(Third in series)
Because the reading of them has played a large role in my own education, I have been trying for the last 25 years to encourage people to read Catholic novels. By a Catholic novel I mean a novel whose theme is based on some Catholic dogma, or some Catholic sacramental principle or Catholic moral teaching, and the mystery of the Church is treated favorably. I encourage the reading of such novels not only in conversations with friends and others but also through an adult education course I moderate and through a course I teach at St. John’s University to undergraduates entitled “Philosophy and Literature.”
In the course at the University we read Evelyn Waugh, George Bernanos, Graham Greene and Walker Percy. In the adult education course we have read all those authors and many more. In fact we have read so many Catholic novels in the adult education course during the last 25 years that I now have trouble finding Catholic novels that we have not read.
This difficulty was on my mind when I read a lengthy essay by Paul Elie in the Book Review of The Sunday New York Times (12/23/12) entitled “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” After noting the absence of Christian belief in contemporary literature, Elie writes the following:
“This, in short, is how Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time: as something between a dead language and a hangover. Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature. Half a century after Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and John Updike presented themselves as novelists with what O’Connor called “Christian convictions,” their would-be successors are thin on the ground.”
If Elie is correct, and I think he is, though he may exaggerate, what has contributed to the lack of Christian and, more specifically, Catholic literature? A good question and, like all good questions, not easy to answer.
One cause may be the secular society in which we live. Has it blunted the consciousness and conscience of Catholic writers who in another age might have produced Catholic novels? I recall an insight from William Barrett’s wonderful book on existentialism, Irrational Man. (New York: Doubleday, 1952). Barrett claimed that even if someone today had the intelligence of Dante, he or she could not write The Divine Comedy because contemporary culture is so far from and different than the Christian culture that surrounded Dante. Truth is historical and a contemporary Catholic author has to swim against the tide. He or she, at least to some extent, has to be counter-cultural.
In her wonderful book The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970), Jean Kellogg argues that with the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church changed its stance toward the contemporary world, moving from opposition to convergence. Kellogg makes the interesting argument that the Catholic novel thrived when it was opposed to the surrounding world but when that tension ceased, the Catholic novel changed dramatically and almost disappeared. I certainly agree that no one is writing the type of novel that Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac and EvelynWaugh wrote, but I am encouraged by authors such as Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Alice McDermott.
A book I like very much, Richard Gilman’s Faith, Sex and Mystery (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986) charts the journey of writer Richard Gilman from atheism to Catholicism to secular humanism. In his Catholic period Gilman was greatly influenced by the Catholic novels of Greene, Mauriac, Waugh and Bernanos. After he had embraced secular humanism, he found the religious sections of the novels that had previously so greatly influenced him as the least attractive parts of those novels. Gilman apparently went through two conversions: from atheism to Catholicism to secular humanism. The second conversion may not have been as strong as it seemed because Gilman said even as he identified himself as almost totally secular, if he was dying he probably would like to see a priest.
I think it was Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who said God created us because God loves stories. We should love stories too. Though we may not reflect on this often, the truth about every one of us is that we desire a story that will help us not only make sense of our lives but also inspire us, challenge us and comfort us. We should never settle for a story that is superficial or narrow. The life of each of us is greater and more marvelous than we realize. We will only appreciate our life fully when we pass through death and enter risen life.