In response to:
The Priestly Comedy of J. F. Powers from the May 27, 1982 issue
To the Editors:
Speaking as a Mayflower-descended and Seven Sisters-educated heir of the flowering of New England, one who has lived in Boston, New York, California, and Vermont for the last seventy years, I would comment on Mary Gordon’s review [NYR, May 27].
Apparently she thinks that a) Catholics are not accepted as Americans; b) they do want to be. (A thesis which would have been quite as strong without dragging in Cody and Greeley.) This raises two questions: a) What in fact is an American? b) Should Catholics wish to be amalgamated into American culture?
What is an “American”? We come from all sorts of cultures, racial backgrounds, and inheritances, and few today are pure anything. From my perspective, the “typical” New York liberal is usually not a native New Yorker and certainly not a “typical” American. I well remember (in 1933) listening to Louis Adamic ask a WASP student if she really thought that the WASP culture was so perfect it had nothing to learn from the Slavs. In fact, history is still busy threshing out what is the “typical” American, and no one has any monopoly, the WASPs to the contrary notwithstanding. (And which WASPs? New England, or the slave-holding South?) What is the opinion of the Sioux?
Should Catholics even wish to be “typical” Americans? Not for my money!There is a story told—perhaps not authentically—of Lyndon Johnson. He is saidto have said: “I am a human being, an American, a Democrat, and a Texan—in that order.” Well, the Catholic Church is catholic. She should embrace all cultures, judge all cultures, but identify with none. The day Catholics become wholly “American” they will have lost the humanistic standard by which to obtain perspective on their own culture and country. It is only the likes of Jerry Falwell that confuses the flag and Christianity, and from its beginning Christianity has stood above the state: Witness Ambrose and Theodosius.
I must say that the most appalling aspect of Miss Gordon’s article, however, appears to be the lack of a sense of the pity of human life. There is the kind of cynical attitude that disregards St. Paul’s advice to dwell on that which is of good report, and there is the attitude that sees the weakness of all ofus and sympathizes. I do not suggest that we condone wrong-doing; I do suggest that we distinguish between the wrong-doing and the wrong-doer. Pity leaves a better taste than cynicism—which must be what she saw in Powers’s stories.
In any event, I hope that all of us learn to remember that we are human beings first and Americans only second to that. And the best ideal I’ve found to help make us more human is to be Catholic seriously.
Lucy L. Bridges
December 2, 1982