The Catholic Imagination is Ecclesial (Or It's Not Really Catholic)

In two previous articles, Artur Rosman, the Editor-in-Chief of Church Life, has advanced a proposal for what constitutes the Catholic imagination. According to Rosman, the Catholic imagination is often employed in departments of Catholic Studies in a way that suits the faculty and/or artist's interests:

Each of these institutions, and there are many of them, appears to have its own working definition of the Catholic imagination that developed out of its own institutional needs and accents upon Catholic identity. These practical needs sidestepped much of the work of theologians on the Catholic imagination.
In a later article, Rosman hints that medieval Catholicism is the privileged era for the birth of what we refer to the Catholic imagination.

Rosman's articles point toward a significant lacuna that exists within both philosophical and theological accounts of the Catholic imagination: the dearth of attention to the ecclesial nature of this imagination.

In my own graduate studies, the term "Catholic imagination" was often defined by the transformation of theological doctrines into epistemic or literary principles:

  • The Catholic imagination is incarnational, meaning that it is concerned with embodiment.

  • The Catholic imagination is sacramental, meaning that it perceives the presence of God as permeating the created order.

  • The Catholic imagination is Paschal, meaning that it sees the possibility of new life coming out of death.

  • The Catholic imagination is dramatic, meaning that it recognizes that human beings have free will (and may choose both for and against God or the good).

Such an approach, although attractive, is fundamentally inadequate. It transforms the drama of salvation into principles for salvation. It reduces history to philosophy.

  • If the Catholic imagination relates to embodiment, it does so primarily because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

  • If the Catholic imagination is sacramental, it is because human beings have fallen away from God and need a sacramental economy to return back to God as mediated through the Church.

  • If the Catholic imagination is Paschal, it is primarily because Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom who reveals to men and women the depths of divine love, the shocking claim that the light shines into the darkness (and the darkness shall not overcome it).

  • If the Catholic imagination is dramatic, it is because God has become involved in human history first through creation, then in the covenant with Israel, then in the life, death, resurrection of the Beloved Son, and lastly in the Spirit infusing Christ's Body, the Church.

The temptation of scholars and artists alike is to reduce the Catholic imagination to a series of principles and ideas (that any human being of good will could agree with). Such an approach takes away the shocking particularity of the Gospel—the utterly scandalous claim that the triune God has decided to save humanity through a Church! Church life, in the end, is the heart of the Catholic imagination.

The great monuments of the Catholic imagination were not created by literary artists who separated themselves off into a Donatist sect where they alone spurned the kitsch of parish life, where they alone were the "saved." No, such monuments came into existence through the instruments of theologians, artists, and spiritual writers who allowed their imaginations to be sanctified through the mundane drama of ecclesial life. After all, Palestrina didn't just write liturgical music as an artist. He attended confession and got spiritual direction from St. Philip Neri.

Artists and academics alike have a worrisome propensity to imagine that their intellectual work, their artistic creations are the source of salvation. They form Donatist guilds both conservative and progressive (operating now via Facebook groups), condemning "normal" parishioners who can't grasp the avant-garde realness of their work, the theology that seeks to convert men and women to the "real" understanding of the Gospel.

Don't get me wrong. Catholic artists and academics have something to contribute to ecclesial life. But they do so as ecclesial persons, as those who are themselves undergoing the process of salvation through life in this particular parish. Other human beings, Christian or not, can benefit from the work of such artists and thinkers. But they benefit because those who cultivate a professional Catholic imagination have allowed ecclesial life to seep into the marrow of their bones, manifesting to the world (stealing a line from Irenaeus) that the glory of God is the human being fully alive in Christ.

This ecclesial chastening of the Catholic imagination should be understood as a gift. Perhaps, like Hugh of St. Victor, we can imagine that those who traffic in the academic and literary fostering of a Catholic imagination do create healing medicine for the life of the Church and the world alike. They adorn themselves through study and artistic creation for the final wedding feast of the Lamb. They evangelize the created order through the creation of culture.

But the ecclesial nature of this imagination means that their non-academic confreres in Christ are also adorning themselves in the very kitsch that the intellectuals spend their lives attempting to destroy. In the "simple" thinking that they seek to replace with their more sophisticated philosophical and literary artistry.

In summary, the Catholic imagination cannot become the translation of theological doctrine into literary and epistemic principles. The Catholic imagination is not a separate province for the elite, who gain the intellectual and literary capacities to produce sophisticated works that receive excellent reviews in The New Yorker.

The Catholic imagination is available to all who enter into the ecclesial life of the Church. It is available to all who seek to adore the triune God on a weekly basis in a community of fellow sinners and saints alike. Unless the ecclesial dimension of the Catholic imagination is recognized, the imagination that is described may be inspired by Catholicism. But, it won't be Catholic.

Featured Image: Folk Icon; CC-BY-ND-3.0


Timothy P. O’Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and founding editor of Church Life Journal.

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