Whenever I think of the Catholic novelist and his problems, I always remember the legend of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio. This legend has it that St. Francis converted a wolf.
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I don't know whether he actually converted this wolf or whether the wolf's character didn't just greatly improve after he met St. Anyway, he calmed down a good deal.
But the moral of this story, for me at least, is that the wolf, in spite of his improved character, always remained a wolf.
So it is—or ought to be—with the Catholic, or let us just say with the thoroughly Christianized novelist.
No matter how much his character may be improved by the Church, if he is a novelist, he has to remain true to his nature as one. The Church should make the novelist a better novelist. I say should , because unfortunately this doesn't always happen. The Catholic novelist frequently becomes so entranced with his Christian state that he forgets his nature as a fiction writer. This is all right, this is fine, if he stops writing fiction, but most of the time he doesn't stop writing it, and he makes the same kind of spectacle of himself that the wolf would have made if, after his meeting with St.
Francis, he had started walking on his hind legs. A novelist is, first of all, a person who has been given a talent to do a particular thing. Every serious novelist is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life, and he can't do this unless he has been given the initial instrument, the talent, and unless he respects the talent, as such.
It is well to remember what is obvious but usually ignored: that every writer has to cope with the possibility in his given talent. Possibility and limitation mean about the same thing. It is the business of every writer to push his talent to its outermost limit, but this means the outermost limit of the kind of talent he has.
Perhaps I'd better say at this point what kind of fiction writer I am talking about. I mean the fiction writer who looks on fiction as an art and who has resigned himself to its demands and inconveniences.
I mean the fiction writer who writes neither for everybody, nor for the special few, but for the good of what he is writing. No matter how minor his gift, he will not be willing to destroy it by trying to use it outside its proper limits.
This kind of fiction writer is always hotly in pursuit of the real, no matter what he calls it, or what instrument he uses to get at it. Thomas Aquinas says that art does not require rectitude of the appetite, that it is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made. He says that a work of art is a good in itself, and this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten. We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself.
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Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them. For many readers the writing of fiction cannot possibly be a serious occupation in its own right.
It is only serious for them as it affects their personal taste or spirits or morals. But the writer whose vocation is fiction sees his obligation as being to the truth of what can happen in life, and not to the reader—not to the reader's taste, not to the reader's happiness, not even to the reader's morals.
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The Catholic novelist doesn't have to be a saint; he doesn't even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist. This doesn't mean that the writer should lack moral vision, but I think that to understand what it does mean, we have to consider for a while what fiction—novel or story—is, and what would give a piece of fiction the right to have the adjective "Catholic" applied to it.
The very term "Catholic novel" is, of course, suspect, and people who are conscious of its complications don't use it except in quotation marks. If I had to say what a "Catholic novel" is, I could only say that it is one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships. Only in and by these sense experiences does the fiction writer approach a contemplative knowledge of the mystery they embody.
To be concerned with these things means not only to be concerned with the good in them, but with the evil, and not only with the evil, but also with that aspect which appears neither good nor evil, which is not yet Christianized. The Church we see, even the universal Church, is a small segment of the whole of creation. If many are called and few are chosen, fewer still perhaps choose, even unconsciously, to be Christian, and yet all of reality is the potential kingdom of Christ, and the face of the earth is waiting to be recreated by his spirit.
This all means that what we roughly call the Catholic novel is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but simply that it is one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by. This may or may not be a Catholic world, and it may or may not have been seen by a Catholic. Catholic life as seen by a Catholic doesn't always make comfortable reading for Catholics, for that matter. In this country we have J.
Powers, for example, a very fine writer and a born Catholic who writes about Catholics. The Catholics that Mr. Powers writes about are seen by him with a terrible accuracy.
They are vulgar, ignorant, greedy, and fearfully drab, and all these qualities have an unmistakable Catholic social flavor. Powers doesn't write about such Catholics because he wants to embarrass the Church; he writes about them because, by the grace of God, he can't write about any other kind. A writer writes about what he is able to make believable. Every day we see people who are busy distorting their talents in order to enhance their popularity or to make money that they could do without.
