Posted by: frroberts | September 20, 2015

Recommended Novels for a cultured Catholic

Lewis, The Chronicles of Narina.

Waugh, Brideshead Revisited.

One of the most well-written novels of the twentieth century in the English language.  The author, a devout Catholic, described it as a meditation on the irresistibility Divine grace.

Waugh, Helena.

Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter.

A great period novel set in 14th century Norway that explores a woman’s love affair with a knight and her life of faith.  My spiritual director and a professor in seminary said that this trilogy helped them understand how a woman’s mind works.  Having read them, I agree with their judgment.

Dante, Paradisio.

Marshall, Sword and Serpent.  Historical novel by Episcopalian priest convert to Roman Catholicism about Saint George set in the late third century.

Percy, The Moviergoer.

T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral.


  1. With all due respect for this list (which is not a bad place to start), I’m going to make an annoying suggestion: to be a cultured Catholic you need to read novels published after 1961 (and not just young adult fiction, my apologies to Mr. Marshall). I think we also need to face up to the fact that C. S. Lewis is not practicing at the greatest heights of literary craft, however earnest his novels may be–but that’s a debate for another day.

    Right now I want to point out that there is a lot going on in Catholic literature today.

    It’s actually been a big couple of years for Catholic literature, with works that deal with explicitly Catholic themes gaining notable public attention. Phil Klay won the 2014 National Book Award for his short story collection, “Redeployment.” Klay is a Catholic who explicitly acknowledges the influence of O’Conner, Mauriac, Greene and Waugh (in an interview on “Fresh Air”). And Mary Szybist won the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry for “Incarnadine,” which is built around a series of meditations on the Annunciation.

    From the not-so distant past, Andre Dubus’ “Meditations from a Movable Chair” (1998) is an incredible collection of essays. And I recently finished Fanny Howe’s “Saving History” (1993), which is devastating and provocative, and I hear her “Indivisible” (2000) is even better. She collects five short novels in a collection called “Radical Love,” where she states in the introduction: “The five short novels in this volume share a single intention: religious experience.”

    There is also Marie Howe’s 2008 “Kingdom of Ordinary Time,” which has been on my radar but which I have not read. There are other things out there, too–these are just the few that came to mind immediately, and that are explicitly Catholic in their content. The are all challenging.

    The search for Catholic culture in the contemporary world is a strange thing: you never know where you’re going to find serious Catholic artists making the work that will be the backbone of tomorrow’s canon for the cultured Catholic. It was a small revelation for me when I found out that Andy Warhol was a devout Catholic for his entire life. His “Last Supper” paintings blew me away when I saw them some 15 years ago. I have been thinking about them lately and am beginning to wonder whether they might not have been a signpost in my journey back to the Catholic faith–quietly creating new images for the faith in a contemporary idiom. That these seem foreign, out of place, difficult or strange in a contemporary visual language should not surprise us: Christ’s radical message for us is almost certainly falsified when it is tamed.

    Don’t get me wrong–I have no problem with Waugh, Dante or Eliot. My copy of the Eliot’s Complete Writings is the most opened book on my shelf, “Murder in the Cathedral” is the reason I chose Thomas for my confirmation name, and The Four Quartets are probably my favorite poem. But I think it’s also good to poke our heads above the water and follow some contemporary artists, to see where they take us.


  2. Brian, you raise some excellent points. The question of contemporary Catholic culture can be a vexing one. I admit that I pine for the day when there was a stronger sense of broad Christian orthodoxy and thus an ability to think in the contemporary world in creative ways.


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