Arts and Culture

Forming Conscience Through Catholic Novels

Fourth in a series

GREAT LITERATURE can teach us how to live. Russell Kirk’s reflections on what he has called the “moral imagination” have convinced me of this. Certainly I don’t want literature to be reduced to sermons or homilies. Of course, sermons and homilies can play an important role in a listener’s faith life, but a novel should not preach or proselytize. A novel is not a catechism.

However, I do believe that good Catholic novels can help to shape and form consciences. They can do this even when their authors do not have the shaping of consciences as their main goal in writing a novel. All art should try to depict what is real. I believe that the Catholic novel can reveal the depth of the human person and link that depth to the mystery of God. When a good writer depicts the depth of the human person and successfully dramatizes a character’s relationship with God, mystery can be revealed. Some Catholic novels successfully depict God as the main character in a story. In my life I have found such stories a great blessing. The Holy Spirit breathes where He will.

Discussing fiction in the wonderful book, “Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose,” selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961, pp. 237) Flannery O’Connor wrote the following:

“This means that it must carry its meaning inside it. It means that any abstractly expressed compassion or piety or morality in a piece of fiction is only a statement added to it. It means that you can’t make an inadequate dramatic action complete by putting a statement of meaning on the end of it or in the middle of it. It means that when you write fiction you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action. The writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense…

“There may never be anything new to say, but there is always a new way to say it, and since, in art, the way of saying a thing becomes a part of what is said, every work of art is unique and requires fresh attention.” (pp. 75-76)

Noting that people complain that the modern novelist has no hope and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable, O’Connor comments, “The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels…

“People without hope not only do not write novels but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.” (pp. 77-78)

O’Connor’s insight that a piece of fiction “must carry its meaning inside it” is very important. In a good novel, the meaning is not tagged on at the end or at any point in the novel. The meaning is within the action of the novel. I know that is difficult for a writer to accomplish because I have tried to do it and even I can recognize that what was supposed to be fiction read as though it was a sermon.

Shortly after reading O’Connor’s comments I re-read a wonderful novel “The Death of a Pope” (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009, pp. 215) by Piers Paul Read, a novelist whom I greatly admire. Read believes that liberation theology involves a misunderstanding of Jesus’ Gospel. I disagree, but at no point in this excellent story did I think that Read was proselytizing or trying to force his own view of liberation theology on the reader. Read’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense. I think that the comment that philosopher-novelist Ralph McInerney made about Read’s novel is is both accurate and insightful:

“In ‘The Death of a Pope,’ the versatile Piers Paul Read, who has distinguished himself in many genres, returns to what can be called an ecclesiastical thriller. If the mystery looks to the past to explain a crime already committed, the thriller aims to prevent something from happening. When that something is a terrorist attack, planned for the Vatican, drama is assured … To say more would be to rob the reader of his pleasure. ‘The Death of a Pope’ is a great Read – in every sense of the term.”


Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his 24-part lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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