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A Catholic Writer Worth Knowing: Piers Paul Read

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Feb 05, 2010

Piers Paul Read is an English Catholic novelist, historian, biographer, playwright, reviewer and essayist. He lived through the 1960’s; he retained his faith and saw it deepen in response to the rise of neo-Modernism in the Church. As one of his essays notes, he was sure the Church was right even before he could bring himself to accept every aspect of her teaching. Read has a great deal useful to say about things Catholic, and it indicates a gap in my own awareness that I learned of him only last year when Catholic World Report favorably reviewed his new novel from Ignatius Press.

Ignatius also publishes Catholic World Report, so one is not surprised by the very generous review. Though I too enjoyed the novel, I would not go as far as the reviewer in suggesting that it was great literature. Still, it proved to be a good starting point because it quickly led me to Read’s other achievements, which in the main consist of historical works and essays on contemporary issues.

I promptly ordered one from each category: The Death of a Pope (the new novel), The Templars (a history of the Crusades), and Hell and Other Destinations (a collection of essays subtitled “A novelist’s reflections on this world and the next”). My purpose was to spread these books around a bit, and so come to an overall assessment of Piers Paul Read’s work for the benefit of CatholicCulture.org readers.

Three people contributed to this review—really a sampling—of Read’s work: Brandon Vaughan, Trinity Consulting’s web designer, trained in philosophy and heavily involved in the literary web site of the St. Austin Review, who tackled The Death of a Pope; Ryan Callaghan, formerly the director of Trinity Consulting’s proposal department, who holds a Masters in Military History, and who took on The Templars; and myself, who focused (appropriately?) on Hell.

The Novelist

As might be gathered from the subtitle of his collection of essays, Read describes himself as a novelist. His first novel was written in 1966, when he was 25. More recent novels include On the Third Day, A Patriot in Berlin, and Alice in Exile. The most recent, The Death of a Pope, concerns itself with a conspiracy to transform the Church into the service of a secular utopia by annihilating the entire College of Cardinals in conclave after the death of John Paul II. The most remarkable thing about the novel from the Catholic point of view is how it portrays the various types of characters so common in today’s Church: ambitious liberal and conservative clerics in Rome, ex-Jesuit social activists, traditional priests more or less relegated to minor duties, and Catholic laity who no longer believe or practice their Faith.

The Death of a Pope is both an adventure story and a moral/spiritual tale, a tale which extends the values of secularized utopian Catholics to their logical conclusion and contrasts them with a more personal, more transcendent and ultimately more authentically Catholic piety and love. There is adventure, there is a love interest...and there is considerable authorial intervention to make sure it is crystal clear to the reader what role each character plays in the moral tale the author also wishes to tell. This intervention comes through an unusually direct form of third-person omniscience by which the author straightforwardly describes the mindset of each character without, in general, permitting that mindset to emerge organically from the story itself.

It is, I would say, precisely this relatively heavy-handed technique which prevents The Death of a Pope from rising to a higher level of literature. It was sufficiently off-putting to reviewer Vaughan that he chose not to completely finish the book. Curious, I took it up and read it with some enjoyment. I found sufficient characterization and suspense to keep things entertaining, and I think that Read handled the moral tale believably, even if it was somewhat overlaid on the characters by the omniscient author instead of growing more slowly, and less precisely, out of their own thoughts and actions as captured in a story. It is also true that I liked the characters Read intended me to like (including Father Luke Scott, who is clearly Read’s alter ego), and that Read’s moral analysis is the same as my own.

The Death of a Pope is certainly good enough to be enjoyed by most readers of light Catholic fiction, as Brandon Vaughan himself noted after he ultimately laid it aside. But Vaughan is unquestionably correct that it will be praised as a significant artistic achievement only by those who think the sole defining characteristic of great literature is a sound theological message. Better to consider it as a Father Dowling mystery with higher pretensions, but without the benefit of favorite recurring characters. At 215 pages, it is about the right length. I hasten to add that this may not be typical of his fiction; it may be an experiment; we haven’t read his other novels. But on balance, for strong Catholics looking for an acceptable fictional worldview, the book works.

The Historian

As theologically driven as Read was in the novel, one might have feared that he would write history with similar authorial impositions, rather than letting a well-researched and detailed story speak (as much as reasonably possible) for itself. Happily this is not the case. The novelist may actually be more in his element as a historian; he has also written both a biography of Alec Guiness and a documentary-style account of the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes, which was later adapted as a film. Read is very much at home with historical research; he grasps the critical importance of understanding context before interpreting facts.

