Filed under: Books and Movies, Culture and Catholicism | Tags: Catholic church, Catholic values, Flannery O'Connor, Flannery O'Connor criticism, Flannery O'Connor history, Flannery O'Connor liberalism, flannery o'connor sainthood, Flannery O'Connor Vatican II, Ignatius Press, Lorraine Murray, The Abbess of Andalusia, Vatican II
A new examination of American Catholic storyteller Flannery O’Connor by Lorraine Murray (The Abbess of Andalusia, St. Benedict Press, 2009) may put to rest suppositions regarding O’Connor’s sexual behavior and racial beliefs, but leaves other even more important questions unexamined. Flannery O’Connor’s modernist views on certain issues make her an unsuitable heroine for Catholics in a spiritually devastated post-Vatican II world. Nevertheless Murray not only calls for O’Connor’s canonization, but ups the ante: she plumps for Flannery to be declared a Doctor of the Church (Abbess of Andalusia, 205, hereinafter abbreviated AA) on par with St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Sienna.
If sainthood were awarded for popularity, Flannery O’Connor gets enough attention to make her beatification entirely plausible. Lorraine Murray’s is only one voice among the multitudes. One blog, for example, is not waiting for the Vatican, and is already calling Flannery Blessed. The prestigious Library of America published her collected works only twenty years after her untimely death at 39, and the collection immediately outsold William Faulkner’s. She’s still selling, years after her death in 1964. Her books today constitute a vibrant “cottage industry,” according to biographer Brad Gooch, even, he remarks, as works by so many ‘talented contemporaries of hers like James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, and Gore Vidal’ are neglected. Catholic blogs joyfully harvest her best digs with and without attribution, because Flannery’s bons mots are deliciously flammable. While critics have raised questions about the breadth of O’Connor’s talents, based on the small body of her work and its ‘peculiar focus’ on poor, protestant white trash obsessed with Jesus Christ, there’s no question of her wide appeal.
Of course she’s in the right demographic. She has the perks of exotic minority status: southern writer in a northern school, woman, Catholic, and not only Catholic but, according to the norms of Catholic press of the day, whose lukewarm reception of her work exasperated her, tantalizingly rebellious, and she was handicapped to boot–not to mention the gay rumors. These elements tend to result in sales.
Flannery was the petted star of her secular University of Iowa writers’ workshops, where, a teacher remarked , she “frightened the boys with her irony.” They didn’t understand her work (no one ‘understood’ her work, as she very often lamented and yet capitalized on, remarking in a letter that her special talent was “I leave them not knowing exactly what I have said, but feeling that they have been inspired” (The Habit of Being, The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1979, 80, hereinafter abbreviated HB ), but everybody repeated the advance word that the girl was gifted.
Murray rightly says that Flannery did not ‘participate’ in the gathering storm of the sixties and the civil rights movement, but she surely partook of it, writing from a ringside seat in one of the nation’s most captivating dramas. Our fascination with her highly racial southern settings was heightened by the civil rights movement, and it nourished what might have been a much thinner talent. Even her audacious use of the n word still trick out her sales, as many otherwise unremarkable voices have discovered and overuse accordingly with the same effect.
Her ambiguous fiction lends itself to so many interpretations that both sides of practically every modern political tug-of-war can claim a champion. If stories were categorized as strictly as the music racks at Walmart’s, no one would know where to look for O’Connor. She herself thought her characters were hilariously funny; she used to laugh out loud at them, quite literally (according to Murray, she once, reading to a group of fans, dropped the book guffawing), but they terrified, horrified, or inspired other readers in turn. There was sexual innuendo aplenty–Flannery received courting letters from gentlemen who hadn’t read the book, they would admit, to her amusement, but wished to disabuse her of the notion that A Good Man is Hard to Find. That racy title and the sexual references in the stories boosted sales, even as Flannery insisted her tales were religious.
