The manner in which people freely refer to the Catholic novel lends weight to the belief that it constitutes a discrete category. It is not normal practice to speak of a Muslim or Protestant novel. Nor is it usual to explain the Jewish novel in terms of religious doctrine and this prompts the question: what is so unique about Catholicism that it has a literary category devoted to it alone?
In an article from the Winter 1956 edition of the University Review, Kathleen O’Flaherty pondered whether there was, in fact, such a thing as a Catholic novel. If one meant by this label “a novel which offers, as a true picture of life, the spectacle of men living in complete conformity with Christian doctrine”, then one would have to harbour doubts about its viability, as such a constraint would confine the novelist’s view of life to certain pre-ordained absolutes and ultimately curtail artistic independence. O’Flaherty concluded: “It is neither desirable nor possible that the Catholic author should, in a novel, usurp the functions of the moralist by giving us an idealised picture of what man should be; his role is to show us life as he sees it.”
A novel, short story, poem or any form of literature, irrespective of its provenance, must therefore be judged, first and foremost, as a work of art. JC Whitehouse, in his study Catholics on Literature (1997), assembles a series of reflections by Catholic authors on their art. He considers it significant that few, if any, of them would have been comfortable with the label “Catholic writer”, preferring to describe themselves as “writers who also happen to be Catholic”. In 1923, during a radio interview with Frédéric Lefèvre which opened with the rather provocative question: “Monsieur François Mauriac, a Catholic novelist?”, the Nobel laureate replied: “I am a novelist; I am a Catholic – and therein lies the conflict … I believe, in fact, that it is fortunate for a novelist to be a Catholic, but I am also quite sure that it is very dangerous for a Catholic to be a novelist.” Mauriac viewed the problem in terms of a conflict between the role of an artist who must deal with the human passions, and consequently with sin, and that of the Catholic who must not lead his readers into moral danger.
When the same interviewer suggested to Georges Bernanos that the Catholic novel did not exist, that writer concurred, but went on to explain that Catholicism is not an option, not a particular optic on life which the writer can choose or reject. All art which seeks to enlighten the inner life of man is bound to explore sin, and thus all literature which sets itself this aim is Catholic literature: all novels are Catholic novels. In a similar vein, Flannery O’Connor once stated that all literature that portrays reality adequately, as it is truly seen and experienced in the world, may be considered Catholic literature. What both Bernanos and O’Connor are effectively saying is that if a writer’s main focus is the forensic exploration of how human beings behave and interact with the world, then such a writer, irrespective of the religious tradition from which he or she emerges, shares in the Catholic vision. While this is certainly an interesting interpretation, it is nevertheless something of a blanket statement.
The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain made a helpful observation in Art and Scholasticism, where he wrote: “A Christian work should have the artist, as artist, free.” Maritain is indicating that the work of art can never be implicitly didactic, even though one often finds a moral behind what is being expressed. He goes on to draw a distinction between Catholic writing and Catholic literature. The former seeks to persuade and influence, even to convince, whereas the latter “is fundamentally artistic, the fictional expression of idiosyncratic and subjective insights”. So on the one hand, we have a rational, analytical discourse (typical examples of which would be Pascal’s Pensées or Newman’s essays) and on the other a creative process that, while inspired by a Catholic vision, does not seek to coerce the reader into accepting that vision. A Catholic novelist, therefore, would be an explorer rather than an expounder of his or her religious beliefs.
In The Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850-2000 (2010), Richard Griffiths quotes Archbishop Rowan Williams’s definition of the traditional Catholic novel as fiction that “could not be understood by a reader who had no knowledge at all of Catholicism and the particular obligations it entailed for its adherents”. This is a definition which undoubtedly applies to the work of some of the major figures associated with the Catholic Novel.
