Must Read Catholic Novels
Summer is almost synonymous with reading. Warm temperatures, long hours of daylight, and weekends on the beach or by a campfire invite the us to put down our phones and pick up a good book. A few weeks ago I wrote about Christian poets worth reading this summer; in this post, I wish to offer a list of must-read Catholic novels. Whether you are a tried-and-true Protestant, a cradle Catholic, or a non-denominational, you will enjoy these great works of literature that convey theological themes of grace, sin, forgiveness, love, and faith, whether explicitly or in a more hidden, subtle manner.
“[The novel] deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of Grace’, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.” – Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh published his masterpiece novel Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder. Waugh, who was a convert to Catholicism, weaves heavily Catholic themes into this story of the aristocratic Marchmain family in pre-WWII England. Themes of grace and reconciliation pervade the book as the characters experience personal conversions from sin such as adultery and alcoholism. The beautiful descriptions of the life of the English nobility offer an aesthetic appeal and a sense of escapism from normal modern American life.
While G.K. Chesterton receives more accolade for his theological works such as The Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy, his fiction certainly bears worth reading. The Man Who was Thursday: A Nightmare, published in 1908, rejects nihilism and affirms the goodness of humanity and the world. The plot focuses around a Scotland Yard detective called to investigate an underground anarchist council, with a twist ending that will keep readers eagerly engaged throughout the entire book.
“Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms of not…For this reason, the greatest drama naturally involve salvation or the loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.” – Flannery O’Connor
At first glance, the literature of American author Flannery O’Connor does not appear to be Catholic literature. Violence, grotesque characters, and death fill her stories, yet this is not the senseless violence of modern day television. For O’Connor, violence served as a means for preparing characters for the reception of grace. O’Connor also grappled with morality in many of her words, particularly her great novel The Violent Bear It Away. Published in 1952, The Violent Bear It Away is a captivating story of a young man instructed to kidnap and baptize his nephew, yet a conflicting voice urges him to escape his prophetic calling.
Graham Greene borrows the title of his novel, The Power and the Glory, from the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer (“For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever, Amen”). The Power and the Glory, published in 1940, present a story of a ‘whisky priest’ in Mexico during the 1930s, when the Mexican government attempted to outlaw Catholicism and targeted members of the clergy. The story speaks to the perseverance of the faith under persecution, the importance of the sacraments, and the journey of sanctification.
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
One author who truly embodies the Catholic imagination is none other than the author of the beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien, like Chesterton, Greene, and Waugh, was a British Catholic convert. The fantasy masterpiece overflows with Catholic themes. Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn parallel the priest, prophet, and king duties of Christ. The lembas bread, which sustains the characters both emotionally and physically during their strenuous journey, represents the life-giving Eucharist. Galadriel comes to the aid of Frodo and Sam, not unlike Mary, our Lady of Perpetual Help. What makes The Lord of the Rings a truly great Catholic novel is it functions as a myth rather than an allegory, and thus creates a complex universe that engages the imagination of the reader.
The famous American author and Episcopal convert Willa Cather tells in her usual stunning fashion the nostalgic story of a bishop and a vicar who travel from Ohio to New Mexico to take charge of a diocese in newly-acquired territory in Death Comes for the Archbishop. The bishop and the vicar represent two styles of evangelization: the bishop boldly promulgates the faith, while the vicar takes the more intellectual and reserved route. In contrast to these faithful priests, many of the diocese priests lead lives filled with gluttony and avarice. This novel explores the themes of evangelization and the struggles of the clergy over the backdrop of the American Southwest.
These are only a few of the many great novels which explore Christian themes such as grace, forgiveness, and evangelization through the Catholic lens of the sacramental life.