It is not that Flannery O’Connor’s talent is sufficiently enormous to put any kind of undue pressure on the question of her sanctity–she is not necessarily in a league about which one would be tempted to say it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. O’Connor herself was aware that her cup runneth not over with material. She fretted about this after the unexpected success of her initial publications,especially in the months before her death. Her supply of extreme characters was not bountiful, which is to say her own creative vision was not generous. Although she always put forward to various audiences both a work ethic and a fabulously zen concept of inspiration ( the convoluted aesthetic she called the ‘depiction of moments of grace in territory controlled by the devil’), she was in fact, by her own description, the kind of writer who starts typing and allows the work to take over, a spontaneous writer without a reliable heuristic for generating inspiration or planning a story. The stories ‘happened’ to Flannery, as long as she put herself in front of the typewriter every day. As she wrote to friend Cecil Dawkins in 1957, “I am writing a story now and have proceeded at a regular rate of two pages a day, following my nose more or less. They have to work out some way or other, and I think you discover a good deal more in the process when you don’t have too definite ideas about what you want to do.” She repeated this observation in numerous other letters to various friends. She did not outline or plan. Her work emerged. Or not–and then, as she remarked, she would go visit the chickens. The point is, if another measure of talent were steady, reliable output, Flannery probably wouldn’t qualify on that item, either.
Putting aside the question of her talent in the discussion of her proposed elevation to sainthood, would Flannery O’Connor’s positions on various political/religious issues (like the authority of the Church, ecumenism, traditional views of marriage and vocation, feminism, and secularism), hold up to a beatification post-mortem? Whose side was she on, then, in those momentous times before Vatican II? Whose side does she wittingly or unwittingly reinforce, now, forty years after the fact, as we struggle against the catastrophic effects of liberalism inside the Church itself?
Against her own judgment, often asserted, and against her ultimate grudging obedience when the Church acted against her favorites, Flannery O’Connor supported liberalism, the toxic philosophy unleashed during the protestant reformation, re-fueled by the French revolution, and strongly condemned by the Church until Vatican II, when the pastoral council reversed two centuries of backbreaking struggle against it. Her position is exposed when one examines not her letters, the preferred source of The Abbess of Andalusia, but her book reviews (collected in The Presence of Grace, University of Georgia press, 1983, hereinafter abbreviated PG–a new edition of this work is available at University of Georgia Press).
Consider her review of the pamphlet Religion and the Free Society (pamphlet by a collection of authors) in the Catholic diocesan paper The Bulletin in 1959 (PG 68-69); she heaped praise upon the idea promoted by this book that “the American government is a voluntary self-limiting government, so the churches, whatever their theological claims are, in terms of their public role in the American society must regard themselves as self-limiting. A Church may be absolutely sure of its own mandate and spiritual authority, yet it cannot publicly act as though that mandate and authority were generally accepted by the civil society.”
Here, in one succinct sentence, is the secular society presented as the ideal, and the voluntary subjugation of truth to error. The Church must ‘act’ as if She had not the truth. She must present one face interiorly, the other to the world. She must ‘self-limit’ her outward expression of the mission given by Christ, in order to appear respectful to all the other “Churches” (the capitalization is Flannery’s but it predicts the capitalization shockingly used by the Council in 1965 to refer to sects previously fought as heretics, even to the point of martyrdom–simply consider the English martyrs!) who feel they, too, teach the truth. In so doing She of course abandons Christ, who very forcefully, by hanging Himself on the cross, taught exactly the opposite, who called Himself the Life and the Truth, who repeated over and over that the only way to the Father was through the Son.
In so doing the Church abandons real charity and substitutes false charity. She retreats. She’s tamed, She makes nice. It’s the guarantee of a slow death, we have learned since the Council, who adopted this very recipe in aggiornamento, calling ‘dialogue’ what had been called apostasy, and it’s particularly revealing that in her fiction, Flannery’s protestant characters practiced anything but this zombie insincerity. And yet in this telling review she champions it for the Church.
Flannery was so taken with the concept of ‘the self-limiting church,’ in fact, that she used some of the very limited space allowed book reviews in The Bulletin and gave full instructions as to how to obtain this particular pamphlet free of charge. (How well she knew us!)