It is in France that one finds the highest concentration of skilled practitioners of the form. Griffiths notes that the Catholic revival that took place there between 1870 and 1914 represented a return to the values of previous generations prompted by the growing secularism of French society and the siege mentality this inspired among Catholics. The apogee of this secularisation process was the official separation of Church and State in 1905, a momentous event for all French people. As a result, writers like Léon Bloy, Charles Péguy and Joris-Karl Huysmans saw their role as defending the Church against the attacks of its enemies. The atmosphere in which Mauriac and Bernanos wrote during the inter-war years was calmer than what had gone before, even though the values of laïcité were still clearly visible. Bernanos regretted the demise of the Church as a powerful institution and a force for good and he was utterly opposed to the secular agenda of French republicans.
During his long life and career (he was eighty-five when he died on September 1st, 1970), Mauriac constantly underlined his Catholic faith as being at the core of his life’s vocation. Nevertheless, his novels and essays were scathing in their exposition of avarice and hypocrisy among the Catholic bourgeois propertied class to which he belonged. There is also more than a tinge of lasciviousness and evil palpable in some of his favourite fictional creations, a fact that caused several French Catholics to question how one of their own could write novels that portrayed sin in such a seductive light. Donat O’Donnell (a nom de plume of Conor Cruise O’Brien) captures the type of criticism Mauriac’s novels elicited thus in Maria Cross: Imaginative Patterns in a Group of Modern French Writers (1953):
The real charge against Mauriac was that his tone, and the images he evoked, suggested a secret sympathy, a connivance with sin, instead of the uncompromising detestation of sin which Catholic critics felt they had a right to expect from a Catholic novelist.
At an early stage in his career, Mauriac would realise that the characters that attracted him were not the virtuous. He also acknowledged that his own life experience was contained in everything he wrote. As can be garnered from the two volumes of Jean-Luc Barré’s recent biography of Mauriac (published by Fayard in 2009 and 2010 respectively), the writer had a few skeletons in his cupboard, the most notable being his recurrent homosexual longings. For example, in the latter half of the 1920s, he fell in love with the novelist and Swiss cultural attaché, Bernard Barbey. This infatuation put great strain on Mauriac’s marriage and on his perception of Catholicism which, probably as a result of his puritanical upbringing by an excessively devout mother, was coloured by Jansenism. The close connivance between the novelist and the (outwardly) monstrous characters to whom he gave life made Mauriac’s position uncomfortable in several ways, as can be clearly seen in his best known novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux (1927).
In the foreword, the author announces the empathy he feels for his heroine, who attempts to poison her husband. He anticipates his readers’ disquiet at his giving life to “a creature more odious than any characters in my other books”. Thérèse’s husband, Bernard, may have been hypocritical in his religious observance, acquisitive in terms of the family’s commercial interests and intellectually dull, but that would scarcely justify the crime perpetrated against him by his wife. On one occasion, the heroine muses: “Everything which dates from before my marriage I see now as bathed in a light of purity – doubtless because that time stands out in such vivid contrast to the indelible filth of my wedded life.” Her attitude to sex is summed up in the following:
Nothing is so severing as the frenzy that seizes upon our partner in the act. I always saw Bernard as a man who charged head-down at pleasure, while I lay like a corpse, motionless, as though fearing that, at the slightest gesture on my part, this madman, this epileptic might strangle me.
One wonders to what extent this jaundiced depiction of sex within marriage is a reflection of the crisis Mauriac was undergoing himself when he was composing the novel. His infatuation with Barbey was at its height at the time and such feelings did not sit easily with his religious sensibility. In the memoir Commencements d’une vie he wrote: “Fiction alone does not lie; it shines a light into a writer’s soul that reveals things that he does not even recognise in himself.” So we may perhaps read something of the writer’s own sexual trauma in Thérèse’s reaction to her husband’s lovemaking.
Not everything is negative in the novel, however. For example, after the trial, Thérèse contemplates putting an end to her life instead of enduring the years of isolation and solitude that lie ahead of her. On the point of swallowing a cocktail of drugs, she issues the following challenge to God: “If that Being really did exist … since He did exist, let Him prevent the criminal act while there was still time.” As though in answer to her call, Thérèse suddenly hears movements in the house and a member of the domestic staff enters her room to announce the death of Aunt Clara. This may have been a mere coincidence, but when one considers that Aunt Clara is the one person to have loved Thérèse unconditionally, then divine intervention, or what is referred to as a substitution of souls, becomes a possibility. Introducing such a concept in the case of Thérèse would have been farfetched had the reader not been made aware that Mauriac’s heroine was not opposed to religion per se, rather to the type of superficial religious observance she observed in Bernard and his family.
