On Being a Catholic Writer

Many Catholic writers have balked at being called that. They were Catholic and they wrote, all right, but they didn’t want to be read as if the point of their fiction was a religious message. As if you could earn an indulgence by reading them. And maybe they didn’t like the prospective company. There used to be Catholic book publishers who published Catholic fiction. Some of it was pretty good—I still remember books by a Jesuit named Finn, Tom Playfair, Percy Wynn: I’ve looked for copies of those books but without any luck. Some of that Catholic fiction was pretty bad, of course, largely because it was trying to be so good. You just knew there was a lesson to be learned, like the point of a homily. Priests in those stories were usually unbelievable, almost as unbelievable as the lay people.

A few years ago, I went through a list of the recipients of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal and was struck by the number of novelists, most of them women, who had been honored. I looked up some of their novels and read them. One woman who wrote under the pseudonym of Christian Read had a predilection for plots in which Protestants were bested in argument and eventually came into the Church. (She herself was a convert.) Other women wrote movingly of the plight of single Irish girls in the New World. Maurice Francis Egan, who ended up as American ambassador to Denmark, wrote some pretty good novels. Kate Chopin never won the Laetare Medal but she was a powerful Catholic writer at the turn of the century. Not everyone knows that Knute Rockne wrote a novel called The Four Winners: The Hands, The Feet, The Head and the Ball, a boys’ book set at DuLac Academy. When I first came upon it, I was disposed to laugh—until I noticed that it was dedicated to one Arnold McInerny who had fallen in the First World War.

Such items suggest that there was a tradition of Catholic writing that is ignored in standard accounts of American literature. Is this because it was inferior? Much of it wasn’t. It was simply not aimed at the WASP audience. It was sort of like the Negro Baseball League.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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I don’t mean that Catholic fiction is a genre, sort of like westerns and mysteries, and that the Catholic writer simply works within certain conventions. The more you think about it, the less plausible that is. Historians would probably explain the marginal place of Catholic fiction by noting the immigrant status of Catholics and the fact that they were generally far down on the social scale. If you live in a more or less hostile cultural environment, the explanation would run, you will produce your own culture.

I don’t know what American Catholic first wrote simply for whom it might concern, to be read as one might read anyone else off the shelf. F. Scott Fitzgerald was certainly not the first, but in this, as in other matters, he provides a cautionary tale. Most biographers of Fitzgerald—and their number increases annually—show little interest in his Catholicism. I have a theory that he was shamed out of it by people like Edmund Wilson, who patronized Fitzgerald while secretly envying him. In a letter from St. Paul where he had gone to write This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald wrote Wilson that he “tells his chrystalline beads no more,” a sad little remark that seems to invite congratulations from Wilson.

Fitzgerald is a complicated case, but it can be said, I think, that he came to see his faith as an impediment to his literary ambitions. His short story, “Absolution,” intended as the beginning of The Great Gatsby, reads like an outsider’s view of the terrors of the confessional and the perils of the celibate life. But Catholicism never lost its hold on Fitzgerald’s imagination. Beneath the romantic longing and the effort to find gold behind the glitter, Fitzgerald’s fiction takes place under the watchful godlike eye of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. It is good to know that Fitzgerald now lies in consecrated ground.

But it is the apostate Catholic writer James Joyce who looms large. The end of the Portrait makes clear that Joyce saw his art as a substitute for religion—it was either/or. Joyce took no cheap shots at the faith he abandoned, however, something one notices after the spate of novels written by disgruntled Catholics telling the world how awful it was, all that sexual repression and sense of sin, the hypocritical clergy and religious. The note of special pleading is dominant.

It is a good thing for an aspiring writer, and everyone else, to realize that Western literature, our entire culture as a matter of fact, is inconceivable apart from the faith of those who produced it. This overwhelmingly obvious fact is an antidote against the not always implicit assumption that religious belief is an impediment in the arts. It would be easier to argue, historically, that in large part Christian faith has been a condition of existence for the arts.

“But enough about me,” the typical writer might say. “What did you think of my last book?” I have been uncharacteristically keeping myself out of the discussion thus far, but now I want to make a personal appearance.