It is as if Flannery did not understand what that little phrase, ‘self-limiting,’ meant. But at least on one level she surely did, because secularization affected her fiction, she was conscious of it, she knew it was a limitation. She wrote a correspondent in 1958, speaking about how secular society circumscribes what one can tackle in a work of fiction,
I suppose what bothers us so much about writing about the return of modern people to a sense of the Holy Spirit is that the religious sense seems to be bred out of them in the kind of society we’ve lived in since the 18th century. And it’s bred out of them double quick now by the religious substitutes for religion. There’s nowhere to latch on to, in the characters or the audience. If there were in the public just a slight sense of ordinary theology . . .if they only believed at least that God has the power to do certain things. There is no sense of the power of God . . .they are all so busy explaining away the virgin birth and such things, reducing everything to human proportions that in time they lose even the sense of the human itself. (HB 299-300)
In other words, it is extremely difficult to write ‘religious stories’ that feel authentic due to absence of religious life in society. Nevertheless, in this candid review of Religion and the Free Society O’Connor accurately describes and praises what she called, in Wise Blood, “The Church of Christ Without Christ.” The term perhaps defines better than any other the situation we have today in the US and the world: Catholics, even nuns and priests, performing all kinds of good acts in the world but without ever mentioning conversion to Christ; Catholic universities profiting from the aura of Catholicism without teaching or practicing Catholicism; Catholic hospitals not offering the Faith to their suffering patients but instead offering yoga; orders of nuns separating themselves from the Church and even from Christianity, and functioning as secular organizations while still enjoying the status of religious sisters. There are hundreds of examples of the phenomena. With that chilling and accurate phrase,’ The Church of Christ Without Christ’, Flannery foretold what the Church has become. In praising the ideal of the ‘self-limiting church,’ she promoted its disappearance. We have self-limited ourselves right out of our mission to bring Christ to the world. Flannery O’Connor helped.
O’Connor, an American and defensive of it because of her position as an always presumably rebel, unpatriotic southerner, was simply not prepared by her scant Catholic education to fight this secularization of society, this heresy known as Americanism, even in her fiction. So she not only approved the separation of Church and state politically, she ‘self-limited’ the Catholicism in her own fiction. Flannery had only one story in which the characters and setting were Catholic. It was safer to convey her message through fundamentalist protestants who do not subscribe to ecumenism.
If Flannery had not been seduced by the liberal teaching on the secular state, and lived a fiercer faith of her own, one driven by apostolic work rather than the make-nice tea parties of her ecumenistic study circle, she could have had fire-eating Catholics on the pages. If sympathetic Catholic characters felt ‘wrong’ because there are too few of them in real life, she’d have rectified that by living our vocation in the world and writing about it. And, of course, invited the disdain and contempt many feel toward “ignorant” fundamentalists, and missed the arch amusement she herself felt toward them. (Her resulting stories would not have been so damnably difficult to categorize and understand, either.)
And they’d not have sold so well. She would have had from the critics that excruciatingly slow martyrdom she joked she could never bear, the juicy tidbit so often bannered by Catholic blogs (‘She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick’).
O’Connor adroitly dodged that blow, but it struck other Catholic writers, Sigrid Undset as a notable example. Critics are unanimous in their praise for her breathtaking novels set in a vanished Norwegian Catholic antiquity, for which she won the Nobel prize, and the same critics are unanimous in their disdain for Undset’s faith when played out in modern and much less happy settings–the secularized world into which Norway and the rest of Europe descended after Luther–although many of the works in question are fashioned with equal writing skill and power (for a taste of this anti-Catholic criticism, borrow, don’t buy, The Art of Compassion by Yola Miller Sigerson).
The Church was still fighting, rather than elevating, secularism at the time Flannery wrote her review, in 1959. Not until Vatican II would the Church cave in to this illusion. Flannery’s position had been explicitly condemned in Pius IX’s Quanta Cura and the Syllabus of Errors, both in 1864. John Courtney Murray had been asked to cease writing his liberal promotion of “religious freedom” under the administration of a secular state like the United States in 1954 after his conflict with tradition’s champion Cardinal Ottaviani. He was not unmuzzled until 1963, and then he was invited to the Council and he became its poster boy and author of the ruinous capture of our Church through the next four decades to the present, when with the Holy Spirit’s help we are freeing Her knot by knot.
