What Makes a Novel "Catholic"?

As a Catholic who writes novels, I’m curious. What do you think makes a novel “Catholic”?


Hi, Bill! Someone asked this question over in the group “Catholics Who Write Lounge” (I believe we’re both members) and this is the what I wrote (maybe you didn’t see it.)

I write novels with a distinctly Catholic “flavor”… my characters are Catholic and they lead Catholic lives (no premarital sex, no cohabitating, no birth control, they go to Mass and confession, the parish priest comes over for dinner sometimes, etc.) but I don’t necessarily go into details or lessons about those things… just like in real life we live our faith without going around explaining it to everyone we meet. The best examples I can think of are Mary Higgins Clark’s romantic suspense novels (most of them) and Aimee and David Thurlo’s “Sister Agatha” mystery series…
Then there is Marcus Grodi’s “How Firm a Foundation”, the John Paul II High series (for teens) by Christian Frank, and similar works where there is a plot and storyline, but also a lot of apologetics thrown in. Grodi does a good job in his novel (loosely based on his own real-life conversion story), but it’s almost impossible to write such a book and not clobber your readers over the head with what amounts to a catechism class. And I can’t imagine it appealing to readers who are not Catholic, or at least interested in Catholicism.

This probably did not help or answer your question, but it is a question that I’ve asked many time!


I am currently working on finishing a mystery novel with a Catholic “flavor” to it (as per my description above) and intend to write a series of them. I do have a published writer who is willing to help me take the next step after completing the manuscript and see if I can’t get it published (it’s a small press, but not a vanity or POD publisher).

I think it is far easier to write a novel with Catholic characters in it than it is to write a novel on a Catholic subject. The former means your characters just have to BE Catholic and lead their normal every day Catholic lives (while solving a murder or falling in love or whatever). A novel with a Catholic subject or theme is necessarily going to require explanation of Catholic belief and doctrine. For instance, in my novel, one of the characters is a divorced Catholic. When one other character (a newcomer to their town who doesn’t know the first character’s history, but attends Mass with him) asks him why he hasn’t pursued a woman whom they both find attractive, the first character simply says, “I’m divorced.” Even most non-Catholics know that divorce and remarriage is not permitted in the Catholic church. Later on, there is further discussion of this, but for now, it’s enough that my character states his belief and moral standpoint as a Catholic and lives it.

I don’t know if this really answers your question. :shrug:

Just a few thoughts…

A “Catholic novel” would strive to present realistic characters in challenging situations that reflect the basics of the Faith in some way - themes of sin and redemption, good vs. evil, etc.

As Catholics we rejoice the mystery of the Incarnation - look at our churches and our Sacraments and how they reflect this.

I would say a novel could be many different literary types, devices, plots, and still be Catholic. It wouldn’t shrink from the nitty-gritty but it wouldn’t present violence, profanity, or graphic sexual descriptions gratuitously and it would handle tastefully the presentation of such topics where they are critical to the story.

The characters might be human or they might be animals, magical creatures, aliens, supernatural beings (and there might be any combination of these and with or without humans) - but the dramatic interactions between all characters, the setting, the events, the atmosphere, would somehow convey some truth about the Faith.

Finally, it would be well written, reflecting that the author was thoughtful and dedicated in his or her craft for the glory of God. :compcoff: :thumbsup:

I don’t think a Catholic book or story should necessarily have to shy away from any particular topic. In other words, you can still have characters in a story do distinctly un-Catholic things, but frame them in a way that gets a Catholic point across. I have a story I’ve started several times that has a Catholic father dealing with a rebellious, sinful son. The son certainly isn’t leading a faithful life, and the father is doing his best to hold the family together and handle the consequences of his son’s actions. I don’t think I’ve actually used the word “Catholic” in any of the various drafts so far, but any Catholic reading the story would understand a lot of the father’s motivations and would (hopefully) recognize him as pretty clearly Catholic.

I think there are a number of ways of responding to this.

But to me, the most meaningful way is that a novel (or any form of literature) is, or can be “Catholic” if it exemplifies Catholic principles in a “discovery” sort of way; and with sufficient dramatic interest so that the reader formulates those themes in his/her own mind without their ever being said directly. Flannery O’Connor, an indisputably Catholic writer did that, even though most of her characters are not Catholic and rarely speak of Catholicism or Catholic beliefs.

I once wrote a short story that every knowledgeable Catholic who has ever read it recognized as “Catholic”, notwithstanding that the word “Catholic” is not in it even once; that it contains no reference to Catholicism; that every character in it whose religion is identified is clearly fundamentalist protestant, and that nowhere is their religion critiqued in any manner.

The story is not about religion at all. It’s about a hillbilly girl in the late 1940s who is determined to set a local record picking strawberries. Every “Catholic” theme is only suggested or exemplified by the action, and by the dialogue, which is always about something else. Underneath it are suggestions of the nature and character of truly “Catholic” femininity, redemption, temptation, the nature of despair, faith, chastity, charity, providence, hope in God’s benevolence, and even baptism. But none of those things are ever actually said. Not ever. The action and dialogue exemplify everything. The “Catholicism” is formulated totally in the mind of the reader, as if he/she came up with it entirely on his/her own.

