March 1, 2011

Poet Dana Gioia Addresses Catholic Writer's Status in Contemporary Society

Dana Gioia delivers the talk "The Catholic Writer Today."

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Dana Gioia, award-winning poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, delivered a spirited critique of Catholic literary culture in today's society at a Feb. 28 speech at Catholic University. More than 200 people attended the talk.

Deploring the standing of the Catholic writer in contemporary society, he said that while Catholics constitute the largest cultural minority in the U.S., Catholic culture has almost no presence in contemporary arts and letters. Instead it is a "marginalized sub-culture," he said, noting the irony that this "marginalization comes at a time when cultural diversity is celebrated" in our society.

Gioia argued that Catholic literature has been in decline since its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when Catholics played a "prominent, prestigious and irreplaceable" role in society.

Calling that period an era of Catholic literary dominance, he listed a score of prominent Catholic writers of the day. Catholicism then was not only seen as a world view, "it was perhaps the most compatible world view for a writer," he said.

By contrast, Gioia noted that there are very few writers today who identify themselves as Catholic in any positive sense. Among those are the novelists Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott, and Alexander Theroux.

Today Catholics who are writers no longer see their religion as a core identifier. In the 1950s and 1960s many important writers identified themselves as faithful Catholics and their culture was respected, Gioia said. But today, their religion is "something to be hidden in order to be successful," because "the cultural establishment views faithful Catholics with suspicion and disdain," he added. "What does any Catholic writer have to gain by identifying themselves as Catholic?"

Applauding Gioia are Ernest Suarez, chair of the Department of English; President John Garvey; Gioia's wife, Mary; his publisher, Joseph Terry; and Terry's son, Joseph, a CUA student.

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Quoting the late American senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Gioia posited that "anti-Catholicism is the last remaining acceptable intellectual bigotry."

Catholic writers today occupy a role closer to that of Catholic writers in 1900 who were products of an immigrant culture, Gioia said.

Gioia said his observations applied not just to Catholics, but also in general to all American Christians. "They have in effect ceded the arts to secular culture," he remarked. The result is that "American art is impoverished."

Despite his bleak assessment of the status quo, Gioia said his remarks were not motivated by despair or cynicism. Rather, he explained, "If we are to solve the problem, we need to see it clearly."

"For every true artist, a problem presents a possibility," he said. "If we learn nothing else from the lives of the saints, we should know the power their work had to change their age."

The formula for Catholic writers to be successful, he said, is "faith, hope, and ingenuity." It is up to the truly talented Catholic artists to reinvigorate culture with religion, he suggested.

During his talk, Gioia pointed to several factors working in favor of a revival of Catholic culture. One is the "advantage of 2,000 years of tradition. … To be a Catholic writer is to be at the center of Western tradition."

Gioia signs books following his talk.

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A second is the unmet spiritual need that remains in evidence in contemporary society. Commenting on popular culture's continuing references to cultural Catholicism, he remarked, "Once you remove religion … you don't remove the hungers of the artists or the audience. You replace them with something superficial."

Also, Gioia noted, changing the status quo in which Catholic culture is marginalized won't require the conversion of large numbers of people.

"New artistic movements are the results of a few dedicated individuals," he said. "The real challenge is not in numbers, but in individual genius."

In conclusion, Gioia invoked the metaphor of the urban neighborhoods of an earlier generation of Catholics. "It is time for Catholic writers to leave the homogenous, characterless homes of the suburbs and move back to the city. It is time to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition," he said.

Following his lecture, Gioia participated in a question-and-answer session, and closed by reciting one of his poems.

This lecture was part of a series of events tied to President John Garvey's inaugural year theme, "Intellect and Virtue: The Idea of a Catholic University."


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