Monday, November 16, 2009

Close to Catholic: A Celebration of Kindred Spirits

This fall, the Center for Ethics and Culture hosted the 8th Catholic Culture Literature Series, with four lectures focused on prominent figures in the Catholic tradition. The event originated in the Center’s desire to expose Notre Dame undergraduate students - and the entire Notre Dame community - to the richness of the Catholic literary heritage. The theme was “Close to Catholic: A Celebration of Kindred Spirits,” and featured four influential authors, all lying outside the Catholic faith and yet authoring work that shares common threads with Catholic theology and philosophy.

Dominic Manganiello, a Professor of English Literature at the University of Ottawa, began the series by lecturing on T.S. Eliot. Dr. Manganiello’s research focuses on the culture of modernism as well as writers, like the Inklings, who return to the Middle Ages to locate the roots of Western culture. He emphasized the persistent influence of Dante Alighieri on Eliot’s work, shown in poems such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Wasteland, and Ash Wednesday. Manganiello commented on Eliot’s slow progression of faith as going from “the empty chapel of The Wasteland to the chapel of Little Gidding” in Four Quartets. Manganiello traced Eliot’s closeness to the Catholic faith by examining his relationship with Dante, who acted, Manganiello noted, as an “exemplar of the affirmative way of love,” rather than an ascetic rejection of the world that Eliot at first favored. Eliot’s “Catholicism” is ultimately a mystery, since his choice to be Anglo-Catholic was deliberate although he talked extensively with Roman Catholic priests. He deeply respected and loved the Catholic Church, but refused to align with the one institution which would revive Western culture. It is ultimately his “wisdom of humility,” Manganiello commented, that makes us celebrate Eliot as a kindred spirit.

Ann Astell, Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, delivered the second lecture of the series on Simone Weil. Philosopher, mystic, and social activist, Weil’s life and works had a profound effect on many Catholic thinkers. Astell walked the audience through Weil’s “Prologue,” her account of the mystical experience she had in 1938, and for context referenced Weil’s letters to Father Perrin, a Dominican priest who was Weil’s spiritual director. In these writings, Weil appeared deeply torn in her relation to the Catholic Church. She professed belief in the dogmas of Catholic faith and practiced Eucharistic adoration, yet felt that Christ’s call to her in this mystical experience did not include sacramental baptism. Weil remained open to that possibility, commenting that if one day she were able to love God enough, she would receive the grace of baptism. She maintained a strong devotion to intellectual vocation but felt that ultimately intelligence must submit to love. Her writings about the Church’s relation to non-Christian religions played a crucial role in the texts of the Second Vatican Council, especially Nostra Aetate. Weil ultimately exemplified the Christian paradox of being chosen yet outcast, and remained on the threshold of the Church for her entire life.

The Center welcomed back Joseph Pearce, a veteran of the event, to lecture on C.S. Lewis. Associate Professor of Literature at Ave Maria University and a convert to Catholicism, Pearce also recently wrote C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, examining the perplexing fact that although Catholic in many aspects of his faith and devotion, Lewis never actually became Catholic. A self-proclaimed atheist at age 15, Lewis and his journey to faith were heavily influenced by his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien as well as G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Pearce outlined the history of Catholic literary revival, beginning in 1845 when Cardinal John Henry Newman was received into the Church, and ending with the “Inklings period” of Tolkien and Lewis himself. Admitting the apparent strangeness of considering Lewis as part of this revival, Pearce nevertheless maintained that Lewis’ closeness to Catholicism lay in the fact that he sided with orthodox theology along with Chesterton, both acting as antagonists to theological modernism, which for Lewis, diluted Christianity. As an Anglican, Lewis remained deeply divided between, as Pearce noted, “his actual experience of Catholicism and the knee-jerk reaction of a good Protestant.” His Catholic tendencies – referring to “Mass” and the “Blessed Sacrament” as well as his habit of going to confession in the 1940s – contrasts with his ambiguous views on the position of the Blessed Virgin and the Pope. His autobiographical allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress, may have shown his respect for T.S. Eliot, whose Anglo-Catholic views otherwise antagonized Lewis. Pearce also pointed to The Great Divorce as evidence of Lewis’ belief in a “Newman-flavored Purgatory,” which was influenced by Dante. The dialogue surrounding Lewis’ apparent Catholicism is complex, but may best be described by his insistence on, as Pearce noted, a “Church that does not move with the world, but a Church that moves the world.”

The last installment in the series’ dialogue was Robert Bird’s lecture on Fyodor Dostoevsky. Bird, Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Chicago, focused on the deeply Christian themes hidden underneath the attacks on the institution of the Roman Catholic Church in Dostoevsky’s work. Following his exile in Siberia for his connections to a liberal intellectual society, Dostoevsky joined the Russian Orthodox faith. Bird looked at several letters and excerpts from Dostoevsky’s work to examine the aesthetics of his writing and his crucial role in documenting, revealing, and interpreting history. In a particular letter to his brother on December 22, 1849, the day he received the last-minute reprieve from the death penalty and was sent to the labor camp, he wrote, “Alongside of me will be people, and to be a human being among people and to remain so forever, not to grieve or falter whatever the misfortunes – this is what life is about, that is its purpose.” He struggled with the limits of literary expression, often quoting others instead of narrating his own experience. He wrote, Bird said, “as an existential imperative,” and realized the hazards of modern society. Although “spectacularly flawed,” Bird said that his ability to live dangerously was “where Dostoevsky found the strength for a powerful assertion of his art,” providing “a pledge of a new world.” His writings, based on his near experience of death, demonstrated “the need for faith and Christ,” as Dostoevsky himself said. Bird contended that his alleged hostility to Catholicism was actually hostility to the secularization of Catholicism, and in The Brothers Karamazov we can see an image of Christ pointing both East and West.

These lectures contained thoughtful insights on the relationship to Catholicism of these four remarkable authors. From the Anglo-Catholicism of T.S. Eliot to the passionate need for Christ in Dostoevsky, this year’s Catholic Culture Series examined the power of Catholic thought and theology, affecting even those lying outside the Church.

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