In my blog on Bobby Kennedy, I know I made one mistake, and at least two readers have written the editors (not me) to allege that I made another one, “a terrible error.” The mistake I know I made was to give the wrong name to the great little journal of the Methodist Church, edited by the very smart and gentlemanly B.J. Stiles, Motive magazine. My 73-year-old memory is still photographic, but when I need a clear picture, I don’t have enough film. My memory came up with Momentum magazine. Wrong name. Very sorry. Especially since Motive also published my wife Karen Laub-Novak’s sixteen prints on The Apocalypse and pointed out that Laub-Novak was the first artist since Dürer to create so ambitious a series on that book. They are powerful prints. She executed them in Rome and is still selling them (a few favorite numbers are sold out or virtually so). You can see some of Karen’s work on our joint website, www.michaelnovak.net, and on her own website, www.laub-novakartist.com.
The “terrible” error I am accused of is that I mixed in the Protestant and agnostic W.B. Yeats among the “Catholic writers” of the twentieth-century Catholic Renaissance. Well, I confess that I would have been more guarded if I had separated one long sentence into two sentences: the first on Yeats, as a favorite of Gene McCarthy, and the second on the Catholic writers in whom Gene was so well read.
Still, a blog is a conversation, not an academic essay or a public written lecture. In one sentence, I first mentioned Gene’s special love for Yeats (at least for reciting whole reams of Yeats, forty-five minutes at a time, from nothing but memory). Then, in the same sentence, I went on to offer a selected list of some of the Catholic writers who gave him great pleasure and much enlightenment. Not many in our generation, certainly among politicians, were equally literate in their faith. There were a few thousand, maybe; a good community, but not a large percentage of all graduates of Catholic or other colleges.
But really, when my own eyes were opened to this powerful literature—at least four or five Nobel Prize winners in the set—I remember being struck by the capacious sense of “Catholic” used by my professor Fr. Joseph Keena, C.S.C., himself a student of the legendary Frank O’Malley of Notre Dame. I remember his including C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and others who were not actual members of the Catholic Church. He included them because they manifested a respect for the thickness of the Catholic imagination–not exactly correct doctrine and not necessarily a flawless moral life—in fact, sometimes a quite scandalous moral life.
It would take me too far afield now to define what we meant then by “the Catholic imagination.” We certainly would have agreed that William Shakespeare, whatever his personal affiliation, exhibited a Catholic imagination and sensibility; so did Alexis de Tocqueville, whatever his exact formal relations with the Church. But our real interest lay with the Catholic Renaissance of the twentieth century. We found Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and the medieval studies of C.S. Lewis to be marvelous, and sometimes rollicking, definitions of the Catholic imagination. Chesterton, in paraphrase: Catholicism is a thick steak, a glass of stout, and a good cigar. And analogous expressions in Sigrid Undset and Leon Bloy. (“This place reeks of God!” the latter protests against one Catholic setting, whose sensibility disgusts him by its narrowness.)
I would not assert that Frank O’Malley or Fr. Keena listed W.B. Yeats as a Catholic writer. But I would even then, back in the 1950s, have enjoyed the challenge to show convincingly how Catholic his imagination was. And today I judge his imagination, after more experience of my own, to be even more so than I might have seen then.
Obviously, others disagree. Is that not the beauty of literary studies? We try to define standards and definitions, and then we argue where x fits with w, y, and z.
It would not be a bad time to define again, as we yield place to a younger and smarter generation, “the Catholic imagination.” And to see how many would include Lewis, Eliot, Yeats, and others among the artists who express that imagination in their work. And how many would, by contrast, limit their list of Catholic writers to the formally inscribed, the orthodox, and the relatively virtuous (or at least repentant).
Published in First Things August 18, 2006