Reading the Catholic Novel in a Secular Age

It is tempting to imagine that being special is better than being good

Tara Isabella Burton
The Search For Meaning

I read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited at exactly the right time in my life. I was 17, and on my way to Oxford, where I would spend the bulk of the next decade. Like Brideshead's protagonists — themselves Oxford undergraduates at the novel's opening — I was susceptible to beauty. In particular, the kind of beauty found in “dreaming spires” and ivy-covered walls, to punting on the Cherwell river with strawberries and champagne and poetry, to the sepia-tinged aristocratic fantasia one character extols as “always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe and Aloysius in a good temper...” (Aloysius is, of course, the character's beloved teddy bear). I was susceptible, too, to the aesthetic and spiritual pull of Catholicism — at least, Catholicism as Waugh described it. As embodied by eccentrically dysfunctional upper-class Flyte family — whose influence on the socially and religiously conventional protagonist Charles Ryder forms the the novel's plot — Waugh's Catholicism was something few poetically-minded teenagers could resist: a rarefied, consciously countercultural way of life, an escape from the sclerotic modern world by means of candles and liturgies and hideously austere rejections of bourgeois morality. Punk with more incense.

I had not yet converted to Christianity — if convert is in fact the right word for my journey from my upbringing as a vaguely culturally-Jewish--slash-Christmas-and-Easter-Episcopalian to my current life as a still-culturally-Jewish-but-actually-believes-this-stuff churchgoing Episcopalian. That would come later. But Brideshead Revisited, and soon, the genre of the “modernist English-language Catholic book” more broadly (think: Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, with T.S. Eliot as a rare nominally Protestant example), awakened in me an already latent fascination with religion as a source not just of repression but of resistance. It was a vision of faith as a way of wagering upon the meaningfulness, the richness, the God-saturated beauty of a world that — to my 17-year-old self, at least — had lost its openness to transcendence.

These modernist Catholic writers were, by and large, wrestling with the same questions. Waugh, Greene, Spark, Eliot — all of them were writing from a place of disaffection, of pessimism, of what Eliot calls that time of “twenty years largely wasted/the years of l'entre deux guerres.” They were writing from underneath the shadows of mechanistic world wars, bearing witness to the catastrophic intersection of brutality and alienation. Nothing seemed to mean very much at all; the options presented for an authentic or a good life seemed to be either subsumption into the liberal urban crowd or else an equally senseless death upon the battlefield. Each of them, in their own way, saw religion — particularly a consciously anti-modern Catholicism, with the weight of world history behind it — as a potential way out of the sclerosis of modernity. For the Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited, for nearly every character in every single one of Graham Greene's novels, Catholic faith — faith in the impossible, the absurd, the unscientific; in kinds of hideous self-denial antithetical to then-contemporary bourgeois liberalism — became a way of rejecting what these writers saw as the emptiness of the modern world: hollowed out not just by war itself but by the collective disenchantment and ennui that, in their view, made war inevitable. “The old dispensation” (Eliot again) had collapsed. These novels' Catholic antiheroes — Waugh's aristocrats and Greene's gangsters alike — were single-handedly trying to reimagine meaning in a newly secular world that no longer had a place for it. Their appeal to God and the devil, to sin, to Good and Evil, meant all the more against the backdrop of a world that took none of these things seriously. They were the last speakers of a language nobody else shared.

As a teenager these novels moved me; they move me now. At their best, these novels awaken in me each time I read them a sense, and then a conviction — that my hunger for beauty and my longing for transcendence are linked, that there is a moral and ontological reality that lies beyond the everyday world in which I lived, and that the breathless sense of enchantment that the realm of the aesthetic offered can help me see it better. And yet, as an adult, reading these novels against the background of an even more secular world — no less pessimistic, no less disenchanted, but no less, perhaps, hungry for something new and rich and transcendent — these novels simultaneously attract and disturb me.

Their appeal to God and the devil, to sin, to Good and Evil, meant all the more against the backdrop of a world that took none of these things seriously.

