Why do Catholic priests keep popping up in sci-fi?

[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s space issue, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Click here to find our other stories that are out of this world.]

This month, Simon & Schuster will reissue a short story collection entitled The Toynbee Convector, by science fiction master Ray Bradbury, best known for classics like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. First published in 1988, The Toynbee Convector features 23 stories, among them “Bless Me, Father, for I Have Sinned,” about a priest who hears a chilling confession on a snowy Christmas Eve.

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That story—as well as countless other science fiction classics published over the centuries—raises an intriguing question: Why do priests and other religious figures play such an important role in the fantastic worlds and futuristic dystopias conjured by a wide range of sci-fi writers?

It may take decades to fully explain how and why this all happened. What we do know is that, for centuries now, science fiction has helped us grapple with our most complicated historical, political and—most definitely—spiritual questions.

Science fiction writers continue to turn to religious characters, imagery and ideas to sort things out.

These days, it is easy to understand why publishers would reissue Ray Bradbury’s books, just as it is easy to understand why CBS hired the acclaimed writer-director Jordan Peele to reboot Rod Serling’s influential TV series “The Twilight Zone.” Bradbury (1920–2012) and Serling (1942–75) might have done their most important work decades ago. But in 2019, we are living in their world. Science fiction and its various subgenres have moved from the margins to the mainstream with cosmic force.

In May, the best-selling author Ian McEwan released his latest novel, Machines Like Me, about the development of a robot named Adam (!), which begins: “It was religious yearning granted hope, it was the holy grail of science.... Our ambitions ran high and low—for a creation myth made real.”

Today, some of the space travel once fantastically imagined by the likes of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells a century and a half ago has actually been achieved; so many cosmic mysteries have been solved. Yet profound existential questions remain. And sci-fi writers continue to turn to religious characters, imagery and ideas to sort things out.

A Jesuit’s Odyssey

Consider the brooding Jesuit priest in “The Star,” a 1955 story by Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The Rubens engraving of Loyola seems to mock me as it hangs there above the spectrophotometer tracings,” the priest ruminates as he zooms through space. “What would you, Father, have made of this knowledge that has come into my keeping...? Would your faith have risen to the challenge, as mine has failed to do?” Another chilling twist—with another link to Christmas—awaits the reader.

It might seem as if Christianity—especially Catholics, and especially Jesuits—would be an easy target for sci-fi writers. But science fiction has also treated Jesuits and other religious figures and ideas with admirable complexity.

“On several counts, the Jesuits are ideal sci-fi/fantasy protagonists: mystical, adventurous, scientifically inclined,” Grayson Clary declared in a 2015 article in The Atlantic, “Why Sci-Fi Has So Many Catholics.” The famed priest-sociologist-novelist the Rev. Andrew Greeley also suggested (in a 1991 essay collection entitled Sacred Visions) that aspects of Catholic theology are particularly well suited to science fiction. And the current pope, who studied chemistry in his student days, is just the latest in a long line of Jesuits who believed faith was justified—rather than contradicted—by science.

As one Jesuit character in James Blish’s 1958 sci-fi novel A Case of Conscience puts it, advancements like “space flight” actually increased his “essential business,” what he calls “qualms of conscience.” In other words, scientific discovery meant there were more, not fewer, heavenly mysteries to explain, “new layers of labyrinths for each planet, new dimensions of labyrinths for each star.”

To the Moon

As far back as the 1620s, Bishop Francis Godwin of the Church of England employed Jesuits in a crucial scene of his influential The Man in the Moon, a particularly timely read as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Last year, meanwhile, marked the 200th anniversary of “the first seminal work to which the label [science fiction] can be logically attached,” according to the author Brian Aldiss—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein.

In a pivotal scene, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster asks his “accursed creator”: “Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours.” The message is clear: For all of the intellectual advances of the Enlightenment, only the divine is to be trusted with such sacred things.

