Although the genre of ‘the Catholic novel’ is well-known in literary circles in Great Britain and America, I have never heard mention of it or read anything about it in the Australian media, indeed, in any magazine that pretends to cater to a literary readership. A google search found no mention of it. Nor have I heard the title ‘Catholic novelist’ applied to any Australian author (except me) – in the sense I am talking about here.
There are well-known Australian writers who were brought up Catholic, Thomas Keneally and Morris West among others. It is questionable (at least for me) that Keneally is now anything more than a Catholic in name, though some of his novels may belong to the genre. I have some doubts, too, about Morris West who seemed to consider himself Catholic but wrote stories that were openly or implicitly critical of the traditional Church. He was particularly antagonistic towards Pope St John Paul II.
I imagine the average Australian reader would not think the subject important enough to mention. Religion? No thanks. He would probably think a writer in the genre of the Catholic novel would be preoccupied with stories that were barely disguised proselytising exercises. And nothing could be more disgusting than Christian proselytising in these latter times.
That same reader may be surprised to learn that novelists in the genre are among the greatest novelists of the 20th century; for example, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien and Graham Greene. Others are Oscar Wilde, Muriel Spark and Robert Hugh Benson whose apocalyptic Lord of the World is currently receiving growing attention. What, then, is the Catholic novel and who writes in that genre?
There is no short neat employable definition of the Catholic novel. Those who make a go at defining it (see below) not so much disagree on the essentials, as have a different perspective on what makes a Catholic novel. One way to come at a definition is to consider the work of those commonly distinguished as writing in the genre. But here we meet the problem of the wide variety of writers and the issues they deal with. Marian Crowe in an article in First Things defined the Catholic novel thus:
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.
If this definition appears a little confined and hygienic, Catholic novelist Peter Quinn in an article in Commonweal drew out the ‘darker’ preoccupations of the Catholic novel.
Truly Catholic novels embrace the utter carnality—the all-inclusiveness—of the Incarnation. They don’t find sexuality in bad taste. They don’t recoil from the squalor and sinfulness that are inseparable from the human condition. Their driving passion isn’t a deus ex machina at the end of time that sets the world right and cleans up the mistakes of the first creation… In my view, truly Catholic novels are immersed in the always untidy, often sordid world. They don’t squint at reality. They don’t separate themselves from the democracy of sinners…
Both writers speak of the novelist’s preoccupation with sin, suffering, grace and redemption.
These quotations, if not covering the subject entirely, succeed in conveying the message that the Catholic novel is not about proselytising or gratuitously spouting dogma and doctrine with the intention of converting the reader to the one true faith. No, legitimate missionary activity is the duty of the clergy and the laity in their different spheres. The nature and aims of the novel are distinctly different.
For me, the Catholic novel explores the actions and interactions of people in society from a particular belief (philosophical and religious) framework. The framework is presupposed and need never be explicitly stated. Indeed, all serious writers write against a background of philosophical presuppositions, including those claiming religion and religious belief ruin a novel, and the novel is essentially anarchic. Usually the presuppositions in this case amount to a materialist metaphysics, even if the writer is unaware of it.
A successful Catholic novel will not put off the critical reader who feels nil affinity with religion, particularly Catholicism. The examples of such novels are those written by Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien and Graham Greene. I was pleased – and reassured – to hear people without any religious commitment praise my novels. The story of one novel, In This Vales of Tears, plays out in a convent and explores the feelings and conflicts of one particular nun, Sister Agnes. See my comments and review pages for reader reaction.
As I wrote in the ‘about’ page, the framework of my thinking combines my Catholic belief with the thought of Edmund Burke according to the natural law interpretation. The whole is influenced by the example of my parents. With this presupposed framework I engage in my novels with the 1960s Revolution and its wreckage. The 1960s Revolution makes the ideal context in which sin, suffering, grace and redemption are played out. One can go to the deeps, but there is always hope, no matter what. That distinguishes the Catholic from the materialist non-believer.
– The Catholic novelist – Is there any such thing?
– The Catholic Novel. Fact or Fiction?
– Being a writer, being Catholic
– Novels and Fiction with a Catholic/Christian Perspective
– The Catholic Writer Today
Catholic Novelists and their readers
100 best Catholic novels
Ian Kerr, The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961
Joseph Pierce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief
Joseph Pearce, Literary Giants, Literary Catholics