You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Confessions of a Catholic Novelist

When water, bread, and blood aren’t just water, bread, and blood

It’s not altogether easy being a Catholic, and it’s immeasurably harder being a novelist, so you might imagine the myriad conundrums of being both. The French critic Charles Du Bos, writing about novelist François Mauriac in 1933, dubbed this le problème du romancier catholique—the problem of the Catholic novelist. And what a whopping problem it remains. 

In his 1984 essay “How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic,” Walker Percy writes of when his publisher requested that he cut the subtitle of his novel Love in the Ruins (1971) because it contained the term “Bad Catholic”—“the suggestion being,” says Percy, “that the word ‘Catholic,’ even ‘Bad Catholic,’ might put people off.” Percy was irked by this for the very simple and truthful reason that being a Catholic writer is not “dishonorable,” but when we brand a novel “Catholic,” Percy writes, that brand “entails a tighter and more inclusive semantic bonding” than if the novel were branded “Protestant.” 

What would a strictly Protestant novel look like? One can comprehend fiction with a Calvinist bent—you see the Calvinist vision of sin in Melville and Hawthorne—but how about a thoroughly Episcopalian or Presbyterian novel? Those mild-mannered, watered-down denominations tend not to warp the artistic protocol of imaginative writers. In multiple regions across this land, and in the Northeast especially, “Protestant” equals “WASP,” which rather conveniently equals “American”—Updike and Cheever are nothing if not unerringly, unflinchingly American. If a novel were packaged as “evangelical,” you’d ready yourself for the eschatological dross of the Left Behind series, those abominations with the palsied prose and subliterate grasp of Christian tradition. “Catholic” is not “evangelical,” no, but regarding tags for novelists, it’s not far off—the hocus-pocus and peacock plumage are tough to hide. 

According to Percy, repulsion by a Catholic tag lies in “the fact that there is something more than ethnicity or regionalism involved.” That something is called religion, and for large swaths of American cultural and spiritual history, Catholicism has been ripe for divisiveness and suspicion. One can be a Jew sans religion, but what would an unbelieving Catholic look like? More to the point, you won’t find a novel by Malamud or Roth or Bellow subtitled “The Adventures of a Bad Jew,” and even if you did, you wouldn’t have to prep yourself to be preached at (revisit Roth’s story “The Conversion of the Jews” to see for yourself). 

Admit it: Catholics can be a pushy lot, given to unrequested advice about the state of your soul and the state of your sperm, while Jews have no personal or doctrinal interest in proselytizing—they are not inflected by didacticism, and so they don’t care if you convert or not. The intellectual and dialectical substance of Judaism, wed to the cultural and ethnical elements of Jewishness, rescue “the Jewish novelists” from the pigeonholed perdition into which “the Catholic novelists” are easily tossed.

If you didn’t know how integral Catholic faith was to Percy’s life and thought, then you wouldn’t necessarily sense it from his first novel and masterwork, The Moviegoer (1961), published 14 years after he converted to Catholicism. Binx Bolling, a veteran of the Korean war and a New Orleans stockbroker, is about to hit 30; he’s fond of females, money, and movies, and feels alternately taxed with a murky ennui—with a muted awareness of how pointless his days are—and with having to help his cousin Kate navigate her own emotional unhinging. “Existential” is the always modish tag bandied about to describe the crisis of characters such as Binx and Kate, except that what ails them is much more particular, more personally dire than what that catchall, knee-jerk term denotes. 

“Despair” gets nearer the mark: It’s the term Binx himself employs throughout his telling (the book’s epigraph is by Kierkegaard, who had potent effects on Percy: “The specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair”). Percy doesn’t wallop you with the doctrinal understanding of “despair” (the sin of shunning God’s grace, the very sin for which Faustus is hurled hellward), and at times Binx prefers to call it “malaise,” that globetrotting “pain of loss” that restricts itself to no denomination, no theism: “The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.” 

