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Summer Books:

Great book about 13 Catholic authors

By Ross Labrie
University of Missouri Press, 306 pages, $39.95


This reviewer stands in mute awe before the grandeur of this publication.

In only 283 pages of text Ross Labrie presents a scholarly, extensively researched, incisive, probing, intellectually and spiritually stimulating analysis of 13 significant Roman Catholic authors and their works.

These authors are: Orestes Brownson, Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, Paul Horgan, William Everson/Brother Antoninus, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Robert Lowell, J.F. Powers, Daniel Berrigan, Flannery O'Connor, Ralph McInerny, and Mary Gordon.

They and their works were chosen for three reasons. First, each represents distinguished intellectual and artistic achievements. Second, these authors are/were practicing Roman Catholics. Third, their works focus on Roman Catholic spirituality and beliefs.

The first prism Labrie uses for reading this literature is that of their Catholic imagination within an American context. Components of this imagination are skillfully presented and articulated in the opening chapter.

Labrie makes the case that Catholic imagination in American literature entails a sacramental vision of the universe, an emphasis on incarnation, a balanced understanding of nature in terms of its goodness and flaws, an openness to the world, the influence of Thomism and natural law, reverence for the community of saints, respect for authority and hierarchy, sensitivity to the roles of suffering in life, a passion for one's church and an inherent optimism, all fused with American political consciousness. Another tier of Catholic imagination is also examined in detail -- specifically, each author's creative use of literary techniques.

It is bracing to follow Labrie's learned, acute study of how these components and techniques manifest themselves in each author's literary feats.

Moreover, the Catholic imagination revealed in each chapter is complemented by other prisms of investigation that make one's reading experience all the richer. Labrie carefully compares these authors with each other on important points demonstrating likenesses and differences. He includes references to weighty correspondences between them. He thoroughly explains their literary artistry. And, since all but one of the authors encountered the effects of Vatican II, Labrie frequently includes important conclusions regarding how that ecumenical council influenced their works. Thus readers are treated to a fivefold interwoven exploration of Catholic imagination.

Additionally, Labrie provides an insightful introductory and concluding chapter addressing what the Catholic imagination entails and what the legacy of the Catholic imagination in American literature is, respectively. A bibliography of 254 titles of primary and secondary works of and regarding Catholic literature also awaits readers. If one wishes to know what sources and resources are out there on the subject, this is the place to start.

Exquisitely written, masterfully composed, comprehensive in scope, rich in insight, this work deserves a wide readership. Given the depth and complexity of the analyses, this is not a work to read quickly. Rather, Ross Labrie's publication should be savored, slowly.

William F. McInerny, a professor of theology and religious studies at Rockhurst College, Kansas City, Mo., is a frequent reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997