As to the mystery story, it is only in the form of a mystery because I thought this might be a good way to begin to learn the craft of writing novels.… If…it would appear that I don’t have much talent for this kind of activity, I will gladly yield my image of a Renaissance man and go back to sociology.
I...appreciate the...opinion on the novel. It’s something of a load off my shoulders to know that I don’t have at least a natural talent for writing novels, and hence can be excused for the present from doing them. Maybe when I retire (which I plan now to do at the age of forty-five), I can set about learning the craft of fiction-writing and then see if it’s possible for me to write it. I doubt it, though. Most things I do well, I do the first time around—or I don’t do them.
Full of sex, violence and intrigue, Greeley’s novels were the subject of controversy throughout his lifetime. He had millions of readers, but also many detractors. One prominent Catholic newspaper, The National Catholic Register, even editorialized that Greeley had “the dirtiest mind ever ordained”—and this appeared in the obituary they ran after he died in 2013. Why would a Catholic, especially a priest, need to write this way, many people wondered.
Some people question why a Christian needs to read novels at all. Thoughts about the place, or misplace, of fiction in the Christian life have existed in every generation.
Before World War I, it was common to hear the Puritans of the time say that novels are without merit and should be banished from public libraries. They were thought to be frivolous chaff, seducing people with plot and keeping them from more serious, purposeful reading. For this reason, precisely 100 years ago, America published “A Plea for Novel-Reading” by Joseph Francis Wickham. In the May 20, 1916, issue, Wickham—who wrote often on culture for Catholic periodicals—began by agreeing with the prevailing attitude: “That there are good grounds for criticism of the novel from the moral standpoint it is needless to dispute. Everyone who does not take a thoroughly hedonistic view of life knows that many novels have done and are doing incalculable injury.” He offered Balzac, de Maupassant and Laurence Sterne as examples. Then he used the biblical metaphors of “glancing back toward the unholy cities” and “tast[ing] the fruit of the forbidden tree and call[ing] it good” to describe readers who had perhaps learned to appreciate improper things from novels written by the likes of these.
But although there were novels that Wickham believed “may injure the soul,” he went on to argue what was then a controversial notion: It is quite impossible to measure the gladness and good cheer and general well-being that the novel has brought into the world. He cited Walter Scott’s novels of the Middle Ages, Dickens’s realism and humor, Thackeray’s “mellow wisdom,” George Eliot’s “fine, feminine analysis of character” and R. L. Stevenson’s sense of high adventure as fine examples—before throwing Thomas Hardy under the bus. (Hardy, he said, “has touched life’s sinister chord unhopefully.”)
Wickham’s argument, which I assume was in step with the editors of America at that time, is a fascinating one. It focuses on the effect novels might have on their readers. The problem with this, of course, is that it assumes that all readers are the same and that we all read the same way. We aren’t, and we don’t, and yet I do think that there are ways to read and write that are Catholic and ways that are not. A Catholic tends to see the world with sin and evil, pain and doubt and hopelessness, even forgiveness and grace. We run into trouble when we begin to think that a novelist with Christian commitments and faith must necessarily provide a certain sort of book for readers: happy endings, for instance, or righteous characters.
Robert Harris’s Conclave is a novel that Andrew Greeley could have written. A potboiler with Vatican intrigue, it is a tale that has more pacing than character. A pope has just died, and the College of Cardinals is locked inside the Sistine Chapel to elect a successor. Not exactly an original plot, and yet, like a Greeley novel, I enjoyed it. It didn’t exactly challenge me or lead me to explore any of life’s important questions, but it entertained. By the way, Robert Harris isn’t Catholic or even a believer. This cuts to the heart of the matter, in that perhaps the focus isn’t on Why a Catholic would write this way but rather You don’t need to be Catholic to write this way.
Greeley once told The Chicago Tribune that writing fiction is “just my way of being a priest.” He’s not the only one. There’s the Rev. Richard Infante of Pittsburgh, for instance, whose short stories have been collected into Last Priest Standing and Other Stories. I suspect, however, that Infante’s intentions for fiction are very different from Greeley’s. There is no fantasy or horror or science fiction in Infante’s work. There is only a quiet realism that begins with characters who happen to be Catholics and are often priests. It was Graham Greene who once said to an interviewer that if one out of 10 characters in a novel depicting contemporary Britons isn’t a Catholic, then you aren’t doing a satisfactory job of depicting the world as it is. Multiply that by at least two, here, today. As for the frequency of priests in these stories, perhaps Infante is trying to make up for what others have ignored.
In the title story, the “Last Priest Standing” lies unconscious in a Catholic hospital bed, attended by a sister-nurse, about to be anointed by another priest, one of his former students in the seminary. A sympathetic narrator tells us about the dying father: “His one regret was that he would not recover the lost opportunities to do God’s will, to celebrate the sacraments, to cooperate with that mysterious grace that always led him to do good and avoid evil.” I can hear the criticism of some. Is that sort of description too sincere, too sentimental, for readers of fiction today? Perhaps it is, but it is probably more real than we know.
As the story progresses, we discover more of what is going through the mind of the unconscious priest while he is being anointed: He’s deeply pained by a memory from 25 years earlier, an indiscretion of sin and irresponsibility. But the sacrament brings rest and peace.
So what defines a Catholic novel? I am still struggling with that question. But I know that that which asks most of us is most worthy of us. Fiction that forces us to confront what dwells within us, doing battle with the one who saves us, is essential. And we need Catholics who tell stories in every possible way.