November 27, 2020

Go forth and read: Catholic fiction and where to find it

By Ann Margaret Lewis

Books by Catholic AuthorsWhen one says “Catholic fiction,” what comes to mind? Is it a story featuring a Catholic character, say a priest or religious like G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown or Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling? Is it horror like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist or suspense like Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas? Is it a literary work like Shūsaku Endō’s Silence, or Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh? Is it written by a Catholic author, or simply literature that contains Catholic themes or insights?

The truth is, like many things in our Catholic faith it is “both/and”—all these things and more.

Catholic fiction is often hard to describe even for those like me who write and read it. It isn’t simply literature that doesn’t offend Catholic sensibilities, because while there is certainly a good deal of fiction that rubs against our moral convictions, the material that doesn’t isn’t always Catholic. Late author Father Andrew Greeley once wrote that Catholic works of art, specifically the classics, “assume a God who is present in the world, disclosing himself in and through creation” and calling this trait the “Catholic imagination.”

This makes Catholic fiction more difficult to define than Christian fiction, which, by contrast, is produced by a cluster of book publishers that strictly adhere to a mutually agreed upon set of literary guidelines.

(Related story: Where is good Catholic fiction? Lots of places online)

Readers of Christian fiction know where to find this material and are encouraged by their religious communities to read it, though critics have often noted its formulaic quality. Many Catholic writers do not seek publishing contracts with Christian publishers, as the publishers usually require edits that remove the Catholic nature of their work. While deep themes might slip through an edit, a practicing Catholic character that prays the rosary or attends Mass is not allowed by their guidelines.

There was a time when the Catholic Church had a sort of litmus test of its own for literary faithfulness when the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) placed fiction and non-fiction books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of books the Catholic faithful were forbidden to read. It did not, however, create a list of recommended reading or suggest guidelines for creating works of fiction it found favorable.

As a result, after that list’s abolition, Catholic readers did as they always have done—purchase fiction from secular book sellers, only now without considering how a work did or did not enrich, or at least not deride, their faith. If a Catholic wants a novel now, he or she searches on Amazon or walks into Barnes and Noble to find what interests him or her the most regardless of spiritual impact.

Perusing regular bookstores or using the search features on Amazon for Catholic fiction can be problematic, however. Search results on Amazon and its partner site Goodreads are not necessarily attuned to a faithful Catholic sensibility. When Amazon’s search feature sees “Catholic fiction,” it can serve up books that may have Catholic characters, tropes or situations but present narratives counter to our faith. Reviews help a bit, perhaps, but reading them can be time-consuming.

One is also not likely to find much Catholic fiction on the shelves of standard bookstores, as only the largest Catholic publishers distribute their products to the brick and mortar retailers, and these companies publish little or no fiction. This is because they primarily market to Catholic retail stores that in turn cater to a

gift-buying or research-minded consumer. You might stumble upon a single piece of Catholic fiction in a Catholic bookstore, perhaps a children’s book or two, but certainly not a hearty collection of it. And if a secular chain bookstore stocks Catholic fiction at all, it is shelved with the Christian fiction or among religious non-fiction books with a given publisher’s other offerings.

So, where does one go if one wants a good story that is Catholic in character or theme? To connect Catholic readers with Catholic fiction literature, several institutions have developed that focus on this niche market. The related article below contains a selection of them. I hope you’ll investigate these avenues to Catholic fiction, buy a title as a Christmas gift, or curl up this winter yourself with an entertaining, yet spiritually edifying, new book. Go forth and read!

(Ann Margaret Lewis is executive assistant in the archdiocesan Office of Communications and the author of several books. E-mail her at

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