To me, that’s what makes a piece of literature the most “Catholic”, and especially if the reader’s mind comes up with more and more, even long after he/she read it.

Anyway, that’s my thought about it.

Very well put, Ridgerunner! :thumbsup::thumbsup::thumbsup:

Thank you for your reply. I asked the question because I’m sure some people would say my novels are “Catholic” because my main characters are Catholic. That’s the case because I write what I know (cradle Catholic, Catholic schools. six years of the seminary after grade school, and worked for the Church in one way or another for all but two years of my adult life). But the story is supposed to be a story, not a catechism lesson or some thinly veiled sermon.

On the other hand, I wonder if some people would respond that my novels aren’t “Catholic” because the characters, at times, are far from “good, practicing Catholics.” (A drunk pope, for example.) Of course, that’s what make a plot work better and, truth be told, all Catholics are flawed. (Yes, yes, Jesus and Mary were sinless. But the rest of us!) Hard to have a theme of forgiveness and redemption if the person doesn’t need either, eh?

Very well put!

Good for you! Keep writing it and finish it. I know that’s hard. A little bit each day every day (with Sunday’s off!) and you’ll get there.

Your story sounds very good. Are you working on another? Or maybe a short novel? Remember, an e-book doesn’t have to be long. Amazon.com (with its Kindle) has opened a whole new (wonderful) world for writers.

Not working on anything other than making a living. I had an aunt, now deceased, and a very good artist (painter) who visited the Holy Land and, upon her return, painted five scenes. She called them, together, “Mysteries of Light”. (Kind of a play on words, she worked with light very uniquely, and the scenes all had to do with the “Luminous Mysteries”). Well, I had always been close to her, and I had, long ago, written a short story, which achieved a bit of public acclaim, but had written nothing since then, though she encouraged my doing so now and then. So, I resurrected that old story and wrote four more and gave them to her, and called them my own “Five Mysteries of Light”. It was kind of a conversation between us. She enjoyed the stories very much, just as I enjoyed her paintings.

They’re all very “Catholic”, but only one has any direct Catholic references. It’s about a kid sweating out going to confession later in the day, trying to fit his sins into the “slots” he had been taught about, but only vaguely understood (was looking up a girl’s skirt really “adultery”? Is there such a sin as “almost adultery”? How to say it?) and his interaction with his grandmother who, for reasons having to do with a long-forgiven and very minor sin of hers, deliberately makes her house a known place where hoboes can get a meal and a dime (it’s set long ago when a dime would buy you a half pint of cheap wine). It’s about how our perception of sin is only sometimes accurate, but may inform us of much more than the evil of the sin itself, and how our response to them may turn them into a grace, even one we do not well understand. See, hoboes of long ago had a way of “marking” houses where they could get a meal or some money. The lady knew her house was “marked”, but deliberately left it, and obliged her grandson to solemnly promise that he would not even search for it, even though the hoboes were sometimes a bit fearsome in appearance. The boy ultimately came to the (slightly off-balance, as it would be with a kid) realization that sins, even when poorly understood but for which one has heartfelt repentance, leave an “impact crater” of grace, so to speak, that may express itself in ways unrelated to the sin itself; a “Hobo’s Mark”, which is the name of the story. But though mentioning Confession and sins, everything in it is suggested, not said directly.

I appreciate what you said.

One idea I’ve been kicking around lately is to start a blog. I figure that will get me writing a little on a regular basis and I’m hoping it wouldn’t take the time commitment that keeps me away from longer fiction writing. I’m hoping it gets me back in practice and back in the swing of writing on a regular basis so that I can do a bit more with the other ideas I have swimming around.

I suggest you try a short novel instead. (Don’t worry that some people sneer and call that a “novella.”)


You’ll learn to write a novel by writing a novel. Give that a try.


I don’t claim to be any kind of a competent writer. But I do know this much. You learn to write by writing, just as you say. Most of it is worthless. But now and then, something strikes you and, to my notion, “the story writes itself”. The writer himself is almost just an onlooker. The text just races out of the pen or the computer, absolutely whole, or nearly so.

Also, I learned a long time ago that it’s useless to write about something that is totally outside your own experience. Why is any writing good? Really good? Because it’s timeless and speaks to universal themes, but in a “cracking good tale” format. You can’t write well about something you don’t know yourself.

Personally, I think we think in some part of our minds about things we have experienced, and they churn around in there, largely without our being conscious of it, and pieces get put together in our heads, arranged, rearranged, until they form part of a larger whole. And they’re all event-engendered.

Sometimes something just hits us, like a sudden surge of memory, and something we know as bits of memory is assembled with other things and is bigger than all of the pieces put together. it has coalesced into meaningfulness that the parts themselves didn’t communicate as parts. We can then fairly easily fit them into an entirely fictional context and the thing works.