The subtitle of The Templars is “The Dramatic History of the Knights Templar, the Most Powerful Military Order of the Crusades.” Reviewer Callaghan found the study thorough, balanced, fair and, on the whole, interesting. What some reviewers have criticized as too great an emphasis on the backstory—the importance of Jerusalem and the early crusades which led up to the mission of the Templars—Callaghan sees as the indispensable result of a good historian’s effort to enable his readers to actually understand what the Templars are all about, rather than just reading an account of them and pronouncing judgment. It is only later, when the author slows down for his year-by-year account of the history of the Order itself, that Callaghan suggests a little prudent consolidation of the data might have helped keep the story moving.

One of Read’s strengths as a historian is that he is capable of presenting the action from the perspective of the actor, which means he avoids demonizing those who may have different perceptions and motivations—different, for example, from either Catholic apologists or 21st century secularists. The result is twofold. First, the action takes place in a very messy period of Church history (we may well ask, though, what period isn’t messy), and the story is told without special pleading for or against those we might consider protagonists and antagonists. This could annoy devout readers who may fear that others will sometimes find ample confirmation for anti-Catholic prejudices. In fact, there is a certain academic detachment in Read’s work as an historian. He is determined not to write fiction.

Second, the Templars themselves are presented fairly, without the presumptions of twentieth-century anti-crusading myths and, as a result, the Order’s reputation is salvaged from the opprobrium of secularist historians. In an academically respectable work of history, this is a considerable achievement. As a one-time historian myself, I would argue that it could not have been accomplished without Read’s detachment, as any hint of special pleading would have made his work suspect, and would have caused most of the world to dismiss it out of hand.

The Essayist

As I mentioned, I took charge of a collection of essays Read published in 2006 through Darton, Longman and Todd in London and Ignatius Press in San Francisco. I’m very glad I did, because Read writes essays like a novelist, with an extraordinarily clear perception of both personalities and underlying themes. He seems to understand what makes people tick, along with the ideas they develop to either strengthen or subvert the Church. Besides, Hell and Other Destinations has such a delightful title, especially with the word “Hell” in much larger print, blaring out from my nightstand for all to see as they meander unsuspectingly through my home now that the place is up for sale.

More seriously, there is a true human warmth in Read’s essays which, if visitors would read and think about them, might obviate the need to keep fresh bread baking in the kitchen. He explores a wide variety of topics, as evidenced by the following section headings: Faith (I’ve mentioned how Read grew into his full-fledged Catholicism), The Church (he understands the divisions extremely well, and is on the right side), Liberation Theology (he was strongly tempted by Communism, but no more), History (Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Dan Brown’s fantasies), Sex and Marriage (there’s the rub, no?), Writers (something he knows firsthand), and Saints. (Like most serious Catholics, Read is well-equipped to understand saints, yet he would never claim to know sanctity firsthand.)

Some of the more polemical materials come from reviews originally published in the English press. The introductory essay on Hell (originally planned as a talk to be given at a Jesuit house, and perhaps not surprisingly found unsuitable for that purpose) is published in this collection for the first time. In it, Read carefully unfolds the historical Catholic understanding of Hell, and arrives at a fundamental concern about the contemporary Church:

There is a danger, it seems to me, that the shift among Catholics from a preoccupation with eternity to an engagement in the world has now gone so far that it effaces the very idea of an afterlife and so distorts the teaching of the gospel and endangers the coherence of the Christian religion. I would also suggest that neglect of the Four Last Things is one of the causes for the relative decline of the fortunes of the Catholic Church in the developed world.

A particularly fascinating aspect of Read's work is that he has gone far beyond merely evaluating the ideas of dissident Catholic theologians from afar. For example, he has interviewed Hans Küng in the flesh, and he has sat down and chatted with members of the Catholic base communities in El Salvador which recruited for Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. Such contacts open important windows in his essays without clouding his judgment. And his judgment is very sound: His essay on “A Time of Trial”, which discusses the hijacking of the Church by progressivists following Vatican II, is one of the best short treatments of this painful subject I’ve ever seen.

All in All

As a considerable bonus in the collection of essays, Read recounts his own pilgrimage of Faith in the introduction. This serves to confirm that, all in all, Piers Paul Read is an author whom English-speaking Catholics really should get to know. Depending on interests and preferences, each reader may have different favorites from among his works. But all those reviewed here, and presumably most others, will leave the reader enriched and more deeply immersed in Catholic thought. “A society in which there is no agreement on moral principles, or on objective truth in the moral sphere,” remarks Read in one of his essays, “is heading for trouble.” Piers Paul Read cares about this; in one way or another he addresses it in everything he writes.

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