J.F. Powers: Catholic literature’s forgotten gem

August 1, 2011

Over the last Christmas break I had lunch with my old high school English teacher, Mr. Studer.  (Mr. Studer has a first name, but it still feels impious to use it.)  More than anyone else, Mr. Studer is responsible for getting me interested in writing.

At the end of our lunch, Mr. Studer gave me a small stack of books by J.F. Powers, a collection of short stories and two novels.  The pages of the books were brown with time, and one, Morte D’Urban, was held together with a rubber band.

I had read an odd J.F. Powers short story here or there before, and my last pre-Jesuit job was at St. John’s University in Minnesota, where Powers spent most of his career.  Powers wrote only two novels, Morte D’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green, in addition to several collections of short stories—an understated literary output that in some ways seems appropriate.

Powers is a master craftsman; in terms of tightly constructed prose—taut, subtle, perfectly pitched—he surpasses even Flannery O’Connor, though his subtlety and understatement mean that his work never packs quite the same explosive punch as O’Connor’s.  Powers’ subject matter is the Catholic Church of the Midwest in the middle of the twentieth century, and his mastery of his material is flawless.  He seems especially fascinated by priests—and by all the petty ambitions, joys, politics, and frustrations that occur within the walls of a rectory.

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Catholics and abortion: A test of faith (Part I)

January 17, 2011

Because of teaching commitments here in Chicago I will not be able to join the growing number of young Jesuits, their students, and colleagues at the annual March for Life this weekend.  I thought I would use the occasion of the March, however, to address a challenge posed to me nearly a year ago in this blog’s discussion of health care reform:  why is it that Catholics—and American Catholics specifically—are so concerned with the issue of abortion?  Haven’t the American Catholic bishops in particular allowed themselves to be hijacked by this one issue?

Commonweal board member George Dennis O’Brien argues essentially this point in a new book titled A Catholic Dissent, the content of which one can surmise from the title.  In a very different way, Joseph Bottum, editor of the journal First Things, also claims that abortion has become a primary marker of the cultural identity of American Catholics.  Even if one agrees with Bottum that the pro-life cause is a significant marker of Catholic identity, it does not follow that it should be so.

The observations of O’Brien and Bottum raise two related questions:  first, should opposition to abortion be treated as constitutive of Catholic identity?  Is it really that central to our faith?  Second, should Catholics make abortion issue number one politically?  Should it be prioritized above other issues?  I’ll look at the first, more theological question, today and the second in two posts to follow. Read the rest of this entry »