The 20th Century and the "Catholic Factor"

Conference Views 1900-2000 Through Lens of Faith in Literature

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By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, MAY 19, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Now that a decade has passed since the end of the tumultuous 20th century, there is perhaps enough distance to begin taking stock of an age that so radically reshaped the world and the way we collectively view it. This was the aim of a conference at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross held earlier this month in Rome, entitled "The Catholic Factor in 20th Century Writing."

The conference, the fifth annual event in a series on Poetics and Christianity organized by the Faculty of Institutional Communications, examined the experience of the 20th century through the eyes of Catholic novelists, poets, playwrights and screenplay writers. The conference speakers addressed not only the Catholic writers of the 20th century but also those of other faiths, as well as nonbelievers, who nevertheless struggled with similar themes provoked by the same historical circumstances -- themes such as the problem of evil, love and sexuality and the search for meaning.

Father John Wauck, a professor in the School of Church Communications and a member of the conference organizing committee, told ZENIT that the conference theme emerged from conversations with Professor Evelyn Birge Vitz, who has taught a course on "Catholic Writers of the 20th Century" at New York University.

The topic of literary culture of the 20th century from the perspective of Catholic faith is huge, Father Wauck remarked -- 100 years, all countries and languages, and many divisions. "The first part of the century in some ways could be described as a spectacular Catholic renaissance in France, England and in the United States, to a certain extent," Father Wauck explained. "The second half of the century, from the 1960s on, was radically different."

A Catholic code

Professor Vitz focused on Catholic writers who employed a "Catholic code" in their work that was often lost on reviewers who couldn't comprehend the symbolism, the allusions to Scripture, liturgy, the Fathers of the Church, and the sacraments. "If you don't know that code," Vitz told ZENIT, "it's very difficult to understand the points they are making. … So there are readers who don't know that code and there are readers who hate that code and don't want to understand it."

Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O'Conner, among other Catholic writers, had a "dark sense of humor" that "reflected the darkness of the century," but was often misunderstood. Nevertheless, the reputations of these two writers in particular are secure even among secular academia due not only to their talent as writers, but also because this last century was particularly responsive to dark comedy and satire, Vitz said. What non-Christians often missed in their writings was their sense of Christian hope, the theme of redemption, and the supernatural dimension that lends a deeper meaning.

Identifying Christian Themes

There was division of opinion among participants about how to define a good work of Christian literature. Must a work of art reflect moral or religious truth to be considered a good work of art? Could a work of literature even be immoral and yet considered a great work of art? "How much the moral judgment enters into the judgment of the excellence of the art is an extremely important question," Father Wauck told ZENIT.

Another issue under debate was the viability of identifying Christian literature according to themes. The great tragedies of the 20th century -- the wars, the Gulag, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust of World War II -- was often dealt with by Catholic writers as examples of the problem of evil. While historical circumstances of the 20th century did provoke Catholic writers to address common themes, the conference participants discussed the question of whether it is possible to define a great work of Christian literature by its content.

"Could a great Catholic novel be a comedy or a crime story?" Father Wauck asked. "Is it necessary to only address particular common themes such as the existence of God, the life of the Church, problem of Faith?" There was no conclusion among participants but Father Wauck's remarked that the general consensus was that it would be impossible to define great Christian literature in terms of conceptual themes. "That doesn't mean, however, that Christian literature doesn't tend to focus on those particularly important topics even if it's impossible to define it that way."

Return to pagan culture

Many of those themes were connected to questions of natural theology. "One of the things that was most dominant, most noticeable, about the themes of the literature of the 20th century is that it gets back to the kinds of questions that were crucial in the very first centuries of Christianity," Father Wauck explained. "In a way, we have returned to the situation of the early Christians, surrounded by a non-Christian, pagan culture, so the fundamental questions are not moral ones such as 'How should I live in order to get to Heaven?' but rather 'Does life have meaning?' and 'Is there a God?' -- basic, natural theology questions."

The problem of evil was also a reoccurring theme, as it was in the first centuries, as new converts dealt with the meaning of suffering and the reality of death. Though the Resurrection may be the eternal answer, it was a novel one in the first centuries. Today, said Father Wauck, we are challenged to present this "familiar, old answer" in new ways.

Because our situation is similar to that of the first Christians, the 20th century produced great apologetic literature. Father Wauck cited G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis as some of the great apologists writing in the first half of the century.

"The tragedies of the 20th century -- at least in the first half -- frequently affirmed a need for the belief in God," Father Wauck explained, "and offered, by their very horror, a critique of Godlessness."

"The second half of the century was more confused and ambiguous," Father Wauck continued. "The confusion of the second half is in some ways more challenging than the tragedies of the first half."

The influence of film

"Film is drama, and drama is really the oldest form of literature," Father Wauck told ZENIT. "And since film is clearly the modern descendent of theatre -- and even something more than that -- we couldn't leave it out when taking stock of the 20th century."

One talk at the conference focused entirely on film. "A screenplay isn't a movie, and yet it is a drama," said Father Wauck. "We had to look at film because it was one of the novelties of the 20th century from a literary and cultural point of view." In fact, Father Wauck continued, some of the most interesting religious cultural phenomena of the century were actually films.

Father Wauck listed "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis, the "Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien, and "The Passion of the Christ," produced by Mel Gibson as works anchored in medieval literary sensibilities. Lewis and Tolkien were professors of medieval literature, Father Wauck explained, and Gibson's movie "is essentially a medieval Passion Play" in Aramaic. "It's an amazing thing that they were even made," Father Wauck said, "and even more amazing that they were such huge successes."