Some people believe that the Catholic novel is either dead or terminally ill. In 1982, one critic referred to his book on the Catholic novel as an " elegy for an apparently dying form, " and two years later another wrote that " the religious or spiritual novel is in some sense only a memory ." Some attribute this demise to the imminent dissolution of the religion that inspired it, arguing that the dissent and chaos that have come in the wake of the Second Vatican Council are simply the death throes of a religion that is not sustainable in an age that is increasingly secular, liberal, scientific, and pluralistic. Some Catholics believe that the great Catholic novels of the past reflect the fortress mentality of the pre¯Vatican II Catholic ghetto and have no place in today’s Church.
Others, however, maintain that non-Catholic and even non-Christian readers still appreciate these distinguished novels. Thomas Woodman, in Faithful Fictions: The Catholic Novel in British Literature , states that "Catholic novelists have not only been found to write with great moral subtlety but have sometimes quite clearly privileged character as the centre of the novel in the most traditional fashion." That fact may explain the popularity of Catholic novels with non-Catholic and even secular readers: They provide an experience somewhat akin to reading those weighty Victorian novels, imbued with moral seriousness and ethical concern, in which human acts had momentous import in a meaningful universe. Christian readers have a special interest in these novels, however, for they bring to life doctrines rendered insipid and prosaic due to long familiarity and frequent repetition in creeds and liturgy.
When English-speaking Catholics think of the Catholic novel, they think first of those classics of the genre by English novelists Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Although Americans are familiar with the excellent fiction of American Catholic novelists Flannery O’Connor, J.F. Powers, and Walker Percy, and, more recently, of Jon Hassler and Ron Hansen, they are not as familiar with what has been going on in England since the passing of the golden age of the Catholic novel.
At this point I need to define what I mean by the term Catholic novel . I do not mean simply a novel by a Catholic or one with some Catholic material, but a work of substantial literary merit in which Catholic theology and thought have a significant presence within the narrative, with genuine attention to the inner spiritual life, often drawing on Catholicism’s rich liturgical and sacramental symbolism and enriched by the analogical Catholic imagination. The Catholic imagination, says Andrew Greeley , is one that is sacramental, that "sees created reality as a ‘sacrament,’ that is, a revelation of the presence of God." Some novels are deeply engaged with Catholic material, but almost exclusively in a negative or hostile sense. Such novels are sometimes considered Catholic novels, and some Catholics find it bracing and expansive to enter a fictional space that confronts them with the shadow side of the Church. Yet the Catholic novels that most engage my interest are those that include some kind of sense that Catholicism, no matter how flawed the institutional Church and no matter how weak and sinful individual Catholics, is a locus of truth.
I must emphasize, however, that these Catholic novels do not necessarily exclude criticism of the Church. On the contrary, it would be difficult to find a Catholic novel that does not include it¯including those of the golden age of the Catholic novel. It may criticize the Church (both clergy and laity) for being too materialistic, too complacent, too indifferent to the suffering of the poor and oppressed, too bourgeois, too rigid in its sexual teaching, too compliant with the spirit of the age, inattentive and insensitive to the needs and special gifts of women, and, in our own day, for having either insufficiently or overly complied with the spirit of Vatican II. Yet these critiques are more like lovers’ quarrels or marital arguments. They are deeply felt and painful, yet still encased in love for the beloved, in this case, for the Church as the earthen vessel that contains the good news.
The Catholic novel matured in France after World War I when two segments of French society converged: the secular anticlerical faction and the Catholic faction. The common struggle of all the French in the war had brought the secular and the religious closer together. The antagonism between them was somewhat attenuated, and the old bitterness tempered by mutual respect. This convergence provided a remarkably fertile environment for creativity and resulted in what one critic calls assimilative writing: writing that reflects a secular order and a religious order that are both self-critical, have permeable boundaries, and are receptive to insights and achievements of the other. Yet each still keeps its own distinct identity. The result was the novels of François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos in France, and of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene in England.
If the remarkable flowering of Catholic fiction in the golden age of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s was a result of the convergence of two opposing worldviews that produced assimilative writing, one would expect that the Second Vatican Council would have enhanced the prospect for Catholic fiction as the Church opened its windows to the world and abandoned its fortress mentality. Yet that is not what happened. The Council expressed the fruit of the convergence that had been going on for several decades but resulted in a period of confluence when the two communities began to merge into each other. Gene Kellogg in his book The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence explains:
So much assimilation had taken place that there was a crisis of identity. Catholics, no longer so critical of secularism, became by an unfortunate corollary often also no longer critical of the inroads of secularism into Catholicism’s own essence. It became difficult for many Catholics to discern what Catholics advocated that was not also advocated by most men of good will . . . . The primary and defiant Catholic emphasis upon the spirit, which for so many generations had generated the creative spark between the Catholic communities and the secular environment, virtually ceased.