This is not at all the totality of the liberalism promoted by O’Connor. Flannery reviewed the series Modern Catholic Thinkers in 1960. She enthusiastically promoted the work and exulted that surely it “refuted those who maintain that the Catholic Church is too rigid to contribute to the ‘intellectual life of our times.'” The essays by Catholics in the book, she wrote, “leaves no suspicion that any system of ideas has been imposed or true liberty of thought curtailed.” That was an understatement.
But it was so important to O’Connor, expressed often in letters, that she never be seen as ‘musty’ or ‘out of date’ or as one who had to ‘memorize’ what the Church taught before knowing what to think. In this instance one cannot help but suspect that her pride in her sense of intellectual freedom clouded her judgment. In any case, the contributors in the two volumes in the series celebrated by Flannery read like a roll call of modernism. She could not have been completely unaware of the political side of their message, either; at the time of her review several had already been restrained by the Church, and Flannery kept herself informed of the Church’s decisions, as very many letters indicate. Pius XII had written Humani generis in 1950 against the existentialists in this group, ten years before this review. It is true we have the benefit of hind-sight. We have seen the devastation wrought, in the millions upon millions of aborted children, by the subtle revocation of the Church’s traditional view of the matter of so-called religious freedom which predictably and so quickly became religious license.
In the two volumes recommended by Flannery to Catholic readers we find these men:
• Karl Rahner– elements of his teaching was criticized by Humani generis; Rahner, along with Edward Schillebeeckx, gave us the false doctrine that the Eucharist is only a “sign” of Christ, not Christ actually present in the Eucharist;
Rahner gave us other modernist ideas like the denial of original sin, the assertion that the Catholic church subsists among others in a true ‘Church of Christ,’ the idea that men and women can be saved even if they reject Christ–called ‘anonymous Christianity’; the only time Rahner was out of hot water with the Church, in fact, was during Vatican II–he was sanctioned and warned at all other times, although, in the post Vatican II Church, he was posthumously exonerated in 1994; Rahner was named by Archbishop Lefebvre as, along with Yves Congor, the “principal author of the errors that I have not since ceased combating” in They Have Uncrowned Him; and he was recently exposed for his intense 22 year romance, which included the period of Vatican II, with a German woman, Louise Rinser, a journalist who was pro-abortion and against celibacy in the Church, and who was also carrying on a simultaneous affair with an archbishop.
• Yves Congor; with Karl Rahner, dominated Vatican II and the ‘springtime’ we’ve ‘enjoyed’ since then, and was named by Archbishop Lefebvre with Rahner as the chief actor in our undoing.
• John Courtney Murray–at the time of her review, he was forbidden to write by the Church (1954), which was reversed for Vatican II, where his theological views on the freedom of the state from the church formed the basis for the disastrous Council constitution Dignitatis humanae. His work formed the theological basis for the decriminalization of birth control in Massachusetts in 1965 and has been used to support abortion rights.
• Joseph Nuttin–promoter of psychoanalysis, the relationship of which to Catholicism was much discussed at the time and heatedly promoted by modernists–see this debate between a Freudian psychoanalyst and Fulton Sheen.
• Louis Lavelle–existentialist, forerunner of the self-actualization movement (which forms the platform for ‘values free’ textbooks and curricula under the assumption that children will form their own, ‘authentic’ values; parents throughout our country, arguing that they wished to live by the traditional moral values held in their own homes and wished the textbooks their children used to reinforce those values, struggled very hard during the seventies and eighties against the imposition of the self-actualization movement in their schools, and generally lost).
• Josef Jungmann–work on the origins of the traditional mass supported the push for the mass of Paul VI and provided the novus ordo its ‘kiss of peace’
• Philip Hughes–his work on the church councils is used to support the arguments for collegiality.
• Yves Simon–pushed the idea that Thomism is consistent with liberal democracy.
• Rudolf Schwarz–architect who gave us the roots of modernist church architecture.