We can safely say that this, if done consciously, is reprehensible.
But even oftener, I think, we see people distorting their talents in the name of God for reasons that they think are good—to reform or to teach or to lead people to the Church. And it is much less easy to say that this is reprehensible. None of us is able to judge such people themselves, but we must, for the sake of truth, judge the products they make.
We must say whether this or that novel truthfully portrays the aspect of reality that it sets out to portray.
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The novelist who deliberately misuses his talent for some good purpose may be committing no sin, but he is certainly committing a grave inconsistency, for he is trying to reflect God with what amounts to a practical untruth. Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.
Now a statement like this creates problems. An individual may be highly edified by a sorry novel because he doesn't know any better. We have plenty of examples in this world of poor things being used for good purposes. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.
A good example of a very indifferent novel being used for some good purpose is The Foundling , by Cardinal Spellman. It's nobody's business to judge Cardinal Spellman except as a novelist, and as a novelist he's a bit short.
You do have the satisfaction of knowing that if you buy a copy of The Foundling , you are helping the orphans to whom the proceeds go; and afterwards you can always use the book as a doorstop. But what you owe yourself here is to know that what you are helping are the orphans and not the standards of Catholic letters in this country. Which you prefer to do, if it must be a matter of choice, is up to you.
There are books, however, that purport to have a strong Catholic flavor that are not as innocuous as The Foundling , and these are novels that, by the author's efforts to be edifying, leave out half or three-fourths of the facts of human existence and are therefore not true either to the mysteries we know by faith or those we perceive simply by observation. The novelist is required to create the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it, and the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe.
He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.
Whatever the novelist sees in the way of truth must first take on the form of his art and must become embodied in the concrete and human. If you shy away from sense experience, you will not be able to read fiction; but you will not be able to apprehend anything else in this world either, because every mystery that reaches the human mind, except in the final stages of contemplative prayer, does so by way of the senses.
Christ didn't redeem us by a direct intellectual act, but became incarnate in human form, and he speaks to us now through the mediation of a visible Church. All this may seem a long way from the subject of fiction, but it is not, for the main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarnated in human life. Baron von Hugel, one of the great modern Catholic scholars, wrote that "the Supernatural experience always appears as the transfiguration of Natural conditions, acts, states.
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The highest realities and deepest responses are experienced by us within, or in contact with, the lower and lowliest. The novelist is required to open his eyes on the world around him and look. If what he sees is not highly edifying, he is still required to look. Then he is required to reproduce, with words, what he sees.
Now this is the first point at which the novelist who is a Catholic may feel some friction between what he is supposed to do as a novelist and what he is supposed to do as a Catholic, for what he sees at all times is fallen man perverted by false philosophies.
Is he to reproduce this? Or is he to change what he sees and make it, instead of what it is, what in the light of faith he thinks it ought to be?
Is he, as Baron von Hugel has said, supposed to "tidy up reality? Just how can the novelist be true to time and eternity both, to what he sees and what he believes, to the relative and the absolute? And how can he do all this and be true at the same time to the art of the novel, which demands the illusion of life?
I have found that people outside the Church like to suppose that the Church acts as a restraint on the creativity of the Catholic writer and that she keeps him from reaching his full development. These people point to the fact that there are not many Catholic artists and writers, at least in this country, and that those who do achieve anything in a creative way are usually converts. This is a criticism that we can't shy away from. I feel that it is a valid criticism of the way Catholicism is often applied by our Catholic educational system, or from the pulpit, or ignorantly practiced by ourselves; but that it is, of course, no valid criticism of the religion itself.
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There is no reason why fixed dogma should fix anything that the writer sees in the world. On the contrary, dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.
Christian dogma is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery.
The fiction writer is an observer, first, last, and always, but he cannot be an adequate observer unless he is free from uncertainty about what he sees. Those who have no absolute values cannot let the relative remain merely relative; they are always raising it to the level of the absolute. The Catholic fiction writer is entirely free to observe.