What’s Wrong with Contemporary Catholic Fiction?

The term “sense of the sacred” is most often heard in reference to the Mass. While many fine articles have been written about the loss of this sense and the need to regain it within Catholic liturgical celebrations, another area in which this sense, so very important to the Catholic identity, is also found lacking is modern Catholic literature.

This realization came to me recently as I contemplated the state of current Catholic fiction. As an avid reader of the same, I have been increasingly disappointed in the offerings of today’s Catholic writers. While they may be trying their absolute best to inspire their readers and impart some sort of Catholic truth to them, in general they are failing to do so. Some have come close, but I have yet to find a contemporary writer of Catholic fiction who can consistently stir within me the same awareness of the mystery, joy, and beauty of the Faith as do Catholic authors of earlier times.

With few exceptions, not since Catholic fiction’s heyday in the mid-20th century have there been works of prose that would pique the interest of the critical and discerning Catholic reader. With fondness and longing are the likes of Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Georges Bernanos, and G. K. Chesterton remembered. They entertained their readers, while at the same time daring to challenge them and stir within them a desire for something beyond themselves. They and their contemporaries imparted into their writing that element which, I believe, is missing in Catholic fiction today—a sense of the sacred.

These contemporaries often included writers who were not expressly Catholic. Some of the finest works of Catholic fiction were written by non-Catholics. C. S. Lewis, perhaps the most famous of these writers, was never Catholic, yet his writings are often listed among the classics of Catholic literature. The writer of The Song of Bernadette, the quintessential text on the saint from Soubirous, was a Jewish man—Franz Werfel. Less well known is the novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain. Twain, a professed atheist at the time the book was written, thought it his finest work. Each of these authors, non-Catholics, was somehow able to express a sense of the sacred in his work.

What, then, is the sense of the sacred and why is it so very important to Catholic literature? It can be difficult to define, but the sense of the sacred is an awareness of God (as Father, Son, and Spirit) that brings about a feeling of reverence and awe, as in the Mass. The “sense” has a sacramental quality to it. It makes God present to us in an almost mystical way. In literature it presents itself as an understanding that ordinary words on a page hold some more relevant and deeper meaning than they typically do, something that calls the mind to contemplation of higher things—to God. Through setting, character, theme, and other elements of a story, we encounter the Creator and experience some form of union with him.

The “sense” also demonstrates to us something of the dignity of man. This belief in man’s dignity, the source of which is his sharing in the Image of God, is apparent in some form in any fiction deemed “Catholic.” In Catholic fiction, man is shown to be at least capable of the good on some level—there is some redeeming quality evident, no matter how imperfectly it is demonstrated. Perhaps Werfel’s words here suffice:

I have dared to sing the song of Bernadette, although I am not a Catholic but a Jew; (…) Even in the days when I wrote my first verses I vowed that I would evermore and everywhere in all I wrote magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of man—careless of a period that has turned away with scorn and rage and indifference from these ultimate values of our mortal lot (The Song of Bernadette, “Preface,” emphasis mine).

It is worth mentioning that this “sense” can be found in works containing Catholic elements as well as in those that do not, just as it can be found in works by both Catholic and non-Catholic authors. Not every manuscript containing Catholic components is Catholic fiction, despite what many people believe; the mere mention of a rosary or a crucifix does not make Catholic fiction. The “sense” also does not require that a work contain Catholic characters or situations. Many of the great writers of Catholic fiction neither used Catholic characters nor told of overtly Catholic events—they “simply” wrote about life in all its reality.

O’Connor’s Grandmother and her Misfit come to mind: “’She would have been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’” Though an extremely violent and gut-wrenching story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” demands that its reader awaken himself to a world void of the true, the good, and the beautiful, and it does so with no mention of Catholicism. The story confronts; it creates the necessity to question and contemplate issues of a higher order. It is almost as if, somehow, beneath the Misfit’s twisted mind and the Grandmother’s bogus congeniality, the Holy Spirit himself beckons.

The importance of this sense of the sacred within Catholic fiction cannot be understated. It is an imperative part of any serious writer’s work. It demands of the writer an openness to God’s grace. It requires awareness of one’s gift from God that is a “share(ing) in his creative power” (Letter to Artists, 2) and the desire to use that gift for the good of man. In his Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II wrote:

That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their ‘gift,’ are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission (2).

It is not too strong, I believe, to state that ostensibly Catholic fiction that does not impart this sense of the sacred to its readers is not Catholic at all; it is merely mediocre fiction.

Though this seems a harsh truth, it must be solidly understood in order to correct the current crisis in Catholic fiction. Our belief and faith in Jesus Christ must touch and inform every aspect of life; works of culture cannot be excluded. They are, in fact, a vital part of our humanity, our composition of body and soul. Literature should, as all things should, have the purpose of perfecting us and deepening our relationship with God. If successful, it can then reinvigorate our families, parishes, and the larger “secular” society.

It appears, however, that cultures (specifically for our purposes, American culture) are severely lacking in this respect. Here we are speaking of literature, but the absence exists in nearly every example of modern cultural activity. Despite some recent efforts to remedy the situation, the great chasm remains.

It is, for me, as though something of the utmost importance is missing within me as I read; the loss of the “sense” creates an opening that longs to be filled. I adore the classic writers and cannot imagine life without them; they are old friends. I find myself re-reading their works over and over again; I will likely never stop. However, on some level, I am not satisfied. I yearn for good, contemporary fiction—fiction that is made Catholic by the sense of the sacred—and I am weary from the search for it. I know in my heart, however, that our own time must possess Catholic masters and masterpieces of its own. God has not ceased to bestow this talent upon people of our generation.

Until those to whom the gift has been given realize their worth and the responsibility they possess, and until they create literature that compels man toward knowledge of God and himself, there will remain a great void within our culture, one that ultimately affects the whole of creation. It is an emptiness that deepens with each passing day; a space that cannot and will not be filled by anything other than works possessing a “sense of the sacred.”

What's Wrong with Contemporary Catholic Fiction? - Ethika Politika