadays a Catholic author has to assume that his audience is going to be overwhelmingly non-Catholic, and increasingly ignorant of reason, natural law, and universal truth.  Flannery O’Connor said that the reason she used violence and shockingly grotesque images in her short stories was she had to hit her reader over the head to make him pay attention to Catholic truth.  And this was in the 1950s. Now that the modern world has become equally violent and grotesque, there is definitely a harvest of readers out there who want to escape it, or to be assured that their hope lies elsewhere than in the world.  If Catholic authors can get their works to this audience, then there is hope for Catholic literature.

This book will be like a Literature 101 course, seen through Catholic eyes.  I chose these literary works carefully for their emphasis on Catholic truth, and they were written by Catholics---with one exception, that being T.S. Eliot, who was an Anglo-Catholic. I included a range of literary genres, and ranged widely over historical periods, drawing mainly on literature written in the last century. Also, I have confined the scope to literature written in English, to simplify certain issues.  Historical background is essential, and so I have included a great deal of literary history, mostly about England, and some about the United States.

I begin with epic poetry, the most ancient literary genre, using an example— G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse—that was written in modern times.  

From epic we proceed to drama, probably the second oldest genre, using T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Choosing a dramatic work for this course list was tricky, as I’ll explain when we get to the section on drama.  It has a lot to do with the subversive agenda of modernism, on the one hand, and on the other with the peculiar fact that the greatest dramas in English were being produced just when the Catholic Faith in England was being most cruelly suppressed.

Murder in the Cathedral, which deals with the martyrdom of St. Thomas à Becket, will prepare us for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which revolves around a group of medieval pilgrims on their way to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. Our text here is the last tale, “The Parson’s Tale,” (in modern English) and selections from the verse Prologue.  These are available in excellent modern translations, although I would encourage you to take a look at the language they were written in, which is called Middle English, and dates from about 1066 to about 1500.  “The Parson’s Tale,” by the way, was written in prose, and is almost never taught in college Chaucer courses—for reasons that will become clear when we read it.  Yet if the college instructor does not deal with “The Parson’s Tale,” the philosophical impact of the whole is lost.

Back in medieval times, when England was Catholic, the Church actively promoted all the arts. Drama in particular was a catechetical tool, and during penitential seasons the Church presented dramas depicting the mysteries of the Faith, and the consequences of sin.  These are broadly termed mystery and morality plays.  The Second Shepherds’ Play, which is funny as well as instructive, was written by a priest in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Everyman is a somber allegory dealing with the Four Last Things.

Following drama, we’ll read some Counter-Reformation, baroque Nativity poems, written by Catholics during that period of persecution.  These are “The Burning Babe,” and “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God.”  A well-known lyric poem from the Victorian period (1800s, or nineteenth century), Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” was very popular in the United States at the turn of the last century.

We’ll end with modern fiction.  Two novels—Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, and Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, broken up by a shorter work, J.R.R. Tolkien’s delightful allegory “Leaf by Niggle.”  This is a Catholic allegory, which will afford us a chance to look back at the medieval allegory Everyman and discuss allegory in general.

By the way, Brideshead Revisited is a novel for more mature readers.  It treats themes of homosexuality, drunkenness, and adultery in an orthodox manner, but if you have doubts about this subject matter, perhaps it may help you to read the chapter in this book before reading the novel itself.  Parents, too, are encouraged to read this chapter.    

Brideshead and O’Connor’s Wise Blood are both about conversion, and the victory of God’s grace over modern evils. Wise Blood is brutally funny in its depiction of the absurd and grotesque condition of modern America.