This essay from the latest First Things takes a while to get going, but offers some keen and welcome insights. Here's one about history: "The explosion of American Catholic writing in the two decades after World War II has sometimes been described as a renaissance or revival, but these attractive terms are misnomers. There was no earlier American Catholic literary tradition to be reborn.... It was not a rebirth but a nativity—the sensibility of an ancient faith heard in a new world for the first time." Gioia gives us some stellar phrases ("low-cost nihilism"), biblical allusions ("There is more rejoicing in heaven over one lost poet found than in ninety-nine novelists who have never strayed"), and metaphors ("Who can blame [angry former Catholics] for writing with such passion about the Church? Even a phantom limb can cause excruciating pain").
But of course the most important thing is his argument: that contemporary American Catholic writing is in a much weaker position than that occupied by the post-war generation, but that this is not an insurmountable problem. American literature is not my area of study, so the more informed might dispute the analysis, but I am convinced (and grateful).
Let's start with the problem itself. Gioia offers clear definitions to identify and delimit his topic, followed by a four-part rubric for comparing the two generations. Though his focus is the imaginative literature of American Catholics ("fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir"), he says his argument applies to other American Christians, and in fact to the other fine arts. His definition of Catholic literature is reasonable and concise, and accounts for both faithful and 'cultural' Catholics: "What makes the writing Catholic is that the treatment of these subjects is permeated with a particular worldview." The passive construction extends the definition to include even angry, lapsed Catholics, though he isn't writing for or about them.
This problem is felt in the Church, the world, and the art of both: "the loss of a transcendent religious vision, a refined and rigorous sense of the sacred, the breaking and discarding of two thousand years of Christian mythos, symbolism, and tradition has left contemporary American art spiritually diminished." Immediately he clarifies that "Art does not need to be religious. There are great masterpieces that have no hint of religious transcendence. What I am suggesting is something more subtle and complex. Culture is a conversation. A vigorous culture contains different voices, often in active debate. The voice of religious faith enlarges and enlivens the overall dialectic of culture, even among non-believers, just as the voice of secular society keeps religious writers more alert and intelligent." This genuine inclusivity is rare on either side of the debate, for it is hard to respect one's ideological opponents.
He continues: "Once you remove the religious as one of the possible modes of art, once you separate culture from the long-established traditions and disciplines of spirituality, you don’t remove the spiritual hungers of either artists or audience. You satisfy them more crudely with the vague, the pretentious, and the sentimental. The collapse of the culture that supported O’Connor and Porter, Powers and Merton, led to the culture that consumes teen paranormal romances, ghost reality shows, and internet Wiccans." Elsewhere in the essay Gioia is refreshingly positive about pop culture, which strengthens this particular critique. Here's another gem on "globalized" digital culture: "An adolescence in Los Angeles is not much different from one in Boston or Chicago when so many thousands of hours are spent identically in the same virtual worlds."
But the evangelical mission of the Church also suffers: "The loss of the aesthetic sensibility in the Church has weakened its ability to make its call heard in the world. Dante and Hopkins, Mozart and Palestrina, Michelangelo and El Greco, Bramante and Gaudi, have brought more souls to God than all the preachers of Texas." That might seem unlikely, but "brought to God" does not refer to initial conversion, for "The loss of great music, painting, architecture, poetry, sculpture, fiction, and theater has limited the ways in which the Church speaks to people both within and beyond the faith."
Near the end of the essay, one realizes that "the loss of a transcendent religious vision" has occurred within ecclesial art, as well: "The Church requires that we be faithful, but must we also be deaf, dumb, and blind? I deserve to suffer for my sins, but must so much of that punishment take place in church?” Even church art is "spiritually diminished."
One of the essay's most valuable features is Gioia's formulation, without exaggeration, of a defense of art, especially its evangelical quality:
Theology is important, but formal analytical thought—the splendeur et misère of Roman Catholicism—is not the primary means by which most people experience, accept, or reject a religious faith. They experience the mysteries of faith (or fail to) in the fullness of their humanity—through their emotions, imagination, and senses as well as their intellect. Until recently, a great strength of Catholicism had been its glorious physicality, its ability to convey its truths as incarnate. The faith was not merely explained in its doctrine but reflected in sacred art, music, architecture, and the poetry of liturgy. Even St. Thomas Aquinas knew there were occasions to put theology aside and write poetry. His resplendent verses are still sung with incense at Eucharistic Benediction. “Bells and incense!” scoffs the Puritan, but God gave people ears and noses. Are those organs of perception too humble to bring into church? For very good reason, participating in Mass involves all five senses. We necessarily bring the whole of our hairy and heavy humanity to worship.
Too many "hairy and heavy" defenses of Christian art rely on mere disdain for "formal analytical thought." Gioia's idea is more chaste and synthetic, for he precisely delineates and respects the distinct territories of different human endeavors.
I'm happy to report that all of this is compatible with Maritain (who is quoted at a crucial point in the essay). When Gioia writes that "art is not primarily conceptual or rational" but rather "holistic and incarnate—simultaneously addressing the intellect, emotions, imagination, physical senses, and memory without dividing them," one sees the sense of Maritain's distinction, in the third chapter of Art and Scholasticism, between the material existence of an artwork and its (rational) form.
The work of art has been thought before being made, it has been kneaded and prepared, formed, brooded over, ripened in a mind before passing into matter. And in matter it will always retain the color and savor of the spirit. Its formal element, what constitutes it in its species and makes it what it is, is its being ruled by the intellect. If this formal element diminishes ever so little, to the same extent the reality of art vanishes. The work to be made is only the matter of art, its form is undeviating reason. Recta ratio factibilium: let us say, in order to try to translate this Aristotelian and Scholastic definition, that art is the undeviating determination of works to be made.
As for the proposed solution, I am not yet convinced. It is true that St Francis revolutionized the Church, but not as an artist, let alone a fine artist. But then, Gioia is giving an exhortation, and he recognizes the possibility of failure: "The renewal of Catholic literature will happen—or fail to happen—through the efforts of writers."