But peppered throughout the novel are indications of the partial Catholicity of Binx’s “search” for meaning: His mother is a “devout Catholic,” which, he says, “accounts for the fact that I am, nominally at least, also a Catholic,” although “not a practical Catholic”—Binx, like Percy himself, was raised Presbyterian, and by “practical” he means both “practicing” and his difficulty in buying the precepts of a most impractical Church. His Uncle Jules, too, is “an exemplary Catholic,” and for Binx, “it is hard to know why he takes the trouble.” At the end of his narration, Binx admits that the word “religion” is “something to be suspicious of.” Therein lies an element of this novel’s refulgent success: the expertly modulated disaffection of Binx’s voice, the story’s equipoise of humor and spiritual entropy, its refusal to traffic in leaden piety, in a novelized hodgepodge of Catholic dogma. 

Percy’s religio-artistic program devolved in the decades after The Moviegoer—as his Catholicism became more entrenched, as he became more fixated on penning the Great American Catholic Novel—and he never again composed a book as good as his first. In “How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic,” you’ll find proof of what went wrong for him:

From a Catholic perspective at least, Christianity is a belief inherently congenial to the vocation of the novelist in a way in which, say, Buddhism, Marxism, Freudianism, behaviorism, is not. To say so offends the conventional wisdom that dogma constrains the freedom of the artist. The word “dogma” of course has gotten to be a swear word and is used pejoratively. Whereas what it signifies, of course, is simply belief in the central Christian mysteries; for example, the Incarnation. In this sense, dogma is a guarantee of the mystery of human existence and for the novelist ... a warrant to explore the mystery.

You can count the logic problems in that passage. (Buddhism and Marxism and the others quite naturally come equipped with their own breed of dogmas, for one.) But most erroneous is the assumption that a novelist requires a dogma such as the Incarnation as “a warrant” to probe the enigmas of human living. Why not just probe them? You don’t need a monotheistic guarantee of mystery: Your fellow humans will furnish it for you every day, don’t worry. 

When you consider that Percy was only a teen when his parents were killed—his father by suicide, his mother by car wreck—and that as a young doctor, he himself nearly died of tuberculosis, you’d think he would have had plenty of novelistic sturm und drang, ample fuel for his fiction, outside the dogma of Catholic faith. The truth is that by “Catholic” Percy appears to mean something much more encompassing than what the rest of us mean. Referring to Flannery O’Connor in his essay “A Cranky Novelist Reflects on the Church,” Percy contends that “the truly Catholic writer knows” that “it is only through the particularities of place, time, and history ... that the writer achieves his art.” Why it would take a “truly Catholic writer” to figure out what good writers have always known—E.B. White advised: “Don’t write about Man, write about a man”—is a tad baffling.

Graham Greene, on the French Riviera.

But another of Percy’s suggestions is worth an underscore: A novel fails if it attains no more than another played-out simulacrum of reality, another yawningly obedient take on “the way we live now,” if it doesn’t attempt some stab at the sacred or sublime. Recourse to dogma, however, is precisely how a genuinely Catholic novel would falter—this is what Howard Nemerov means when he writes: “Art, by vision and not by dogma, patiently and repeatedly offers the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” By virtue of its age and pageantry and rituals, its parading of abracadabra and the supernatural, Catholicism is through and through a denomination of dogma. 

The linguistic and narrative maneuvers of the Catholic novelist have at-hand explanations, ready-made motives, and so his characters tend to be denuded of complete and unique individual agency, of their own necessarily individual will. For the truly Catholic novel, there’s only one way to read it: the Catholic way. And any novel that can be read only one way isn’t a novel at all but an advertisement—or, worse, agitprop. If you want to know the aim of the avowedly Catholic novelist, the aim of his characters, of his storytelling sensibility, check in with the Gospels, the sacraments, the papacy, the Holy Ghost, the liturgy, the Mass. The Catholic novelist must, by definition, come to the novel with his epistemology embedded like a tick, his ontology fully explicable by deference to his faith. (This is connected to what I.A. Richards and A.C. Bradley argued: that as long as redemption through Christ is possible, there can be no such thing as a Christian tragedy.) Inside a Catholic novel, water, bread, and blood can never be just water, bread, and blood, and that’s a damning disadvantage for any writer.