• Heinrich Rommen–author of The State in Catholic Thought, another proponent of the idea that all the most valuable ideas in Catholicism may be found in natural law, making it possible to trust that society will function without the aid of the Church
The conclusion traditionalists must draw from her support of these liberals is clear enough, but to them we must add Flannery’s special weakness for Teilhard de Chardin; furthermore, her comments about him reveal that she was completely aware of the Church’s reservations about him and still chose to promote a different opinion. She wrote to Father J.H. McCown on 21 March 1964: “The most important non-fiction writer is Pere Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., who died in 1955 and has so far escaped the Index, although a monition has been issued on him. If they are good, they are dangerous.” The last sentence clearly reveals her antagonism to Church discipline in spite of her usual protestations to the contrary.
She named her book Everything that Rises Must Converge from a wordplay on an idea of Teilhard de Chardin’s (letter to Thomas Stritch and also to Roslyn Barnes, both in 1961) “I don’t think the dead are held to any vow of obedience. As long as [Teilhard de Chardin] lived he was faithful to his Jesuit superiors but I think he must have figured that in death he would be a citizen of some other sphere and that the fate of his books with the Church would rest with the Lord. After reading both books I doubt that his work will be put on the Index, though I think some of the people who latch upon his thought and distort it may cause certain propositions in it to be condemned. I think myself he was a great mystic. The second volume complements the first and makes you see that even if there were errors in his thought, there were none in his heart” (Letter to Betty West, 1961). She sent to an acquaintance (to Dr. R.T. Spivey, 1960) a book on Teilhard de Chardin by Claude Tremontant, whom a website that promotes Chardin identifies as a member of Catholicism’s’ liberal circle.’
Teilhard de Chardin was also a contributor to this collection. Flannery was so enamored of Teilhard de Chardin that she used up precious space in a previous book review teaching her followers how to pronounce his name: Tay-ahr (review of The Phenomenon of Man, The Bulletin, February. 20, 1960). In this review she says that “in his early years Teilhard was oppressed by a caricature of Christianity, one to a large degree prevalent today in American Catholic life, which sees human perfection in consisting in escape from the world and from nature.” Catholics must gasp at this representation of traditional Catholic teaching, that since the fall of man, spirit and nature are not only opposed, but at war. A caricature? It is the teaching about Original Sin, and with her idols, Flannery here denies it.
It is as if she were bewitched. Just as Flannery’s famous character Hulga (“Good Country People”) understood nihilism in the abstract but could not recognize it in practice, Flannery knew liberalism in the abstract but ended up in bed with it anyway. She wrote a definition of liberalism to Cecil Dawkins in 1958, explaining the role of the Enlightenment in subsequent heresy, explaining how the South had always resisted the notion of the perfectibility of man and contrasting this resistance to the view of liberalism, “that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his own efforts,” but she could not see that motion in Teilhard de Chardin’s work. But the Church had seen it. The Church had spoken in 1950; Pius XII’s Humani generis was directed against Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas that the world is in ‘continual evolution’ and that man descended from multiple Adams, although as The Catechism of Crisis in the Church, Part 5, points out, this encyclical was widely ignored in the houses of priestly formation throughout the world, and young men were encouraged to read de Chardin, which may account for much of the grief that followed.
Teilhard de Chardin is in fact one of the most powerful enemies tradition has ever known. His ideas, in conjunction with Jacques Maritain’s, form the foundation for the toxic error that has ruined the precious apostolic work of the Church Militant, the idea that mankind has evolved beyond the need for a Church and now, in our time in history, the temporal means, the power, will be in the hands of man and to the degree that it is taken from the Church Triumphant, as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre points out in They Have Uncrowned Him (129). The blows She suffers are seen as good things, from an evolutionary point of view, in this modernist version of history.
It is possible to see this liberal spirit still poisoning the Church and even strengthening, in spite of Benedict’s attempts to fix the liturgy without addressing the ruined doctrine. When Archbishop Paul Cremona welcomed the Holy Father to Malta in 2010, he preached that the Church must reform even further to become “a Church which does not seek privileges, but merely strives just to deliver the Good News of the Lord.” But anyone running to win, as St. Paul urged, would not mind a few privileges, if it meant concrete progress toward a more faith-filled society, if it meant reducing the slow but steady heavy pressure to legalize abortion all over the planet, country by country, if it meant mitigating the almost universal oppression of ordinary working people. Liberalism, in striving to fit in, robs the poor of the champion the Church always was for them. It is the last vestiges of their tiny ‘privilege’ to decency and health care and basic education Cremona is relinquishing to profiteering.
