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Catholic Novels: What Are They?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Dec 08, 2010

I began my series on recent Catholic novels with a question: Must the Catholic novel present the Christian message explicitly and more or less entirely so that the reader, through the characters in the book, is forced to acknowledge it and either accept it or reject it? In other words, is it the essence of the Catholic novel to deliberately preach the Gospel in a relatively thinly disguised fictional form? In reviewing the four books I had chosen for this series, I suggested throughout that, while piety might seem to demand this of a Catholic novel, such a viewpoint brings with it plenty of problems of its own.

These problems center around the subversion of literary success by insisting that fiction must take a certain clearly-defined catechetical form. Once you grant this premise, all Catholic novels begin to look suspiciously alike, and there is a great danger that the stories will be artlessly contrived in order to serve the “Catholic” purpose of writing the book in the first place. In my opinion, this tendency arises from a triple misunderstanding—a misunderstanding of fiction, of human nature, and of Catholicism.

May Not Must

Before I elaborate, I want to emphasize that I do not side with those Catholic critics who believe, first, that a Catholic novelist must never attempt to recreate fictionally a full encounter with Christ or the Catholic Faith and, second, that in any case the very idea of setting out to write a “Catholic” novel is a grave literary mistake. In the first case, I firmly believe that anything is fair game for a novelist. It is a laudable thing to awaken readers to the Gospel through a fresh literary treatment. It is, of course, very difficult to do effectively, and a writer might very well fail, but what sets too many writers up for failure is not the idea that someone might try to do this but that a Catholic novelist must try to do it.

In the second case, I do not believe it is a mistake to consciously invest a work with specific values. A good novel must appear natural and unforced to the reader, but that hardly means it has not been meticulously planned and crafted. Every author deliberately builds certain thematic elements into his work, and if a Catholic author ponders how he might effectively develop certain themes so that something of his Catholic vision can shine through his work, that is both perfectly normal and all to the good. Here the danger is no greater for the Catholic than for any other author who possesses deep and abiding insights and attitudes that bear upon his subject matter.

Think, for a moment, of Charles Dickens writing his novels about subjects on which he had very strong feelings indeed, such as Hard Times or A Tale of Two Cities. Making a point was part and parcel of his literary effort. But the trick is to understand how novels work: There must first and foremost be a story to tell. The story must not be obviously contrived, much less contorted, to make a point; if there is a point, it must be left to emerge—naturally as it were—from the setting, the plot and the characters which already claim our interest and attention.

Many a successful novel has been didactic to some degree, but in general the more a work tends deliberately to pontificate (if you’ll excuse the expression), the less it succeeds as a story. Just as reality imparts its lessons primarily through our own experience, so must the novel introduce the reader into an extended reality which may, in much the same way, impart its own values and lessons, or perhaps its own opportunities for vision and growth.

The Triple Misunderstanding

Now let me return to the triple misunderstanding. The first part of the misunderstanding is the idea that the purpose of fiction is to teach in a formal and explicit way. This is a purpose admirably fulfilled by lectures, sermons, tracts and extended works of non-fiction. But, again, the genius of fiction is to create an experience of reality (even if it is fantasy) that rings true within itself, and which keeps the reader engaged through a compelling story, such that the reader’s own experience is extended and, hopefully, deepened by reading the work. Lessons of a sort may emerge, but let us rather call them insights. They must be handled in a way consistent with the nature of fictional writing.

As an aside, perhaps I should recall a negative review I gave to a new Catholic novel some thirty years ago, only to be told by the author that as a committed Catholic I had an obligation to give the book a supremely positive review because “it was orthodox”. This reaction did not surprise me, but it neatly illustrates my point. Orthodoxy does not make a novel, and unless it emerges naturally as a theme in the novel’s own special portrayal of its characters and their problems, in a setting appropriate to a story which interests us in its own right, the imposition of an “orthodox” message will often simply twist the work into something that only the author’s mother could love.

The second part of the misunderstanding is that the only (or perhaps simply the best) way for a person to grow spiritually is to be confronted somehow with the whole Christ, all at once, and to be forced to make a dramatic decision once and for all. But surely if God the Father believed this to be true, He could have orchestrated a better salvific plan than to have His Son enter our history for just a few years and then leave it again some two millennia ago.