More recently, the 20th century’s world wars and the atomic age and the space race that ensued raised dire existential questions—ushering in a new golden age of sci-fi. Ray Bradbury’s 1949 short story “The Man” explores a mission to Mars that seems to have been upended by a figure clearly representing Christ. (In another Bradbury short story, one character notes of an extinct Martian race, “They knew how to combine science and religion so the two worked side by side, neither denying the other, each enriching the other.”) And in Isaac Asimov’s 1966 story “The Key,” the German Jesuit philosopher Christoph Klau (1538-1612) may hold, well, the key to a doomed mission to the moon.

In Blish’s Case of Conscience (1958), set in 2049, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Peruvian Jesuit, is part of a team investigating life on Lithia, a planet inhabited by reptiles who have no religion, yet seem to live morally impeccable lives. The conflict at the heart of the book’s first part is whether or not Lithians, while seemingly harmless, are nevertheless evil— even Satanic. Theological arguments ensue, which have come under fire for their casual relationship to actual Catholic and Jesuit tenets. Either way, things end a lot better for the Jesuits than they do for the Lithians.

In Isaac Asimov’s 1966 story “The Key,” the German Jesuit philosopher Christoph Klau (1538-1612) may hold, well, the key to a doomed mission to the moon.

A ‘Flame Deluge’

Then there is Walter M. Miller Jr.’s centuries-spanning Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), which teeters between dark humor and even darker speculations about humanity’s fate. A nuclear war in the 1950s—“The Flame Deluge”—devastated life on earth. In its wake, roving mobs (proudly called “simpletons”) destroy all things associated with knowledge, a purge referred to as “the Simplification.” (Subtlety is not Miller’s strong point.)

A Canticle for Leibowitz opens in the 26th century, when a teenaged religious brother named Francis discovers what may be a relic of Isaac Edward Leibowitz, revered—and ultimately martyred—for his efforts to preserve knowledge during The Flame Deluge.

The book’s next two sections each leap 600 years into the future, exploring the “Albertian Order of St. Leibowitz” and their valiant efforts to preserve knowledge, and humanity’s meager efforts, up to the year 3781, to avoid making the very same terrible mistakes that destroyed the planet in the 1950s. (A follow-up novel by Miller, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was published posthumously in 1997.)

A more recent (and very timely) read about Jesuit missions of the unearthly variety is The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. Published in 1996, Russell’s narrative spans five decades in (a future version of) the 21st century. In the summer of 2019, Father Emilio Sandoz—a Jesuit linguist—receives a phone call in the middle of the night from a friend at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory. He has come across music indicating an alien civilization light years away.

“We could go...if we wanted to?” Father Sandoz eventually suggests to a group of close friends. His travel plan is both highly futuristic and (to many a reader) quite implausible. But Father Sandoz contends, “It wouldn’t be any worse than the little wooden ships people used to cross the Atlantic in the 1500s.”

Father Sandoz persuades his Jesuit superiors to fund a journey to the planet Rakhat. Upon arrival, the travelers interact with an alien species known as the Runa, but as the humans increasingly adapt Rakhat to their needs, a series of developments brings them into contact with a more aggressive species, the Jana’ata. The novel’s gruesome conclusion raises profound questions—particularly pointed given centuries of Jesuit globetrotting—about the consequences of exploration and the unexpected outcomes of attempts at evangelization.

At the center of The Sparrow, the title of which refers to a passage in Matthew about God’s love for even the most humble creatures, is Father Sandoz’s struggle to maintain faith in a world that can be miraculous but also barbaric. “So many dead,” Father Sandoz laments, “because I believed.”

But when another Jesuit then expresses similar doubts about God (“You’re on your own, apes. Good luck!”), there is a more hopeful retort: “[God] watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”

Father Sandoz returned in Russell’s sequel, Children of God, leaving the priesthood, falling in love and pondering another fateful trip to Rahkat.

Bad Theology?

