5 More Good Catholic Novels That I Recommend
Classics by Robert Hugh Benson, Myles Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, François Mauriac and Graham Greene
In my last article, I suggested five Catholic novels for your reading, ones that have made an impact in my life. I was very grateful for the response of so many readers suggesting several other books.
Keep in mind the definition of a “Catholic novel,” one that I take from Fr. Robert Lauder of Saint John’s University in New York: “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.”
There are some books that tangentially touch on Catholic themes as part of general Christianity, like the fiction of the Anglican C.S. Lewis. I do not include his work here because he himself is not a Catholic. There are other works of fiction that are steeped in cultural Catholicism, but do not necessarily offer substantial, in my opinion, insights in a Catholic sacramental/moral/theological worldview, like Frank McCourt or even James Joyce. There are others that have a deeply Catholic sensibility, even if they are in a fantasy or a science fiction genre, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Even though they are epic, I did not include them here. And there are other books, although popular and that have Catholic themes that, for one reason or another, I simply do not recommend, like Endo’s Silence.
Some other Catholic who are excellent like Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus, and many others are not mentioned in this list, simply out of lack of space. For those who wish to read a good selection of fiction by Catholic authors, may I suggest Fr. John C. Breslin’s anthology The Substance of Things Hoped For (Image, 1995) or Daniel McVeigh or Patricia Schnapp’s The Best American Catholic Short Stories (Sheed & Ward, 2006)?
These five titles below are just some of my recommendations and again, I ask that you send me your thoughts and suggestions.
1. Robert Hugh Benson’s The Lord of the World is one of the finest novels I have ever read. I still can recall reading this novel over two days in the month before my priestly ordination at the urging of my seminary spiritual director. Written in 1907 by the convert son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson, this is an early work written by Monsignor Benson when he was the Catholic chaplain at Cambridge University. Broken into three parts, this is the story of the coming of the Anti-Christ into the world of the early 21st century. This is a world of secular humanism, a one-world religion, and a one-world government. Benson writes:
In the ages of faith a very inadequate grasp of religion would pass muster; in these searching days none but the humble and the pure could stand the test for long, unless indeed they were protected by a miracle of ignorance. The alliance of Psychology and Materialism did indeed seem, looked at from one angle, to account for everything; it needed a robust supernatural perception to understand their practical inadequacy.
Both Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have urged Catholics to read this important, prophetic novel. The battle detailed in this novel between President Felsenburgh and Pope Sylvester III, a battle between a materialistic world and a world which recognizes the presence of grace, is played out daily in our day. This is a piece of fiction which all Catholic should read.
2. Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, written in 1928, is the story of J. Blue, a modern-day Saint Francis figure, a man who is noble in his simplicity and is able to see the working of God in the world. It is a story of friendship, of God’s love and mercy. This is a beautiful work, with Connolly’s beautiful prose:
It is the humble man who risks his dignity to speak up for what he loves. It is the courageous man who dares contradiction and the acrimony of argument to defend his beliefs. If one loves anything, truth, beauty, woman, life, one will speak out. Genuine love cannot endure silence. Genuine love breaks out into speech. And when it is great love, it breaks out into song. Talk helps to relieve us of the tiresome burden of ourselves. It helps some of us to find out what we think. It is essential for the happiest companionship. One of the minor pleasures of affection is in the voicing of it. If you love your friend, says the song, tell him so. Talk helps one to get rid of the surplus enthusiasm that often blurs our ideas. Talk, as the sage says, relieves the tension of grief by dividing it. Talk is one of man’s privileges, and with a little care it may be one of his blessings. The successful conversationalist is not the epigram maker, for sustained brilliance is blinding. The successful conversationalist says unusual things in a usual way. The successful conversationalist is not the man who does not think stupid things, but the man who does not say the stupid things he thinks. Silence is essential to every happy conversation. But not too much silence. Too much silence may mean boredom or bewilderment. And it may mean scorn. For silence is an able weapon of pride.
Mr. Blue teaches us that we act in mercy out of love of God which is translated into love of neighbor.
3. It might come as a surprise that I am recommending Evelyn Waugh’s Helena (1950), this great Catholic novelist’s sole historical work over what is, pretty much objectively, his greatest work, the magnificent Brideshead Revisited (1945). Well, my recommendation is based solely on my great love of Saint Helen, who was the patroness of the parish to which I was assigned as a newly ordained priest (and note that I was able to get a mention in of the more famous Brideshead, all the while introducing Helena!) It is stated that Waugh himself believed that this was his best novel. This is the story of Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, and her quest to find the relics of the Lord’s Cross. It is a social commentary with allegories to life in Britain at the time of Waugh’s writing of the novel, while at the same time offering us a pious life of the great Saint, Helena. And the character of Helena herself is wise and witty. Although not Waugh’s usual style, this is a true pleasure to read.
4. François Mauriac’s novel, A Woman of the Pharisees (1941, translated into English in 1946), is a rich and complex novel that details the lives of rural French families in Bordeaux. Brigitte Pian is a pious and devout woman who can’t help but involve herself in the lives of others. Brigitte is a proud woman who, in her religious fervor, is exerting control and domination over her families and others. Brigitte describes her spiritual life as such:
There had been a time when she was worried by the spiritual aridity that marked her relations with her God; but since then she had read somewhere that it is as a rule the beginners on whom the tangible marks of Grace are showered, since it is only in that way that they can be extricated from the slough of this world and set upon the right path. The kind of insensitiveness that afflicted her was, she gathered, a sign that she had long ago emerged from those lower regions of the spiritual life where fervor is usually suspect. In this way her frigid soul was led on to glory in its own lack of warmth.
Mauriac offers a very complex, thought-provoking text which can cause the reader to really examine himself or herself spiritually.
5. It has been pointed out by a commentator in my previous entry on Catholic novels that every single one of the books I recommended were all written before the Second Vatican Council. This is not deliberate. It just so happened that most of the greats of Catholic fiction were in the early part of the 20th century. Brian Moore’s Black Robe (1985) almost did not make this list, because many of his novels are very anti-clerical. However, in many ways, this story of a Jesuit priest striving to bring the faith to the Native Americans in 16th-century North America, all the while struggling with his own faith and sinfulness, can be seen as a contemporary Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory. (Interestingly, Greene stated that Moore was his favorite contemporary novelist.) This is a tough book to read, but I think it can give an illustration of the difficulties faced by the early Catholic missionaries to North America.
Again, these are just some suggestions of interesting Catholic novels. Please let me know what you think and please feel free to let me know what books would be your choices. In my next article, I will attempt the near-impossible task of recommending 10 works of fiction that I believe that every single person in the Western world should read!