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Catholic Novels: The Big Question

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 01, 2010 | In Reviews

There has been a spate of “Catholic novels” published recently, and I’ve taken review copies of five of them so that I can consider not only the value of these particular works but also the nature of the “Catholic novel” itself. I'll raise an initial question in this entry and then follow with entries on each novel before closing with my own ideas about what really makes a novel Catholic. Let me first frame what I regard as the central issue when it comes to Catholic fictional literature, so we can keep it in mind as we review the actual books.

Granted that a creative writer is free to attempt almost anything in a work of fiction, and granted that in the right hands almost anything might be very pleasingly done, and granted also that readers will have a wide variety of interests and tastes, it remains true that the biggest issue concerning the “Catholic novel” is whether it has to be formally structured and developed in an explicitly Catholic way.

Let’s put this another way. Ought the Catholic novel always to be a more or less complete fictional presentation of the process and motives of conversion to Christ in some setting explicitly designed for this purpose? If so, the “Catholic novel” is necessarily a very didactic type of fiction. Or ought the Catholic novel to be primarily a compelling story, like any good novel, which is imbued with a Catholic sensibility because the author’s perceptions are deeply informed by his faith? If so, then the “Catholic novel” is free to deepen and extend the reader’s own perceptions through the Catholic author’s special genius in handling a compelling tale.

I am not, of course, the first to raise this question. For example, to frame this as two sides of a debate between C. S. Lewis (a very Catholic Anglican) and J. R. R. Tolkien, we might ask whether Catholic fiction should be explicitly and didactically Christian (as in Lewis’ space trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia), or whether Catholicism ought to seep naturally into the work through the author’s special perception of whatever slice of reality occupies his story (as in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or even Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins).

Again, there is undoubtedly room for both, but as we will see presently in the novels I am about to review, the felt need to make a novel explicitly Catholic, while seemingly admirable, creates problems of its own. In many cases, it can tempt pious authors to subordinate the literary treatment of some reality to the task of teaching or preaching, with what results the reader alone must judge.

I should note in closing this segment that the first of the novels I read was The Death of a Pope by Piers Paul Read, whom I like as a Catholic essayist much more than as a Catholic novelist. I’ve already written a review of Read’s work, including his novel, with similar questions in mind. If you wish to look at that before taking up the four remaining novels in this series, you’ll find it in A Catholic Writer Worth Knowing: Piers Paul Read.

Next in series: Catholic Novels: Necessary Heartbreak

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mjmallinger3379 - Dec. 04, 2010 1:30 AM ET USA

    In my opinion, one of the best experts on this subject is Flannery O'Connor. Her collected letters to friends speak frequently, not only about she went about writing a story, but how her Catholicism influenced her writing as well. In any event, I think her bottom line was that it's easier to define what is not good writing then to explain exactly why good writing is what it is. Mike Mallinger

  • Posted by: avd - Dec. 04, 2010 12:47 AM ET USA

    The catholic novelist who had the biggest impact on me was Morris West, especially the second of his papal trilogy "the Clowns of God". His depiction of catholicism is accurate, but the tension in the plots is usually derived from the struggle of living catholic in a secular world, which may put off those looking for more heroic or pious works. He certainly made me think about my faith, for which I am grateful. Anthony Dilley. Sydney. Australia

  • Posted by: phineas - Dec. 03, 2010 9:15 PM ET USA

    Thank you for broaching this fascinating subject, and for bringing Catholic novels to our attention. I teach H S Am Lit, and I analyze Great Gatsby in light of Fitzgerald's substrate of Catholic sensibility. Literature must first achieve greatness as art, and then we peer backwards into its construction for Catholic elements when they have been woven in. But lacking the true literary dimension, it can't rise to that high plateau. And yes, bad Catholics have written some lasting literature.

  • Posted by: dschenkjr9859 - Dec. 03, 2010 9:12 PM ET USA

    Hope you review Rachel's Contrition by Michelle Buckman published by Sophia Press and currently #1 in Women's fiction on Amazon. NCRegister discussed Catholic fiction and this novel in a web posting by Daria Sockey on Nov. 30. Included in the article was an answer by Buckman to the question of what Catholic ficition should be. It will be good to combine your opinion with those of this article. The topic is a valuable one for all of us.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 02, 2010 10:21 AM ET USA

    Great topic for consideration. I believe there is a great deal of latitude with regard to the literary works themselves. However, one area of concern pertains to the readers. Is there a tendency to read more into the novel than was originally intended? Do we tend to elevate certain works to an inappropriate level of catechetical importance- ie Lord of the Rings? How does one develop a proper approach and maintain a well-ordered perspective with regard to the Catholic novel?