What Exactly is a "Catholic" Novel?"


Below, I quote with permission, a portion of an e-mail received from a reader. This will serve as a wonderful springboard to ask the essential questions.

I'm shocked that no one has yet mentioned James Joyce, not only the greatest Catholic writer of the 20th C, but, in my estimation, the greatest writer of the century, period. Despite Joyce's own ambivalent attitude toward the Church, his work, especially A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man and Ulysses, are thoroughly saturated with the Irish Catholicism in which he was raised, and with the Jesuit scholarliness in which he was educated. If one were to excise everything Catholic from Joyce's books, there would be almost nothing left.

Certainly Joyce's novels are not "Catholic" in the sense that they are didactic or apologetic, but, as Anthony Burgess pointed out in his study of Joyce (entitled Rejoyce), no good and faithful Catholic ever lost his faith by reading Joyce. Thomas Merton even stated in his Seven Story Mountain that the sermon on Hell in A Portrait was among the influences that led him to Catholicism, though Joyce obviously did not intend that sort of response.

Sure Joyce is irreverent, joking, and sometimes even downright scathing in his attitude toward the Church. Some may find his humor regarding the Church and its beliefs and rituals as offensive, but as Joyce himself said, "The Church was built on a pun" (Tu es Petrus . . . etc.).

Despite his ambivalence and attempts by some critic to make him out to have been agnostic or even atheist, I always get the sense that Joyce, in his own odd way, loved and respected the Church more than he would ever have admitted. How can one not love a guy whose response to being asked whether he had become a Protestant was to say that he did not give up a
rational and coherent absurdity in order to embrace an irrational and incoherent absurdity, and that he had simply lost his faith, not his reason? As a Catholic, I certainly disagree with his describing the Faith as "an absurdity", but one must admit, the quote is delicious, and more scathing toward Protestantism than Catholicism. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that Palestrina was Joyce's favorite composers, and that he used to walk the streets of Zurich humming the Missa Papa Marcelli.

The key problem here, I think, is that one must define more clearly what one means by "Catholic novel". Does the author have to be an orthodox, practising Catholic to qualify? What if the author is a lapsed Catholic, or went from being a lapsed Catholic to merely being a "bad Catholic"?

Does the novel itself have to be Catholic in a didactic, apologetic sense, i.e. does it have to seek consciously to promote the Faith, perhaps even at the expense of aesthetic and literary quality? Or does the novel just have to be "Catholic" in the sense that Catholicism is a prominent element of the cultural and religious milieu in which the action takes place? What if the author is, like Umberto Eco, a baptised Catholic who is now a self-described agnostic, but who wrote a fabulous Catholic book like The Name of the Rose?

Though certainly not an exercise in apologetics, reading The Name of The Rose will not lead one to embrace Eco's own agnosticism, and it provides a lot of interesting Mediaeval lacunae to boot. What about books by non-Catholic writers, who nonetheless depict the Faith and the Church in a sympathetic and intelligent manner?

Answering these questions will, I think, make it easier to compile a list of the "Greatest Catholic Novels of the 20th Century".

Profound thanks DW for permission to quote!

There's a ton of stuff to address here. Let me start by excerpting the note I return in re: Joyce (for whom I have the most profound respect as a writer--so much so that I have dared Finnegan's Wake three times, and plan several more sojourns, God willing, before I die.

On Joyce, I suppose that his placement on the now defunct Index may have been a key determinant in many not seeing him as a progenitor of the great Catholic novel. While he was grounded in Catholicism, his outlook was more that of Eliot in J. Alfred Prufrock. While perhaps not so nihilistic as his secretary (the redoubtable Samuel Beckett) I would argue that if one were to go through the Syllabus of Errors one would be likely to see that Joyce subscribed to a great many of them, and indeed probably helped in a literary sense to define some of them.

While I have enormous respect and affection for Joyce,
I would never place his novels in the ranks of great
Catholic novels. The themes are really quite
different from those that seem to define most Catholic
novels, and as you pointed out, he was and wore very
well the facade of Agnostic. The whole "Telemachus"
section of "Ulysses" is highly suggestive of a certain
contempt in which he held the church, and his somewhat
unusual (for the time) relationship with Nora tended
to underline that.

So I've addressed the Joyce issue (sort of). But the question remains, what defines a "catholic novel." Before I compose any more, I'd like to open the question up to thoughts and responses. Please tell me what you think defines the Catholic Novel.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on July 31, 2002 7:23 PM.

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