Why read Catholic literature?

Reading can be a powerful tool for spiritual growth. Besides, it’s fun.

By Kevin Birnbaum

Stack of books
Photo: Jesson Mata


For nearly 2,000 years, Catholic writers have produced some of the classics of world literature, from the Divine Comedy to Don Quixote — not to mention the New Testament. But when was the last time most people read a good Catholic novel? Something, it seems, has gone wrong with Catholic literary culture. The exact nature of the problem has been the subject of a recent debate in some of this country’s most prominent publications — a debate in which one of Western Washington’s own has been a leading voice.

The public discussion was kicked off by Paul Elie’s December 2012 cover essay for The New York Times Book Review, titled “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”

Yeah, it pretty much has, argued Elie, a former editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a biography of four giants of 20th-century Catholic writing: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.

“[I]f any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature,” he wrote. Even “writers with Christian preoccupations” have taken to “writing fiction in which belief acts obscurely and inconclusively.”

A changing landscape
The poet Dana Gioia painted a similarly distressing picture in his essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” published last December in the ecumenical journal First Things.

“Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts,” wrote Gioia, a professor at the University of Southern California and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He contrasted the present situation with the period from the end of World War II in 1945 to the death of Flannery O’Connor in 1964, when “Catholic voices in all their diversity played an active role in shaping the dynamic public conversation that is American literature.”

Responding to Elie and Gioia — in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, First Things and elsewhere — has been Gregory Wolfe, a parishioner at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral and the founder of the journal Image, which explores the relationship between faith, art and literature.

Wolfe disputes Elie’s contention that contemporary literature is uniformly post-Christian. It’s just that the world has changed in the last 50 years, and so has the depiction of faith in fiction. “Today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted,” he wrote — and that’s natural. “Our faith, after all, is based on the need to listen for a ‘still, small voice.’”

By and large, Wolfe and Gioia seem to agree — perhaps even more than they realize. Both argue that there are plenty of good Catholic writers out there (see page 22), but that for a variety of reasons — especially the increasing politicization of the culture and the church — they’re not getting the recognition or the readers they deserve.

And that’s too bad, because as Wolfe, Gioia and Elie made clear in interviews with Northwest Catholic, good Catholic literature has important contributions to make, both to the wider culture and to the spiritual lives of Catholics.

Woman reads under a tree
Photo: Shutterstock

The power of literature
“Does any Christian doubt that reading a book can change your life?” Gioia asked rhetorically. He spoke from experience: Reading Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert as a young man “made me reevaluate my life and my life’s mission,” he said.

Elie said that even though he grew up in a Catholic household, “I really learned just how rich our tradition is from the literature — from O’Connor, from Percy, from Merton, from Dorothy Day.”

Writers like O’Connor and Percy and novels like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited also played a pivotal role in Wolfe’s life: “Catholic literature converted me to the Catholic faith,” he said. He was drawn especially by the sacramentalism of Catholic fiction — the “sense of the ordinary being the vehicle for the presence of Christ in a human life.”

So what role might good Catholic books play in your spiritual life?

“Loving literature is not a requirement for salvation,” Wolfe said, “but it is potentially an important way to live out one’s faith,” because reading cultivates imagination, intuition, empathy and compassion. “The imagination is so powerful because it often gives us, in concrete, messy circumstances, an image of what theology and spirituality tell us in more broad, general, abstract terms.”

And don’t forget: Reading is also fun. “If you allow yourself to be caught up in a story, in a narrative, art rewards you with pleasure,” Wolfe said.

Along with prayer, reading is one of the most powerful ways to develop and refine your inner life, Gioia said. “The way we best understand ourselves and our place in the world is through stories, images, songs, poems which address us in the fullness of our humanity.” Want proof? Look at the Gospels.

“Jesus spoke to humanity through stories, such as the parables, and poems, such as the beatitudes,” Gioia said. “He used vivid language which addressed human beings both in their body and their soul without asking them to divide. If Catholics lose storytelling and other literary forms, they have lost the most effective and natural way in which humanity understands and explains itself.”

Transforming the culture
But not just any book will cut it — even much “religious literature” is superficial and poorly written, Gioia said. Catholics should seek “books which are honest, searching and reflective, rather than books which are formulaic, cheap and sentimental.”

