Shouts or Whispers? A Journey Through Catholic Letters Today

"In my Cardinal Newman Lecture I'll be reflecting on the changing face of Catholic literature from the twentieth century to the present - and how that body of writing has shaped my life and vocation, including my work as editor of the literary journal Image. My conversion to the Catholic Church while a graduate student at Oxford University was profoundly influenced by writers such as Flannery O'Connor, Georges Bernanos, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Walker Percy -- all Catholic novelists. These writers shared O'Connor's belief that "for the hard of hearing you have to shout" -- in other words, that the Christian writer in a secular age needs to use bold, dramatic gestures to help people sense what religious faith is like. But the succeeding generations of Catholic writers - those writing late in the previous century and up to the present moment, I discovered, were more inclined to "whispers" than to "shouts." I'll speak about the contention made by some critics who have argued that this is simply evidence of a lack of strong Catholic identity and conviction, and I'll attempt to show that this is an unhelpful simplification. This topic has surfaced recently as I've found myself publishing responses to essays by Paul Elie and Dana Gioia, two leading contemporary Catholic writers - both of whom favor a "narrative of decline" when evaluating the state of Catholic letters. The more I've been involved in editing Image, the less inclined I am to embrace a narrative of decline. I believe that there is, in fact, a host of gifted Catholic writers at work today, so I will conclude my talk by asking why thinkers like Elie and Gioia sense decline. In part, my belief is that the problem lies with the relentless politicization of discourse in Catholic periodicals and intellectual forums, and I'll close by suggesting some ways to help kick-start the critical discussion - so that writers and critics can create a healthier literary ecosystem."

-Gregory Wolfe