When he was composing this novel, Mauriac could find no way to guide his heroine to the safe harbour of divine love – that would not be possible until The Knot of Vipers was published in 1932. His state of mind in the latter half of the 1920s was such that a novel of conversion was beyond his reach. That said, because its essential concern is the salvation or damnation of its central character, Thérèse Desqueyroux is undoubtedly a Catholic novel, arguably one of the best ever written.
Whereas Mauriac’s main preoccupation was to probe the psychological recesses of his characters’ souls, Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) was more concerned with the dramatic irruptions of grace into human lives. He is undoubtedly the writer with the keenest understanding of the role and ministry of priests, who are the dominant figures in his most successful novels, Diary of a Country Priest and Under Satan’s Sun. Published in 1936, the Diary immediately made an impression for its sympathetic portrayal of the sickly curé of Ambricourt, a man who struggles to keep alive God’s message in what would appear to be a completely dechristianised parish. Tricked by local merchants, held in disdain by the aristocracy and his clerical superiors, the young priest nevertheless possesses a vibrant inner life that raises him above his detractors.
From the outset, he is conscious of the spiritual apathy that confronts him. He writes in his diary: “I wonder if man has ever before experienced this contagion, this leprosy of boredom: an aborted despair, a shameful form of despair in some ways like the fermentation of a Christianity in decay.” When, towards the end of the novel, he is diagnosed with stomach cancer, it is as if he has assumed the cancer at the heart of his parish in a Christ-like substitution. The chronic stomach pains he endures constrain him to a diet of bread dipped in wine – symbols of the Eucharist – and this fact, allied to his sickly appearance, fans rumours that he has a drink problem. He has difficulty sleeping at night because of the anxiety he feels about his inefficacy: “A void was behind me. And in front a wall, a wall of darkness.” He reaches the point where he believes that the “village has nailed me up here on a cross” and is watching him die.
The confrontation between the comtesse and the curé is the most memorable scene in the novel. Since the death of her son some years previously, this woman is coldly indifferent to everything and everyone around her. The priest reminds her of her responsibilities to her husband and remaining child, Chantal, and then warns that a hard heart might separate her from her son for eternity: “Hell is not to love any more, madame,” he utters in an emotional voice. Slowly it begins to dawn on the woman that the hatred and resentment she feels towards God are endangering her own salvation. The struggle ends when the priest tells her to recite the Our Father while paying particular attention to the words “Thy will be done.” Shortly after their turbulent exchange, the comtesse writes to express her thanks: “I have lived in the most horrible solitude, alone with the desperate memory of a child. And it seems to me that another child has brought me to life again.” The priest can only marvel at how he brings peace to others while remaining in such turmoil himself.
A consultation with a specialist in Lille reveals the extent of the cancer and the short time he has left to live. The priest is shaken by the news: “I was alone, utterly alone, facing my death – and that death was a wiping out, and nothing more.” The despair is short-lived, however. In the apartment of a former seminarian, Dufréty, the curé finally experiences the consoling power of grace. After Dufréty gives him absolution, he utters the famous last words: “Does it matter? Grace is everywhere.” The triumph of hope over despair, the conception of Christians being asked to live out the earthly Passion in order to gain access to the mercy of God, the theology of sacrificing self for others, these are all integral parts of Bernanos’s novel.