The thought of becoming a writer came to me in stages. First, as a kid, when I spent a lot of time in the Roosevelt Branch Library on 28th Avenue in South Minneapolis. At thirteen, I went off to Nazareth Hall, the minor seminary of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, and this opened up a whole new world to me. In my first year, an upperclassman named Waldo Hermes handed me Maisie Ward’s life of Chesterton, saying he thought I might like it. The book was almost as big as I was, and I was flattered by the thought that I moved in the same mental universe as young men who needed to shave.

Chesterton did it for me. I wanted to do the sort of thing he did. At the back of study hall there were a few reference works, among them a huge green volume, Twentieth Century Authors by Kunitz & Haycraft. I spent hours with it, reading about writers, looking at the little postage-stamp-size photographs of them, noting how old they were when their first book was published. How I longed to be among their number. When I joined the Marine Corps at the age of seventeen, I thought I was embarking on my career as a writer. College? Not on your life. I would confront life in the raw and write memorably about it. The main thing I did in the Marines was to read through the section on American fiction in the El Toro library. And I kept a notebook in which I issued promises and predictions to myself.

When I got out, I went back to the seminary, and writing was done on the edge of other things, as it usually is. I wrote poems and a verse play and began a novel. But I was more interested in being a writer than in writing, so to say. When Chesterton was in art school, he noticed that there were more artists than people who painted and drew. Dilettantes. I was one.

For years I entertained the velleity of being a writer. Months would go by during which I wrote nothing at all. I published a couple poems—scholarly writing is not writing in the sense we are talking of here—I completed two alleged novels as well as some stories, but I really wasn’t serious about writing. It was necessity, as they say, that became the mother of invention.

I was now a professor of philosophy, married, the father of a growing family, and we bought a house to keep them in, more house than I could afford. I borrowed money in order to take on the mortgage. I faced the prospect of five years of two payments a month on the house. What to do? I remembered a writers’ magazine I had bought in the train station in Los Angeles in 1946. Its advertisements and articles were devoted to the proposition that there was money to be made writing. I was in need of money. Therefore I could write.

Write seriously. I made a resolution to write every day for a year and if at the end of that time I had not sold anything I would take up bank robbing or maybe sell one of the kids. Every night at ten o’clock, after the kids had been put to bed, and Connie and I had some time together, I went down to the basement where I had put my typewriter on a work bench, and, standing, would write until two o’clock. Since I wanted to make money, I aimed my stories at the slick magazines. I was about to serve my apprenticeship as a writer.

Not many weeks passed before it dawned on me that I hadn’t the least idea what I was doing. Well, maybe the least idea. But the transition from consumer of fiction to producer is a wrenching one. It is necessary to become quite analytical about what it is in the stories one enjoys that engages one’s interest and holds it. What is it that makes a story linger in the imagination after we have finished it? There are techniques to be learned. The difference between a serious writer and a dilettante lies in their contrasting attitudes toward technique. The dilettante writes to amuse himself, an easy task, but the serious writer seeks to interest a reader. Over my typewriter I pinned the legend: No one owes you a reading. It has to be earned. The old-fashioned way—with plot.

Under the tutelage of my first editor, Sandra Earl at Redbook, I learned to turn hitherto shapeless narratives into stories. Later I saw that I was learning the hard way what I had read about in Aristotle’s Poetics. And I was constrained by the demands of commercial fiction. There was no room for tangential flights of fancy. “Why the second paragraph on page 9?” an editor might query. “It is so wonderfully well written,” would not serve as an answer. It had to play a role in the story. I learned economy and I learned to concentrate on what the reader’s likely response would be so that I could guide it by what I wrote. If you devote a paragraph to the view from the back bedroom window in a short story, that better be significant for the way things come out.

The thing about technique is that it can be taught and learned. This is true of any of the arts. You can take a course in watercolors, you can take piccolo lessons, you can take a writing course. The emphasis will be on technique, how to do it. What the course cannot give you is vision or a voice. You can mimic the masters for a while, you might do plausible imitations of them—art imitating art rather than nature—and come to realize that is all you can do.

This is why technique is looked down upon. This is why, fatally, it is thought to be unimportant. The fact that it is not sufficient does not make it unnecessary. Even E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, laments that he must tell a story in order to amuse the masses when he would rather just write. Thank God for the masses if they made Forster write the novels he did. A contempt for the masses goes hand in hand with the rejection of technique as the means of engaging the reader.

