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A Hermeneutic of Continuity

November 26, 2013 9:37 am | 22 Comments

Hello! I’m honored to be writing to you from my attic sitting-room in Scotland. Ignatius Press has invited me, one of its most recent living authors, to post about Catholic literature. This I am delighted to do. Indeed, I have so much to write on the subject that I am determined to return here every Tuesday to write it.

But first I must admit that my point of view is not that of a learned professor. Although I have a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Saint Michael’s College (Toronto) and an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto, I am not a professor of English Literature. And although I have an M.Div. and an S.T.B. from the University of Toronto’s Regis College, I am not a Catholic theologian, except in Saint Anselm’s sense that I am a Catholic whose faith leads her to seek understanding.

My point of view is merely that of one particular Roman Catholic who writes as a Roman Catholic for print publication and is interested in other Roman Catholics who have done the same. My observations lead me to believe that, even in the English-speaking countries, we belong to an unbroken tradition.

There is a tendency among today’s book-loving Catholics to see Catholic writers of the period immediately preceding the Second Vatican Council through a golden glow and to sigh for a lost age of Catholic literature. This was the age of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, authors whose work I too deeply admire. Both men were converts to Roman Catholicism, mind you, and therefore were raised without any consciousness of belonging to a minority culture. I believe it is a sense of becoming, once again, alienated from the majority culture that blinds today’s Roman Catholics to those Roman Catholic writers in English who have managed to thrive since 1963.

But many Catholic writers, some now living, some departed, have indeed published excellent work since 1963. Just off the top of my head I can list the novelists Muriel Spark (Scotland), Alice Thomas Ellis (England), Piers Paul Read (England), Morley Callaghan (Canada), David Adam Richards (Canada), Walker Percy (USA) and Father Andrew Greeley (USA)*, the poets Richard Greene (Canada) and Sally Read (England), and even the cookbook writer Jennifer Paterson of “Two Fat Ladies” fame.

These are (or were) not what we might call “cultural Catholics”, people whose writing is or was informed by a childhood Catholicism no longer central to their daily lives. These are (or were) Catholics who go (or went) to Mass as adults. They are (or were) very well-known outside Catholic circles. They do not (or did not) find their Catholicism a block to their literary ambitions.

And I make this point because I think it is important for Roman Catholics who have literary ambitions to understand that they are part of an unbroken tradition. Yes, there are challenges and headaches for aspiring Catholic writers particular to our times (more anon), but that is no reason to despair. Although many artists and critics look down on Catholicism, there is no organized plot to keep good Catholic writers down.

I look forward to your remarks in the comments box. Personally, I’d like to know the names of your favorite believing Catholic novelists, poets and cookbook authors who were writing AFTER 1963.

*Full disclosure: My mother told me I could not read Father Andrew Greeley’s novels until I was a married lady. Although I am now a married lady, I still have not read his novels.

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living in Scotland. Her first novel with Ignatius Press is Ceremony of Innocence. She has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Single Life, is a popular work of nonfiction.

Tags: Catholic literature Evelyn Waugh


  1. November 26, 2013 at 10:42 am


    You mention Fr. Greeley. Isn’t he somewhat doctrinally suspect?

    Honestly curious,

  2. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    November 26, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    During his lifetime, Father Greeley was often controversial. My mother certainly considered his novels too racy for unmarried Catholics to read, and he certainly said things I disagreed with. But to my knowledge he was never disciplined nor investigated for suspect views

    The American journalist John L. Allen Jr wrote a good and balanced obituary about him. Here it is:

  3. November 26, 2013 at 4:31 pm


    But did not Fr. Greeley call for women priests? I mean, that alone, after Bl. John Paul II’s denouncing that nonsense, should give the practicing Catholic pause. Which brings me to my question: Is Catholic literature affected by the fidelity or lack thereof of the author to the Magisterium? Does such hypothetical lack vitiate the novel as Catholic?

    Yours sincerely,

  4. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    November 26, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    Well, what do you think? Take a famous layman, like Graham Greene, for example. If you knew that Graham Greene had contradicted John Paul 2, would you cease to think of “The Power and the Glory” as a Catholic novel or of Graham Greene as a Catholic novelist?

  5. November 26, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    Congratulations on your newest book, Ms. McLean!

    Although I have read and enjoyed all the new novels published by Ignatius (especially Poor Banished Children by Fiorella de Maria), I’m afraid I honestly can’t think of any Catholic authors who wrote post 1963 (aside from the ones you mentioned) who could judged to be the same stunning caliber as the plethora of those who wrote prior to 1963. I wish there were! I think that part of the problem is that the demand for such writing disappeared along with the authors. The same problem has occurred in the fine arts. There are now no living artists capable of painting truly world-class altarpieces. Perhaps the role of our generation is to ensure that the next generation receives the training necessary to produce great art as well as an understanding of why it is important.

    P.S. Not to contradict everything I just wrote, but I just now thought of one new book that I would heartily recommend: Trianon: A Novel of Royal France by Elena Maria Vidal.

  6. November 26, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    Hurrah! I’m so excited about this blog. Am adding it to my Feedly immediately.

    I’d like to know the names of your favorite believing Catholic novelists, poets and cookbook authors who were writing AFTER 1963.

