ROME — A week before The Da Vinci Code hit movie theaters around the world, writers, literary critics and Church figures meeting in Rome helped to counter its calumnies — and those of similar works — by examining the theme of reality and fantasy in 20th-century Anglo-American Christian literature.

Hosted in Rome by the Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia and promoted by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the two-day meeting comprised a series of talks on the subject: “Catholicism and Literature in the 20th Century: Is There an Authentic Distinction in Literature Between Reality and Fantasy?”

The talks centered on English literature and the legacies of great Catholic writers such as G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. There were also references to the man Graham Greene called the “patron of Catholic novelists” — Cardinal John Henry Newman.

The objective of the conference was to reflect critically on the authors “in order to shed light on the media phenomenon connected with their works.”

Cardinal Poupard

In one of the first talks, Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, spoke of the need to “fill the gaps” in analyzing the influence of Anglo-American literature. This year’s 70th anniversary of the death of Chesterton provides an “opportune occasion” to try to do that, Cardinal Poupard said.

The French cardinal noted the phenomenal growth in recent years in the popularity of literature published in English, growth that has been compounded through other media such as movies, television and the Internet.

But while Cardinal Poupard called the phenomenon “extremely interesting from a socio-cultural point of view,” he said that widespread ignorance of religion means that an elementary cultural basis is often lacking in readers. This lack of contextual understanding, he said, makes it difficult for people “to discern the difference between fable, fantasy, attack and subtlety in the history and virtues represented in the life of the Church.”

Without referring directly to books like The Da Vinci Code, Cardinal Poupard stressed the Church is used to this sort of problem. And, he reminded his audience, the Church’s 2,000 years of history means it can face such challenges without fear.

Said Cardinal Poupard, “Each challenge can become an opportunity to grow, to mature, to become more responsible and aware if confronted with maturity, intelligence and common sense.”

Myth and Truth

Paolo Gulisano, author of King Arthur and an expert on Tolkien, related how Tolkien and Lewis were able to recover the genre of the medieval legend of King Arthur where “every daily experience was a spiritual experience, nourished by symbols that provoked, animated and bestowed profound virtue.”

Gulisano discussed how myth and fable — and the symbols, strong imagination and the narrative capacities that created them — were transformed when they encountered the truth of the Logos (Word of God).

Italian journalist and Chesterton expert Andrea Monda commented on how the imagination shown by Chesterton and “his sons” Tolkien and Lewis serves as a valuable “sub-creator” that can help man search and grow in faith.

Quoting Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, Monda argued that Catholic faith reconciles both mythology and philosophy, and that is largely thanks to man’s capacity to reason. Reason, he said, is “always something spiritual and therefore utterly dangerous, as it can also be a source of confusion and distortion.” Therefore it must, as Chesterton pointed out, be accompanied by imagination.

Said Monda, “The imagination and faith are not enemies but sisters.”

In his analysis of Tolkien’s legacy, professor Stratford Caldecott, European director of the Chesterton Institute, explained how myths and fairy tales are vital to the conservation of nationhood. Tolkien’s particular gift, Caldecott said, was to demonstrate “that there was still a place for mythological thinking, even after the Incarnation.”

Caldecott said Tolkien’s objective was “to change the world by helping to re-enchant it,” by reawakening a sense of the transcendent and restoring the poetic imagination that had suffered because of modernism and industrialization. Through works like his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkien showed how everyday life can become enchanted through developing ordinary virtues such as loyalty, courage, integrity and humility.

“These are ultimately stronger than any darkness,” said Caldecott, “because they spring from the very source of creation where goodness is one with truth and beauty.”

Harry Potter

One conference speaker suggested that the literary spirit of Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis lives on in the mega-selling Harry Potter series. While a number of prominent Catholics have criticized author J.K. Rowling’s novels as being fundamentally at odds with Christianity, British Catholic author Leonie Caldecott argued instead that the popularity of the books opens the door to a “huge re-evangelization project.”

The Potter stories are a “true morality tale” in which good triumphs over evil and the happiest characters are those with no worldly riches but plenty of children, Caldecott said.

For his part, Cardinal Poupard stressed that the Church remains obliged, even in contemporary societies scarred by indifference and relativism, to transmit the Catholic faith into the heart of culture through sound education. And he noted that all literature, however disturbing, has the capacity to provoke curiosity, interest and the desire to know more.

What is needed, he summed up, is for Christians to “ask intelligent questions about the mystery of life and to explain one’s reason for believing, showing through sound reason our foundations for choosing life and faith.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.