Dorothy Cummings McLean
Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad and the author of two books, Ceremony of Innocence and Seraphic Singles.
The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar complained passionately about the disappearance of beauty from philosophy and theology. By the 19th century there had arisen in the human mind artificial divisions among truth, goodness and beauty. By the 20th, theologians stopped writing about the beauty of God. Balthasar tried to make up for this with his seven-volume work, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics.
When you live abroad, Christmas cards become even more important than they were when you lived at home. Last week I sent my “international” Christmas cards, and as usual postage was the most expensive aspect of the operation, costing £34.22 ($54.26 Canadian).
History is text, or so declared the graduate student who lived downstairs from me in the Campus Co-op house on Spadina Avenue. As an undergraduate, I admired graduate students just for being graduate students, and I regarded my neighbour as an oracle. It made sense to me that time, which slips inexorably by, might be captured in written records. After all, Christians, Jews and Muslims have long preserved the idea of a recording angel, the being who records all human deeds, good and bad.
When I announced that I wished to learn Polish, Polish friends assured me that this was impractical, impossible and stupid. Then they rallied round to help. As a result, I am able to navigate Polish shops and restaurants (“And my husband would like a large beer”) although not the regional bus system, as I suspected even before a pilgrimage to Częstochowa.
Częstochowa is a town in southern Poland, famous for the Black Madonna in Jasna Góra, its Paulist monastery. The Black Madonna of Częstochowa is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus. In the icon, she gestures to her Son, and He blesses the viewer. Unlike any other, this Madonna has three violent scars torn along the right side of her face.
The icon was brought to Jasna Góra in 1382, but its origins are shrouded in legend. One delightful story is that it was originally painted by St. Luke on the Holy Family’s own table top. The scars are attributed to an attack on the monastery in the 1400s by Hussites, followers of the religious reformer Jan Huss. In one account, a robber stabbed the Madonna twice in the face and, as he struck her a third time, he fell to the ground in a fatal agony.
Our Lady of Częstochowa is also credited with the lifting of the siege of Jasna Góra in 1655 during the Swedish invasion that devastated Poland. As thanksgiving, the king of Poland proclaimed Mary Queen of Poland by crowning the Black Madonna. Today the Black Madonna is a symbol of, and beloved object of, Polish Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Over the centuries there have been countless Polish pilgrimages to the icon and now, thanks to contemporary transportation, Catholics come from all over the world to visit the Black Madonna.
I hope the majority does not attempt to arrange its trip in pidgin-Polish at the Kraków Głowny bus station.
“Does Madam speak English?” I asked in pidgin-Polish.
“Only a little,” said the ticketseller in Polish.
“Okay,” I said. “My husband and I would like to go to Częstochowa today.”
The ticket-seller responded to this news in rapid Polish.
“Excuse me,” I said meekly, and incidentally przepraszam is very difficult to say, “I don’t understand.”
The ticket-seller sighed and wrote 11:20 on a piece of paper.
“Yes, please. Two.”
The price seemed suspiciously small.
“And we also wish to return to Kraków today.”
“Only one way,” said the lady in English, and in my cowardice, I did not ask why.
The queue outside the bus astonished us, for it was so big, so youthful and so pushy. When the door opened a hundred twentysomethings with baggage and a nun attempted to get on all at once. But those who had not yet bought tickets were expelled with shouts, and so my husband and I pushed forward and won seats. I felt sorry for those who stood for two hours, and impressed by their devotion to Our Lady of Częstochowa until we reached a town called Zawiercie where most of the young people got out. A traffic jam just outside Częstochowa led those remaining to whip out their phones to apologize to parents for lateness.
Two hours later we arrived in Częstochowa with a poor opinion of the highway and the startling realization that pilgrimage sites are not just pilgrimage sites but thriving communities with lives of their own. Seeing “Częstochowa” blazed across a car dealership made me blink. (Does Lourdes…?) The bus station, incidentally, is not within sight of Jasna Góra.
“Does Madam speak English?”
“Dobrze. My husband and I would like to return to Kraków today.”
“There’s no bus.”
“There’s no bus!?”
Fortunately, a trip to the adjacent train station revealed that there was a train, at least as far as Katowice, where we could transfer, so we walked to Jasna Góra secure in the knowledge we would not have to sleep in it. It was four in the afternoon and growing dark. A long avenue reached forward and embraced the monastery, and we hurried along it, hoping we would be in time to see the icon.