    So would I! Most of my favorite post-1963 authors are Mormon. I will have to get back to you when I’ve read more Catholics from this era. All I can think of at the moment are Nicholas Sparks and you. ;) I did very much enjoy both A Walk to Remember and your book, in rather different decades of my life and for rather different reasons. By the bye, while I do not think I would ask my book club to read Sparks, I did cheerfully recommend Ceremony of Innocence, and it was voted into the lineup for this coming spring. :)

    Now I need to go Google some of these authors!

  7. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    November 27, 2013 at 6:26 am

    Thank you, Gwyneth and Jenna! I didn’t know Nicholas Sparks is a Catholic, and I will have to look up Elena Maria Vidal.

  8. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    November 27, 2013 at 6:31 am

    The internet turned up a great interview with Nicholas Sparks!

  9. John Herreid

    November 27, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    There are also a number of Catholic writers working in what we might call genre fiction, though some I would say transcend that description. For example, Gene Wolfe (science fiction / fantasy, though I would say his many of his works deserve serious consideration as great literature), Tim Powers (hard to classify, but generally gets thrown on the sci-fi/fantasy shelf), Dean Koontz (thriller, fantasy), Mike Flynn (sci-fi), and John C. Wright (sci-fi).

  10. November 27, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    John Kennedy Toole! Though his body of work is extremely limited, I think it’s safe to count him among the brilliant and influential Catholic authors.

  11. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    November 27, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    Re: Toole. I very much loved “Confederacy of Dunces”!

  12. November 27, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    I think that’s the bigger question: What makes a novel a Catholic novel, as opposed to a novel that is written by a baptised Catholic? Or are they one in the same? I’m honestly curious as to your response.


  13. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    November 27, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    That’s a great question and a fascinating topic. I’ll be writing about that next Tuesday. This week’s post is about Catholic authors (Catholics with a living faith who write) who have written since 1963. Who are your favorite post-1963 Catholic authors of fiction or poetry?

  14. November 28, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Back to Father Greeley, I read him when I was in my twenties and loved his first few novels, but later whether it was because my own faith had undergone a change with my own maturity, or whether it was because Fr. Greeley ‘s novels began to take on a tone I believed to be contrary to my Catholic beliefs, I stopped reading them .

  15. November 28, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    My definition of a Catholic novel is one in which Catholicism is assumed to be true. A Catholic novel doesn’t need to be be overtly Catholic or have characters who are Catholic. It’s a matter of world view.

    As for post 1963 Catholic authors, I would recommend Tim Powers whose novel “Declare” is a sort of thriller/spy novel with supernatural elements. I think it is my favorite modern novel. Most of his work does not contain explicitly Catholic elements, though his short story “Through and Through” takes place in a confessional and “The Way Down the Hill” is informed by a pro-life world view. (Both stories are in the collection “Strange Itineraries”.)

    I will look forward to reading your take on the “challenges and headaches for aspiring Catholic writers particular to our times.” Though I agree that there is no organized plot to keep aspiring Catholic authors down, there is certainly hostility against Catholics (or Christians in general) in some literary circles. I am thinking of the fantasy & science fiction community in particular.


  16. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    November 28, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    Oh yes! Fear not. I will most definitely be writing about the hostility. All the more reason, I think, for Catholic publishers to support different kinds of Catholic writing, and for successful Catholic writers to teach aspiring Catholic writers, and for the creation of Catholic writing groups–not to enforce orthodoxy among writers, but simply so time is not wasted in defending the Church and the Christian faith when the subject at hand is WRITING.

  17. November 29, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    I’m not particularly familiar with the state of modern sci-fi, but here are two excellent articles detailing some Catholic sci-fi and fantasy writers:

    I’ve read a fair amount of Gene Wolfe’s work and I think he is one of the finest writers in any genre I have had the pleasure of reading.

  18. November 30, 2013 at 12:44 am


    I honestly can’t think of any, except Sparks, and Tom Clancy in his earlier novels (if we’re going by CB’s definition of a novel that at least hints at Catholicism as being true – ex. while Clancy was far from sainthood, his character Jack Ryan is one of the few sympathetic portrayals of a pro-life Catholic politician).

    But if you want a GREAT Catholic novel, you have to go before 1963. Unless Tolkien counts as after 1963, but most of his work was before then.

  19. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 1, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    The issue of greatness is an interesting one, too, because usually some time has to elapse before we can say, “Yep! So-and-so really stands out among the writers of his/her generation as truly great.” Meanwhile, it’s cheating a bit (I think) to cite Greene, as a lot of his work was also before 1963, but many people really love his post-Vatican II retelling of Don Quixote, “Monsignor Quixote.” Another definitely Catholic novel-by a Catholic about Catholics in universe known by Catholics written after 1963 (about the 1950s) is Alice Thomas Ellis’s “The Clothes in the Wardrobe.”

  20. December 2, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Well, she died in 1964 and I´m not sure how much she managed to writer AFTER 1963 (I know she worked up until a few days before she died) but to my mind she´s the greatest of American Catholic (in all senses) writers of the previous century: Flannery O´Connor.

  21. Dorothy Cummings McLean

    December 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    I think Flannery O’Connor is the undisputed queen of American Catholic letters! Who would you recommend as American Catholic (in all senses) writers well worth reading?

  22. […] the other problems is the sort of backward-looking view described by Dorothy Cummings McLean in this previous post here at Novel Thoughts. Many Catholics seem to be suspicious about seeking out or supporting new art unless it’s […]

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