Periodically the topic of “the Catholic novel” raises its head. What is the status of the Catholic novel? Does the Catholic novel even truly exist? A lifetime of avid reading assures me that it does, and that it may be roughly defined as follows: a novel whose theme is based on some dogma, moral teaching, or sacramental principle, and in which the mystery of Catholicism is presented affirmatively.
I came to the Catholic novel as a high-school senior, and while I might not have been able to define it at the time, after reading Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, I was hooked for life. In the ensuing years I devoured novels by Greene, François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, and Evelyn Waugh. I loaned them to my friends, all of whom had graduated from Catholic colleges—yet somehow had never read any of the novels, or apparently even heard of them or their authors.
Unfortunately, even today those classic Catholic novels remain largely hidden treasures. Just try persuading English teachers in Catholic high schools or colleges to offer a course on them! My impression is that they think the topic too parochial. Of course, the meaning and mystery dramatized in Catholic novels is the opposite of parochial. The stories deal with the most profound truths about human persons.
The importance of the traditional Catholic novel, and also of its disappearance, was underlined by Richard Gilman in his provocative 1987 memoir, Faith, Sex, Mystery. Gilman relates how his conversion from secular Judaism to Catholicism was greatly aided by the novels of Greene, Mauriac, Bernanos, and Waugh. He writes that “I wanted to hear about God then,” and that he found him “lurking in all those fictional worlds, more or less a factor in the plots, often an antagonist, and his presence there—His presence.... He was someone, a character not wholly unlike all the others.”
When Gilman later moved away from Catholicism, he observed accurately that no one was writing the kind of Catholic novel that had led him into the church. But something else has appeared since that time, a newer kind of Catholic novel, the most striking examples of which are the works of Alice McDermott. To my mind McDermott’s seven novels dramatize the idea put down in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ”As Kingfishers Catch Fire”: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” Alice McDermott seems especially attentive to those words. And her power of observation and ability to express what she observes are awesome.