The Catholic novels produced during this period, according to Kellogg, had less vigor than the earlier ones, and "their assertions were frail echoes of what they once had been."
Catholicism itself, and not only its relationship to the world, changed after Vatican II. As English Catholic novelist David Lodge says, "I don’t think that one can talk of the Catholic novel in quite such sharply defined terms any more, partly because Catholicism itself has become a much more confused¯and confusing¯faith, more difficult to define . . . . The Church no longer presents that sort of monolithic, unified, uniform view of life which it once did." Although there have always been antagonistic factions in the Church, the extreme diversity of opinions and positions among Catholics really is unprecedented before Vatican II. The fact that the preconciliar Church was in a more settled state allowed writers to delve more deeply into the world of the spirit. As Catholic life became more chaotic, and doctrine and moral teaching seemed less certain, the novels tended to concern themselves with Catholics’ struggle to navigate through the turmoil and forge some kind of religious life in a world and Church that were changing so fast. But the deep emphasis on the spiritual life was much attenuated.
The audience for the Catholic novel also changed. In Europe, the period after World War I through the end of World War II was characterized by great physical suffering, despair, and disillusion with the nineteenth century’s belief in inevitable progress. In this environment, Catholic novels offered some hope and a spiritual anchor. However, this sense of ultimacy and impending doom in earlier Catholic fiction is largely missing from that written in the second half of the century. There is an awareness that it is addressing readers for whom, on the whole, life is quite good and who, rather than being passionately for or against religion, are largely indifferent to it. Earlier Catholic novelists had largely defined themselves in opposition ¯to secularism, to industrialism, to materialism, to modernity itself¯but these writers seem quite comfortable within their larger social milieu.
In a 1966 article entitled "How Catholic Is the Catholic Novel?" Peter Hebblethwaite pointed out that Catholic novelists earlier in the century were not afraid to stress "all those aspects of Catholic faith which are most paradoxical and craggy." He argued, however, that now if a Catholic writer wishes to speak to others besides Catholics, "his Catholicism will have to be a centre of coherence rather than a demagogic party line." He expected that Catholic novelists, influenced by the "new theology" stressing God’s immanence, would portray grace more as a "quality of human existence" and would therefore be increasingly "less ‘different,’ less sheerly provoking, in a word, more deeply Catholic." To some extent Hebblethwaite’s prediction has been borne out, yet what he described as "more deeply Catholic" may sometimes seem to the reader like just one more secular novel, albeit one that is a bit more hopeful and less nihilistic than the others.
The challenge facing a Christian novelist today is daunting. Walker Percy, in The Message in the Bottle , has said, "The Christian novelist nowadays is like a man who has found a treasure hidden in the attic of an old house, but he is writing for people who have moved out to the suburbs and who are bloody sick of the old house and everything in it" There is more indifference than hostility to religion, with many people just not seeing the need for anything else in their lives, which are quite satisfying. Even many Christians now have little concern with salvation or damnation, which formed the centerpiece of the classic Catholic novels. As David Lodge said in his novel How Far Can You Go? : "At some point in the nineteen-sixties, Hell disappeared. No one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn’t."
Four Catholic novelists writing in England at the beginning of the twenty-first century have taken up this challenge: Sara Maitland, Alice Thomas Ellis, David Lodge, and Piers Paul Read. They do not hesitate to include the "craggy" and "paradoxical" parts of Catholicism. Yet they have produced fiction in which religious meaning does emerge from human experience, and grace is a "quality of human existence." Incorporating recent developments in the Church and society, they integrate Catholicism into their work in ways that are substantial, imaginative, and serious, demonstrating exciting new possibilities for Catholic fiction.
Alice Thomas Ellis, who died in 2005, wrote witty satiric novels in a tight, elegant prose reminiscent of the early work of Evelyn Waugh. Although her use of Catholic material is oblique, she does satirize what she sees as a betrayal of the pre¯Vatican II Church, to which she converted as a young adult. Here is what one of her characters says about the post¯Vatican II Church: "It is as though . . . one’s revered, dignified and darling old mother had slapped on a mini-skirt and fishnet tights and started ogling strangers. A kind of menopausal madness, a sudden yearning to be attractive to all. It is tragic and hilarious and awfully embarrassing."