The silence and emptiness of the grounds outside the monastery surprised me. Although it was the end of October, I expected large crowds of other pilgrims. Instead, a statue of Cardinal Wyszyński knelt alone in the chilly dusk. We navigated the complex and found ourselves in a huge basilica just as a voice began to say Mass in a large chapel to the left. We looked in and saw, over the high altar, the famous Black Madonna of Częstochowa.
We stood with the little congregation and prayed as well as we could with the Polish Mass. All the pains and embarrassments of the journey were worth being there. Indeed, they were something to offer in thanksgiving.
Sir Jimmy Savile (1926-2011) was an institution, one of Britain’s most beloved celebrities. He began his career in British media in 1964 as a radio DJ with the BBC, then as a television personality. He was the star of a children’s TV show called Jim’ll Fix It, in which he made the dreams of children come true, and a presenter on Top of the Pops, which featured the performances of the most popular rock bands. My Scottish husband watched Jim’ll Fix It as a child. We watch reruns of Top of the Pops together.
A self-described devout Catholic, Savile had a reputation for piety, charity and lovably zany behaviour. Kids and teenage girls flocked to him. He visited the sick and even had his own office at the famous, high-security psychiatric institution Broadmoor Hospital. He frequently visited a school for troubled girls and a childrens’ home. He was pals with princes, princesses and prime ministers. He raised £40 million for charities. He was knighted in 1990. When Savile died, a columnist in England’s Catholic Herald complained that the media accolades hadn’t mentioned that the nation’s treasure was a Catholic.
They also neglected to mention that Savile was a sex abuser. There had been rumours at the BBC for decades that Savile was bedding underage girls, but the one time he was asked about them officially, he denied the allegations and the matter was dropped. Soon after his death, a team of BBC journalists followed up the rumours and interviewed people who claimed to have been molested by Savile in the 1960s and 1970s. Their boss shelved the documentary and the BBC ran a Boxing Day tribute to its late star. Rival station ITV broadcast its own expose on Savile’s alleged crimes last month.
The UK is in an uproar, and watching the BBC report on itself is surreal. Only now are people asking why Savile had so much access to vulnerable young people in the BBC studios, on the road, in children’s homes, in special schools and in hospitals. Authorities are insisting that they didn’t know about the abuse. Fellow DJs are muttering that they knew, but they didn’t think they would be believed, or that sex with underage girls was part of the culture of the 1970s. And, amazingly, it turns out that Savile hinted in his own autobiographies of his sexual misdeeds. Joking about his lustfulness was part of his zany routine. Savile had been hiding in plain sight.
People don’t want to believe that their heroes — people who make dreams come true, people who raise millions for charity, people who bring in the highest ratings, people who sell the most tickets — are capable of the sexual abuse of vulnerable people. But the sad fact is that some people who appear to be very good, who care very much about the sick and the young, use their personae as zany, funny, generous people to get access to vulnerable people. They wriggle their way into trusted institutions and use the reflected glory to attract victims. And in return, the trusted institutions do what they can to preserve their reputation — either ignore or deny a problem, or cover it up.
What the Savile scandal illustrates, as did the Penn State scandal in the United States, is that sexual abuse and the reluctance of an institution to appropriately deal with the problem is not merely the problem of religious communities but of institutions in general. Institutions have to recognize that it is in the nature of an institution — whether it is a family, a university department, a television station, a national icon — to preserve itself at any cost. They must transform that nature so that it puts the good of vulnerable people first.
It also illustrates that the trust people put in celebrities can be unwise and misplaced. We must resist being so beglamoured by someone’s celebrity or position in a community that we allow them to break rules or to behave in an eccentric way, when their eccentricities include being unkind or abusive to vulnerable people. We must not excuse the hurtful behaviour of friends with a sigh and “That’s just Jim.” Everyone is responsible for the protection of the vulnerable.
And, finally, it illustrates that among the pious and devout are people who use their piety and devotion as a disguise or even to make deals with God. When decades ago someone asked Savile how he, a devout Catholic layman, could have sex with teenage girls, Savile said he had a deal with God. The deal was that because Jimmy did so much for charity, God would overlook his sexual behaviour. There is absolutely no excuse for a Catholic to think this way, and priests and schools are duty-bound to make sure we don’t.
I’m going to date myself and admit that I was born after the Second Vatican Council. It is said that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there. Well, I don’t remember them because I wasn’t at all there. I was just as non-existent during the Second Vatican Council as I was during the First Vatican Council, and during the Council of Trent before it, and all the other Councils. Thus I was never as excited about the Second Vatican Council as its contemporaries expected me to be. Today it is still discussed with breathless excitement as if, like Woodstock, it happened just yesterday, and what a shame we kids missed it.
