Imagination, Orthodoxy, And Faith

     Hm. Perhaps that should be “And The Faith,” but let it stand as it is.

     Yesterday at The Catholic Thing, there appeared an essay, with embedded interview, on Fostering the Catholic Imagination. Let there be no argument: the subject is an important one. There isn’t enough fiction written from a Catholic perspective, which is a great part of the reason I write it. I’d like to see more of it, especially as the better-known practitioners of Christian fiction are, to be as gentle as the language allows, not very good. However, the essay failed to address certain aspects of the undertaking that are more difficult than the cheerers-on along the sidelines would like to admit.

     First and foremost is the concept of Catholic fiction itself: What is it? Is its principal purpose to preach the Faith? If so, it fails the critical test of all fiction. Fiction is a form of entertainment above all else; therefore, to put any intention above entertainment is to guarantee failure. If your novel or story, however ardent its preachments, fails to entertain the reader, it will accomplish nothing.

     Second but barely less important: What theme does your fiction embed? For while there are some themes that are definitely opposed to the Faith, there are many that are of a variety I would call clerical: that is, the promulgation of doctrines that have as their principal support the statements of clerics: ordained men. Those doctrines may be wise; following them may be beneficial to life and society. But what if they have no support in the teachings of Christ as recorded in the four canonical Gospels?

     Third and last for this brief disquisition: Must the characters prosper or suffer according to their fidelity or infidelity to the Faith? It’s an observable fact that some of the vilest bastards ever to live escaped punishment for their crimes in this life. As only mystics have received a glimpse of the life to come, we must rely upon the teachings of the Church to the effect that even the most adroit and successful criminals under the veil of Time will receive justice in eternity. However, fiction can validly allow that some will “get away with it” in the temporal realm.

     Larry Niven and others have attempted to treat with the afterlife in a fashion consistent with Christian conceptions thereof. Such fictions are inherently speculative. Not all of us are brave enough to attempt such things. Moreover, some of us are troubled by the changes over time in Church teachings about the eternal realm, to say nothing of what sort of conduct would close the blissful fork in the road to oneself.

     Compared to the difficulties presented by the questions above, the paucity of publishing houses geared toward Catholic fiction seems trivial. And they are difficult. Those who advocate the expansion of Catholic fiction, whether that’s taken to mean “fiction from a Catholic perspective” or “aimed at the tastes and convictions of practicing Catholics,” must grapple with them. They must arrive at clear definitions before prescribing or proscribing for us who think we’re getting it done by our own lights. Moreover, they must accept ab initio — hey, what’s a Catholic essay without a little Latin? – that not all of us who consider ourselves Catholics will agree with them.

     All that having been said, there remains this: Despite my departure from perfect orthodoxy, I consider my own fiction to be acceptably Catholic. I will entertain discussion on the subject, but let no one who thinks to argue with me do so without first reading my crap and demonstrating to my satisfaction that he has done so. Nor will I accept anyone’s ex cathedra proclamations as something to which I am required to conform. There were and are married Catholic priests. There have been revisions of Catholic teaching, and there may yet be others. There is neither truth nor virtue in insisting otherwise, no matter what sort of collar one wears. Besides, the fictioneer must be allowed to imagine. That’s what “fostering the Catholic imagination” is about, isn’t it?


  1. Larry Niven and others have attempted to treat with the afterlife in a fashion consistent with Christian conceptions thereof. Such fictions are inherently speculative. Not all of us are brave enough to attempt such things. [emphasis added]

    Am I wrong in recalling either an epilogue to one of your novels, or a short story, tackled the afterlife of one or two of your characters?

    1. No, you’re not wrong. It was the final segment of The Sledgehammer Concerto. My agent at the time called it “genius.” But I caught a lot of flak for it from my more orthodox Catholic readers. Some people just don’t grasp that writers of speculative fiction must speculate.

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