So yes, we’d take a little privilege now and then, if you please. In fact we’d welcome the heavy artillery. We’re in it to win it. Liberalism never is. Teilhard de Chardin dreamed a seductive world in which an evolved humanity had to fight the power of the Church in order to take the next step. The Church must die for us to advance. How convenient for zombies.
Flannery did not withdraw her support for Teilhard de Chardin even in 1962 when she knew the Vatican had issued a specific warning about his writings. She was offered a book review by the editor of The Bulletin. Rather than suggest that the editor obey the Vatican, she recommended that the book be given to a ‘clerical gentleman’ to review and not herself. But she did not recommend that his work cease to be promoted.
Flannery also made a point of supporting Dom Aelred Graham, the founder of the Zen Catholicism movement, in several letters (related in a letter to Father McCown in 1958; Graham had been promoting interest in buddhism for years, although his most influential work would not be published until 1963, after Flannery wrote of him). No warning bells went off for her when one of her ‘heathen friends’ to whom she had sent a book of Graham’s, responded with high praise that a Catholic writer like O’Connor could “be so flexible.’ Apparently [Flannery comments] “she has met nothing but idiot priests all her life, also idiot nuns.” But IgnatiusInsight, the online resource of Ignatius Press, debunks Zen Catholicism by using one of O’Connor’s own purported heroes, Romano Guardini, who in his classic work The Lord, published in the forties, stated that “Buddha would be the greatest challenge to Christ in the modern age.” The work goes on to detail the many fundamental ways that Catholicism and Buddhism are completely incompatible. In March of 1997 Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking from his office as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called buddhism an ‘auto-erotic spirituality.’ Our Sunday Visitor emphatically rejected the movement to push eastern practices in Catholicism, although Flannery might have found that publication far too ‘sentimental’ for her obvious tastes. Following Vatican II, powerfully disruptive teachings on pluralism, buddhism and other eastern practices formed a distinct wing of those necessarily censured by the Vatican, all of them building their heresies on the initial romanticizing by Flannery, Thomas Merton, et al : Perry Schmidt-Leukel, Anthony De Mello, Jacques Dupuis, Roger Haight, and others.
Flannery O’Connor, writing more letters and book reviews than fiction, fueled all these conflagrations, that then were seen as the sparks of a more enlightened piety than might be found among ‘idiot nuns.’ In fact, to exonerate O’Connor of any taint of rebellion, The Abbess of Andalusia makes virtues of several actions that a more cautious witness might interprete differently. When Flannery’s protestant study group wished to read an author on the list of authors prohibited to Catholics, the author praises Flannery for asking permission of a priest to break the rule, averring that it shows her spirit of obedience. But was it, really? The priest in question is merely a correspondent of hers, one of her many, and a friend. He was not her pastor, the priest entrusted with her soul. Flannery deliberately side-stepped asking permission of the only priest directly connected with her salvation, her parish priest. Nor was the omission accidental! She did not ask his permission on purpose, she wrote to Father McCown, because she predicted he would say no.
Lorraine Murray concludes that this kind of ‘humility’, in asking permission, distinguishes Flannery from being one of those “so-called ‘cafeteria Catholics’ (who) pick and choose among Church teachings,” (128) but on the contrary, it could be more naturally seen as baldly demonstrating that very characteristic. Flannery obviously thought that she, and not the Church, was right, and to impress the protestants in her study group of the liberalism of Church policy in allowing her to read books that others ought to be protected from, she simply asked someone else who thought so, too. But what a witness for the Faith she would have been, to say to them, from her position as a well-known and respected Catholic writer, ‘No, I cannot read Gide. I obey with joy. Let’s pick someone else.”
There is another small but telling event excluded from the letters allowed by Sally Fitzgerald in the collection The Habit of Being but recounted by Murray from another source in The Abbess of Andalusia. Flannery and her mother stopped for lunch in town on a Friday. Flannery got half-way through a plate of butter beans before the thought crossed her mind that they might have been prepared, as is customary, with ham. This was before abstinence was made optional on Friday. It was, at that time, a mortal sin to break abstinence. Flannery knew it well. In fact, she had earlier questioned Father McCown for a friend and discussed her own understanding that the principle of this particular observance has less to do with any quality of meat but rather with obedience to the Church versus rebellion, and that if one chose to rebel, the matter was indeed serious.