To the contrary, human beings respond in all kinds of ways to bits and pieces of the Christian message, to experiences of the Christian life, to Christian achievements (art and literature, for example), to Christian insight, to diverse moments of grace, and even to the apparent absence of grace, including moments of intense sinfulness. All of these, and above all acts of love—at the right moments—conspire to engender spiritual growth, a thirst for God, and a desire to learn or experience more of Christ and the Church. We come to the fullness of Faith by many roads.

The third part of the misunderstanding is that the Catholic Faith demands always a full treatment of its ultimate premises whenever we direct a work of art to those who do not share it. But the Faith demands no such thing. As a person becomes more deeply Catholic—more fully engraced—everything that he is and does is slowly transformed in countless ways, large and small, visible and hidden, material and spiritual. One Catholic may be gifted with superior argumentative talent, another with a special touch which bespeaks unselfish love, a third with the ability to pray while he undertakes outwardly ordinary work, and a fourth with a deep insight into the heart of things.

In all of these, rough edges will be made smoother, motives progressively purified, purposes more finely and appropriately focused, and work gradually imbued with what we can only call a Christian spirit. It is true that orthodoxy gives a writer a certain initial advantage in terms of seeing reality whole, but when we think of a Catholic novelist we must be less concerned with mere orthodoxy than with deep Catholic insight.

Though our raw insight into the nature of things can grow with study and reflection, there is no question that some persons—whether they be non-Catholics, bad Catholics, or good Catholics—are naturally more gifted than others in this regard, at least in the particular ways that can generate the mesmerizing, gripping, stunning or searing vision so often represented in great art. In fact, it seems at the very least rare that this sort of insight is gained through any sort of personal effort at all.

But insofar as such a gift can be deliberately acquired or enhanced, I believe it must depend primarily on a spiritual effort, a growth in holiness—that is, on a superior acquisition and appropriation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is the process by which a Catholic, at least, learns to see, and so holiness is inevitably as highly relevant to the Catholic novelist as it is to everything else. And the most relevant point about holiness in the context of our third misunderstanding about the demands of Faith is simply this: Holiness and the insight that springs from it will be manifested in as many ways as there are people, and in as many situations as can ever exist in the wide world.

Conclusion

For each of these reasons, all of reality, including all of imagined reality, is open to the Catholic novelist. And if the Catholic novelist is really up to the literary task, his engraced perceptions will be reflected in various ways in his work, probably in different ways for each writer, and hopefully—if he is a consummate artist—in different ways in each book.

It is also necessary to note that while Catholics are blessed to start from a high vantage point, they are not the only ones who can see. Consummate artists of every stripe typically have a deeper or fresher way of seeing and depicting reality which reveals itself in their work, even if they often do not grasp the full import of what they see and depict. Not infrequently this deeper perception becomes an occasion of grace to those who read (or view or listen) simply because, in its execution as art, it reveals an aspect of reality which enables others to see more completely. Hence they see more truly. Hence, as day follows night, they will be gifted with a greater thirst for God, the Reality at the root of everything, though they may not yet recognize the gift.

So let Catholic writers throw off any misconceptions they may have about what a “Catholic novel” must be. As Catholics let them seek spiritual understanding and holiness. As human persons let them reflect on their cherished values and on how they might bring these values to life in their art. And as writers, let them strive to create stories which convey an experience of reality which is both fresh and deep. This, if they are talented as novelists and work hard at their craft, is all that is required. The rest, in a thousand fascinating and surprising ways, will take care of itself.


Previous in series: Catholic Novels: Looking for the King

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 11, 2010 12:28 PM ET USA

    Great points; couldn't agree more. I have always enjoyed the story of Our Lord and the centurion. Our Lord marvelled at his faith in and his recognition of "the Reality." We Catholics must realize that while we "start from a high vantage point," there is much at which to marvel for those who look and listern(and read.) Perhaps this Advent may be for us a time of reflection on the humility of the Christ child who never fails to provide His grace to us if only we are receptive to it.

  • Posted by: marttywinston6762 - Dec. 11, 2010 10:28 AM ET USA

    I've recently read 'The Violent Bear It Away,' 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' and 'The River,' by Flannery O'Connor. Two things came directly to mind when I finished each one: (1) Yuk! (in a moral sense) and (2) an unremittingly negative reflection of human nature generally and southern Protestant culture in particular. They are dark, pessimistic, dystopian, ugly.

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