This summer, the bishop of Lafayette, Louisiana, banned the racist texts of Flannery O’Connor from the schools in his diocese.
You hardly know where to begin when faced with a proposition like that. The only Catholic admitted by mainstream secular literary critics to the canon of 20th-century American authors—now excised by Catholics. A major southern writer involved in the project of explaining southerners to themselves—now prohibited in a set of southern schools. A woman known in her own day for her anti-racism–now placed on the forbidden list on the grounds of racism.
The story is almost too familiar to need telling. Down in the traditionally Catholic Cajun area of southern Louisiana, there’s a school called Opelousas Catholic that serves several local parishes. Early this summer, an English teacher named Arsenio Orteza placed on the summer reading list for the high-school seniors some O’Connor, including The Artificial Nigger, a tale primarily about the moral and religious blindness of Southern bigots.
Not bothering to read the story or find out anything about O’Connor, an unspecified number of parents complained about the title to Fr. Malcolm O’Leary, the pastor of Holy Ghost Catholic Church, one of Opelousas Catholic’s supporting parishes.
Likewise not thinking it necessary to take a look at the story or learn about O’Connor, Fr. O’Leary gathered the parents of black students at the school to express their complaint—a meeting to which neither the teacher nor anyone else with Catholic literary credentials was invited. An African American himself and the wielder of considerable political power in a racially charged district, Fr. O’Leary then convened a meeting with his bishop to demand the removal of O’Connor from the high-school curriculum and the disciplining of the teacher who assigned her work.
Joining the parade of those southern Catholics down in Louisiana who seem never to have heard of the southern Catholic O’Connor and couldn’t take the time to read her challenged story, Edward J. O’Donnell, the bishop of the diocese of Lafayette, issued on August 17 a letter announcing his decision. “I do not want to require the firing of the teacher involved,” Bishop O’Donnell was brave enough to declare. But “I direct that the books in question should be removed from the reading list immediately.”
The story has all the elements you might expect. A Catholic literature teacher who foolishly imagined that his job was merely to teach Catholic literature. A collection of Catholic parents and pastors unfamiliar with even the most famous Catholic figures of their own region. A demand made of Church authorities by the activists of a particular social issue. An uninformed bishop who, faced with those activists, proved incapable of doing anything but feebly rush to assert his own political correctness. It’s not the kind of story O’Connor herself would typically have pursued, but you can easily imagine a Catholic fiction writer like J.F. Powers or Ralph Mclnerny examining its literary possibilities in the same appreciative spirit in which a butcher eyes a pig.
And yet, why do we expect to hear this kind of story? For it is, after all, the sort of thing from which Catholicism is supposed to save us.
“I would love Jesus Christ,” the 14th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart once declared, “even if it condemned me to Hell”—which is Eckhart’s own harsh way of putting the proposition that we shouldn’t be believers because belief happens to buy us something: not even, if Eckhart is right, because belief buys us something in the next world; but certainly not because belief buys us something in this world.
I have a somewhat naive tendency to accept at face value the sociological claims I sometimes see made—especially when they’re backed by an impressive panoply of charts, graphs, and statistical mathematics I don’t even pretend to follow—that devout Christians have better marriages, happier jobs, healthier children, and even (as I read recently) more exciting sex than nonbelievers. I tend to accept such claims because when I say I believe in Christianity, I mean that I believe that it is true—that it expresses the deepest structure of the universe, that it fulfills the deepest desires of the human psyche, and that such an expression and fulfillment is likely to have beneficial consequences in all but the most depraved of social circumstances. But I can’t say my faith would be weakened should all these sociological claims prove to be false. I would love Jesus Christ even if it reduced me to penury, condemned me to unsatisfying labor, and left me in a constant quarrel with my wife.
Nonetheless, there is one worldly benefit we can reasonably expect from Christian faith—and when that benefit is missing, we can fairly surmise that what is calling itself Catholicism has slipped its moorings and is drifting out to sea. The worldly benefit I mean is a release from the crushing burden of worldliness, and it’s what seems to be lacking in the diocese of Lafayette.
You can’t travel very far in this country without finding, bubbling all around you, the constant demand that we look at things through the lens of the moment, express them in the language of immediate issues, test them against the touchstones of contemporary politics, and weigh them in the scales of pressing concerns. What Christian faith offers is a place to stand outside all of that—a lens through which to examine other lenses, a language by which to judge other languages, a touchstone with which to test other touchstones, and a scale in which to weigh other scales.
Catholicism, in other words, is not a worldview like other worldviews. It doesn’t live on the same level of explanation as feminism, communism, capitalism, republicanism, utilitarianism, or any other -ism you might name. All such -isms may say that Catholicism is false; indeed, the vast majority of them require Catholicism to be false. But what Christian faith always resists is the attempt to rise above it—the attempt to surmount it, to surround it, to explain it away with some superior account of history, sociology, psychology, or philosophy. The hard brilliance of Christianity—the thing theologians have spent 2,000 years trying to make clear to us—lies in the fact that it pushes human experience and reason to that ultimate point at which there’s no further explanation: All you can do there is believe it to be true or believe it to be false.
And one effect of all this unworldliness is a very worldly gain: the ability to acknowledge truths, without accepting all the urgent falsity of the moment that often surrounds them. We might put it this way: You have to be either a Marxist or a Catholic to speak the few true things uncovered by Marxism—but if you’re a Marxist, engaged in revolutionary politics, then you have to speak all the lies of Marxism as well. You have to be either a feminist or a Catholic to affirm the handful of truths to be found in feminism, but if you’re a feminist, caught up in immediate political struggles, then you have to affirm all the untruths of feminism as well.
Or we might put it this way: If Catholicism is simply a political program—existing on the same level as all such programs and engaged, among other things, in the high moral project of combating racism—then the lie told about O’Connor down in Opelousas is excusable. But if Catholicism is something more—an unworldly something that gives us a worldly ability both not to tolerate racism where it exists and not to pander to claims of racism where it doesn’t exist—then Edward J. O’Donnell, the bishop of Lafayette, has traduced the writing of a great Catholic writer and slandered the memory of a great Catholic woman.