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Writing about the contemporary Catholic Church the right way

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Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Source: Politicsdaily.com
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. Source: Politicsdaily.com

J.F. Powers is often referred to -- if anyone still refers to him, that is -- as a “Catholic writer.”

This is understandable.  His short stories, as well as his highly-praised novels Wheat that Springeth Green (1988) and Morte D’Urban (which won 1963’s National Book Award, are about priests as well as the rewards and challenges of a spiritual life.

But there is much more to Powers’ Catholicism than his meticulous descriptions of parish life in the Midwest.

Powers, whose grandfather came to the U.S. from Waterford, refused to serve in the American military during World War II and spent over a year in prison.

Powers had been drawn to a strain of pacifist Catholicism known as “Detachment.”  He “approved of...its criticism of American materialism and militarism, and its rebuke to complacent middle-class Catholics, who, for all their manifest religiosity, put ‘business sense’ first,” writes Katherine A. Powers (J.F.’s daughter) in a new book called Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963.

I thought of Powers when I read that Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin leveled some criticism at Catholic writers last weekend at a conference in Kilkenny.

Martin was more concerned with what he called the "growing tendency" towards “tabloidism” in sectors of the Catholic media.

Still, such criticism does raise broader, important questions about what -- if anything -- it means to be a Catholic writer in the 21st century.

Lord knows it’s a good time if you love reading writers who explore Catholic life.  The great Alice McDermott has a new novel out entitled Someone. From Colum McCann and Colm Toibin to Junot Diaz, there are some great Catholic reads out there.

But such a diverse array of writers makes it tempting to say that there really is no point identifying what it is that makes a writer Catholic, since their styles and attitudes vary so widely.

But that’s a bit of a cop out.  To be raised Catholic and write about Catholicism means you are standing up and saying something about the church.  And it need not always be positive.

Nor, however, should a Catholic writer be relentlessly negative, a tempting apple most of us have sampled from time to time.

Consider the great Chicago Irish American writer James T. Farrell.  He is arguably the greatest chronicler of pre-World War II Irish America, particularly in his mammoth Studs Lonigan trilogy.

Too often, however, Farrell (who renounced his own faith) depicts the world of Catholicism as so oppressive and grim that it sometimes undermines his powerful observations.

The best Catholic writers understand that the church and its people and traditions should be explored with subtlety and mystery.

Are there times and issues that demand sharp criticism?  Of course.

As the editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper Michael Kelly told the Irish Independent, "I think many church leaders struggle to understand the role of an independent Catholic press –- loyal to the church while unafraid to point out and highlight what is wrong."

I would add that -- even in the wake of the sex abuse horrors and the insistence that women remain second class citizens within the church hierarchy -- the Catholic Church can remain inspiring for independent-minded writers in the 21st century.

First and foremost, though often offered up as a pillar of conformity, the church, in many ways, remains a countercultural institution.

Let’s return to J.F. Powers.  You may not agree with his pacifism -- in fact, mainstream church leaders didn’t.  Nevertheless, the strength of his convictions is admirable.

More broadly, then and now, it is hard to find voices in America arguing that in the rush to collect material goodies, something deep and profound is lost.  As breathtaking narcissism becomes increasingly normal, how many institutions remain deeply committed to others, to uplifting the down and out?
The church’s own leaders often make it difficult to concentrate on this aspect of the church’s mission.

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