In The 27th Kingdom , Ellis conveys the holiness of a young postulant as she arranges some tiles showing scenes from the gospel. Because the gospel story is as familiar to her as her own family history, she recognizes that some important scenes are missing but still puts them in correct order.
She looked like a girl assembling a family album, Aunt Irene realized suddenly. That loving care belonged to someone trying to remember whether that was the year George had measles, or whether the snapshot of Aunt Ethel in the bathing suit should come before or after the picnic on Beachy Head. She looked like a lover smiling at reminders of the beloved, dreaming of his babyhood, his first words, his last words.
This young novice, who occasionally levitates on the streets of London, is temporarily staying with the Mother Superior’s sister because one of the apples she harvested has failed to whither or decay after several months. Mother Superior fears the chaos that would ensue if it were known that something miraculous were going on in the convent. Ellis’ playful style and sardonic wit render these hints of the miraculous palatable to a secular audience while still leaving a margin of possibility that the supernatural can actually break in to the natural world.
David Lodge writes comic novels about middle-class English Catholics that are striking because his Catholic characters are so ordinary. They are not aristocrats or tortured souls undergoing spiritual crises in exotic or seedy places. Lodge’s ebullient comic spirit catches all the ridiculous aspects of Catholic life, often focusing on the vast discrepancies between the descriptions of the human situation in the carefully formulated pronouncements of Catholic theology and the unpredictable, sometimes absurd circumstances in which human beings often find themselves. He critiques what he sees as a rigid, puritanical sexual morality taught before Vatican II. His novels are also sympathetic and nuanced treatments of the problem of religious belief in our day. For example, a priest looks through the telescope of a friend’s adolescent son and wonders how to reconcile the immensity of space and the enormous age of the universe with the Christian story:
Had other Christs died on other Calvaries in other galaxies at different times in the last twenty billion years? Under the night sky, the questions that preoccupied philosophers and theologians seemed to reduce down to two very simple ones: how did it all start, and where is it all going? The idea that God, sitting on his throne in a timeless heaven, decided one day to create the Universe, and started the human race going on one little bit of it, and watched with interest to see how each human being behaved himself; that when the last day came and God closed down the Universe, gathering in the stars and galaxies like a croupier raking in chips, He would reward the righteous by letting them live with Him for ever in Heaven¯that obviously wouldn’t do. ( Souls and Bodies )
Sara Maitland is an eloquent spokesperson for women’s perspective in the life of faith. She draws on the Bible and myth to explore the struggles of religious women for empowerment and to dramatize the way that their bodily experience is an important part of their faith. One of her experiments has been to juxtapose the story of a contemporary young English woman with short biblical narratives told from the perspective of women. Maitland brings these biblical women to life, giving them flesh and personality. Here, in Daughter of Jerusalem , is her description of Elizabeth at the Visitation: "And menopause has not treated her kindly; her complexion has collapsed quickly and her breasts are withering, while round the hips she is putting on weight." Maitland makes the Visitation emblematic of the fact that women linked by kinship or common experience can provide for each other what no one else can. "But there in one another’s arms, and only there, they are affirmed, encouraged, borne up, freed." Maitland sees an essential link between Mary’s assent at the Annunciation with her virginal conception: "That purely conscious, unalienated woman who can so assent with the entirety of her person, needs no biological intrusion between her desire and its fulfillment." In the same novel, the contemporary woman is awed by the intricacy and beauty within her own body when she sees her cervical mucus under a microscope: "the most beautiful pattern: elegant like ice on a window-pane; irregular fernish fronds crystallised on the glass plate."
Piers Paul Read has been referred to as "one of Britain’s most intelligent and disturbing writers." Perhaps he is disturbing because he focuses so intensely on the battle between good and evil in the human soul. Read has revived some of the forms used by earlier Catholic writers, such as the theological thriller and the novel of ideas. He also uses some traditional motifs of earlier Catholic fiction, such as vicarious redemptive suffering and God’s pursuit of the sinner. His fiction is deeply engaged with political movements and theological and philosophical ideas in twentieth century Europe. Several of his novels are set against the upheavals of the rise of fascism and World War II. He does not hesitate to depict human evil in grisly detail.
In Read’s novel On the Third Day , the alleged discovery of the skeleton of Jesus in Jerusalem, explores just what kind of crisis such a discovery would mean for Christianity, providing an opportunity for laying out various theological perspectives on the Resurrection. The plot of this novel, which was published in 1990, may have seemed far-fetched at the time, but it proved to be oddly prescient when early in 2007 a construction crew uncovered an ossuary, and some researchers claimed there was strong evidence that it contained the bones of Jesus. Read’s work is reminiscent of earlier Catholic fiction because of its strongly dualistic sense of the secular and the sacred. Like Ellis, he is critical of some aspects of the Vatican II Church, especially the failure to offer stronger moral guidance, and he believes that in some respects the contemporary Church has "lost the plot."
