Another dynamite essay, Steve, thank you. There's a lot to unpack and think about, as you said. Fanaticism is something I encountered a lot in my former career, and the literature I studied on the problem was directed to different ends obviously.

You make a lot of important points on your own I want to consider at length. I thought of a line from an old movie -- I think it was Sean Connery who said it -- "the line between faith and frenzy is all too brief."

My experiences in the field were that none of the fanatics I encountered were ever truly dedicated to something they had perfect confidence in. Nobody is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise and set tomorrow, for instance. "When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt."(R. Pirsig, ZAMM, 1970)

That was certainly true in my experiences in the Middle East, Ottawa, London, Paris, and Washington DC.

Expand full comment
Jun 9, 2021Liked by Steve Skojec

Brilliant. I just subscribed.

Expand full comment
(Banned)Jul 27, 2021Liked by Steve Skojec

Hi Steve, this project is very interesting and I’m happy to read the essays and contribute to its continuing success.

This article, or essay, is saying a lot and could easily lead to a series on the topics included. It seems the point is that you have the experience of a creative personality who feels unfairly inhibited by common expectations in our religion, and again by the conflicts we are fighting.

Creativity is unbounded, and it becomes very frustrated when artificial impositions are set on it.

If I could comment from my experience as an art school graduate… One issue is that we can’t choose the times we live in. The society has become evil over the last few centuries, and the last few decades invited it into the Church. You and I are conscripted into the Church Militant and it’s life or death. If we’d been called to go overseas in WW2 we’d leave our literary desires behind.

I don’t think it ends there… Literature can be at the service of the culture war. We can kill two birds with one stone. We can enjoy creative freedom and use this gift to kill the enemy spiritually.

I think this essay is introducing this entire field of thought and starting to consider how to do it. Let’s start, if I could offer an idea, with the consideration that a Catholic work of literature, or art, doesn’t have to be *overtly*, *literally*, *obviously* Catholic. It can have the clear identity of being a godly work of creativity if it includes identifiable indications of Catholicism. It just has to have enough of this to identify itself in the work. A little leaven leaves the lump.

If any genre of novel had a character who was a practicing Catholic, informed by the Faith, taking strength and heroism from it, it wouldn’t need to be a plot about Church issues or faith. If only a secondary character had an active faith and gave support to the non-religious main character it could be enough. If the character stopped into a church it could perhaps be enough.

I think that morality is perhaps the defining characteristic of an authentically Catholic work. You indicate otherwise in the essay, but I think the life of the artist and the overall message of the work does have to be holy, or holy enough to give the work positive force to its audience.

Some Renaissance artists did perhaps, and it isn’t always confirmed, commit grave sins. Reading Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, as a biographer he does not tell us of any of this, but shows the artists as generally being good Catholics and in communion with the Church. Fra Angelico is a Blessed obviously, and others hopefully lived good lives. It does not, I’d like to emphasize, help the artist or writer in the least if they have vices. It is destructive to the mind and heart, and this is the center of creative work. It also skews the vision of the artist. Caravaggio isn’t necessarily a great artist, it’s powerful work but he’s criticized for a naturalism or even vulgarity undermining the beauty and impact of his pieces. Also, can we say that a sin isn’t repented, and a life reformed? Everyone sins at some time, and if rumors about Leonardo Da Vinci are true he could have repented and lived in holiness over his artistic career. Vice doesn’t ever improve artistry.

As artists (literary, etc) we can be prone to include content in our work which is not good. We’re human, but we’re Christian and called to a higher life. So we have to be very careful. It’s still our daily task to get to Heaven, and not to hell. So we need to avoid sin and scandal at all costs.

Does this mean we can’t write dark, complicated work? I think we can work in dark places, in fact I think Catholics could be more prepared to cover it effectively than other, more worldly people.

Could a Catholic write American Psycho? As a satire of the vapid, materialistic young urban adults of the 1980s it is potentially positive as a sharp critique of modern atheistic materialism. It could expose the barbarity under the gloss of appearances in our culture. The graphic violence is too detailed and disturbing to be licit (it injures the reader’s imagination), but toned down it could be okay. Obscenity and overt sexuality can’t be included, because it’s grave matter, but it could pack more of a punch with things left unsaid. If you’ve read Jim Thompson noir books, they’re more disturbing, more psychological and less graphic. I think we should indicate the consequences of actions if we write about an anti-hero. We can’t create a godless fictional world where crimes are not punished, or it deludes the reader.

