Poetry is far from dead, according to faithful poet Dana Gioia—
On Friday, April 22, 2016 at Catholic University of America, Keane Auditorium was brimming with eighty students and locals and their quiet conversations as they awaited not a party but a poetry reading by renowned contemporary poet Dana Gioia, wearing a gray suit and pink tie, looking completely at his ease as honored guest, poet and speaker.
As a few more stragglers joined the room and took their seats, a hush fell, and Gioia began the reading, or recitation more accurately, as he narrated most of the poems without checking the text, and when he did steal a glance at the pages, it was only occasional. Gioia shared twelve poems with personal introductions from his new book: “99 Poems, New and Selected.” One of them, “The Angel with the Broken Wing,” used first person perspective to the tell the story of a mexican carved angel that was vandalized during the persecutions and then removed from its ritual context and placed in a museum. “The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb,” read the end of its first stanza.
The introductory context he provided to each poem gave key interpretational clues. Afterwards, he took questions for almost thirty minutes, some regarding the role of the Catholic faith in the arts, a topic Gioia is well-known for addressing. In his 2013 landmark essay in First Things, “The Catholic Writer Today,” Gioia noted the decline of the presence of Catholics in the literary arts, a trend which seems to be met with mutual disinterest by both the Church and the secular arts establishment.
“On April 18, students at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., and at the graduate campus in Alexandria, Va., welcomed a calm and unassuming young priest with closely shaven blond hair to talk about the origins of dissent at U.S. Catholic colleges. The history and the events described during the presentation help to understand the many Catholic identity problems seen on college campuses today…
“The story began in April 1967, a few short years after the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965. Father Charles Curran, a young theology professor at CUA, taught openly that Catholics ought to follow their conscience, even if it differed from the teachings of the Magisterium. Fr. Curran caught special attention because his field was moral theology, and he focused on sexual ethics and contraception.
“The bishops on the board of trustees of CUA tried to quietly oust the nontenured professor by not renewing his contract. Fr. Curran responded by heading straight to the press and followed up by igniting a protest that included both students and faculty. Fr. Mitchell pointed out that Fr. Curran’s protest tapped into widespread resentment among faculty about an overly authoritarian style of leadership from the pre-Vatican II hierarchy, thus adding cultural fuel to the fire.
“Within a legitimately pluralistic society, the faithfulness of a Catholic college strengthens rather than diminishes its ability to make a unique contribution to the intellectual community and the nation at large. Fr. Mitchell argued that a “Catholic” university is no less for being Catholic; rather it is a university in the fullest sense, “dedicated to teaching the truth, seeking to understand rightly the meaning of academic freedom and tolerance for diverse opinions.”
The specific, magisterial methodology for the theological and philosophical disciplines indeed sets Catholic universities apart; it is also what gives them their distinctive character. Authentic theology models a way of investigating truth in a clear manner, albeit different from narrow interpretations of a rationalist scientific method that tend to predominate at secular universities.
The Catholic faith teaches that truth has but one source, that all truth comes from and points back to God. So there is nothing to be lost from different approaches, provided they are honest and reasonable.
The freedom to be truly Catholic is just as American as freedom of religion itself, the first clause of the First Amendment. Being a Catholic university, then, means holding to the fullness of the faith, including loyalty to the Magisterium (which in no way prevents lay people from recognizing real faults in the actions of priests and bishops themselves). There is nothing threatening, unfree or un-American about letting a Catholic university be Catholic. It exists as an expression of the freedom to seek truth in differing ways, essentially an embodiment of pluralism at its best.