How can ordinary Catholics help foster a more robust Catholic literary culture? It begins with individual choices, Wolfe said, drawing an analogy to environmental stewardship. “We know that many small individual acts — recycling that soda can — add up to something big,” he said, “and I honestly believe that the art and the music and the literature that we consume, that we spend our time with, adds up.”

Simple steps, like starting a book club or lecture series at your parish, could have a profound effect, Gioia said.

“If 1 percent of the 70 million Catholics in the United States began to read and discuss serious Catholic writing, we would not only transform American Catholic culture — we would transform American culture,” he said. “And this is within our power to do. But what we need are a couple hundred people to get it started.”

What makes literature ‘Catholic’?
In his essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” poet Dana Gioia described some aspects of the distinctive worldview that informs Catholic literature:

“Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God. Catholics perceive suffering as redemptive, at least when borne in emulation of Christ’s passion and death. Catholics also generally take the long view of things — looking back to the time of Christ and the Caesars while also gazing forward toward eternity.”


Pope Francis’ favorite writers


In an interview published last fall in Jesuit journals, Pope Francis spoke fondly of some of his favorite writers:

“I have really loved a diverse array of authors. I love very much Dostoevsky and Hölderlin. … I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. … I also liked Gerard Manley Hopkins very much.”



Recommended reading

Wondering where to dive into the ocean of Catholic literature? Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Gregory Wolfe’s recommended books

Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos (1995). “About a Madison Avenue advertising guy who has a son who goes to seminary and who is brutally, randomly murdered.”

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (1998). “Despite his terrible suffering and alcoholism, [Billy Lynch] is shown as somebody of great charity.”

Better Food for a Better World by Erin McGraw (2013). “That rare thing, a comic satire that’s got teeth but also a lot of humanity and compassion. It’s a book about midlife and vocation and marriage, and I’m really thrilled to be the publisher.”

Gregory Wolfe, a parishioner at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral, is the editor of the journal Image and the literary imprint Slant. His website is www.gregorywolfe.com.

Paul Elie’s recommended books

Ironweed by William Kennedy (1983). “Makes Depression-era Albany a purgatorial place and makes Francis Phelan, the protagonist, a totally convincing American pilgrim.”

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952). “Focuses on the central question of belief in Christ, and focuses on it by inverting it, by having a guy who’s an evangelist for a church of disbelief.”

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945). “As Waugh put it, tries to dramatize the workings of grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.”

Paul Elie is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. He blogs at www.everythingthatrises.com.

Dana Gioia’s recommended books

What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha (2012). “Depicts the cost that a convert pays for Catholicism and the sacrifices she needs to make to live her faith.”

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951). “Simultaneously presents the dangers and the redemptive possibilities of romantic love.”

Atticus by Ron Hansen (1996). “A stunner.”

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen (1991). “Extraordinary historical novel about … a nun who claims to have the stigmata.”

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway (1961). “The stories are some of the masterpieces of modern American literature. They are also deeply Catholic.”

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (1827). “Perhaps the greatest Catholic novel ever written. … If you don’t believe me, trust Pope Francis.”

Someone by Alice McDermott (2013). “A little book that encompasses, in all of its variety and surprise, an entire life and an entire milieu.”

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller Jr. (1960). “A knockout. … The central masterpiece of American Catholic science fiction.”

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (1971). “She is not only brilliant, she’s funny, shocking and profound.”

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff (1981). “Simply one of the best fiction writers in English.”

Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is the Judge Widney professor of poetry and public culture at USC. His website is www.danagioia.net.


Listen in

In this episode of "Northwest Catholic On the Air," Holy Family, Kirkland, pastor Father Kurt Nagel recommends some summer reading (at the 14:30-minute mark):


Trouble listening? Try our SoundCloud stream.


Didn't listen? Here's the list of summer reading ideas Father Nagel offered.


And Now I See by Fr. Robert Barron

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence

The Gift of Faith by Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer

Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC

Searching for and Maintaining Peace  by Fr. Jacques Philippe


Historical Fiction

The Family that Overtook Christ by M. Raymond

Come Rack, Come Rope by Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson

Louis deWohl, author of novelized saint stories:

                Set All Afire (on St. Francis Xavier)

                The Restless Flame (on St. Augustine of Hippo)

                The Golden Thread (on St. Ignatius Loyola)

                Lay Siege to Heaven (on St. Catherine of Siena)



Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

St. John Paul the Great: His Five Loves by Jason Evert

God’s Fool by Julien Green



More in this category: More than just a movie »