Thursday, June 18, 2015

Flannery O'Connor: Stamped but not Cancelled

By Ralph C. Wood
June 16, 2015
On June 5, 2015, the U.S. Postal Service published a commemorative stamp in honor of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor is an anomalous candidate for such acclaim, since her work stands at a critical distance from the American project, both in its older and more recent iterations. Precisely in her refusal to assimilate her fiction to the national consensus, she made her most valuable gift to it.
The chief evidence for this claim is to be found in two 1963 issues of the Jesuit journal America that O’Connor read and marked only a few months before her all too early death at age thirty-nine in 1964. In one essay, John Courtney Murray, the leading Catholic theologian on matters of church and state at the time, expressed his hope that the Second Vatican Council’s forthcoming treatment of religious freedom would be in full accord with what he called “the true political tradition of the Christian West.” The American constitutional system, in Murray’s view, has served to recover the Catholic rejection of all absolutisms, both ecclesial and governmental. It does so by insisting that “political authority has no part whatsoever in the care of souls (cura animarum) or in the control of the minds of men (regimen animorum).” Hence Murray’s confidence that Dignitatis humanae (the declaration on human freedom) would call for governments to remain secular and neutral by not granting special privileges to any of the various religious traditions, granting them all freedom of both worship and belief.
Yet at the very end of his essay, Murray expressed a certain worry about this pristine separation of spheres, whereby church and state attend to their complementary and rarely contradictory affairs: “The question today is, whether the Church should extend her pastoral solicitude beyond her own boundaries and assume an active patronage of the freedom of the human person . . . who stands today under a massive threat to everything that human dignity and personal freedom mean.” Unlike Flannery O’Connor, Fr. Murray seemed impervious to the notion that such threats might come from the American system itself.
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