God and Satan vie constantly for people’s souls in Bernanos’s writings. In Under Satan’s Sun, for example, the devil even assumes human form in order to tempt another simple, yet saintly, priest, Donissan ‑ there is an obvious play on the priest’s name (pronounced donner son sang – to give one’s blood) ‑ here. Donissan has all the outward appearances of being an abject failure, yet he manages to demonstrate gifts that one associates most frequently with saints. He uncovers Satan in people’s hearts and knows that the Prince of Evil can only be displaced by those who truly model themselves on Christ. Returning to Archbishop Williams’s definition of the Catholic novel, we can see how appropriate it is in the case of Bernanos. For anyone without a familiarity with Catholic doctrine, Bernanos’s world would seem foreign, unreal, incomprehensible.
The situation in England was notably different from that of France. English Catholic writers were acutely aware of being a minority group that had suffered serious persecution during the Penal Laws. In his pioneering study The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence (1970), Gene Kellogg remarks: “English Catholics developed a sense of mingled astonishment and outrage that French Catholics never experienced.” He adds: “A French Catholic writer writes to and about the French Catholic community, but an English Catholic author has little or no sense of belonging to an English Catholic community.” A large proportion of English Catholic writers were converts and brought with them a zeal and enthusiasm for Catholic rituals like the Mass, which they considered a far more satisfying ceremony than was available in the Anglican tradition. Richard Griffiths argues that “converts from Anglicanism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were above all attracted by the certainty and authority of the Catholic Church’s teachings and its decisions”. To them, such rigour was superior to what they regarded as the relativism or laissez faire doctrines they associated with Anglicanism. Given that Catholicism was and is a minority concern in England, it is remarkable that it produced so many notable writers. Along with Newman and Hopkins, in the realm of fiction there are Wilfred Ward, Robert Hugh Benson, Maurice Baring, Hilaire Belloc, GK Chesterton, George Mackay Brown, Muriel Spark and David Lodge. Then there are the two big guns, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, who merit particular attention.
The success of Brideshead Revisited, which was adapted for a film version as well as being made into a popular television drama, should not blind one to the fact that it is a flawed novel. Waugh was essentially a satirist who captured in a special way the spiritual inertia of English society after World War I. Decline and Fall and A Handful of Dust are accomplished works for the simple reason that they suit Waugh’s particular temperament and allow him to take a critical stance in relation to the disastrous path on which he felt England was embarked. On the other hand Brideshead Revisited is, according to Gene Kellogg, “a monster of artificial religiosity”. There can be no doubting the sincerity of Waugh’s religious convictions, but when he attempts to impose these on a work of fiction, as happens in Brideshead, the result is unsatisfactory. The novel was published in 1945, during the last months of World War II, but nostalgia for a former, less complicated existence, such as that enjoyed by Waugh as a student in Oxford, impinges on the representation of Catholicism and particularly on the dramatic deathbed conversion of Lord Marchmain. The conversion leads to an equally dramatic transformation in some witnesses to this event, especially the heretofore sceptical Charles Ryder and his lover, Julia, Lord Marchmain’s daughter. Julia reacts to her father making the sign of the cross just before his death by telling Charles that it is over between them: she explains that she is not prepared “to set up a rival good to God’s”. What she fails to notice is that Charles too has been irrevocably changed by what he witnessed. Years later, when he is back in Brideshead, the former Marchmain home, where the army has been billeted, Charles visits the private chapel and says “a prayer, an ancient, newly-learned form of words”, which strongly hints at his conversion. Lady Marchmain liked to read a particular Father Brown story by Chesterton to her children. In it, the priest-detective describes how he trapped a thief: “I caught him with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon a thread.” This is similar to the way Waugh envisaged God’s modus operandi: He allows people to travel far from His mercy, only to bring them back “with a twitch upon a thread”. The problem is that this all appears too contrived in the case of Brideshead: it is as though Waugh is consciously interfering in the destiny of his characters, that is he is steering them towards God. Richard Griffiths rightly points out that Waugh was someone with “an axe to grind”, something that may be admirable in a satirist, but is a fatal flaw in a novelist.
