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The Catholic Imagination and the Challenge of Apathy

Recently, I had the joy of attending a conference on the Catholic Imagination at Loyola Chicago University. Over three days, the attendees heard presentations by fiction writers, poets, scholars and even filmmakers. It was a powerful reminder that Catholicism, as a living, breathing tradition, brims with creativity and vitality, whatever the crimes and sins of certain clerics. After one panel, I asked three fellow attendees about their experiences with Catholic undergraduate students regarding last summer’s duel tragedies involving the now-laicized McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s grand jury report. In the ensuing conversation, a question arose: Which reaction to the abuse crisis is worse, anger or apathy? The premise of the question is that a student’s anger demonstrates some degree of emotional investment in her or his Catholic faith. But if a student reacts with apathy, this indifference seems to indicate a great distance from Catholic beliefs and practices, regardless of whether the student checks “Catholic” on their admissions application. The attendees to whom I posed this question all agreed that apathy was indeed the greater challenge for a teacher of the Catholic tradition. Apathy indicates irrelevance. If the crimes of priests and bishops do not anger a person, it is probably because she or he has no reason to be personally angry. The crimes might be tragic, but they are someone else’s problems, involving someone else’s religion and someone else’s Church. Catholicism simply does not “matter” to one’s life.

This conversation reminded me of my own interactions with my students in the American northeast. A handful of students may be upset, but these students were few and far between. The overwhelming majority seemed to regard the abuse crisis with detachment, even amongst those who identified as Catholic. That said, I wonder if this situation of apathy—assuming it exists outside my own, limited context—also presents an opportunity. Perhaps most obviously, the Catholic instructor must not confront the reactions of betrayal, frustration, cynicism and fury towards ecclesial authorities that many Catholics have felt over the past year, myself included.

The greater challenge for the teacher, then, is to figure out how to invite students into seeing the beauty and richness of the Catholic tradition as indeed important and relevant to their lives. Issues concerning dogma and doctrine, as important as they are, are irrelevant to a person who does not first recognize why these issues would ever bear relevance to them. The situation reminds me of Pope Francis’s comment in his famous interview in America magazine that you have to heal a person’s wounds before you can start talking about other matters.

Hence, the importance of the Catholic imagination, with its stories, poems, artwork, music and movies, to the undergraduate teacher. By a Catholic imagination, I refer to a creative, artistic imagination that is significantly shaped by the liturgical, theological, spiritual and pious traditions of the Catholic tradition, regardless of whether the artist attends church regularly. The purpose of assigning a story, for example, by a Catholic author, whether from the quintessential Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, or a contemporary one, such as Kirsten Valdez Quade or Phil Klay, is to invite students to see the world from a different perspective, in which matters of sin and redemption, evil or grace, faith and doubt, play out through flawed protagonists who undergo their own journeys of spiritual growth. I would never expect to convert a student by assigning Greene’s The End of the Affair, but I would hope that by the end, the student sees that the questions raised by the text are important to a life well lived. Perhaps the student’s responses to those questions will be different from the author’s (assuming one could know that). But at least the conversation has started.

In Love’s Knowledge, the philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, wrote that the value of good fiction is that it demonstrates why “the search matters” and that “by showing the mystery and indeterminacy of ‘our actual adventure,’ they characterize life more richly and truly…” Although she was not writing as a Catholic, Nussbaum’s remark is relevant for any creative work that strives to demonstrate why faith “matters,” why the questions provoked by imaging the world through a Catholic imagination guide critical self-reflection on one’s own sources and foundations for life’s meaning. To bring examples of the Catholic imagination into the classroom in all its visual, aural, oral and verbal representations is not a panacea. It will not likely spur immediate conversion or convince any student overnight to attend mass regularly, nor does it replace forms of evangelization. But it is about the beginnings of a conversation, a crack in the armor of apathy that is so tempting to wear in today’s post-Christian America.

Brent Little is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.


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Brian Stiltner

Good job, Brent. I appreciate your literary examples and use of Nussbaum.

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