I feel all this rather more acutely than I’d like. After my first novel appeared in 2011, the late D.G. Myers, a neocon intellectual, Orthodox Jew, and literary critic with formidable opinions, began writing about it in the pages of Commentary magazine. It’s true that the narrator of that novel once refers to himself as a lapsed Catholic, and at one point engages in a nonsense dialogue with his boyhood priest—the book is a comedy—but that, for me, was the extent of the novel’s Catholicity. Myers, however, detected a Catholic program in the very plinths and joists of the novel’s architecture, in the very wiring of the narrative sensibility. By the time my second novel was released in 2014, he had been referring to me as a Catholic novelist for three years. We’d developed a tender camaraderie of opposites, and in one email, in which he rightly referred to me as “a cradle Catholic,” he wrote: “You’ll never be able to shake off the early dousing in the language of the Church. It cracked your voice for good.” 

When the first book landed on a list of Catholic novels worth reading, when the second book received attention from religious-­minded critics at venues such as Commonweal and First Things, when a priest wrote to ask permission to adapt the novel into a play, when I began receiving invitations to speak at Catholic conferences and to write for Catholic magazines, I felt an uptick in those tremors of ambivalence I’d been having since Myers had sallied into my life. On the one hand, the American novelist feels tremendous appreciation for any attention at all, and when that attention gives off a sophisticated sheen, the novelist feels much more than mere appreciation: He feels something akin to a blessing. 

On the other hand, I haven’t been a believing Catholic in over 20 years. Sometime after my eighteenth birthday, I saw that Aquinas was no match for Nietzsche, and then Augustine lost by knockout to Hume. Orwell, in an unfinished essay on Waugh, hopped right to the point when he said that “one cannot really be Catholic and grown up.” My guess is that at the idealistic age of 18, I was rather concerned with being all grown up, with putting away those childish things. (Corinthians: “When I became a man, I put away childish things.”) So as grateful as I was for the percipient views of religious-minded critics such as Myers, I felt something of a fraud, as well as something of a challenge—not only to clarify to myself the ways in which my Catholic past might overtly and covertly surge inside my fiction, but to declare or dismiss my fidelity to the Church.

No honest, self-aware novelist denies the unconscious mechanisms at work and play in his composition, or attempts to refute the insistent facts of his past, facts that heave and breathe in his sentences, in his apprehensions of art and life. Like my Catholic youth, both of my books are flesh-obsessed, preoccupied with mythos and monsters, sin and redemption, affliction and deliverance. Every writer, after all, mobilizes his personal history in the unfurling of his imagination. I would concede to being a cultural Catholic—I recognize the aftershocks of Catholicism on certain avenues of my worldview, on my conception of the dramatic, and acknowledge my enormous debt to Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, to Misters Chesterton and Waugh and Greene, to Dr. Percy and Ms. Flannery O’Connor—but is one really to be cubicled as a “Catholic novelist” because one brooked a Catholic boyhood and parochial education, because one was warped in all the right ways by writers who were Catholic?

Here’s what I know with an almost religious surety: to be tagged a Catholic novelist is to be tagged a failed novelist.

In imaginative literature, the artistic sublime is a revelation of language, the torque of style, the moral reckoning inherent in style, and won’t be achieved through the regurgitated axioms of any particular religion or ideology. The novelist is of no party. To annex Wilde’s opinion of the artist, the novelist must be loyal only to the imperial grasp of his own imagination, the linguistic rendering of that imagination. Everything that happens in a novel happens on the level of language—you are continually confronted with this truth in Sterne, in James, in Joyce, in Nabokov, in Bellow. The novelist must maneuver by subterfuge or else he risks the bloviations of the ideologue. Faith happens in those occult corners of the self, and mystery—one of O’Connor’s favorite concepts—happens as an outcrop of imaginative yearning. 