Any discussion of the Second Vatican Council without a close reading of its documents, reference to its controversies and acknowledgment of its critics is in danger of falling prey to Spirit-of-VaticanII-ism. Spirit-of-Vatican-II-ism is a belief that the council was, more than any other council in the history of the Church, a “New Pentecost” and that its documents are less important than the changes that followed in its wake, with or without their sanction.
Spirit-of-Vatican-II-ism sets up “Vatican II” as an idol, synonymous with change and innovation, and condemns anything that happened in the Church between Constantine and Vatican II as bad and any papal document issued since as dangerous to what is called its spirit.
I am not a Spirit-of-Vatican-II-ist, so I welcome this Year of Faith as an opportunity to examine not only the documents of the Second Vatican Council but the documents of the 20 general councils from which it descended. For example, the very name Second Vatican Council implies a First Vatican Council. I doubt it received the same attention as Vatican II.
This is a pity for the First Vatican Council was the first general council after the Council of Trent, which is to say, in more than 300 years. The Council of Trent opened in 1545 and was finally adjourned in 1563, after several interruptions due to war. The First Vatican Council opened on Dec. 8, 1869, was suspended due to war on Oct. 20, 1870, and was formally closed 90 years later, in 1960, when plans for the Second Vatican Council were under way.
The First Vatican Council was mother to the second.
The Council of Trent dealt with the religious philosophies then dividing Western European Christianity, embracing those developments consistent with the Catholic faith and rejecting those innovations that were not. The First Vatican Council dealt with irreligious philosophies which directly attacked Christianity itself. These included uncritical rationalism, materialism and liberalism. Trent had to meet the challenges of the early Renaissance; opened 10 years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Vatican I proposed to meet the challenges of the modern world.
It did so under perilous circumstances. Blessed Pius IX was not only pope but the temporal ruler of what was left of the papal states, including the city of Rome. As the wars for Italian territory raged, it appeared that the city could be annexed at any time. European leaders feared that Pius IX might use the council to define dogmatically the temporal authority of the pope to rule the papal states, thus enlisting Catholics worldwide to restore them. However, Pius IX had widespread personal popularlity, and most European powers decided not to interfere with the council. As a result, more than 700 bishops, superiors and generals of orders and abbots were able to attend.
Unlike Trent, there were representatives from every continent at Vatican I, and 120 of the bishops were from English-speaking countries. English-speaking bishops had an influence in Church matters they had not had at Trent; one of the most influential voices of Vatican I belonged to the English Cardinal Manning. The temporal rulers of Catholic states were not invited, as they had been to Trent: this reflected the 19th-century movement towards a stricter separation of Church and state. And, quite unlike Trent, there were also journalists.
As it would regarding the Second Vatican Council, the world took an interest in the deliberations of Vatican I, and newspapers concentrated on attention-grabbing controversies. The principal controversy was papal infallibility, which was dogmatically defined in the document Pastor Aeternus. The document, however, was not as much fun for the papers as their misleading narratives of conflict and power.
It is not enough to hear popular narratives about a council; to be truly informed, we must read the actual documents. Thus, to truly grasp the First Vatican Council, read Dei Filius and Pastor Aeternus. They are both online.
The surest way to spark a debate in Catholic circles is to mention clothing. There are four popular controversies around clothing and Catholicism: modesty, suitability for church, traditional habits and mantillas. I shall take my life in my hands and write merrily about them all.
One of my professors at Regis College, John Dadosky, wrote a brilliant essay about modernity and the rise of religious conservatism. His thesis was that religious faiths are now in retreat towards the certainties of their pasts in reaction to the destabilizing pace of change in the modern world. He thinks this bad; I think it sometimes good.
Prof. Dadosky notes also that, paradoxically, traditional religious movements are not adverse to using contemporary technologies. This is certainly true of the Internet, where you can read lengthy posts by young Catholics telling each other what modest clothing for women is.
Modest clothes for women is a topic on which everyone seems to have an opinion, from “If Mary is a model for women, why don’t women dress like her?” to “Women should be free to wear whatever we want, whenever and wherever, even if that is almost nothing.” The first extreme seems ridiculous: whatever Mary wore, it was appropriate for a Jewish woman in first-century Galilee. That does not mean it is appropriate for Christian women in 21st-century Toronto. The second extreme ignores the fact that all societies have conventions about clothing, socially — if not legally — enforced, because clothing is, inevitably if insincerely, a form of communication.