It is with something more than technique that the question of the Catholic writer arises. Stories are about people doing things, pursuing goals, meeting difficulties, overcoming or being overcome, succeeding or failing. The men and women in stories face problems we all face, and this can interest us in the account of how they fare. Now this is true of commercial short stories as well. Why is it that having made some money, gotten out of debt, and learned how to write, I would not have wanted to just go on writing for those markets? It had to do with the range of issues, the treatment of them, the constraints I mentioned above. Some of the stories I wrote for the magazines were as good as any I have done. “The First Farewell”, my debut in Redbook, is all right; and the novella I wrote for the same magazine, A Season of Endings, inspired a bit by Fitzgerald’s Winter Dreams, is better than I remembered. But basically what I wrote were domestic stories—the first recital, going off to camp, the visiting grandma: dramas but not pressed to any great depths. And love stories, the most persistent theme of fiction.

My first novel, Jolly Rogerson, was published by Doubleday in 1967, my second, A Narrow Time, in 1969. What I had learned on the magazines enabled me to write these, and in doing so I realized I was liberated from a kind of generic set of standards of success and failure. Slick magazine fiction does not go to the most fundamental questions involved in human action. It sails the sea of received opinion. In my first novels I was able to write out of my own deepest beliefs about what it all means. In those novels, I realized I had a voice and a mass of material and that I wanted to go on doing this as long as I lived.

My characters were Catholic. They saw what they were doing through the lens of their faith; success and failure finally was a matter of grace or sin. Catholic fiction in this sense is not a matter of lore or the settings but of the nature of the eye through which the action is seen. J. F. Powers is an exquisite writer about Catholic things, and Flannery O’Connor, equally good, mentions things Catholic in only one of her short stories—but the sensibility of all her fiction is Catholic.

When Dante dedicated the Paradiso to Can Grande della Scala, he said that the literal meaning of the Divine Comedy is the way in which human beings by their own free acts earn eternal punishment or reward. That is the vision of human action that makes fiction Catholic. It is not a matter of having priests and nuns on the set, not a matter of explicit reference to Catholic things, but rather the Dantesque vision. There are priests and nuns in stories that lack this vision; this vision is present where there is nothing peculiarly Catholic in view.

My next two novels, The Priest (1973) and Gate of Heaven (1975), were about Catholic things as well as being Catholic in the fundamental sense. The first asked, in effect, what it was like for a young priest in the postconciliar Church, and the second asked what it was like for old priests who saw the structures of a lifetime crumble around them. The Priest was a best seller; Gate of Heaven has its discriminating fans.

It was this writing about priests that led to the suggestion that I try my hand at a mystery series involving a clerical sleuth. Somewhat reluctantly, I responded, little suspecting that Father Dowling would turn out to be my most popular character. Mysteries are matters of life and death, of crime and punishment, but sin and forgiveness are also in play, and it is the latter that explain Roger Dowling’s interest in murder and mayhem. The television series, based loosely on these stories, ran for three years in prime time and continues to be shown both here and abroad. A few weeks ago, a priest from Japan told me he had watched the series in Tokyo. I forbore asking him if he liked my characters in Japanese. Last summer I published two Father Dowling novels for younger readers, dedicated to two of my granddaughters. Future titles will be dedicated to other grandchildren, out of which I am not likely to run.

There are other mystery series and other novels, some in my own name, others under pseudonyms. I am having, thank God, the exuberantly pullulating writing career I thought of when reading Chesterton. It was, of course, the Father Brown stories that gave me pause when I was asked to invent a clerical sleuth. But I am reconciled to being less than Chesterton. And there are many things in the wings.

Just as natural law is included in Christian revelation, so there is a natural moral vision of human action operating in fiction that is not Catholic in the sense mentioned above. Alas, we live in a time when natural morality is thought to be religious, doubtless because the Church seems the major champion and defender of the natural law. The recognition that adultery and deviance and killing people is wrong is often thought to be the quirky outlook of Christians. But of course great pagan literature also proceeds from this recognition.

Embarrassment about the notion of the Catholic writer is like embarrassment at the notion of Catholic universities. The faith is seen as an embarrassment and an impediment. Both attitudes founder on the same fact. Universities were born ex corde ecclesiae, out of the heart of the Church, and so was our literature. Being a Catholic writer is not a falling away from an ideal; it is the way to fulfill the ideal completely—to see human acts in terms of the ultimate stakes of life.

And to engage and amuse the reader in doing so.

This essay by the late Ralph McInerny first appeared in the December 1995 issue of Crisis magazine.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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