Flannery finished the meal. Faced with wasting a few butter beans, she chose instead not to obey, and to make light of it later: “I know I ain’t going to hell over a plate of butterbeans,” she wrote to McCown, “but I don’t know if I have to run to confession before I go to communion.” Murray interprets this sentence as showing Flannery’s deep respect for the Eucharist. That may be, but it says very little of her respect for confession, it in fact belittles confession, and in fact reveals both a rebellious nature and, if Murray is correct in saying that it was perhaps due to the cost of the meal, a mean frugality. Most cafeteria Catholics, from whom Murray would like to distinguish Flannery, say the same thing about each one of their self-willed departures from the Faith: they ain’t going to hell for ‘small matters’ either. Flannery had already had clarified for her that the matter wasn’t the meat, or the ham, or the butter beans: it was rebellion, and as far as we can tell from her written material, which is to say nothing of her private confessions which, of course, would not be considered in an investigation for sainthood, it was a decision that was not repented.
Murray also curiously attributes to the absent-mindedness of genius the fact that Flannery averred never to be able to remember the names of the children of her closest and longest associate Sally Fitzgerald, in whose home she had lived for extended periods in several different locations, not even the name of the child for whom Flannery stood as godmother, when clearly Flannery’s intention was to gently mock Fitzgerald’s large family. Gently but clearly.
Murray also seeks to excuse Flannery for her attitude toward motherhood and femininity, brushing over her comment in a letter to Father McCowan that a married protestant friend had asked her local priest about information about becoming a Catholic, and had been horrified by the material because it was full of, in Flannery’s derisive phrase, “just all this junk about how great it is to be a mother,” even though she said she accepted the Church’s teaching on birth control. Planned Parenthood could use Flannery’s statements about motherhood as expressed in this letter and in others in a poster campaign for contraception, and they probably will, soon, given how vulnerable we Catholics are to anything Flannery O’Connor said or wrote. The Church’s teaching on motherhood is not optional, and is the most beautiful and precious jewel in the whole heaven of beautiful Catholic teaching and also the teaching most dramatically poised against liberalism. It is no small thing for Flannery to call it ‘junk.’
Flannery felt herself oppressed by the kind of Catholicism taught by the nuns in her only Catholic education, in elementary school, and never missed an opportunity to take a snarky pot shot at them in letters to friends (just as she mocked the grammar and even the good behavior of simple country people while at the same time she capitalized on them in her work and got more laughs off them in her letters). She often wrote how much she hated nuns’ ‘sentimental piety.’ She complained that they ‘measured sins by the slide rule’ (HB 263). She called them “idiot nuns,” she wrote her friend Betty in October 1958 that the O’Connors had a new book in the house and that her “mother appreciated The Nun’s Story but the nun on the front almost made me throw up” (checking with Netflix, the beautiful actress Audrey Hepburn–oh the horror– played the role in the film version; the review accompanying the photo treats nuns and religious life with sympathy and respect, and the movie was nominated for eight academy awards).
Flannery was also ‘uncomfortable’ with the Church’s teaching on purgatory. In fact, she deliberately contradicted her purported mentor St. Thomas’ teaching on purgatory, when she reviewed The World to Come, by the Jesuit R.W. Gleason, in The Bulletin, 1959. She called it “an excellent and needed book on the after-life and one which should serve as an antidote to much popular preaching on the subject.” She included in her definition of ‘popular preaching’ the orthodox teaching on purgatory during medieval times. She thought the world was ready for something ‘better.’ “In modern times, the theologian is interested in the idea of death on more speculative grounds. He wishes to use all the intellectual discoveries of contemporary thought, regardless of their source, to illuminate the subject for modern man, whose concerns are increasingly existential and personalistic” (PG 76). Pure modernism, right down to the big words to bulldoze home the meager point.