For all of the penetrating questions posed by postwar theological sci-fi, it also has its critics. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., the director of the Vatican Observatory, told The Atlantic’s Grayson Clary that many of these “stories...[were] written by people who don’t have intimate knowledge of scientists in general, and certainly not of Jesuits.”

Brother Consolmagno adds: “The Arthur Clarke story, ‘The Star,’ you just scratch your head and go, ‘What is he thinking of?’ You look at A Case of Conscience and [its] theology isn’t only bad theology, it’s not Jesuit theology.” And The Sparrow? “[It] drives me nuts,” he says bluntly.

Clary adds, “At times, these stories seem like fantasies of degradation, part of a longstanding tradition of wishing bad things on Jesuits.”

Fair enough. Still, at a time of such open disdain in certain (especially bookish) quarters for religious matters in general—and Catholicism, in particular—perhaps we should also not overlook the value of these generally sympathetic depictions of spiritual people, struggling openly and honestly with sex and love, faith and mortality, not to mention an alien race or two.

During the first two decades of the 21st century, sci-fi has followed the broader culture’s interrogation of the power dynamics surrounding race, gender and sexual orientation.

The 21st Century

During the first two decades of the 21st century, sci-fi has followed the broader culture’s interrogation of the power dynamics surrounding race, gender and sexual orientation. This might suggest a dim future for theological science fiction. Consider the 2013 movie “Ender’s Game,” adapted from Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel. In a passionately argued essay in Forbes, Jerry Bowyer lamented that “Religious themes abound in the novel,” but “almost none of that material is in the movie.”

To Bowyer, “modern Hollywood” has no interest in telling stories about how “God, through the individual human spirit, can resist” tyranny. But we should not exaggerate literary or show-biz hostility toward religion.

Michel Faber’s 2014 novel Book of Strange New Things was merely the latest entry in the sturdy “Holy Man in Space” tradition, chronicling English pastor Peter Leigh’s missionary adventures on the planet Oasis. And in the past decade, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers have all been adapted for the screen. Amazon is also turning Naomi Alderman’s best-seller The Power into a series. Each in their own frustrating but also fascinating ways probes religious fervor, tradition, rules and mystery.

In the end, novels like The Sparrow and those mentioned above suggest that for all of our accumulated earthly knowledge, sci-fi writers still yearn for some divine link to “an all-powerful Force” to help penetrate the universe’s ever-evolving “layers of labyrinths,” its persistent “qualms of conscience.”

At one point in The Sparrow, a character asks Father Sandoz: “Do you mean a mission or do you mean a mission? Are we talking science or religion?”

The Jesuit gives what may be the only possible answer.

“Yes.”

Thomas Szyszkiewicz
5 days 23 hours ago

You missed the latest sci-fi book featuring, not just one, but two Catholic priests: A Printer's Choice by William Patenaude: https://aprinterschoice.com/
A superb morality tale … [t]his work is a must-read for those who enjoy thought-provoking, challenging speculative fiction.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Patenaude's "ability to draw upon multiple disciplines and to weave religious and philosophical allegories into characterization and plot put him at the forefront of literary thinkers. Suffice to say, this novel is profoundly deep and thought-provoking."
Chanticleer

Greg Friedman
5 days 20 hours ago

Great article, and some suggestions for reading which I hope to follow up. May I add an appearance of a priest in the classic sci-fi series "Babylon Five," in an episode in its third season (airing in 1995) entitled "Passing Through Gethsemane." There, a group of monks visits the space station in their project to gather all the names of God from alien races. A young monk finds himself beset by nightmares which suggest a violent past of which he has no knowledge. In the climax (no spoilers here), his abbot demonstrates the forgiveness of God through the Sacrament of Reconciliation--an amazing Catholic reference which still moves me every time I re-watch the series. The abbot is a recurring character, by the way, in a series whose creator, J. Michael Straczynski, strove to represent a variety of religious realities--both human and alien.

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