When I was in high school, the halls rang with the voices of teacher screaming, “Girls, unroll your kilts and tuck your shirts IN.” Loretto Abbey was in the business of forming the women of tomorrow, and it clearly envisioned a tomorrow where the women weren’t sloppy. It didn’t mind if we had our kilts professionally tailored to the size of table napkins as long as we looked tidy. But most workplaces, I think, would blink at the hemlines considered normal in Toronto Catholic schools. Modesty is in the eye of social convention, and the conventions of the Grade 10 locker room are not those elsewhere.
When choosing clothes for church, it may be salutary to reflect that, as poor as most of them were, our Christian ancestors had at least two outfits: work clothes and Sunday best. There are Christian communities to which “church clothes” are still very important; in Toronto it is a heartening sight to see beautifully dressed Pentecostal families on their way to prayer.
The usual riposte to suggestions that we follow their example is “God doesn’t care what I wear to Mass.”
However, the parable of the wedding garment should at least give us pause for thought.
We dress up to show respect. We dress up for job interviews to show respect for the job. We dress up for weddings to show respect to the bridal couple. We dress up for classical concerts to show respect for the musicians — who dress up to show respect for the music and us. It surely is therefore not an outrage against democracy to suggest we dress up for Mass to show respect for God. And “up” does not mean expensively, as our impoverished ancestors illustrated.
As I am not myself a religious, I do not have much to say about traditional religious habit, except that to report that at Regis College we students joked that our lay male professors were often mistaken for Jesuits because they wore jackets and ties. It was believed that students would feel alienated by our professors if they wore clerical dress; this may have been true. However, if one loves the notion of religious life at all, it is cheering to be able to recognize priests and religious at a glance. For me this is one of the great delights of travel in Europe.
And at last I come to that controversial frill, the mantilla. The mantilla — a piece of lacy fabric that covers the hair — has been making its appearance in Catholic churches to the surprise of those who enjoy the freedom granted in the wake of Vatican II from the traditional interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11. The mantilla is, of course, completely optional, so it surprises me that some feel threatened by it.
I don a black mantilla as I enter a church, even removing a winter hat to do so, as a way of centring myself. As I don’t wear a mantilla anywhere else, it helps me to transition from noisy, secular space to a quiet, sacred one. It is an expression of my sense of myself, not just as a Catholic, but as a Catholic woman at prayer — a sense of a special, separate, timeless women’s spirituality which is, perhaps, what the mantilla’s critics find frightening.
A few weeks ago I joined a writers’ group. I thought this would be helpful not only for my writing, but for meeting new people in Edinburgh. As I work from home, my social circle is restricted mostly to neighbours and church friends. It is time to get fresh perspectives.
The writers’ group meets once a week at a bookshop near Edinburgh Castle. When I went to the first meeting, I noticed a few things. First, almost all the writers were men. Second, nobody seemed to have published anything. Third, the writing was very interesting. I was intrigued.
After listening silently through the first half, I felt confident enough to make suggestions. One man had written a promising story, but a few details seemed incredible. For example, a priest character, from a poor rural area, had a silver hip flask.
I suggested that the priest would not have had a silver hip flask, as he was unlikely to be making much money.
“I don’t know,” said another man. “Don’t we associate priests with high living? Look at Friar Tuck.”
“Do you know how much a Catholic priest makes?” I asked him. He was silent.
I had joined this group incognito because I didn’t want to be Googled and identified as a Catholic. Catholics in the arts risk spending a lot of time arguing or being drawn into deeply personal conversations about faith. I wanted just to talk about writing.
At the second meeting, one writer mentioned gleefully to another that he had sent his new story to Cardinal O’Brien, the archbishop of Edinburgh, and received a reply. The second writer, the Friar Tuck man, made faces at the thought of the cardinal. I thought that odd, but I just listened to the other stories, gave advice, read my own story and enjoyed the advice I received in return. Then the cardinal’s correspondent read his story, an attack on some local Catholic nuns he resents because they run a soup kitchen on his street, “ruining the property values.” It featured a stupid nun, a cartoon cardinal and the return of Mother Teresa.
I had to leave before the writer finished his story and read the cardinal’s critique. However, I wondered if there had been a public outcry over mismanagement by these nuns. I looked online and found only the writer’s story, the letter from the cardinal, which the writer had posted, and the writer’s impassioned reply.
