True Colors

The Best Catholic Writing 2004

Robert Barron, a young priest and theologian, recently coined the phrase “beige Catholicism,” lamenting that Catholicism, in its effort to blend seamlessly into the fabric of American life is in danger of being stripped of its uniqueness, its color, and its vibrancy. Perhaps Barron is right. Maybe we are becoming kind of bland and beige, with all of our public image issues, our myopic family t?te-?-t?tes over scandals, church closings, and Communion politics. If in fact we are plagued by beige-ness, then the writers whose work is featured in The Best Catholic Writing 2004 (Loyola Press, 228 pages, $14.95), an anthology edited by University of Portland alumni magazine editor Brian Doyle, are proof positive that a bad case of the blands clearly isn’t fatal. This collection of 28 essays, speeches, poems, book excerpts, articles and meditations speaks to the notion that Catholicism isn’t a monochromatic blur but a painting in the process of being restored. Scrape away a bit of the surface dirt that has accumulated over time (in-fighting, crises, and closings), and what lies beneath is not beige, but a colorful palette of cerise, cerulean, brick red, plum, and teal. From novelist Alice McDermott’s essay on the “Catholic d?cor” in her fiction to Valerie Schultz’s reflection on enjoying hot, satisfying sex with her husband, to Christopher de Vinck’s tribute to his longtime friend Fred Rogers, this compendium provides a reminder that “Catholic” doesn’t mean “devoid of color.”

Catholic with a small “c.”
In editing Best Catholic Writing, Doyle, whose own writing has been featured in Harper’s and The American Scholar , set out to include not only Catholic writing but also catholic writing, in the original, universal sense of the word. Doyle’s choices are not limited to pieces that specifically concern what he calls “churchiana.” To limit the selections in such a way, writes Doyle in the introduction, “would be a mule-headed mistake.” The essence of Catholicism, according to Doyle, is “to grapple with the largest questions of human existence: How can love defeat murder? How are we to be moral citizens of the nations in which we live? How are we to live? How are we to pray ceaselessly, to attend constantly to miracle, to bring our wild love to bear on the bruised and broken world?”

And so the scope of the book is as large as the questions themselves, ranging from Notre Dame Professor Scott Appleby’s almost-excoriating address to the U.S. bishops in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and Kathleen Norris’s stark meditations on life on the Dakota plains to Robert T. Reilly’s haunting account of being a caretaker to his Alzheimer’s disease-afflicted wife.

Doyle’s collection fascinates by virtue of the unity it finds among seemingly disparate stories. Rev. Dominic Grassi’s moving account of baptizing an infant in the neonatal intensive care unit before she dies and Ben Birnbaum’s piece about transforming one’s footsteps into prayer while taking a walk around a pond at dawn somehow make sense next to Rev. James Martin SJ’s confessing to being sometimes confounded by Latin and Fr. Paul Scanlon’s reflections on caring for a man dying of AIDS.

In choosing this anthology, Doyle simply sought writing that was “Just real?not polite or official or orthodox.” Writing that is truly Catholic, according to Doyle, means “lots of funky voices at the table?.the motif is a busy kitchen table with a lot of beer. Real Catholic writing is thorny and funky and challenging and funny.”

The Best Catholic Writing anthology–which will now be published annually–is a fitting testimony to the many hues that make up the Catholic tapestry and a welcome reminder of the Catholic tradition’s oft-forgotten lower-case “c” sensibility.

Editor’s note: Brian Doyle is now accepting entries for Best Catholic Writing 2005. Send him anything, including “articles, essays, poems, short stories, plays, speeches, sermons, elegies, eulogies, monologues, rants, raves, etc.” Email Word documents to Doyle at