Studies of Catholic American literature have preferred analyses of authors whose work demonstrates a reverence to the faith they openly acknowledged. However, with the exception of Paul Giles’s American Catholic Arts and Fictions, most studies have ignored the Catholic influence in works of nonpracticing Catholics. This neglect limits the scope and undermines the complexity of Catholic American fiction to works by the religious, about the religious. In this study, I will examine non-practicing Catholic authors whose Catholicism has received little or no attention in order to explore traces of their former faith in their work and expand the definition of Catholic American literature.
The culture of the 1960s radically changed America forever, and three events in particular altered the Catholic American identity: the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1963), and the pronouncement of Humanae Vitae (1968). Since concerns over the body were at the heart of these three moments in history, I will use that as the means to explore the Catholic sensibility in the selected texts. Furthermore, these events led to a questioning of Catholicism and of faith in general: its capabilities, its right to power, and its effectiveness. In this study, I examine four novels by three non-practicing “Catholics”—-John Kennedy Toole, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo—-all of whom were born and raised Catholic prior to these events, but begin writing during or after they occurred. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces addresses “Vatican II,” subtly expressing frustration and grief towards the loss of a steady worldview. Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God purposefully rejects a Catholic view of God’s presence in the world, yet forces the reader to not judge Lester Ballard in a manner that is reminiscent of Christ’s teachings. Between Mao II (1991) and Falling Man (2007), Don DeLillo shifts in his view of how religion functions in the postmodern world, from skepticism to a guarded optimism.
By exploring the Catholic subtexts in these novels, I challenge notions of secularity in contemporary American literature, including postmodern fiction. I will also show how authors traditionally excluded from scholarship on Catholic American literature have a rightful place next to the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton and Walker Percy. This addition, in turn, will add to the understanding of the complex, yet integral contribution Catholic writers, practicing and nonpracticing alike, have made to the American literary tradition.