Top 5 Modern Catholic Novels

Talking with a co-worker the other day, I mused on the fact that it’s difficult to write a book which is both exclusively religious in perspective and yet inclusive to all readers. In my own reading experience, I’ve been fascinated by the “foreignness” of deeply religious books while simultaneously feeling drawn to their universal appeal. One denomination that has pulled this off admirably is Catholicism, so I want to take a moment to celebrate and to recommend some of the great Catholic novels.

 

5. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy.

This one is somewhat of a mystery as far as Catholic novels go. Percy, a convert, was also deeply influenced by the existentialist tendencies of Kierkegaard. The result is a book about the Modern Man’s search for meaning, and a perilous tight rope routine of supernatural faith on one side, with existential despair on the other.

 

4. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This is one of my favorite science fiction novels, and unquestionably my favorite post-apocalyptic novel. In my opinion, Miller owes much to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall here—he clearly studied the history of Christianity in the Middle Ages as a hint of what a post-apocalyptic world would become as time progressed.

 

3. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh.

I could quote this book all day: “O God, make me good, but not yet.” “No one is ever holy without suffering.” A culture of Catholicism pervades this book just as a search for peace does. And, for me, this novel features one of the most tender and tragic characters in 20th century fiction: Sebastian.

 

2. A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor.

So I cheated a bit with this one, since it’s a collection of short stories rather than a novel. But in the world of Catholic fiction O’Connor cannot be ignored. She searches for the epiphany in life—or, to put it in more Catholic terms, she is seeking for that moment when a person accepts Grace. It’s always a beautiful, complex moment surrounded by darkness.

 

1. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

This book oozes Catholicism. The book follows a Whiskey Priest (a bad priest by his own admission) in Mexico at a time when the Catholic Church has been forced to go underground. Is a bad priest better than no priest? Greene writes: “at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint.”

 

A couple details stand out to me as I look over these books. First, none of these choices describes a pristine, simple, or ideal type of Catholicism. The beauty in these books stems largely from the ambiguities, sufferings, and unexpected occurrences in life. Second, four of my choices were written by converts. Do you think that means anything?

 

(Full disclosure: I’m not Catholic, though I did discuss this post with a Catholic co-worker. And forgive the painfully short treatment of each book…I’d love to write an individual post for each. Perhaps I will in the future.)

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12 Comments Add yours

  1. Phil A. Stein says:

    Great topic, Rebecca, as I have just finished “To The Field of Stars” by an American Priest, Kevin Codd, about his Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage and especially enjoyed the Catholic flavour of it.

  2. vanbraman says:

    Thanks for this post. I am going to find a copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz when I get home from Israel next week. Not sure if I ever read the book, but I do remember a radio dramatization of it years ago. Thanks for the memory.

  3. Steve P. says:

    Great entry, Mrs. Romney! As a post Vatican II cradle Catholic who found the intellectual aspect of his faith through the New Catechism, contemporary Catholic apologists and fiction writers, and a healthy dose of Dostoevsky and other even less Catholic-friendly existentialists, I can’t wait to get to The Moviegoer.

    It’s not just on my list, I’m inserting it towards the top thanks to your post.

    Thanks!

    1. Everyone should read Dostoevsky. No question.

  4. Luke says:

    More Graham Greene!……..the End of the Affair is the winner for me

  5. R Towns Blethrow says:

    Just a question about your question to disambiguate for me. From whence did the converts convert? Judaism, atheism, Gnosticism, Protestantism, agnosticism, Satanism, etc. are all possibilities from which one might convert, I guess.

    I suppose that there may have been some level of angst with regard to whichever mindset one converts for the individual author in question.

    I think of one person, Martin Luther. He was filled with angst over his desire
    to be worthy. To the point of despair until Luther realized that it’s not in the
    works but in what God has already done and that faith, scripture and grace
    were enough. Luther did not desire to leave Catholicism but the Holy Spirit
    changed his heart.

    These selected novels are interesting reading; I am more interested in reading works by the likes of Irving Stone or Alan Eckert. These authors weave history and fiction together in a way found most interesting by this reader.

    Don’t get me wrong here. I believe that there are some who profess Catholicism that believe, as I do, in the Trinity and salvation through
    God’s grace alone.

  6. Hester Sturrock says:

    I haven’t read The Power And The Glory, nor The Moviegoer, but the other 3 are amongst my favorite books ever, particularly Brideshead Revisited. I first read Brideshead when I was in college and it didn’t mean a thing to me. I came across it again around age 50 or so, and on the 25th annivesary of the PBS film of it. Oh Sebastian and his sisters, such anguish trying to make sense of the world. And Bridey was such a prig. The writing is so gorgeous and illustrative of such an imperfect world in which we mere mortals live, even though the scenery of their lives is gorgeous. I’m not much of a science fiction reader, but even I managed to get through the Canticle for Lebowitz. Wow. Somehow, I love bits and pieces of Flannery’s writing, more the idea of Flannery’s writing than actually reading it. I’m not sure what this is all about. Being a southern I can say that some of her descriptions of life in the south are beyond compare.

    Thanks for posting about these books. Would like to hear your take on each one of them in more depth as time allows.

    What a creative idea to write about a small selection of a category of books. Maybe this is done by other writing groups or blogs, but I think it is a very interesting concept.

    Bye for now – Hester

    1. Hester, you definitely need to read The Power and the Glory, given your tastes. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh are two peas in a pod. You won’t regret it!

  7. benjaminxjackson says:

    Why do you classify these as “Catholic Novels”? I have read The Movie Goer, The Power and the Glory, and some of A good Man is Hard to Find. With those three it seemed like Catholicism was part of the setting of the story, and not so much the driver of the story. In other words, you couldn’t write about the time and places of these books without including Catholicism. Does that make them Catholic or am I missing something in my reading?

    1. Thanks for your comment! It’s certainly an interesting semantic question as to how you define “Catholic Novels.” I respectfully disagree with you that Catholicism is not the driver of these stories. I chose them because their themes or messages were heavily driven or influenced by the author’s Catholicism. Read O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, and it’s very clear that Catholicism is far from just the setting–it drives the entire plot and climax of most of her short stories. The Power and the Glory deals deeply with the themes of salvation/grace and sin; it’s not just as simple as a setting in which the Catholic Church has gone underground. And the Moviegoer practically fights with itself between the twin influences of existentialism and Catholic hope, separate from its setting of a Catholic extended family in New Orleans.

      I would also note that both the Moviegoer and O’Connor’s short stories could easily have been written in the same setting–i.e., the same geographic place, without Catholicism as the backdrop. Catholicism in the South (though less in New Orleans) is a minority religion. As for Greene, I would argue that he picked that time and setting because he desired to tackle Catholic themes.

      1. benjaminxjackson says:

        Rebecca, your reply opened my eyes a bit. I realize my take was based more on my perspective. Thanks for pointing out the other way of looking at them. I will have to look at these again, especially the Moviegoer, which is one of those books that I sometimes pick up when I just want to read a bit of something for enjoyment. I think it bears another full reading.

        1. I feel pleased that I’ve spurred you to take a look at these books again. That’s one of the main goals of my blog–to get people to read (or reread) the great classic books. Thanks again for your input.

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