Flannery O’Connor, with one of her pet peacocks.

O’Connor remains the ideal illustration of how a Catholic who tells stories does not ipso facto become a Catholic storyteller. Again and again one is staggered by her alien abilities, her empyreal genius couched in that local strut through dirt and blood, her faith always hidden, even when she’s most vociferously expressing it. The fiction writer wears no vestments, and in her best stories and two novels, this is how O’Connor excels, as a kind of anti-­preacher of her quaking faith. Not only does her writer’s hand never partake of piety and homily, but it is outright raking in its criticism of indoctrination, of inherited formulations and blind believing, of ovine and backwoods behavior. Catholics and Pentecostals, agnostics and atheists, the sacred and the profane alike scamper through her devil’s world, and she reserves her harshest reproof for those like the preacher and the babysitter in her story “The River”: the pharisaical and sanctimonious, those polluting proselytizers and vile converters.

O’Connor’s characters have a mostly qualmless companionship with their own worldviews: They struggle not chiefly against their own selves but against the Other, and for the storyteller that’s the wiser route because it can be demonstrated, dramatized. The darkly interior and private hush of faith does not make it a good contender for compelling fiction, and one has to be in possession of uncommon gifts in order to pull it off. (Samuel Butler succeeds in The Way of All Flesh, as does Marilynne Robinson in Gilead.) O’Connor’s fiction doesn’t care about the dubiety of faith: Clueless or righteous, her people generally have things figured out for themselves and don’t much bother with the nuisance of self-doubt. 

In her cosmos, reality oscillates from malediction to malefaction, and the postlapsarian horror occurs when opposites clash, when the disciple of one conviction meets the disciple of another. The confrontation with Christ is both inevitable and impossible; people brutally ruin themselves and their neighbors in pursuit of what they do and do not believe, trying to attain two incompatibles: judgment of others and grace from God. “The world is almost rotten,” says the scheming Tom Shiftlet in the short story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and with that “almost” he’s being a touch disingenuous—he knows the world is rotten to the bone because he helped to make it that way. 

The Catholic O’Connor, in other words, has no Catholic agenda when she sits at the campfire to tell her story—across her singular canon all is chaos in search of grace, all is enigma unveiled but unsolved, and no credo is a clear victor. In her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she asserts that the novelist’s “first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work,” not in the doctrine of her religion. And in her essay “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” she has this memorable bit every believing writer should tape to her desk: “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.”

Look at Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and you see what botching occurs when an author becomes determined to compose a Catholic novel. Married to a humdrum civil servant untutored in the art of the bedroom, Sarah Miles falls in love with the novelist Maurice Bendrix. When Maurice is knocked unconscious during the Blitz, Sarah finds him flattened beneath a door, thinks him dead, and pushes out a promise to the Christian God: “Let him be alive and I will believe ... I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive ... I’ll give him up for ever, only let him be alive.” Bendrix, of course, is alive, and now Sarah must torture herself and him so that she can adhere to what everyone knows was a meaningless promise made in terror. How Sarah comes by a God in whom she never previously believed is one of Greene’s clanging falsities here. She succeeds first in willing herself to believe—“I’ve caught belief like a disease,” she says, except that Greene knew that belief doesn’t work that way—and then she succeeds in welcoming the moral coordinates of the Christian God and the revealed truth of the Church. Greene, remember, was not a “cradle Catholic”: He converted in 1926 while courting the Catholic woman who would become his wife.

In The End of the Affair, Greene’s storytelling is so customarily smooth, his prose so silken, his sentences landing with such decision, that you almost don’t catch yourself mumbling nonsense when Sarah pries herself away from Bendrix or when, after her martyred death, she angelically intervenes in the lives of those she knew. She repeatedly calls herself “a phoney and a fake,” and you get the feeling after a while that Greene is unconsciously referring to his own motives in this narrative. More than his other novels massaged by religion—Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory—­The End of the Affair is Greene’s unambiguous enactment of Catholic belief. It met with Waugh’s approval and that should tell you something. (Three years earlier Waugh had criticized the suicide of the protagonist in The Heart of the Matter—­“a book which only a Catholic could write and only a Catholic can understand”—as “mad blasphemy.”) 

