Who is the most famous fictional Catholic detective? If I had to guess, I would guess that it was a certain Belgian layman named Hercule Poirot. Only 10% of the Christians in England-and-Wales are Roman Catholics, and only a million of those manage to get to Mass on Sundays, so let’s just say I don’t think Father Brown is quite as much the household name in his native land as is Monsieur Poirot.
Agatha Christie was not a Roman Catholic, but she was one of the bestselling writers of her generation, and Hercule Poirot is her most famous invention. The contemporary British public associates their beloved Poirot most strongly with his most recent interpreter, actor David Suchet, and Suchet plays Poirot as a very devout Catholic indeed. In his final episode Suchet’s Poirot is seen praying the rosary, and throughout his run as Poirot Suchet never loses an opportunity to point to the heavens and reference “le bon Dieu.”
And it works. It works because the point is not that Poirot is a Catholic, but that he is strongly moral and a foreigner. And not only do foreigners speak funny, they are forgiven for it. Indeed, it is even a relief when they say things British people can’t. But what is charming in a foreigner is not so charming in a native. And one thing I have noticed in the UK is the British reluctance to mention God, especially the Holy Name of Jesus.
The British reluctance to mention the Holy Name of Jesus stems either from embarrassment about speaking about religion at all or from an old-fashioned British piety that treats the Holy Name as something precious that might be used out. My husband speaks of “Our Lord” and cringes whenever I, the graduate of a Canadian theology school, chirp cheerfully about +Jesus+.
If I were to teach a Creative Writing course for Catholic authors, I would blue-pencil anything I thought would make the average reader cringe, and that would include an overuse of the Holy Name in fiction. And I hope my students would take such corrections in the spirit they were meant, for I would state up front during Class One that I am a church-going Western Catholic with a strong interest in and sympathy with the Eastern Church, the Anglican communion and various Protestant denominations.
And I think that would be necessary for, in fact, quite a few people in artistic and academic circles loathe Christianity and use classrooms or stages as platforms from which to say nasty things about Catholics, other Christians and Catholic and other Christian beliefs. Educated and cultured non-Catholics in Scotland would be outraged to be associated with Protestant sectarianism (once almost as much of a problem here as in Northern Ireland), and pride themselves on having Catholic friends. But the fact is that many of them absolutely loathe Catholicism and the Roman Catholic Church and wouldn’t mind saying so in such public gatherings as a writing circle. As in my writing circle. My EX-writing circle.
Then there is also the shock factor. In my experience, young writers love to delve into the seamy side of life. They write “daringly” about sex and violence, winning applause for their linguistic dexterity in describing what nasty things they would to do those they envy. It’s not nice, and I’m not sure it’s helpful. And yet the dumbest thing I ever heard at an Open Mic was the merely corny “The soul of a girl is like a flower.” (No, it isn’t. Have you met a girl? And what kind of a flower anyway?)
My point is that the young Catholic writer needs both TRAINING and a friendly, safe environment in which to hone his or her craft. What are needed are writing groups and writing classes organized for and by practicing Catholics, not to teach theology, but to teach the art of writing. And I believe very firmly that to write seriously about a character’s devotional life is a tricky and as open to ridicule as writing about his private sexual experience. It has to be done carefully; it probably needs to be taught.