But we can’t do any of it without working at it. That “aha” moment may come at any time or not at all. But you can’t write without writing.

Sometimes you can complete a whole segment that has meaning in itself but that needs another “part” that might take a long time to supply. I have written two of those, and they work. People who have read them love them, one of them in particular. But they need to be part of a larger whole. They don’t “do enough” all by themselves. I imagine truly good writers have a lot of those.

I really like this thread.

I’d like to add just one consideration to the mix. The Catholic perspective isn’t just a specific doctrinal or moral stance. Beyond that it is an outlook on the human and natural world that is unique since it sees things as they really are and hence really sees them.

Take human good and evil. We know we are imperfect human creatures raised by sanctifying grace to a goodness that is not of our own making (though of course we co-operate with it). The goodness in a genuinely good person is a manifestation of God’s own grace, His life, in that person’s soul. I see this, and describe it in my book, as a depth of clarity in the person’s eyes.

Evil in the Catholic perspective is in itself a void, in its extreme form a lack of all that makes a human human (we are in God’s image after all) - one sees this in the mental deterioration of individuals far gone in evil, Hitler for example. Evil also shows in the eyes: an opaqueness, a corpse-like look that can be very unsettling to witness. I have met a few people like this.

Hence your truly evil character is not a Disney architypical villain, rubbing his hands and cackling with glee. There is no glee in evil - there is nothing. I saw this in Stalin’s speech in November 1941 when he urged the Soviet people to stand firm against the German invaders. The words were vitriolic enough, but the face, the voice, were expressionless.

I suspect today’s reader doesn’t want a character who is completely evil, as you describe it. And doesn’t want one who is completely good, who is perfect. Neither seems realistic. A writer doesn’t want a character who is too good, or too bad, to be true. (This, of course, applies to human characters, not God or Satan.)



It would take an awful lot of doing to get readers to “buy into” a totally evil or totally good character. But it could be done. After all, what is Shakespeare’s Richard III? Shakespeare makes the play work as a whole, but Richard is “unbelievable” while being “believable” only in an archetype sort of way. He’s a “dramatic prop”, like the scenery, in some respects. We can understand what he does and what his objectives are, and his machinations are “believable”. Beyond that, Shakespeare doesn’t even attempt to develop him as a “believable” human being.

Do we believe MacBeth was really confronted by witches? Did the original viewers believe that, literally? It doesn’t matter, because the witches are there not to persuade anyone that witches really exist, but to explicate a moral principle and to provide a “prop” for MacBeth’s initial thoughts about becoming king through foul means. And the device works.

But I also think it’s possible to develop a totally bad, yet believable, character in another way. Most people cannot, for example, truly accept that a very sociopathic person can really be all that sociopathic. There is a point at which evil becomes unbelievable as a practical matter for most, simply because their mind rebels at accepting something that is entirely possible and with which they might be actually confronted, but is so monsterous that they just can’t wrap their minds around it. If a writer wanted to have a character like that, he would have a very big job ahead of him in trying to make the character “real”.

I was thinking more of the *nature *of goodness and evil in people than its completeness. A good person has his imperfections and foibles, and is capable of losing his goodness. After a critical point of evil a bad person cannot be brought back to good, but there is a side of him that might see to a certain extent what he has become and regret it, or at least acknowledge it for what it is, which is something the reader can identify with (the acknowledgement, not the evil).

As regards people not wanting completely evil characters I don’t know… I don’t advise anyone to watch The Silence of the Lambs - no, I really don’t, this is not a disguised recommendation - but I will admit that the strength of the movie lies in its ability to get the audience to root for a totally depraved individual who can achieve no more than suffer for his severance from all normal human reactions.

And as for completely good people, it depends on what one means by ‘completely good’. If one means an individual who has genuine benignity, who has sufficient strength of character to make a moral stand when necessary without becoming self-righteous, and who may be tempted but passes the test, then how about Frodo, or Aragorn, or Faramir, or Gandalf, or quite a few other characters from Lord of the Rings, arguably the greatest fictional work of the last century?

Fortunately, writing has value even if the end product, the material, isn’t as good as you would like it to be. (Even if it stinks!) Professional writers come up with some horrible stuff but they have the experience and confidence (and humility, one hopes!) to recognize it as such, chuck it, and move on.

The act of writing is the only way to develop talent by learning skills, sharpening them, and keeping them sharp.

Especially when you’re starting out it can be easy to compare your work to the writers you truly love. But:

  1. They didn’t start out with those skills. They learned how to do what they did. (And, yes, talent played a part but not as much as some people may think.)

  2. What you read, what you saw published, was probably their best material. They had some junk, too. Probably throughout their careers. It was tossed by them or by an editor.

  3. Your task, and ultimately your joy, isn’t to copy your favorite exactly, but to find and use your own voice. Tell your story your way.


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