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The Faith of Flannery O’Connor

In response to:

The Parables of Flannery O'Connor from the April 9, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

I much admired Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates’s review of what she rightly calls his “meticulous” work [NYR, April 19]. Based on the biography, however, I think one of her lines needs nuancing: “conservative Christian belief…seems to have shaped every aspect of her life.” Perhaps that holds true for O’Connor’s upbringing (although even there the term “conservative” strikes me as anachronistic). But one of the surprises of Gooch’s biography (at least for me) was his discussion of O’Connor’s fondness for the writings of the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

I entered the Jesuit order in 1966 right out of high school, and Teilhard’sThe Phenomenon of Man was all the rage in our novitiate, a book I dutifully read and found murky, to put it mildly. Gooch mentions that materialists objected to the book for its attributing consciousness to brute matter and orthodox Catholics for its mitigation of the doctrine of original sin—one of the rare times I find myself in agreement with both camps. (Peter Medawar’s description of the book as “tipsy, euphoristic prose-poetry” that “creates the illusion of content” is exactly right.)

Whether O’Connor’s otherwise acute mind would have eventually come to realize how much Teilhard’s writings are a farrago of Bergsonian vacuities is of course open to debate (although her fiction hardly shows her to be naive about original sin). But I think at least this can be said in her defense: her enthusiasm for Teilhard stemmed in part, I suspect, from her irritation at her mother’s brand of Catholicism. As she said in a letter to Cecil Dawkins on July 16, 1957:

I think that the reason such Catholics are so repulsive is that they don’t really have faith but a kind of false certainty. They operate by the slide rule and the Church for them is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system. It’s never hard for them because they never think about it. Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can…. In any case, discovering the Church is apt to be a slow procedure but it can only take place if you have a free mind and no vested interest in disbelief.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
University of St. Mary of the Lake
Mundelein, Illinois

Joyce Carol Oates replies:

It is true that Flannery O’Connor was so moved by the “visionary” writings of the controversial Teilhard—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881–1955)—that she titled one of her most powerful later stories “Everything That Rises Must Converge” in reference to Teilhard’s theological speculations. In other respects, O’Connor was defensive about her conservatism—she spoke proudly of herself as a “13th-century Roman Catholic”—and her revulsion for the physical/erotic life prevails through the entire body of her fiction from the angry puritanism ofWise Blood to the angry puritanism ofParker’s Back.

Twentieth-century Catholicism has been marked by theological turmoil, internal disagreements, and much politicking. When Catholics denounce one another as “repulsive” in the simplicity of their faith or as deluded by “a farrago of Bergsonian vacuities” from having succumbed to the “euphoristic prose-poetry” of Teilhard, those of us for whom the Roman Catholic Church is not a fount of wisdom are unable to perceive significant distinctions amid these differences and are best advised to refrain from commenting.

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