Graham Greene (1904-1991), like Waugh, was a convert to Catholicism and a writer whose fiction examined the most complex moral dilemmas through characters like Pinkie (Brighton Rock), the whiskey priest of The Power and the Glory, the policeman Scobie in The Heart of the Matter and Sarah in The End of the Affair. A close friend of Mauriac, Greene was also strongly influenced by the latter’s daring approach to the Catholic novel and, in particular, the emphasis Mauriac placed on the special role of the sinner in God’s plan for the world. Greene had a similar understanding of the sinner. Pinkie, the young gangster in Brighton Rock, is a conflicted, evil character who endangers not only his own salvation but that of his girl bride, Rose, who is willing to sacrifice everything, even her soul, for her husband. Pinkie knows he is as intrinsically evil as Rose is good, but he consoles himself with the thought that it only requires a moment’s genuine repentance to secure forgiveness: “You could be saved between the stirrup and the ground, but you couldn’t be saved if you didn’t repent and he didn’t have time.” Throughout Brighton Rock, one encounters references to the sacraments, sins committed and their probable consequences and the dim hope for salvation through love. When asked by Rose if he believes in religion, Pinkie replies: “What else could there be? … Why, it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation …” Questioned about what he thought his character’s fate would be in the afterlife, Greene replied: “I don’t think that Pinkie was guilty of mortal sin because his actions were not committed in defiance of God … ”. I am not sure how theologically sound this view is, but then again Greene was no stranger to controversy when it came to the message promulgated in his novels.
The whiskey-priest, for example, in The Power and the Glory, moves around a communist-run country (most likely Mexico) in order to avoid arrest and execution. A hopeless alcoholic, the father of an illegitimate child with his former housekeeper, this man is anything but an exemplary priest. And yet he never loses sight of the importance of his priestly function. In spite of the constant danger it entails for himself and the people, he continues to say Mass and minister the sacraments. After his escape into a type of peaceful El Dorado, the priest is told that a hardened criminal, the American “gringo”, has requested confession before he dies. Although fully aware that this is a trap, he returns, knowing that he cannot turn his back on any sinner who might seek absolution. After he is imprisoned and awaits execution, his one regret is how inadequately he fulfilled his ministry: “He felt only immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all.” Readers have a different impression, however, suspecting that for all his human failings, this man could well be a saint.
With Scobie, the West African police commissioner, we encounter another paradoxical figure, a Catholic who commits adultery out of pity and then, out of loyalty to his wife, receives Communion while in a state of mortal sin. From that point on, his professional and personal circumstances unravel in an alarming manner and he ends up committing suicide. Scobie is a weak man, but it is hard to envisage him being abandoned by God. In fact, just before he dies, he tries to respond to someone outside his room who is seeking help: ‘He dredged his consciousness up from an infinite distance in order to make some reply. He said aloud, “Dear God, I love…” but the effort was too great and he did not feel his body when it struck the floor … ’ Once more Greene leaves us in doubt as to his character’s ultimate fate. He is motivated by a desire to spare others from suffering and, in his efforts to save them, he appears to endanger his own salvation. His prayer at the end of the novel: “O God, I offer my damnation to you. Take it. Use it for them”, does not ring true somehow. The pity he feels for the two women is less powerful than love and it ultimately does neither woman any good.
Waugh and Greene come close to embracing apologetics at times, but there is a definite sense in which they comply with almost any definition you will find of the Catholic novel. With Waugh, it was only in one main work that Catholicism was centre stage; for Greene Catholic questions about issues surrounding faith are the hallmark of all his most successful work.
What then of the Irish situation? Why did the Catholic novel never flourish in what throughout the centuries was considered a distinctly Catholic country? Catholicism is naturally present in Irish literature, but is usually depicted as an obstacle to artistic expression, something that needs to be exposed for the hypocrisy of its adherents, the repression of the sexual instinct it fostered, its authoritarian approach to moral issues. James Joyce’s rejection of Catholicism to espouse a religion of art has over the years become something of a stereotype. It is true that he had issues with the institutional Church, which he felt was trying to exert undue control over the newly established Free State. But there is no doubting his attachment to some of the ceremonies of Catholicism and that they appealed to his artistic sensibility. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we have the image of a girl coming out of Jacob’s biscuit factory who arouses in Stephen Dedalus a sense of anticipation and excitement:
To him she would unveil his soul’s shy nakedness, to one who was but schooled in the discharging of a formal rite rather than to him, a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.
