The phrase has become slippery.
What does it mean?
For some the phrase plays like a favorite old song, an evocation of the glory days of Greene, Waugh, Percy, O’Connor, et alia. Days long gone and sorely missed.
For others “Catholic writer” may spell an oxymoron, or at least refer to the kind of writer one would not like to meet at a Manhattan cocktail party.
Even for some Catholics the phrase increasingly tends to serve as a signal that some exceptionally maudlin fiction is quivering like a bad cheese on the horizon.
But even looking at the thing dispassionately, it’s not exactly clear what is being described when one uses the phrase “Catholic writer.” Does it refer to
[a] someone who writes stories set in a Catholic environment featuring (mainly) Catholic characters?
[b] someone interested in giving his or her audience what Flannery O’Connor called “instant uplift”?
[c] a writer whose religious affiliation happens to be Catholic?
Of the above options, I would argue that only [c] is a good answer to the question of what “Catholic writer” means. A Catholic writer need not write stories set in a Catholic environment featuring (mainly) Catholic characters (O’Connor almost never did, Waugh didn’t for the first half of his career, Greene only sometimes–and with dubious theology, Percy wrote some Catholic characters but never put them in a Catholic environment).
And a Catholic writer should not be interested in “instant uplift.” Our remit is not to conjure warm, comfortable feelings but to tell the truth in a beautiful (not necessarily “pretty”) way.
But I think we can say something more about what it means to be a Catholic writer. A Catholic writer is a writer who sees the world from the point of view of Catholic theology and, whether or not Catholics or Catholic things ever appear in his or her work, endeavors to tell the truth about the human condition from the point of view of that theology.
Such a broad charge can take a Catholic writer into some strange and unsettling territory, territory held largely by the devil, as O’Connor warned. If the Catholic writer is going to write stories about the times we live in, then he had better gird his loins and get ready to depict the devil’s territory in a convincing way. In light of that fact, this admonition by Barbara Nicolosi, “Why Good People Do Media Wrong,” is worth reflecting upon. Allow me also to recommend my essay, which includes some input from Barbara Nicolosi, “What Are The Limits to Depictions of Sin in the Arts?”
But the Catholic writer is certainly not obliged to take on the modern world mano a mano. In Kristin Lavransdatter Sigrid Undset took us to medieval (Catholic) Scandinavia. Tolkien took us to Middle Earth. Shusaku Endo took us to 17th-century Japan.
In fact, the choice of setting and characters–whether they are Catholic or not, contemporary or not, realistic or fantastic–is not the most important choice for the Catholic writer.
The most important choice is the commitment to excellence in the writer’s craft. That is what really makes a Catholic writer a Catholic writer. Sure, it would be great to change the world for Christ. But the first duty of the Catholic writer as writer is to create a masterful work of art. As Patrick Coffin argued recently in reference to cinema, that commitment to excellence is what is missing in so many artistic efforts by Catholics and other Christians.
I expand a bit more on this last theme in two other pieces:
Catholic and other writers, I’d be interested to hear what you think of these thoughts.