Catholic Writers

I ran across a couple of things last week that has me back on one of my favorite hobby horses. The first was this article by Joseph Bottom in First Things. He has some interesting things to say about Morris West, “the most popular Catholic writer of the twentieth century” and author of the novels Shoes of the Fisherman, The Clowns of God, and many others besides. My favorite quote: “Christian belief is not always a comfort but a bleak acceptance of a dark mystery”, which has the ring of … well, the ring of dark mystery, actually.

These days, when we talk about Catholic fiction, we talk about the classics, and those books that we think or hope will one day be regarded as classics. And for good reason. After all, these are books that have changed us, or at least changed the way we thought about whatever it was we thought. Various works of Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor foremost among them. Morris West aimed for something different. As Bottom goes on to say,

Here was a bestselling author writing on things specifically Catholic—not the lives of Catholic people, not the real moral implications of Catholic theology, but the sheer technicalities of the Catholic Church: the process of canonization, the ordination of priests, the internal bureaucracy of the Vatican.

This probably reflects a different era, when people were happy to inform themselves about a subject by reading a novel – even if that subject is the religion in which they’ve been raised. I’d guess that this is less true now, probably because there are so many different sources for that same information. Blogs, for example.

Bottom also mentioned Mario Puzo, and this stirred up thoughts about the mid-range Catholic novel. There’s Andrew Greeley, of course. And John R. Powers; he’s a bit better than that, isn’t he? Brian Moore and Paul Horgan. But what about Edwin O’Connor, Myles Connolly and Evelyn Waugh. Hmm. There not exactly mid-range though, are they? Not to mention Graham Greene. With Greene you get the convert, the dutiful, the miracle-seeker and the apostate, all rolled up in on. ‘Fair-to-middling’ is a bit of insult for him, I’d say.

What about Francois Mauriac? Julien Green? Flann O’Brien? Rumer Godden? They’re pretty good. Not to mention Georges Bernanos and J.R.R. Tolkien. Walter Miller. No list would be complete without Chesterton or Sigrid Undset. You could also include Brian Moore, Anne Rice, Tony Hillerman, and Piers Paul Reid. Carlos Fuentes. Gabriel García Márquez, come to think of it. Even Oscar Wilde (trying to show it’s never too late). To continue, in no particular order: Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Ronald Knox. Paul Horgan, J.F. Powers, David Lodge, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess, Shusaku Endo, Andre Dubus, and Ron Hansen. William F. Buckley. His son Christopher Buckley. Evelyn’s son Auberon Waugh. Jules Verne; did you know he was Catholic? Wallace Stevens (a deathbed conversion, if you didn’t already know). Off the top of my head, there’s also Sherman Alexie, Hillaire Belloc, Karel Čapek, John Dryden, Gustave Flaubert, George Santayana, Seamus Heaney, Marcel Proust, Jack Kerouac, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Allen Tate, and Eugene O’Neill. Paul Claudel. Katherine Anne Porter and Ernest Hemingway. Robert Musil. He brings to mind other Germans: Alfred Döblin, Erich Maria Remarque, Elisabeth Langgässer, and Joseph Roth. Leon Bloy. Never mind Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce. Going back a ways: Stendhal, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas More, Erasmus, Jonathan Swift, Miguel Cervantes, Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio. Chaucer. But not, repeat NOT, Jeffrey Ford.


  1. Anonymous says


    Jeff Ford

  2. Jonathan Webb says

    Sherman Alexie, really? Practicing?

  3. Jonathan Webb says

    Eugene O’Neil, for real? Do you mean it?

  4. Rufus McCain says

    Cf. this

    And this.

    And this:

    Although some have attempted to interpret Smoke Signals through American Indian spirituality, Alexie says it is a stretch. “I grew up Catholic – my dad is very Catholic – and then I went to college in Spokane at a Jesuit university,” he said. “I still am heavily Catholic – and Christian-influenced. I write about what I am not what I want to be. A lot more (Indians) pretend to be more traditional and connected than they are. It’s been fun to see people try to understand (the film) through Native American spirituality.”

  5. Dorothy Day, prior to her conversion, was an associate of Eugene O’Neil the great American playright. However, Eugene O’Neil would no more start the Catholic anything movement than would Henry VIII. He died, by the way, without the sacraments because his wife would not permit a priest to enter his house even though he requested one. She wanted to ensure he died the atheist he professed himself to be. He was, however, a baptized Catholic.

  6. The Ironic Catholic says

    Hmmm, Where’s Jon Hassler on this extensive list? (Staggerford, North of Hope, Simon’s Night?, etc.) Curious of your opinion….

  7. Quin Finnegan says

    Hassler should’ve been on the list. ‘North of Hope’ has been recommended before, but I haven’t read him myself. I started Staggerford once, but didn’t care for it much.

    Truth be told, I haven’t read Leon Bloy, Elisabeth Langgässer or Auberon Waugh, either. And my knowledge of some of the others is pretty sketchy, at best. I must have read something by AW in National Review, but it’s long forgotten. I’ve only poked around Alexie’s books while standing around Barnes and Noble, but Potter’s a big fan so I had to include him.

    Annie Dillard should be there, too. And probably a lot of others as well. Sorry for all the omissions, which is the biggest problem with a list like this. Actually, it’s a dumb list. This hobby horse has been beaten to death.

    Thanks for the info about O’Neill; rather a sad end there. The Stevens story might serve as a counterweight, and you can find it here.

  8. Jonathan Webb says

    Maybe Jesus himself entered the room while the wife wasn’t looking;he was dressed as a priest and provided last rites.

    I’m sticking to this one.

  9. Anonymous says

    Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare.

    Barry Lopez.

  10. Steve Hayes says

    Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers — weren’t they Anglicans?

  11. Jonathan Potter says

    Jonathan Swift an anglican, too, methinks.

  12. Last I heard Christopher Buckley was an agnostic.

  13. Rufus McCain says

    Lickona posted an entry awhile back about Richard Russo being another good contemporary example.

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