Catholicism in Literature: A Top 10

One of my favorite classes in college was a course titled “Catholicism In Literature.” It wasn’t my favorite because I’m extraordinarily devout. It was my favorite simply for the wide variety of literature we read and the intense discussions those books prompted. The prof chose a reading list that laid Catholicism bare — demonstrating both its good qualities, and its bad. We read everything from Flannery O’Connor’s short stories and her novel Wise Blood to Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries to an obscure 1896 novel by Harold Frederic titled The Damnation of Theron Ware, about a Methodist minister whose moral decline is aided by some shady Catholics, this might have been my favorite from that class, mostly because it’s stuck with me more than a little.

So but since today is All Saints Day (yes, this is an actual Catholic holiday — it’s not just Recover From Your Halloween Hangover Day), let’s take a look at a top 10 list of Catholic novels.

10. Faith, by Jennifer Haigh — This haunting story about a priest accused of sexually abusing a boy was one of my favorite novels of last year. Through the whole novel, the reader must wrestle with the question of whether Father Breen is guilty or not. Father Breen’s half sister Sheila narrates, and tells us about how damaging it can be to make snap decisions, whether about accused priests or about faith in general. “It was a thing I’d always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form, it is a choice,” she says.

9. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh — Waugh himself was a convert to Catholicism, and this is a story (subtitled “The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder”) of conversions and renunciations and trying to find meaning in religion.

8. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene — Greene’s 10th novel is a a story rich with symbolism — about an unnamed Catholic priest who arrives in Mexico in the 1930s, a time when Catholicism was banned. Through various adventures and trials, the question becomes: Will the priest be redeemed?

7. Gospel, by Wilton Barnhardt — This under-read adventure novel follows Catholic graduate student Lucy around the world as she tries to recover and authenticate a “lost gospel.” Along the way, cracks begin to form around the edges of Lucy’s rock solid faith. Barnhardt gleefully points out some of the, er, inconsistencies in the Catholic faith. It’s a fun read, but not one to take too seriously.

6. Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown — Duh, right? Brown’s two anti-Catholic screeds also fall into the “don’t take this too seriously” category. Personally, I liked Angels and Demons more than Da Vinci, but they’re both solid conspiracy-theory/adventure tales, even if the writing is very, very amateurish.

5. When She Was Good, by Philip Roth — Roth’s short third novel (1967) is about a battered wife named Myra, and her daughter named Lucy, who is a devout Catholic, but is beginning to lose her faith. When she sees her father beat her mother, “she called St. Theresa, but no one was there.” This is the only Roth novel with a female protagonist (we follow Lucy, then, through her own marriage difficulties), and is very different than most Roth novels you’ve probably read.

4. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco — Did Jesus ever laugh? Did Jesus ever own anything? These are but two of the dozens of questions of doctrine this pinnacle of erudition deals with. This is one of those novels that approximately 698 times more people have said they’ve read it than have actually read it. (I have. I’m not lying. It took me two months, but I finished it!) But at its root, this story set in a 14th century monastery, while challenging, is a rockin’ mystery wrapped in a labyrinth filled with a treasure hunt.

3. Mariette In Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen — This is a short, elegant novel about a young Catholic nun (a novice, to be precise) who draws the ire and skepticism of her sisters by experiencing stigmata, religious ecstasy and other miracles. Are Mariette’s experiences authentic, or is she just taking perverse pleasure in being a “chosen one,” while exposing the other nuns’ shortcomings? The reader is left to decide for herself. Hansen is a vastly underrated novelist, and so if you’ve never read him, this is a great place to start.

2. Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt — It’s cheating a bit to include a memoir, I realize, but no list of Catholic books would be complete without this. McCourt’s story of his Irish childhood includes one of my favorite episodes in any book I’ve ever read: Young McCourt, having just received his First Communion, vomits. His grandmother exclaims “I have God in me backyard,” makes him go immediately to Confession, and then makes him ask the Priest what should be done about washing God out of her backyard, and whether holy or regular water should be used. Very, very high comedy.

1. Trinity, by Leon Uris — One of my favorites of all time, Uris’s historical novel chronicles the trials and tribulations of those who strove to establish the modern Ireland. Of course, the Catholic vs. Protestant debate often takes center stage, as do many Catholic/Irish superstitions and traditions.

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