The radiant image of the eucharist united again in an instant his bitter and despairing thoughts …
For all that he abandoned the Catholic world view and vowed not to serve it, Stephen’s own signifiers deliberately borrow from his knowledge of the religion in which he was raised and educated. In the passage above, Joyce equates the aesthetic in terms of the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, with the artist now a priest of a more secular movement towards transcendence. Stephen’s displeasure with the clerical caste is prompted in part by the undue influence a priest exerts on the object of his desire: “He had done well to leave her to flirt with her priest, to toy with a church which was the scullery maid of Christendom”. In spite of his bitterness, he nevertheless betrays a lingering fascination with Catholic vocabulary and concepts, as is pointed out by an acquaintance later in the novel: “It is a curious thing, do you know,” Cranley said dispassionately, “how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” This comment has relevance for several other Irish novelists who find in Catholicism a religion that is inimical to their artistic imagination and yet they cannot avoid being “supersaturated” with its vestiges. In a similar manner, John McGahern described in Memoir how at a certain point in his life art came to replace Catholicism:
Instead of being a priest of god, I would be the god of a small, vivid world. I must have had some sense of how outrageous and laughable this would appear to the world, because I told no one, but it did serve its first purpose – it set me free.
Throughout the twentieth century, it is hard to find examples of Irish novels which grapple with questions of Catholic faith in any meaningful manner. What is encountered more regularly are denunciations of superstitious religiosity and unflattering portrayals of priests who are more concerned with power and prestige than with any real spiritual quest. There are exceptions, of course. George Moore’s The Lake (1905) is a case in point, a novel in which the protagonist, Fr Oliver Gogarty, recognises that his condemnation from the pulpit of the local schoolteacher, Nora Glynn, who became pregnant outside marriage, was motivated more from jealousy than religious duty. He writes to explain how while pretending to be concerned about her soul, it was Nora herself he wanted. He also tells her “how at Maynooth the tradition was always to despise women”, but that now he intends to follow a different path: “God gave us our human nature; we may misuse and degrade our nature, but we must never forget that it came originally from God.” At the end of the novel, he leaves his parish in the West of Ireland with the intention of starting a new life in America.
Another sympathetic depiction of a priest in twentieth century Irish fiction can be found in Richard Power’s The Hungry Grass (1969) in the person of Father Tom Conroy, whose intellect and spirituality inspire a mixture of fear and respect among his brother priests. But he is not without his faults: he has a fractious relationship with his mother and treats his young curate, Farrell, with an ill-disguised contempt. His life is well summed up by the quotation from Newman that is found at the beginning of the novel: “We are not angels from Heaven that speak to you, but men, whom grace, and grace alone, has made to differ from you.”
Kate O’Brien (1897-1974), like Mauriac, came from a privileged background and was intensely Catholic during her youth before following a different path in adulthood when a burgeoning lesbianism made it difficult for her to remain within the fold. She wrote with great affection about the nuns who were responsible for her education in Laurel Hill (Limerick) in the semi-autobiographical novel The Land of Spices (1941) and produced a good example of an Irish Catholic novel with the The Ante-Room, in 1934. Mary Lavelle (1936) tells the story of a young Irish governess in Spain who ends up having a passionate affair with Juanito, a member of the family in which she is working:
She lay under his hands and marvelled at her peace. She thought of school and home, of John [her fiancé], of God’s law and sin, and did not let herself discard such thoughts. They existed, as real and true as ever, with all their conditional claims on her – but this claim was his, and she would answer it, taking the consequences.
Unlike Agnes in The Ante-Room, whose religious scruples and sense of duty to her family prevent her from yielding to a keen attraction for her brother-in-law, Vincent, Mary allows herself to be seduced by the married Juanito in full knowledge of the danger this poses to her relationship with her Irish fiancé and God. It is not hard to imagine how, in 1936, Mary Lavelle’s fall from grace caused the novel to be banned. Even more shocking than the sex scene with Juanito, perhaps, was the confession of her lesbian love for Mary by Agatha Conlon, another governess: “Are you shocked? I like you the way a man would, you see. I never see you without wanting to touch you … It’s a sin to feel like that.” To which Mary replies: “Oh, everything’s a sin!”