What does the future hold for the Catholic novel? The work of Ellis, Lodge, Maitland, and Read suggests some possibilities for future Catholic fiction. Their novels are primarily written in the realistic mode, and I think future Catholic fiction will continue to show a preference for realism and closure, thus aligning it more with traditional fiction and away from postmodern and experimental writing. Although Ellis and Maitland interject some miraculous and fantastic elements, Lodge occasionally uses postmodernist techniques, and Read used an experimental style in his first two novels, all four hew strongly to a realistic style. While Catholic novelists have shown great creativity in using fantasy (especially J.R.R. Tolkien), I maintain that the Catholic novel has a philosophical affinity for realism, partly because the sacramental imagination trusts visible reality, and partly because writing from a Christian perspective is odd enough without requiring experimental writing to make it distinctive. Sara Maitland has argued that, although the novel form is predisposed to closure, "this desire for closure, for resolution, is precisely opposed to religious aspiration¯the desire . . . for the infinite opening out into more and more, without closure and without end" ( Novel Thoughts , 1999). Yet I think it is inevitable that a writer who deeply believes in ultimate meaning and a final resolution to the human story will always tend to have a sense of resolution in his or her work.
Second, I think we will see a continuing rapprochement with secularity. Although disparaging the world has a long history in traditional Christian piety and rhetoric, Catholics are beginning to realize that the compelling power and truth of the faith is not dependent on denigrating the secular. In 1970, Jesuit priest and literary critic William Lynch in Christ and Prometheus encouraged religious writers to portray the secular " without the perpetual concern that something is missing from the picture " (emphasis in the original). It should be noted the word Lynch uses is secularity , a neutral term indicating the natural order devoid of revelation and grace. Secularism , on the other hand, refers to specifically anti-Christian elements in the secular world and would seem to call for a more combative attitude or at least an ability to sort out and repudiate the increasingly toxic elements in secular culture while at the same time fully recognizing and appreciating the natural goods replete in the secular order. We see in the work of Lodge and Maitland, for example, just this robust appreciation of the goodness of the natural order, a delight in the material creation and human relationships. Although Ellis and Read maintain a more sardonic and suspicious stance toward the secular, they also clarify that, even in a fallen world, the goodness of God’s creation breaks through, exemplifying the Thomistic principle that grace builds on nature. Yet Ellis and Read also represent a critical voice that will always be needed to keep rapprochement from becoming conflation. As Lynch says, "To live and breathe in the modern world is no task for a disarmed imagination."
Third, future Catholic fiction will almost certainly continue to increase the perspectives from which sexuality is described, including appreciative depictions of women’s bodily experience and sympathetic portrayals of homosexuals. Furthermore, as the Church has come to appreciate marriage as a vocation with its own call to holiness (a theme missing from most of the great Catholic novels of the past), future Catholic novels may try to portray the adventure of married sexuality that is¯or at least trying to be¯total, fruitful, faithful, and free, the characteristics John Paul II ascribes to sexuality lived according to God’s plan. Such a sexual life might be good, but would it make a good novel? A novel could conceivably portray such a marriage as demanding and exciting¯and more dramatic¯than any adultery. It is worth noting that the novels of Henry James and Virginia Woolf contain little outward dramatic action, focusing almost entirely on thoughts and conversations, and are outstanding exemplars of great fiction concerned with the inner life and the intricate nuances of human relationships. The adventure of Christian marriage¯even without adultery¯suggests intriguing possibilities for future Catholic novels.
Finally, I think we will see more Catholic fiction in the comic mode. Despite a lingering sense that the comic is not suitable for writing with religious themes, Alice Thomas Ellis and David Lodge, along with Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have demonstrated that the comic mode is congenial to fiction with serious religious concerns. Satire can portray the emptiness of a world without God, but the uses of the comic go beyond simply "clearing space" for the sacred. Scholars have pointed out the philosophical fit between Christianity and the comic. The shape of Christianity is descent followed by ascent. Jesus was crucified but rose victorious. The Book of Revelation depicts the final victory over the forces of darkness. David Lodge asserts that comedy is "not just entertaining but performs a very valuable hygienic cultural function: it makes sure that institutions are always subject to a kind of ridiculing criticism." Catholic writers have a long and venerable tradition of calling the Church to account, from Chaucer’s portrait of the worldly friar and the unscrupulous pardoner, Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly , Thomas More’s Utopia , and the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels of the French Catholic Renaissance, with their scathing portraits of mediocre, self-serving clergy and materialistic, selfish laity. For a Church always in need of reform, satire will keep that reforming/transforming imperative sharp, distinct, and vigorous.