The case may be made, then, that if measured by both the letters, some not used and some misused by Murray, and the book reviews in which Flannery shared her political opinions on the urgent topics of the day, Flannery O’Connor was a flaming liberal, not the hillbilly Thomist at all, and for that reason can never be a Catholic saint. Liberalism is, until the end of time, a sin, to Catholics. The evidence from O’Connor’s fiction, however, has not been heard. And that’s the place that matters.
For Murray is quite wrong to consider O’Connor’s letters to be the most reliable source of information about the real Flannery O’Connor. Letters are not the place where we reveal ourselves–if anything, it is the opposite; like resumes and facebook bios, in letters the people we are writing to matter to us more than other audiences, and one’s deliberate self-justification may be stronger, not more absent, in shaping the content. Book reviews are less so, but subject to at least two kinds of self-censoring, the censoring of simply refusing a book (Flannery would sweetly suggest they be sent to other reviewers), and then of course, spinning a review so that one might ‘damn with faint praise,’ as the saying goes.
O’Connor’s fiction would be the irrefutable argument. For a writer is least guarded there, especially when the writer chooses, as Flannery did, characters so different from her own background. Flannery’s characters are as unguarded as woods animals surprised by a canoe-ist on a back-country stream. They aren’t expecting a predator there, on the water, and so they hang around, keep eating or bathing or drinking while we watch open-mouthed. It is a different kind of proof, though. It probably is different for each writer. What story do the characters really tell? Sometimes it is not what the author intends at all.
Sigrid Undset wrote of the plight of D.H. Lawrence in an essay in her Men, Women, and Places. Lawrence believed in a particular thesis: that unfettered sexuality was the source of human happiness. He wrote non-fiction essays putting forward this thesis. He gave innumerable lectures on the subject. He could have passed a lie-detector test if asked, ‘Is this what you believe?’ But what do his characters say? That unfettered sexuality leads to a life of great emptiness, as theirs inevitably do. This is a free but accurate paraphrase of Undset’s brilliant analysis of D.H.Lawrence. Regarding Lawrence, even the most casual reader knows this about his characters; they might be surprised to find that he believed–he thought he believed–quite the opposite. The characters are telling the truth about what Lawrence actually believed. Because they show, they must show or they will not be believable, how life actually works. The examples of writers believing one thing–or rather, firmly avowing their belief in the abstract– and writing characters that blurt out the truth, are numerous.
Many writers address this phenomena, and most talk about it in mystical and romantic terms. ‘The character takes over,’ they will say, or some variation of that theme. It can be equally well explained by citing simple consistency. The writer has given this character likes and dislikes and thoughts and preferences, a history; then the character will be consistent with patterns those elements make, operating in the world. We usually call it authenticity. Characters can break stereotypes but they cannot be inconsistent. The great game, in fact, is to create characters who do break stereotypes and at the same time that are consistent, for they reveal the great secrets of life, what we pay the storyteller a shilling for. They also reveal the secrets of the writer’s personal beliefs.
For Flannery, this chapter remains to be written (note: please see my attempt at it , ‘Ruby Turpin is the Church Triumphant, and Flannery Takes Her Down“). The only thing proved by her letters, as in Murray’s use and misuse of them, is that Flannery O’Connor was just as divided and just as liberal as most Americans, but trying her best to conceal it, not so much from shame as from her hunger for sales to all quarters, including to those ‘sentimental’ Catholics she despised (uh, that would be us trads).
Advanced by Murray’s new biography, however, the cause for beatification of Flannery O’Connor could move forward in Rome. It would be good ammunition in the Vatican’s current attempts to prove there was no rupture with tradition in Vatican II. Her first miracle? That at age five, she taught a chicken to walk backwards? She received her initial taste of national media attention for it. (By the way, it was a common trick and joke of the time, but insiders know that one does not ‘teach’ the chicken to walk backwards, one finds just such a chicken, they are common enough, and exploits it–youtube still has videos of the same.)
Now, if from her new location (we can only hope for purgatory, given her disproportionately powerful influence on the devastating events during and since the Council, the same purgatory whose existence she had come to doubt), if from the beyond Flannery O’Connor could just help us to walk forward! Let’s pray for that, and, if you love her, let’s pray for Flannery. But not to her.
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