In her famous essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” the good Miss O’Connor wrote a great deal about the need to enter into the mystery of existence and human experience. She wrote also about the danger of a creeping Manichaeism that can spiral out of sentimentalism, and thus she recommends writing as honestly as artistically possible, not regarding overmuch the consequences of potential scandal. As she says,
He [the writer] becomes aware, too, of sources that, relatively speaking, seem amply pure, but from which may come works that scandalize. He may feel that it is as sinful to scandalize the learned as the ignorant. In the end, he will either have to stop writing or limit himself to the concerns proper to what he is creating. It is the person who can follow neither of these courses who becomes the victim, not of the Church, but of a false conception of her demands.
So what duty, then, does the writer have towards the safety of weak souls who may read and be scandalized by some excess, perceived or otherwise?
The business of protecting souls from dangerous literature belongs properly to the Church. All fiction, even when it satisfies the requirements of art, will not turn out to be suitable for everyone’s consumption, and if in some instance, the Church sees fit to forbid the faithful to read a work without permission, the author, if he is a Catholic, will be thankful that the Church is willing to perform this service for him. It means that he can limit himself to the demands of art.
All well and good, one might think. The writer is given permission to work expertly within his own field, and if he inadvertently creates something that is generally unhealthy for souls, the Church will step in and make a judgment to that effect. Hypothetically, this creates a safety net for the writer which gives him the freedom to be creative without casting a constant, scrupulous eye on his own work.
There’s one glaring problem with this system: O’Connor wrote this essay in 1957, and the Index of Forbidden Books was not formally abolished by the Vatican until 1966.
Why is this a problem? Because this checks-and-balances system of creativity and censorship that O’Connor presupposes no longer exists. While no one ever expected Catholic novelists to acquire Nihil Obstats and Imprimaturs from the diocesan chancery (as was once expected of theologians and Catholics writing religious non-fiction), if they wrote a story that was considered obscene or sacrilegious (however inadvertently), the bishop could issue a formal warning to the laity of the diocese and even recommend placing the novel on the Index. Once the Index fell out of use, bishops quickly lost interest in even issuing such warnings.
Which leads to a new dilemma for the Catholic fiction writer: ought he to now take upon himself the “business of protecting souls from [his own] dangerous literature”? Must he review every work of his own scrupulously, trying to imagine what potentially ill effects it may have on all classes of readers, learned and unlearned, traditionalist and post-modernist, Catholic and non-Catholic? She even warns of what she thinks will happen next when writers become moral watchdogs:
[F]or many writers it is easier to assume universal responsibility for souls than it is to produce a work of art, and it is considered better to save the world than to save the work…. That [this view] is foisted on him by the general atmosphere of Catholic piety in this country is hard to deny, and even if this atmosphere cannot be held responsible for every talent killed along the way, it is at least general enough to give an air of credibility to [the] conception of what belief in Christian dogma does to the creative mind.
When artists assume the role of critic, O’Connor argues, the talent of the creative mind is likely to be killed.
I wonder, though, if this is actually true. Many great novelists and poets were also great literary critics, and even significant moral commentators. The ranks of those who pulled double or triple duty include Plato (originally a playwright), Horace, Augustine, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Francesco Petrarch, Torquato Tasso, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, William Blake, John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, John Gardner, and yes, Flannery O’Connor.
If anything, the poetic mind seems inevitably drawn to the use of its critical faculties as a necessary respite from the difficult work of creativity, in addition to serving as the occasional reality check and reinvigoration of the artist’s mission. Engaging occasionally–rather than exclusively, as worried O’Connor–in literary and moral criticism of the poetic arts can serve as a refreshing and recreational Kanathosian Spring.
As Paul VI wrote in Apostolicam Actuositatem one year before abolishing the Index, “By the apostolate the spoken and written word, which is utterly necessary under certain circumstances, lay people announce Christ, explain and spread His teaching in accordance with one’s status and ability, and faithfully profess it…. The lay person engages himself wholly and actively in the reality of the temporal order and effectively assumes his role in conducting the affairs of this order.” The implication for the fiction writer seems to be clear: the clerical class has effectively removed itself from making judgments about whether certain poetical works should be modified, published, or censored. The moral burden is now on the lay writer to censor, when necessary, his own writing. We are not living in the 1950s of O’Connor’s America, and the business of protecting souls has been, as it were, distributed more freely.
Arguably, this also places a burden on writer’s groups. When offering criticisms of other writers’ pre-published works, the Catholic must offer moral criticism where necessary, and should expect to receive it from fellow Catholics in their group. If the critiques never go beyond the aesthetic level into the moral, something must necessarily be lacking.
Written literary criticism must also consider morality and the effects of a work on individual readers, as well as on society in general. A work that is unavoidably scandalous must be repudiated. A work that is potentially scandalous should be explained so as to reduce the possibility of scandal. One need not be as quick to reduce the work of poets to ashes as St. Augustine, but one also need not bend over backwards to be “understanding.”
If Socrates was right that Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are all different manifestations of the same thing, then switching between aesthetic and moral criticism should not be difficult, especially for those educated in the tradition of Catholic morality. Sentimental and simplistic moralizing must be avoided, but surely this is not a greater danger than not considering the morality of art at all.
We are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the abolition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. It’s up to all Catholic writers to educate ourselves on the principles of morality that ought to govern our art, in addition to the aesthetic principles that every poetical artist needs. Is this an extra burden on the lay Catholic? No doubt it is, and no doubt many fiction writers will simply refuse any but the aesthetic burden.
But that is why the artistic occupation is also a Cross.