Could we write fiction which isn’t intended to fire shots in the culture war? I think so, but if we slip into the tropes of the world then we will be on the wrong side.

It’s an illusion to think we can be free, if freedom is setting ourselves loose from the demands of our Catholic faith. We aren’t ever our own masters, and if we lose our service of Jesus and Mary we will end up getting led around by the conceits of the world.

However, creative freedom is possible, and as you indicate, it’s necessary.

Do we need to be doctrinaire? I don’t think so, it also doesn’t serve creativity. St Augustine said, to paraphrase, Love, and then we are outside of the law.

Expand full comment

Hi Steve,

I've enjoyed reading your posts. This one prompted some thoughts.

"It is easier for a fanatic Communist to be converted to fascism, chauvinism or Catholicism than to become a sober liberal." This is not really saying much else than the Bible says "would that you were hot or cold; the lukewarm I will vomit from my mouth." It's always been known that those who are passionately engaged in a cause are the ripest for conversion to Christ. That's hardly a fault!

The book you're quoting from does a real injustice to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who was one of the most creative and brilliant Catholics of the Middle Ages. His prose and poetry are breathtakingly beautiful, as is most of medieval art, which -- unlike Italian Renaissance art -- seems to have been created by faithful Catholics who were not tormented about their religion. I think it's a mistake to assume that great art comes only from people who dabble in doubt or immorality. I agree there are many examples of great art coming from complicated and broken lives, but it's not some kind of prerequisite.

Bernini also repented and lived as a devout Catholic for the rest of his life... And in the realm of Renaissance polyphony, Victoria was a priest with a saintly reputation, Palestrina was married twice and a good man (he died with St Philip Neri at his bedside), William Byrd was a litigious son-of-a-gun but suffered as a recusant in Elizabethan England and never swerved from his Catholicism; nor did Joseph Haydn, father of the symphony and the string quartet. There are lots of examples of creativity emerging from minds and hearts that might qualify as "fanatical" according to that book you're quoting from. And I say that as one who recognizes that ideology does suck the life out of art and even leads to iconoclasm.

Your essay seem to say it's never a good idea to accept something simply and totally on faith as a dogma -- that this equals fanaticism. That seems to me untrue. For example, the first principles of reasoning, such as the principle of non-contradiction, can never be proved, but must simply be accepted, in order to make any progress in thinking. And just as there ARE first principles from which one cannot "dissent" without undermining the ability to reason, so there are (at least on the Judaeo-Christian conception of things) first principles of faith that are revealed by God. There would be no way of knowing certain things beyond human senses unless God told us about them, and when he does so, then they are "givens" that we work from, just like reasoning from the principle of non-contradiction is in logic or math or science or philosophy. This kind of "dogmatism," so far from stifling intellectual or artistic creativity, is the key to Christendom's incredible accomplishments, be it Notre Dame Cathedral or the Summa theologiae.

You write: "When we place everything in terms of a conflict against hostile actors, we wind up losing ourselves to the conflict, and we generate little but scorn towards those outside the tribe." And similar passages about traditionalists. Really: Is everyone doing this, or is it just the noisy chatterboxes on Twitter and Facebook? Most of the trads I know at the local FSSP parish seem pretty contented with life and talk about a healthy variety of things, though I'll admit that politics, guns, and the TLM always factor in!

"Love keeps order way better, but people don't like it because it's wild. It's untamed." Yes, but charity is also ordered in itself: order and love are not contraries. The best order is the one that emerges from loving the right persons and things for persons in the order that God wills. For example, to love one's wife and children more than one loves strangers.

As for real art and real religious art, it is happening more than you might think. Check out this list, which artists have to apply to join (it's not simply open to anyone): https://catholicartistsdirectory.com/

Sure, much of it is liturgical, but that's currently where there's a real opening for custom art and some funding for it. And obviously these artists are not household names, much less competing with Hollywood -- but do we seriously expect, in cancer-phase secularist porn-driven late modernity, that we are on the cusp of taking over culturally? A helluva lot of water will have to go under the bridge before a new Middle Ages can emerge from this Dark Ages.