The comic spirit also celebrates community and social cohesiveness, and has a natural affinity for forms of order that facilitate a healthy and flourishing society. Unlike tragedy, which focuses on the individual, comedy is more directed at the good of the whole society. The comic mode then is ideal for expressing the communal aspects of the Catholic tradition. Lodge has acknowledged that the reason he had so many characters in How Far Can You Go? was to emphasize that the historical dilemmas of Catholicism are communal.
The novels of Ellis, Lodge, Maitland, and Read suggest that there are rich and fruitful forms, techniques, and themes for Catholic novelists to continue to develop. Yet it is indisputable that the future of the Catholic novel is inextricably intertwined with the future of the Church. Catholic fiction, more so than other Christian fiction, has a denominational mentality. If the state of the post¯Vatican II Church affected the novels written during that era, it stands to reason that the future of the Church will be a defining factor of future Catholic fiction. Sociologist David Carlin in The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America predicts that the Church of the future will be much smaller, a "saving remnant," in which traditionalists will outnumber liberals. His argument is too complex to go into here, but two factors are that conservative, traditional Catholics tend to be more successful at passing on the faith to the younger generation and that they are more likely to stay with the Church even when disappointed or scandalized by it.
Carlin believes that the "saving remnant" will need to resist strongly the idea that Catholicism is simply one sect among many paths to the same truth, regain a sense of the importance of being Catholic, and emphasize that which is distinctive in the Catholic tradition. Carlin also contends that the Church must recognize that it is confronting a serious enemy in secularism, an aggressive anti-Christianity that is vigorously promoting "a moral and political agenda that is flatly incompatible with Christianity." Carlin’s thesis has support in high places. In Salt of the Earth , then Cardinal Ratzinger argued that the Church in coming years "will assume different forms. She will be less identified with the great societies, more a minority Church; she will live in small vital circles of really convinced believers who live their faith." One sign that these predictions are accurate is the trend reported in Colleen Carroll’s recent book The New Faithful that "a small but committed core of young Christians is intentionally embracing organized religion and traditional morality." They "resist any compromise of the essential tenets of orthodoxy as capitulation to secular culture" and are having disproportionately powerful influence on their peers and the culture.
A smaller, more traditional and orthodox Church may be more conducive to good Catholic fiction for several reasons. First, Catholic fiction flourished in a period when Catholicism became more open to the secular world but still maintained a strong self-identity with clear, though permeable, boundaries. More orthodox Catholic writers are more likely to maintain the boundaries. Only a vibrant and resolute faith has the resources to allow the secular to be itself, to embrace its goodness while seeing it clearly. Secondly, the sense of salvation and damnation as truly momentous questions may once again exist in a small group of people with a strong faith more focused on traditional doctrines. Third, recognizing secularism as a serious enemy may be good for the Catholic novel. Most of the earlier Catholic novelists defined themselves in opposition to something. Fourth, the Catholic imagination, as Greeley points out, is nourished by the liturgy, ritual, art, architecture, and stories that have enabled Catholics to live in what Greeley calls an enchanted world. I suspect, however, that this imagination is also sustained by a belief in the supernatural doctrines of the creed, the efficacy of the sacraments, and clear and consistent moral teaching. Traditional orthodox believers are more likely to emphasize both the "enchanted world" of the tradition and the belief system sustaining it. American Catholic novelist Ron Hansen, in his preface to A Stay Against Confusion , put it well when he wrote:
Looking back on my childhood now, I find that church-going and religion were in good part the origin of my vocation as a writer, for along with Catholicism’s feast for the senses, its ethical concerns, its insistence on seeing God in all things, and the high status it gave to scripture, drama, and art, there was a connotation in Catholicism’s liturgies that storytelling mattered. Each Mass was a narrative steeped in meaning and metaphor, helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now, and to bind ourselves into a sharing group so that, ideally, we could continue the public ministry of Jesus in our world.
Undoubtedly, the most essential element for first-rate Catholic fiction is a Catholic writer of exceptional talent. That lies in God’s hands. But because I believe that God loves good Catholic novels, I think that, given a Church of greater orthodoxy, mindful and grateful of the fullness of tradition, and inspired by the work of past Catholic novelists, the future for Catholic fiction looks promising.
Marian Crowe is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Aiming at Heaven, Getting the Earth: The English Catholic Novel Today (Lexington Books).