My heart plummeted. I began to wonder if I shouldn’t drop out of my writers’ group. Although I didn’t want to get dragged into discussions about Catholicism, I didn’t want to sit silently before anti-Catholic remarks, either. I felt terribly disappointed.
But I went to my third meeting anyway. It began with a poem. The poem included the words “mass genocide.” We fellow writers puzzled out the meaning of the poem. The Friar Tuck man suggested that “mass genocide” referred to genocides carried out by Catholics (Mass, genocide), like during the Inquisition or by Catholics’ “complicity with Mussolini.”
The poet said, no, that was not what he meant, and I successfully fought the impulse to say how offensive, how ridiculous, how utterly gratuitous I found the suggestion.
Then the cardinal’s correspondent read his next story, a science-fiction fantasy, and it included a cartoon cardinal obviously based on the cardinal himself. This character wore gold and scarlet robes and a pointed hat. He boasted that after his campaigns in Scotland he had been put in charge of the Inquisition.
Two references to the Inquisition in half an hour. My heart began to race. My eye sought out the door to the washroom, for I thought I might actually be sick. I believe in freedom of speech. And if there’s anywhere where someone should be able to write and present whatever he likes, it’s a writers’ group. On the other hand, I had never in my life been silent when people made ignorant remarks about Catholics. My conscience was divided against itself.
It could be an interesting, if painful, experiment, I thought. For once I could just keep my mouth shut. People in all kinds of minority groups must go through life not reacting to every offensive comment. Maybe I could do it, too. Maybe sometimes the bravest thing is not to speak out, if you are that kind, but to be silent.
But a funny thing happened later that night. I woke up at 2 a.m. swallowing compulsively. It was as if my brain thought there was something stuck in my throat. And after a very bad night and while nursing a very sore throat, I was sure I knew what it was. It was the words I should have said: “Writers are supposed to capture truth. And as a Catholic, I can tell you that you haven’t captured the truth about Catholics.”
(Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer and author of Seraphic Singles.)
Cardinal Martini was a leading Italian intellectual, a biblical scholar who also wrote books on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Himself a Jesuit, Cardinal Martini was spoken of affectionately by Jesuits and students of Jesuits around the world. He was famous throughout Italy for his public conversations with other intellectuals, including novellist Umberto Eco. In the 1990s, the Corriere della Sera published the correspondence between Cardinal Martini and Eco as it unfolded, Eco writing as a curious unbeliever, and Cardinal Martini as a defender and teacher of Catholic doctrine. Their letters have been translated and published in a single volume called Belief or Nonbelief.
Unfortunately, the admiration many Catholics held for Cardinal Martini, his defence of Catholic doctrines and his scholarship are at risk due to remarks he made to a fellow Jesuit shortly before he died. The comment the BBC — among other secular institutions not particularly sympathetic to the Roman Catholic Church — has seized upon is La Chiesa è rimansta indietro di 200 anni. The translation changes from paper to paper, but I think my teacher at Loretto Abbey would approve “The Church is 200 years behind.”
If you wish to read Cardinal Martini’s final interview without the distorted lense of the secular media, it is available in the online Corriere della Sera. Hopefully there will soon be a good, scholarly account of Cardinal Martini’s life and work, so that his legacy is not forever clouded by the wishful thinking of a secular media ever on the hunt for a good “Cardinal bites Church” story. Meanwhile, I wish to say that although the Church, thank God, is not wedded to the spirit of our age, it is certainly not what it was 200 years ago.
Two hundred years ago, 1812, the ecclesiastical structures of several Catholic states had been smashed by the aftermath of the French Revolution, and then controlled by Napoleon Bonaparte. The army of the anti-Catholic, revolutionary French army had invaded the Papal States in 1798 and taken Pius VI prisoner. The Pope was carted around Italy and finally imprisoned in France where he died in 1799. The French revolutionary elite hailed this as the death of the “last of the popes” and began hatching a plot to prevent the election of any other future popes. The body was left unburied for months.
But the dying Pius VI had left instructions for a conclave, and those members of the College of Cardinals — penniless, terrorized, under pressure from opposed European political powers — who could, met in Venice in 1800 and elected a Benedictine monk. Pius VII was crowned with a papier-mâché version of the traditional (and now surplus) triple tiara, for the French had looted the original.
The conclave was, because of the difficult circumstances of wartorn Europe, almost entirely Italian. The cardinals were, because of the social structures of 18th-century Europe, aristocrats. Pius VI himself was an Italian aristocrat and might have found it funny that 206 years later his successor would be the son of a Bavarian police officer.
