“Standard Oil” CatholicismBy James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Berwyn, PA. The American Conservative has just published the online version of my review of Suitable Accommodations, a selected letters of the Catholic fiction writer, J.F. Powers. Powers’ stories still live and astonish, and speak for themselves. My review attempts to recapture some of the reasons why. But, of particular interest to FPR readers may be the account of mid-century Catholic familism and its once massive Rural Life Movement that Powers’ experiences as a negligent father of five, agrarian, and would-be Catholic “detacher” occasions:
Nor did Powers entirely fit in with another subculture to which, like his family, he would nonetheless long remain attached—that of the Movement, the Catholic intellectual, liturgical, and cultural reformers who swelled the rural diocese of what Powers called the “Big Missal Country” in Minnesota. These were his friends, the Catholic statesman Eugene McCarthy most prominent among them, and his letters from Ireland show a Powers anxious to maintain such connections, though always with a comic, distancing smile. He was repelled by the prospect of the “dialogue mass,” such as that through which Catholics have awkwardly slurred for the last half-century. After an initial enthusiasm for the Catholic Rural Life Movement, he and Betty hurried back to her parents’ house in town, conscious that the labor and deprivation of spiritual agrarians, though beguiling, were not for them.
On these Catholic intellectual connections, the letters are fascinating and suggestive, but largely uninformative of detail. For again the editor has brought her focus to bear primarily on Powers’s character as a father. He was a brilliant but idle and dreaming man, whose resistance to the realities of life caused his wife and children to suffer. Passages like this one to Father Egan shape that story: “I personally dislike this stretch of life ahead of me: the father of numerous children; the husband of a woman with no talent for motherhood (once she’s conceived); and the prospect of making no more money than in the past.” Behind the unhappiness that makes this mostly personal story of “family life” ironic, if not cruel, a whole line of historical inquiry begs exploration.
In our day, orthodox Catholics stand out from the rest of Western society most obviously through their “familism.” Committed to a natural understanding of marriage as a conjugal union, they have more children than most; understanding the family at once as a natural, pre-political institution and as a “domestic church,” they tend to give their children freer rein to play and learn, even as their households are significantly more ritualized and ordered to piety, often at the expense of prosperity. Theirs is a way of life so countercultural as to receive little but incomprehension and ridicule from a mainstream America committed to contraception, abortion, divorce, and the treating of children as rare, precious commodities to be prepped for scaling the meritocracy.
Many Catholics were conscious that this emphasis on the family was deeply countercultural in Powers’s day. Church teaching had adopted the family as a chief site of resistance against liberal individualism and left-wing collectivism. Further, its expressions were more visible and more potent than in our time because still integrated with the emergent “liberal” and suburban slices of Catholic society.
For Powers, that may have been the problem. Catholic familism looked suspiciously like a conspiracy to absorb the radical otherness of the Gospel into a Cold War American culture that already celebrated itself as an engine of prosperity anchored in the nuclear family. He would lament, “I am not by nature cut out for this life, as it’s defined in these parts by the chamber of commerce and our bishop, who is devoted to Christian family living, as everyone knows.” He jokes about “the family-liturgico-rural-life movement which engages so many of us in this diocese, thanks, need I say, to an alert clergy (alert to the real dangers of the times), not least of whom is our bishop, himself the product of family life and parents.”
Powers takes on the appearance of a lower class but “cleaner” Holden Caulfield, who sees “the Movement” and “Standard Oil” as interchangeable aspects of the inauthentic conformity of postwar American culture. Everything threatens to be reduced to a slogan, a jingle, or a decency pledge—and to get in the way of his art. A few doubtful comments about the career of Allen Tate as a man of letters in the modern world of commerce drive home how blighted everything appeared to him as soon as it was touched by the American business sense.
This aspect of Powers’ life adds a new chapter to the brilliant chronicles Fr. Mark S. Massa has related in his classic Catholics and American Culture. Midcentury American Catholicism sought to transform American culture from within, grafting a communal and liturgical view of the world onto the individualism and self-making of Protestant America, as its Italian and Irish faithful undertook a new migration to the burgeoning suburbs of the Northeast and Midwest. Despite my criticisms above regarding Powers’ overly cynical perfectionism–well, now, we all know who assimilated whom.
One of the benefits of the capacity to think historically, as Massa’s book demonstrates, is to harness the imagination to consider paths not taken and to consider them as ones that might be taken in the future. The near total collapse of Catholic culture in contemporary America is a cause of sadness; it is also an occasion for reflection, re-founding, and rebirth–however arduous and painful. One lesson Powers’ life offers us is that any such re-founding will have to begin with a more sympathetic acknowledgment of what is good in American culture. This, so that our hopes are not hollowed out by a Caulfield-like, on the whole quite Protestant, perfectionism-expressed-as-schism, and so, also, that we reckon more honestly than in the past when, as it were, our desire to join the “Movement” is not just a desire to climb through the ranks of “Standard Oil” slightly disguised. This, too, is a hard lesson.