Writers writing about writing can be a dubious endeavor. Catholic writers writing about the “soul” of the Catholic writer is even more dangerous. So it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I sally forth and throw my rosary beads into the fray.
There are actually “Catholic” filmmakers (or at least there used to be) — men like John Ford and Frank Capra who, throughout careers that each spanned the greater part of the last century, instilled their westerns, social commentary and characters into their works with undeniable Catholic reference points.
Granted, it was an amalgam of Americanism, from a first generation immigrant point of view of Catholicism, but when you have the time, I’ll go into my rant about how the John Ford classic “The Searchers” is really just a take on the Book of Exodus.
The destiny of most writers is to be forgotten or, in other cases, like what has happened recently to Mark Twain, to be tied and bound to the stake and burned at the altar of political correctness.
Twain has been relegated to caricature of himself and is usually only mentioned in popular culture when one of his books is being banned from a public library due to language that is deemed unfit for popular consumption — an irony of astronomic proportion considering Twain knew very well how powerful the language he used was and how he used it brilliantly on the lips of his characters to make an artful exposé of ignorance and prejudice. It is something these modern-day book burners just don’t seem to get.
When people cared about Twain, and people should still care about Twain, he was never going to be accused of being a Catholic writer. There are a host of them though, and, unfortunately, many of them have suffered the same fate.
When I say Catholic writer, I do not mean men and women who wrote about priests and nuns and people seeing visions, though there is a little of that in every good Catholic writer’s body of work. A “good” Catholic writer is one who is immersed in the way a Catholic views the world, where the line is sometimes blurred between good and evil, and the essence of our faith is that we are imperfect beings who mess up our lives on a continual basis.
There are Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor who still hold sway with literary critics and deservedly so. Her work is not for the faint of heart and, to be frank, some of her short stories are tough sledding. Her magnum opus, “Wise Blood,” is filled with a fantastic mix of Southern Gothic and Catholic sensibilities. How else to describe a book where the protagonist is a man who wants to start a church without God.
Another not-famous-enough Catholic writer is Graham Greene, who was one of those writers who always seemed to be at odds with himself and the Church, but who never forsook it. He filled his stories with underlying Catholic themes, while at the same time writing stories of infidelity and sometimes mayhem.
He wrote the screenplay to one of the greatest movies of all time, “The Third Man,” which stars Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles in an other-worldly post-World War II Vienna, where we quickly learn that the burned out shells of buildings, twisted angles and dark as night shadows have more to do with human architecture.
Like the Catholic faith, there are so many different levels to travel in this film and it is the character of Harry Lime, portrayed to perfection by Welles, who gives us, through Graham Greene’s screenplay, the results of what happens when we make the free choice to do evil and do it in a way that serves our own personal pursuits.
Welles’ Harry Lime is charming, funny and deadly, all at the same time.
His speech to his best friend Joseph Cotton after a rather tense ride on a Ferris wheel, is one of cinema’s greatest moments. I won’t spoil it, but I encourage anyone who has never heard of this film to discover its splendor for themselves.
The second to last great Catholic writer who deserves a reintroduction is the acerbic Englishman Evelyn Waugh (yes, his name was Evelyn). Most famous for “Brideshead Revisited,” Waugh, like Greene, had a Catholicism forged through the furnace of growing up in England, a place where to be Catholic was not so distantly removed from penal codes.
Because they were English, the class system plays a bigger role in their Catholic point of view than it does with homegrown versions like Flannery O’Connor. Still, that little big word “Catholic” resounds in Waugh’s work and, again, like Greene, his stories are peopled by characters who do not always act in moral ways, but in the end, are either moved to greater actions or doomed.
There is one more Catholic writer you need to know about. More precisely there is one book by an obscure Catholic writer that you need to read.
Don’t take my word for it; Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have both urged the faithful to read this book. Think of this as a book report and, like most of the book reports I have ever turned in, this one is a little tardy. Actually, it’s a lot tardy … by about 110 years.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.