The spiritual role of the Church was still wedded to the temporal role of the Church, as ruler of the Papal States it eventually, if temporarily, reclaimed. The Church wheeled and dealed constantly with the great European powers. Pius VII spent the first 15 years of his pontificate struggling for the Church against Napoleon. He too was taken prisoner; in 1812 Pius VII was dragged, a very sick man, over the Alps into France.
Given the affection we ordinary Catholics have for our popes, it seems strange that the popes of 200 years ago were so vulnerable to secular attack. But 200 years ago, ordinary Catholics didn’t think that much about their popes — let alone retired archbishops of Milan — who were, after all, very far away. Popes did not have international celebrity status until Pius IX. Imagine the outcry if John Paul II had been left unburied, or if the EU took Benedict XVI prisoner.
Given that the Church of 2012 is so different from that of 1812, Cardinal Martini’s remark about “200 years” seems careless and forgetful.
Of course, the modern Church does remain like the Church of 1812 in several respects. One of them is her refusal to capitulate to secular forces that hate her.
I will not read it both because it is a sin to read pornographic novels and because I do not wish to encourage the proliferation of pornographic novels by indulging in them myself. Not only do these novels create troubling images in the mind that are difficult to erase, they perpetuate lies about men, women and sexuality.
Fifty Shades of Grey, I am informed by book reviews, is about a college-educated virgin who becomes the sex-slave of an attractive, fabulously wealthy man in his late 20s who gives her lavish presents in exchange for their sado-masochistic relationship. She later abandons their deal, head high and conscience clear. There are two sequels; together they have sold more than 40 million copies.
Although I have not read these books, I can see the impact they have had on daily life. First, my local supermarket has filled its sales bin, right beside the checkout line and at the height of children’s eyes, with them. Second, my formerly favourite bookshop has compiled a table piled high with “women’s erotica” in plain view of the front door. Third, I have received an e-mail from a male stranger claiming that it is easier to seduce women by being cruel to us than being nice and that the proof lies both in his own experience and “the book women are so hot and bothered about these days.”
What we read and buy has an impact on society. I am sorry to use the word “impact,” but I think it fittingly conveys the sense of a metorite smacking into the Earth, altering a landscape forever. Every woman who bought Fifty Shades of Grey contributed to its being made available to curious children in my grocery store. She contributed to an interest in booksellers for pornography over other kinds of writing. She contributed to my unpleasant correspondent’s idea that women enjoy being treated badly by men.
I am sorry if that sounds harsh, and I acknowledge that men may have bought some of the 40 million copies, but women too have to take responsibility for the blasted, overly sexualized landscape we have created for our children to play in. And it is no use protesting “It’s just a book” because Sex & the City was just a television show, and its opening premise, that “women should have sex just like (promiscuous) men,” has been parroted everywhere. Its own lies have been absorbed by a trusting generation.
This is not to say that any reference to sexual themes should be expunged from novels, even novels by Catholics. One of my Seraphic Singles readers wrote to me of an editor at a Catholic publishing house who had complained to her that she could not find the “Graham Greenes” and “Evelyn Waughs” of our generation. Having written a novel very much in tribute to Graham Greene, I sent it to this editor in hopeful expectation. My Greene-ish work was rejected on the grounds that the heroine is morally ambiguous and living with her boyfriend.
At the time I raged, but my manuscript has since been accepted by Ignatius Press, so now I chortle. Anyone who has seriously read the work of Waugh and Greene knows that they wrote often about morally ambiguous protagonists, some of whom lived with their girlfriends. Moral ambiguity, no less than sexual sin, is a pressing problem of life, and serious, thoughtful novellists have light to shed on both.
Waugh and Greene, of course, were of a different era, and their writing was governed not only by their Catholic consciences, but by more modest community standards and the Obscene Publications Act. The very fact that there is legislation about what sexually themed work can be published points to the understanding that certain works of the imagination, even ones without illustrations or photographs, are not in the public interest. Once it meant that writers who wanted to write about the sexual side of human life had to do so with modesty and sensitivity.
But times, community standards and interpretations of such laws have changed. Although no one is forcing us to read or watch pornographic material, it has moved from the back of the bookshop to the front. I find this very demoralizing, speaking as a Catholic who both reads fiction and writes it. Not only are women’s imaginations being debauched, millions are being spent on trash instead of on literature, including literature written by ever more marginalized Catholics. Women, literature and Catholic writers will be the poorer for it.