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A Catholic Reading of Literature?

At SJI, one of our chief ambitions is to be a Catholic school. 

That may sound like a banal ambition. There are, after all, any number of Catholic high schools right here in the region. Yet SJI was founded on the claim that being a “Catholic” school means more than having theology class and occasional all-school liturgies. It also means more than encouraging things like community service and spiritual wellbeing. Indeed, it means quite a bit more than I can articulate here. But, to focus on just three very basic things it might mean, it seems, first of all, to mean recognizing that there is a coherent logic at the center of Catholicism; second, it means seeing that the logic of the culture in which we all live and move and have our being does not always overlap with–and in some ways cuts directly against–such a Catholic logic; and, third, it means allowing a Catholic logic, and not the logic of the world, to permeate and govern every aspect of one’s school. Every aspect. That means that things like pedagogy, athletics, admissions, and architecture should look different in a Catholic school than they would in a school without any moorings in the Church. It also means that terms like “history,” “science,” “math,” “language,” and “literature” should be understood in a different way, and that the subjects which bear their names should be taught in a different way. Sometimes those differences will be obvious. Other times they will be subtle. But they will always be deep. I want here to think through a bit what a Catholic approach to literature might look like.

The first thing to say is that a Catholic approach to literature, like a Catholic approach to pretty much everything, will be built on a Catholic vision of God, the world, and human beings. Without hoping to exhaust any of those inexhaustible themes, I’ll just offer two points regarding a Catholic account of what it means to be human.

First of all, the Church proposes that a human being, by nature, wonders. We are confronted by the great gift of our existence in the world, and we want better to understand it. As Vatican II puts it, we face “riddles of the human condition,” which “deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?” If the Catholic Church is right, then we are engaged in a life-long wrestling match (or, if you like, a lifelong courtship) with these questions, and our attempts at creativity will be, at least in large measure, an expression of our posture towards and responses to those questions.

A Catholic reading of literature, in other words, might read literature with those questions in mind. It might assume that an author who is worth reading can help awaken those questions in us. It might take that author as a companion and a guide into those questions. It might hope to learn, with that author, both how to ask those questions more intensely and sincerely, and how to recognize the truth and beauty of any answers that might be given.

And, speaking of answers, the Church not only proposes questions; she also offers answers–answers which, in turn, beget even deeper and more interesting questions. It is here that I want to introduce a second aspect of a Catholic vision of humanity, which might generate further facets of a Catholic reading of literature. In response to the question, “What is man?”–or “Who am I?”–John Paul II offers these words: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” 

It would require a post–or a book!–in itself in order to probe what John Paul II means by “love.” Yet he explains elsewhere that it means something more than a feeling or an emotion, and something more than a decision–though it certainly includes both feelings and decision. Most deeply, it means a free and total gift of oneself, in which one sees the beauty and goodness of one’s beloved and, out of that vision, pledges the whole of one’s life irrevocably to the beloved. In love, one is no longer an isolated or self-enclosed or autonomous individual; one belongs to another. As the Song of Song puts it, “My beloved is mine and I am his.”

And, again, this vision of a human person might give rise to a way–or ways–of reading literature. That reading might look very different in different times and places. It might mean one thing when one is reading a Dante or Dostoevsky or a Flannery O’Connor, who explicitly dedicated their art to giving voice to a Christian vision of reality; it would likely mean something very different when reading a Homer or a Sophocles, who wrote before Christ; it would almost certainly mean something still different when reading a Camus or a McCarthy, who explicitly reject–yet who cannot but endlessly wrestle with–the Church and her proposal. 

What it would always mean, however, is attending directly to the literature itself, and resisting at every turn the temptation to hamfistedly impose a foreign grid onto a text. What Flannery O’Connor said of the Catholic writer of literature might well apply to the Catholic reader of literature: “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” If we impose the Church’s vision on things without regard for the thing itself to which we ought to be attending, then we betray both the Church and the thing. Yet we must also avoid the opposite extreme: we cannot merely bracket the Church’s vision in order to make room for the thing itself. As O’Connor puts it, “The writer may feel that in order to use his own eyes freely, he must disconnect them from the eyes of the Church and see as nearly as possible in the fashion of a camera. Unfortunately, to try to disconnect faith from vision is to do violence to the whole personality, and the whole personality participates in the act of writing.” To impose the faith on a text one is reading would be to swallow up that text into a distorted version of oneself; to bracket the faith from one’s encounter with that text would be to fragment oneself in order to make space for a distorted version of the text. For O’Connor, “The tensions of being a Catholic novelist are probably never balanced for the writer until the Church becomes so much a part of his personality that he can forget about her–in the same sense that, when he writes, he forgets about himself.” So too the tensions of being a Catholic reader.

In order to be Catholic readers, then, we need not–and we ought not–impose Jesus, the Catechism, our theology, or our philosophy on literature from the outside. Nor, generally speaking, need we be so much as thinking explicitly of Jesus, of the Catechism, of theology, or of philosophy as we are reading literature. That would be too easy: it would demand too little of us, and so it would yield too little from us. We ought, instead, to so conform ourselves to the mind of Christ that we see with His eyes–eyes which see things as they actually are. Doing so demands nothing less than that the gift of our whole selves to Christ. Yet nothing less will suffice.

If we do so, however, we will begin to see things. Things that are actually there in the texts themselves, yet things which might only come fully to light when seen with the mind of Christ. At SJI, we begin our study of literature with the Odyssey, and so I’ll end this post by taking that as an example. To read the Odyssey as a Catholic, one must read the text carefully, and one must read it on its own terms. Yet one must read it with the eyes of Christ. And, in doing so, one might begin to notice a good many things. One might notice, for instance, that Odysseus, when we first encounter him on Calypso’s beach, seems not to be an isolated or self-enclosed or autonomous individual: he seems not to be free to choose whatsoever life he deems fit for himself. Instead, he seems to belong to Ithaca and to her people. He seems to be theirs and they seem to be his. Here Odysseus is, faced with the offer of being made a god–a god!–and living unendingly with a woman far more beautiful than his wife, on an island so lush that Hermes, fresh from the splendors of Olympus, is made to “gaze in wonder, heart entranced with pleasure” when he first sees it. And all Odysseus can do is weep, “wrenching his heart with sobs and groans of anguish, gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears.” His whole being is bound to Ithaca: to the wife whose husband he is, to the son whose father he is, to the people whose king he is. And so his whole being longs for Ithaca, even in the midst of paradise. His whole being, in other words, seems to be consumed with something like the love which, according to the Church, is at the true center of everyone’s being. “My beloved is mind, and I am his.” And reading with the eyes of the Church can perhaps open our eyes to that reality in the text–even as seeing that reality in the text can perhaps give us fresh insights into the vision proposed by the Church.

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