As any novelist knows, his characters can be a surly, seditious bunch who rather enjoy thwarting his intentions for them, and the wise novelist will let them revolt. But when a novelist summons and enacts his religious faith, he robs his characters of their free will, of their own capacity to be alive, to morph or evolve in whatever direction is truest. Feeling bullied by a God who probably doesn’t exist but who nevertheless has torpedoed his affair with Sarah, Bendrix here refers both to himself and to his own fictional creations: “We have to be pushed around. We have the obstinacy of nonexistence. We are inextricably bound to the plot, and wearily God forces us here and there according to His intentions.” Substitute “Greene” for “God” in that passage and you see how the author suspects himself: A novelist creates just as God is Creator. It’s not in Sarah’s character—not her history, not her agency—to end her passionate communion with Bendrix, the only genuine love she’s ever known, and then convert to Catholicism. And let’s never mind the absurdity of those final slapdash pages, Sarah’s becoming a martyr and saint and seraph. Greene might mobilize his usual skill in forcing her through these permutations, but it’s still force. When Edith Sitwell said to Greene, “What a great priest you would have made,” you take her meaning. 

In an essay on Mauriac, Greene writes that a novel must put forth “another world against which the actions of the characters are thrown into relief,” and I have no quarrel with that. You want the tension and the tremble that can happen when faith infiltrates fiction. But let it be achieved as Percy achieves it in The Moviegoer, as O’Connor achieves it everywhere in her work, as Greene achieves it in his finest novel, The Quiet American: The religious elements aren’t obnoxiously grafted onto the narrative but emerge intrinsically from the circumstances of the characters. Writing about Maugham, Greene suggested that art is “a function of the religious mind,” which is entirely accurate but also entirely different from being the function of religion, regardless of how many masterworks were fired in the hearth of piety and praise. A novel should indeed be a groping after some form of the metaphysical, a benediction to unseen powers, the upholding of the mysterium tremendum, those insistent inklings of the numinous. 

But a novel should not be a tract, an apologia, dogmatism attached like strings to the limbs of characters; it should not seek to convert or persuade or indoctrinate. And when we tag a writer “a Catholic novelist,” we attribute to him the agenda of the Catholic, and not the aim of the novelist. You can try to reconcile the agenda of the one with the aim of the other—Mauriac grappled consistently with this reconciliation, as did O’Connor and Greene himself—but it’s a fraught enterprise: Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” become faith-forged manacles when the purely imaginative and linguistic motive of the novelist is sullied by the believer’s allegiance to Catholicism. That’s the pinch: Catholics already have the truth, whereas novelists write novels in part because they don’t. The Church has all the righteous answers; a novel is after the right questions. “We Catholics,” wrote O’Connor, “are very much given to the Instant Answer. Fiction doesn’t have any.”

If my being a Catholic must be predicated on the belief that the God of the Israelites decided to inseminate a peasant woman in the Levant in order to birth a human sacrifice who would rise from the dead and redeem the world, and whose resurrection would then inspire an apostolic company who could interpret the sacred while taking my money and demanding my servitude, then you’ll forgive me, but I can’t call myself a Catholic. In Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy admits: “I am not sorry to have been a Catholic”—“this sensuous life,” she calls it, and like Percy and O’Connor she speaks of “the sense of mystery and wonder,” of how in certain “exalted moments of altruism the soul was fired with reverence.” I’d like to second that: I am not sorry to have been a Catholic. An upbringing in the Church has, I suspect and hope, outfitted me well as a storyteller. In his essay “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” Percy contends that “whatever else the benefits of the Catholic faith, it is of a particularly felicitous use to the novelist,” and I’d like to second that, too. It gives a writer that dramatic itch for sin, for judgment and damnation, for the rottenness of the world and the holy in us all.