Some of the things you say about art and faith make me think you would enjoy a new little book that was published by Angelico Press:


It's not at all dry; quite intriguing and thought-provoking about the philosophy of art and how good art must be realistic without imposing a pre-ordained pattern and how to deal with evil, etc. You may also enjoy the same author's novella:


Like Flannery O'Connor, he shows reality in its harsh and bitter side, but also the beauty and the meaning that is there, and that love can grow in any environment.

Expand full comment

I think you get at something really important at the end. Part of the problem in our period of history is the smallness, in absolute terms, of the number of people who consider themselves believers. You look at hotbeds of religious creativity and it is only in societies that are so thoroughly Christianized that you have everyone, lax and puritan, thinking about the same subject matter (Jesus) and pursuing the same goals (salvation). I think of Medieval/Renaissance Florence where you have fanatics like Savonarola rubbing elbows with artists like Fra Angelico. Or in Grand Siècle France where Pascal and the Jansenists at Port-Royal were preaching their puritanism just miles from where a deeply troubled Rembrandt was painting the Return of the Prodigal Son.

The point is, creativity came about because there were a diversity of persons all professing, sincerely however imperfectly, the same faith but approaching it in different ways. Both groups of people had their place in those societies. The creative invited the populace to grow and consider potentially uncomfortable topics, and the puritans kept things from getting too out of control. Healthy societies have both kinds of people. In our unhappy age, all we have left professing are, predictably, the puritans. As a result, we are impoverished. As a biologist, I cannot help but think of it as a kind of genetic bottleneck. And just as the bottleneck hampers a species for generations, so too I think we will be dealing with problems associated with small population size for a long time. I mean, just for comparison, look at the Hasidic Jews. Faithful, I suppose. Battle-hardened, you bet. But nobody could say they have any influence over society or have ever made any cultural contributions worth remembering. I sometimes fear that is where traditionalism is going. I know a lot of people agree with Benedict that the Church will become smaller and it will be better as a result. I think that is partly true. But I also think that smallness will bring about a lot of problems.

Expand full comment

Fascinating. The question of why Mel Gibson is probably the only man alive who could make the Passion is interesting because at the time he made it he would have been regarded as extremely fanatical: an SSPX going Traditional Catholic with a minibus of children, and unconventional views about the Holocaust to boot. But he’s also incredibly broken and that’s what makes him understand suffering so well. I have never connected with Catholicism so well as when I have sinned and needed to unconditionally accept the forgiveness that Christ offers.

We live in a society where certain sins are everlasting. There’s a footballer, Ched Evans, who was accused and convicted of rape. He served his sentence but no football club was prepared to employ him upon release. Clearly that’s not just. Society places a price upon a particular action, through the justice system, and it stands to reason that once the price is paid, you should be able to be employed (with some appropriate safeguards). I think Catholics are as affected by this mentality as the society we live in (why wouldn’t we be?) - and are unable to accept the work of those we deem unworthy. This leaves anyone who isn’t morally “up to scratch” as impossible to employ.

Expand full comment

Fantastic piece. It's no wonder that Caravaggio made such use of chiaroscuro in his religious works. A convicted murderer knows what it's like to see the light from the shadows.

Expand full comment

Great job with this one, Steve. It got me to hop on board. I think that’s partly also because I noticed we may have a common artistically-inclined creative background. I was very close to diving into a performing arts career, myself. The priestly vocation intervened and I went with it instead. But I was ready to give the arts my level best. I was preparing to make as positive an influence as I could on the culture through the theatrical medium, both stage and screen. At least that was my aspiration.

I recall, as a twenty-year-old, being very much taken by Wojtyla’s pre-history in the theater. His pursuit of the vocation struck me as a breakthrough in the same quest that he had begun to seek in the arts. As noble as my hopes may have been for an artistic career, the backdrop of the church’s mission presented me with the possibility of a vocation that I simply had to explore.

I would’ve loved to have gone into the arts. [Don’t worry, no buyer’s remorse, here.] The magnificence of the medium is strong enough to affect people’s entire lives. Wojtyla had initially set about to conserve Poland’s cultural patrimony via his troupe. Now that, right there, is a noble aspiration. It’s also the kind of aspiration, I’m guessing, that is rather familiar to creative types. Isn’t it, so often, that type of aspiration, as grandiose as it may sound to a passerby, that motivates us day to day?

I love your description of fanaticism. I do wonder, though, how it may differ from the healthy, abundant enthusiasm of youthful, creative types.

Expand full comment