5 Catholic Novels That I Love

Classics from Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Morris West, Graham Greene and Georges Bernanos

(photo: Register Files)

One of the seminal intellectual and spiritual moments in my life was when I was a college seminarian in the 1990s studying at Saint John’s University in New York. I was enrolled in a philosophy class, taught by Fr. Robert Lauder, a professor at Saint John’s, entitled “Catholic Novel.” It was a unique class, to say the least. It was truly interdisciplinary — a course that involved deep Catholic theological and spiritual themes, taught in a philosophy department by a Catholic priest where we read works of literature. Taught by a dynamic and inspiring priest-professor, and with a student body of around ten students — lay, religious, and seminarians — it introduced me to some great stories which helped me to understand the mystery of God and his Church and really affected my own human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation. Fr. Lauder is now offering his class on television, entitled The Catholic Novel, on NET TV.

Fr. Lauder describes the Catholic novel as “a story whose theme is directly related to some Catholic teaching, dogmatic or moral; or some Catholic sacramental principle; and the mystery of Catholicism is treated favorably. Unfortunately, in recent years the Catholic novel has been like a treasure hidden in a field, largely neglected even by Catholics.” He is correct. In the spirit of the other book lists I have offered to you in the past, on basic theological books and spiritual readings, may I offer you ten books, five in this article, and five in the next, on what Catholic novels have most profoundly affected me? And again, I mention as a caveat that these are only my choices. Please note that they are in no particular order. I would like to hear what Catholic novels have influenced your life and thought.

1. The Violent Bear It Away (1960) by Flannery O’Connor. 

Flannery O’Connor is known as a short story writer. She uses a uniquely American, uniquely grotesque style. She describes her work as follows:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

The Violent Bear It Away is one of only two novels written by O’Connor. It is the story of a young man, Francis Tarwater, who is raised by his uncle to be a “prophet.” Flannery O’Connor, a good Catholic and a Thomist in her theology, with her very Southern Evangelical Protestant characters, offers a really Catholic view of grace, of the sacraments, and of the need for faith and reason to be in harmony. She writes:

He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood.

O’Connor might shock you, but she will never bore you!

2. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961).

This probably my favorite novel of all time and Percy is my favorite novelist. Percy was a medical doctor, and his own personal story is fascinating, one of conversion to the Catholic faith through his reading of philosophy, especially Christian existentialism.

The Moviegoer, also a Southern U.S. story, is set in New Orleans, and tells the tale of a young man, Binx Bolling, living a life on the level of the superficial, defining himself through the films he watches and the deodorant he uses. Percy, an amazingly erudite writer, paints a picture with words, describing Binx’s desire to love and be loved:

He means that he hopes to find himself a girl, the rarest of rare pieces, and live the life of Rudolfo on the balcony, sitting around on the floor and experiencing soul-communications. I have my doubts. In the first place, he will defeat himself, jump ten miles ahead of himself, scare the wits out of some girl with his great choking silences, want her so desperately that by his own peculiar logic he can't have her; or having her, jump another ten miles beyond both of them and end by fleeing to the islands where, propped at the rail of his ship in some rancid port, he will ponder his own loneliness.

Binx, through the love of a girl, Kate, discovers the love of God. This is a life-changing book.

3. The Devil’s Advocate (1959).

Leaving the American South for a moment, I would like to suggest that Morris West, the Australian author of The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963) offers his best novel in The Devil’s Advocate. As one who lives and works in Rome, I truly love this novel, which tells the story of Monsignor Blaise Meredith, a British priest who works in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, as the “Devil’s Advocate,” someone whose role it is to disprove the sanctity of the one proposed for canonization. Msgr. Meredith, in his office job, has become a “professional” priest. West writes:

I feel the life slipping out of me. When the pain comes, I cry out, but there is no prayer in it, only fear. I kneel and recite my office and the Rosary but the words are empty — dry gourds rattling in the silence. The dark is terrible and I feel so alone. I see no signs but the symbols of contradiction. I try to dispose myself to faith, hope and charity, but my will is a blown reed in the winds of despair.

When he is sent to Calabria in Southern Italy to investigate the life of a young man, Giacomo Nerone, and meets the townsfolk, Meredith grows as a priest and as a man. This is a fine novel about priesthood.

4. The Power and the Glory (1940).

Another fine book about priesthood comes from Graham Greene in his work, The Power and the Glory. Set in the days of Mexico’s suppression of the Catholic Church, The Power and the Glory tells the tale of the “Whiskey Priest,” a fallen, craven man, who, despite his own personal failings and real sins, is striving for repentance. Greene writes:

But I'm a bad priest, you see. I know — from experience — how much beauty Satan carried down with him when he fell. Nobody ever said the fallen angels were the ugly ones. Oh, no, they were just as quick and light and . . .”

The priest is a fugitive, a man on the run. And yet, despite trying to run from God and to shirk his duties, he is a priest, ontologically configured to Christ at the deepest part of his soul.

5. The Diary of a Country Priest (1936).

Not wishing to overwhelm you all with tales of priests who are dying, I still have to present the French novelist, Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest (1936). This is a truly moving story of a young priest who is suffering, both physically with his stomach cancer, but also with the lack of faith that his parishioners continually exhibit., despite his best efforts. This is a beautiful story of grace, of mercy, and of redemption from which all people, Catholic and non-Catholic, religious, lay, and clergy can benefit. It taught me a valuable lesson that Bernanos expresses: “The wish to pray is a prayer in itself” and further, on the nature of preaching:

Teaching is no joke, sonny! ... Comforting truths, they call it! Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterwards. Besides, you've no right to call that sort of thing comfort. Might as well talk about condolences! The Word of God is a red-hot iron. And you who preach it 'ud go picking it up with a pair of tongs, for fear of burning yourself, you daren't get hold of it with both hands. It's too funny! Why, the priest who descends from the pulpit of Truth, with a mouth like a hen's vent, a little hot but pleased with himself, he's not been preaching: at best he's been purring like a tabby-cat. Mind you that can happen to us all, we're all half asleep, it's the devil to wake us up, sometimes — the apostles slept all right at Gethsemane. Still, there's a difference... And mind you many a fellow who waves his arms and sweats like a furniture-remover isn't necessarily any more awakened than the rest. On the contrary. I simply mean that when the Lord has drawn from me some word for the good of souls, I know, because of the pain of it.

As I mentioned, these are simply five of my favorites. Next time, I will recommend authors like Evelyn Waugh, Robert Hugh Benson, Brian Moore, Francois Mauriac, and Myles Connolly. Please let me know your choices of Catholic novels!