Among the many challenges of Roman Catholic life since 1963 is the tension between fidelity and inclusiveness.
On the one hand, to be a Roman Catholic is to be faithful to Christ–not in some vague way, but in loving knowledge of Scripture, the sacraments and the teachings of His Church.
On the other hand, to be a Roman Catholic is to dislike shutting people out of the Church.
This is particularly poignant in Germany, where the bishops seem to be turning themselves into theological pretzels in order to communicate the excommunicated divorced-and-remarried.
It is also poignant in the case of Catholics who have consciously turned their backs on Christ, or have become de facto Protestants by consulting only their own consciences concerning Mass attendance and family life. Faithful Catholics would prefer that unrepentant heterodox Catholics not present themselves to the world as Catholics. (“Well, I’M a Catholic, and I think [mortal sin du jour] is FINE!”) But at the same time faithful Catholics do not want these Catholics to feel so alienated that they never return to an authentic practice of the faith. Perhaps all these people need is time, kindness, prayers and our books.
And this is why I am beginning our discussion of “Who is a Catholic novelist?” with some care. I want to be both faithful and inclusive, especially when it comes to novelists. Novelists are not, after all, theologians. My first book, which is a work of non-fiction, was printed with an Imprimi Potest in the USA and with a Nihil Obstat in Poland. My novel Ceremony of Innocence has not got any such mark of theological approval. And that’s okay: it isn’t theology. It’s an adventure story about theology.
It isn’t a bishop’s or provincial’s job to decide if a novel is “Catholic” or not; that’s the job of the Catholic critic and the Catholic scholar. It was Evelyn Waugh, not a bishop, who questioned the underlying theology of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, a book Waugh otherwise admired.
Greene famously chafed under the label “Catholic writer” although he was a Catholic—a very conflicted Catholic, mind you, by the 1970s. He wrote about Catholics, about Catholic themes, about a universe ruled by God. Not all Catholics approved, however: in 1951 his The Power and the Glory was condemned by the Holy Office. (Paul VI subsequently told Greene that he had read the book and liked it.) Nowadays The Power and the Glory is considered a Catholic classic.
Greene’s problem with the “Catholic writer” tag was that it suggested an external authority, not his art, set the lines in which he had to color. And just yesterday I saw the phrase “Catholic novelist” used in a pejorative way, as if it denoted something saccharine or second-rate. However, I do not see why it should be worse to be called a “Catholic novelist” than an “American novelist” or a “Canadian novelist.” An American novelist writes from his own specifically American experience, and a Catholic novelist writes from her own experience as a Catholic.
That said, there is a difference between a faithful Catholic novelist who writes as if he has found living in Christ through the Church good wine, and an apostate Catholic novelist who writes as if she has found the attempt bitter gall.
My personal view is that a Catholic novelist is a novelist who writes out of her living faith in Christ, informed by the teachings of His Church. Such a novelist is neither ashamed to be a Catholic, nor reduces Catholicism to an ethnic group to which he belongs by birth. If he is a good Catholic novelist, he will present our God-charged universe with a deftness that precludes propaganda. If not…
Well, that is a topic for later.