This daring dismissal of sin was ahead of its time and O’Brien was unique in her courageous treatment of taboo subjects in her work. Undoubtedly influenced by her university education (she studied French and spent a good deal of time in both France and Spain) and her exposure to a continental form of Catholicism that was appreciably different to that prevalent in Ireland at the time, O’Brien saw Ireland as a kind of cultural backwater. While she was attracted, like so many other Irish writers, to the sacramental side of Catholicism, she was not prepared to bend the knee to Church or State when their pronouncements were at variance with her personal convictions.
There are numerous other examples of Irish novels that engage with Catholicism in a serious manner, such as Liam O’Flaherty’s Skerrett, Peadar O’Donnell’s Islanders, most of Walter Macken’s work, Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, the novels of John Broderick and Brian Moore and, of course, the entire oeuvre of John McGahern. But for the Catholic novel to flourish, I would contend that its practitioners need to be conscious of writing for a largely de-Christianised public – this was the case in France and England, where the best novels were produced. The problem with Ireland for many years, and especially during most of the nineteenth and twentieth century, was that it was too “Catholic”. Emmet Larkin, in an article on the devotional revolution in Ireland, quotes a nineteenth century preacher who commented:
Take your average Irishman … and you will find that the very first principle in his mind is, ‘I am not an Englishman because I am a Catholic!’ Take an Irishman wherever he is found all over the earth, and any casual observer will at once come to the conclusion, ‘Oh, he is an Irishman, he is a Catholic.’ The two go together.
Perhaps Irish writers would have been more “Catholic” if their compatriots had been less so? The examples of France and England lend credence to this theory. In any case, the failure of Ireland to produce any real Catholic novelist in the twentieth century is quite marked. Perhaps a few will emerge now that Catholicism has faded as a major force in Irish life. In fact, given the sadly diminished reputation of the Catholic Church throughout the Western world at present, the moment may well be ripe for a new flowering of the genre. Richard Griffiths quotes David Lodge’s description of himself as an “agnostic Catholic”, which is a term that applies very well to a large number of writers today. The term Catholic novel may be in need of revision, as it depended strongly on a particular form of belief that is no longer applicable in the third millennium. Lodge provides a template for writers inspired by certain aspects of Catholicism, but who cannot buy into the whole package. In the absence of traditional beliefs holding centre stage, a Catholic novel can emerge, in Griffiths’s view, “on the basis of dialogue and uncertainty, which equally reflect Catholic concerns”. This is well captured in the following lines from Lodge’s Paradise News (1991) where a character, after attending a funeral Mass, expresses doubts about her atheism: “it seemed hard to believe that Ursula (the deceased) was totally extinct, gone for ever. I suppose everyone has these moments of doubt – or should I say, faith?” Doubt is an integral part of faith and in the uncertain world in which we live, it could well be at the heart of many new fictional representations of Catholicism.
For Kathleen O’Flaherty, “the novelist’s function is to present his vision of life and, if he sins against the truth, however estimable his motives, he fails both as an artist and a Christian.” The “truth” is difficult to pin down, particularly when it comes to one’s interaction with something as emotive and personal as Catholic faith. However, novelists like Lodge appear to be adopting fresh approaches which could lead to a regeneration and a reimagining of the genre.
Eamon Maher is Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in IT Tallaght and editor of the Reimagining Ireland book series with Peter Lang Oxford. His most recently published book is The Church and its Spire: John McGahern and the Catholic Question and he is currently writing a study of the Catholic Novel in the twentieth century. He is also co-editing two books, Peregrinations and Ruminations: Franco-Irish Connections in Space and Time (with Catherine Maignant) and Picking up the Pieces: Examining the Stuffing of the Celtic Tiger (with Eugene O’Brien).