Luca Fumagalli

British Catholic literature in the second half of the twentieth century has very different writers as protagonists. Muriel Spark and David Lodge, for example, were able to skillfully employ the same techniques as those of contemporary secular literature, giving new breath to the so-called “Catholic Novel” and abandoning many of the stereotypes that characterized it. Others, such as Alice Thomas Ellis, were original and provocative authors, even if they achieved less fame.

What is striking about modern Catholic fiction is the almost total absence of the most important traditional themes. Not only does the sacrifice of the hero, based on the conflict between human aspirations and religious morality, tend to disappear, but sometimes it even goes to the extreme of challenging morality itself and, consequently, the authority of the Church. Thus, for the first time, stories of apostasy followed one another, of priests who live their vocation with discomfort and of lay people torn by doubt.

Naturally there was no shortage of those who defended the tradition, opposing the desire for renewal that seemed to have infected Catholics in the years immediately following the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

At the time, therefore, two opposing tendencies faced each other, defined by Thomas Woodman as “post-Catholic” and “neo-conservative”. However, he himself admitted that there were also intermediate positions that were difficult to label, such as, for example, those expressed by Piers Paul Read in his best works.

On the political side, the conservatism that characterized previous generations was gradually abandoned by most Catholic writers who, like Graham Greene, ended up embracing the ideas of left-wing parties. The latter, in fact, in his writings addressed a large number of topics, from the Vietnam War to “liberation theology”, almost always criticizing the official positions of the Vatican. In the same way the protagonists of the novels became the middle class or the popular classes, and the apologetic purposes reached the point of being definitively set aside.

To the reader accustomed to Benson, Belloc, Chesterton and other great writers of the beginning of the century, the Catholic novel of the late twentieth century would appear as something strange, unrecognizable, a sign of a genre that has shed its skin.

Sources: R. GRIFFITHS, The Pen and the Cross, Continuum, London, 2010; J. PEARCE, Literary Converts, Harper Collins, London, 2000.