I can’t think of a better way to end this series on defining Catholic fiction than an interview with Dominic de Souza, an author who has written a book on exactly this subject!
Do you have a favorite Catholic fiction author?
I bit into Chesterton in my first year in college, and formed a fast friendship with his rambling, intense style. He has written a number of stories that break open the heart of a true Catholic soul rapt with the transcendent and the darkly human, and how grace works with both. While his language is certainly more Victorian, it’s a mental hauling up back to his level to enjoy the richness of his vision.
What qualifies an author’s fiction as Catholic fiction? How do you identify a novel as Catholic Fiction?
In a sense, any author, atheist or Christian, can write ‘Catholic fiction’. Let me explain. If we understand that Catholicism is religion instituted by Christ, and as God, it therefore encompasses every atom and attribute of this universe, whether of the world of angels, demons or men. Any story that is ultimately grounded in a universe as understood by God and expressed through the ordinary medium of His Church, counts as Catholic fiction, in a loose sense.
Obviously, this opens the door wide to a multitude of books and stories, and in the spirit of St Basil’s address to Youth on Greek literature, anything that praises the good and condemns the evil should be preserved, for this is a fundamental sigh of our souls, stemming from Heaven. The Church has always celebrated the good, true and beautiful wherever it is found, regardless of culture, time or place. So a book written by a modernist that inspires a deep appreciation for family, or honor, or some good value, can be more efficacious in the growth of goodness in the world compared to a poorly invented miracle story filled with Catholic religious.
Within the Catholic world, there is obviously a tighter definition of ‘Catholic fiction’, as something that can be overtly and – perhaps immediately – understood to be in support of our Creed and the culture in which the story is written. The Catholic convictions of the author guarantee for us that the story we are embarking on, or sharing with our children, is one that is safe, and won’t challenge our deeply held beliefs.
Flannery O’Connor is quite emphatic that good ‘Catholic fiction’ may well not be readable, or enjoyable by most Catholics. The idea that fiction written for Catholics should be less challenging is not necessarily accurate. While a Catholic author should always have a clear audience in mind, not everything written by a Catholic author should be readable by every Catholic. A reader has as much responsibility to be prepared to read what an author may provide him.
Do you think a book that doesn’t mention religion or Catholicism can be Catholic fiction?
Absolutely. In fact, in today’s world, with anti-Catholicism as the norm, Catholic authors may make far better headway in sharing the goodness of the Gospel by dramatizing evil and virtue, grace, goodness and the messy, sticky haul from sin to salvation. Some of the most popular shows on TV today are so popular because the heroes grapple with what are essentially Catholic understandings of goodness. ‘How do I matter? what should I do with my life? What is the meaning of family?”
Catholic Fiction is not dramatized evangelization. Leave the apologetics to the apologists. Fiction is an area of creative art where authors sub-create worlds, events and people to communicate an idea. Catholic authors have a greater responsibility to communicate the beauty of goodness and the detestability of evil, however they may choose to.
While a non-Catholic audience may be interested in stories of saints and nuns, priests and popes, they see them as strange artifacts of a dying super-religion. Perhaps that’s not the best starting point for a discussion. As always, a Catholic author must have a pretty clear idea of the audience he/she is writing for, and tailor their story accordingly.
What do you think separates secular fiction from Catholic fiction?
More often than not, secular fiction is similar to a sailor waking up alone in the middle of a shipwreck, sitting on an uncharted beach and surrounded by a wealth of washed up, disconnected artifacts, unintelligible scrolls, and remnants of ancient cultures. As he tries to create some sort of life and meaning, he pulls together random elements as they speak to him. Over time, trying to guess at the ‘real’ meaning behind these things, he tells himself stories based on his experiences and assumptions.
If the captain of the ship was around, he could tell him that this was one of many convoys from a great, Catholic empire. He could explain how all the pieces worked together, and read to him from the wealth of literature feeding his fires. Secular fiction is often in love with certain virtues, and rejects certain vices, but everything is unmoored from a single theology that makes sense of the world. Obviously, misunderstanding is rife, wrong assumptions become popular memes, and often misinformation goes viral because it fits the story that an anti-Christian culture is being told.
Secular fiction doesn’t know where to draw the line between good and evil, because it can’t decide on those definitions. Because of that, heroes, anti-heroes and villains are a confused mix of tropes, themes and theologies. All that being said, there are many excellent, excellent secular storytellers out there. We have only to look at the most popular stories in books and on television to see that they well know how to captivate an audience.
Good, Catholic fiction is grounded in an authentic understanding of the world, stemming from a deep familiar with the lure of sin, laments of lost graces and grappling for redemption. On the surface, Catholic fiction may not seem any more religious than secular fiction. It does quietly, or aggressively, advocate universal truths, delve into the core of the commandments written in all our hearts, and ultimately start a discussion, plant a seed, change a paradigm.
Do you identify your own novels as Catholic? What makes them so?
All of my novels are ‘Catholic’, in the sense that they are all born in a world built on Catholic theology, or dreamed up in a fantasy world inspired by our Faith. The spiritual war between goodness and evil is the foundation of all books, and a desire to learn more about the truth, to love goodness and promote beauty is the backbone of everything I write.
Are your books explicitly Catholic, or are they secular stories with Catholic themes?
Most of the material that I’ve been sharing is of the overtly Catholic kind, meant for an expressly Catholic audience. Some of the larger novels that I am working on will try to step away from such explicit Catholicism, to try to reach other audiences with the building blocks that make up our worldview.
I well may write ‘secular’ seeming stories in the future, and embrace the opportunity, but I believe that a Catholic author can write anything, and shouldn’t feel restricted to writing happy endings, fairy tales and Frank Capra-esque ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ riffs. So much of the light and beauty of Catholicism has been exorcised from popular culture. Modern culture is ripe for dark stories, and a Catholic author is the only kind I trust to tell those stories well without getting lost in the darkness.