They present a way out of nihilistic modernity, to be sure, but they do so precisely by a discomfitingly reactionary move: by imagining the religious Catholic, or the religious antimodern person more broadly, as a kind of Nietzschean superman, set apart from mere ordinary folks by virtue of their elevated spiritual consciousness. Good and evil dissolve into one another; simply the acceptance that there exist such phenomena as good and evil, heaven and hell, substitutes for any serious engagement with the concepts as such. (Morality, after all, in these novels is more often than not simply a bourgeois invention: no match for fantastic metaphysics. These characters are, spiritually and sometimes temporally, aristocrats.).

Both Brideshead Revisited (1945) and — to an even greater extent — the four “Catholic novels” of Graham Greene (1938's Brighton Rock, 1940's The Power and the Glory, 1948's The Heart of the Matter, and 1951's The End of the Affair) present an enchanted world, but at times it is one where the Catholic sensibility is so rarefied that it becomes divorced from any conception of an actual Christian life in the world.

In Brighton Rock, for example, Greene luxuriates in the wickedness of the sociopathic teenaged gangster Pinkie, a lapsed Catholic who murders (or tries to murder) nearly everyone who crosses his path, including the starry-eyed waitress Rose (another Catholic) whom he impulsively seduces and marries in an attempt to stop her from inadvertently destroying his alibi for another murder. In one telling scene, Pinkie insists to Rose that of course Hell exists: “"Why," he said, "it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation.” Nervous, Rose asks him if he believes in heaven, also. Pinkie's answer is a vague: “maybe, maybe.” Likewise, when the well-meaning middle-class Ida — an ordinary, kind-hearted and nonreligious woman inadvertently mixed up in Pinkie's criminal activity — attempts to intervene to save Rose from Pinkie, Rose immediately rejects her efforts, convinced that Ida is simply incapable of understanding the complexity of her and Pinkie's relationship. “I know one thing you don't,” Ida tells Rose, “I know the difference between Right and Wrong. They didn't teach you that at school.'” Rose reflects, in turn, that “the two words meant nothing to her. Their taste was extinguished by stronger foods — Good and Evil.” Common morality, for Greene — indeed, anything that reeks of the conventional — is incompatible with the superior strangeness of the Catholic faith.

At their most unsettling, these novels remind us that the search for something more than nothingness can take us to hell as easily as to heaven.

As a teenager, inclined to bouts of rebel-without-a-cause style counterculturalism, I naturally found this intoxicating. As an adult, I find this element of the Catholic novel not only off-putting, but at odds a faith that at once upholds the divine reality of the beautiful, the true, and the good, and also demands that we see every human being as made in the image and likeness of God: not just posh aristocrats and thrillingly murderous gangsters. And while it would be too much to say that my frustration with Graham Greene is why I am a Protestant instead of a Catholic, it is certainly true that my own experience of faith has involved both the lure of the transcendent that made both Waugh and Greene such compelling writers — and a rejection of the aesthetic claims to spiritual aristocracy that Greene and Waugh both implicitly and explicitly make. It is why I love, for example, George Eliot's Middlemarch: a novel by a spiritually curious, morally serious, yet religiously unorthodox woman that champions not “special” characters but rather the dignity, the goodness, and the worth of everyday people, who “lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Yet, re-reading these Catholic novels now, I'm struck by what they do capture: not a proscriptive vision of how to wager on meaning in a meaningless world, but rather how easy it is, in searching for a battle between good and evil to fight, to end up fighting on the side of evil. Even today, there are corners of the reactionary Catholic right (and the nostalgic, atavistic right more broadly) that treat anti-modern Christianity as a salve for the problems of the modern world simply because it is counter-cultural, because it is “based,” because it requires a special kind of initiation. It is the Christianity of the contemporary integralist movement, which sees in the Catholic Church not just a font of moral wisdom but a welcome authoritarian model to combat the evils of liberal individualism. It is Christianity as an “anti-woke” meme: Catholicism to own the libs, no less for the denizens of far-right Twitter than for Graham Greene himself. It is less Christianity, as a fully-lived faith that requires actual things of real, human people, than the kind of reactionary Nietzsche-meets-Jung neopaganism we find in the writings of Jordan Peterson, veiled by a cloud of incense. It is First Things editor Rusty Reno, boasting about visiting a New York emergency room maskless in spring 2020, gleeful to stick it to the “technocratic social order” as if this were some kind of moral rebellion

Not all enchantment — every fairytale reminds us of this — is good enchantment. And at their most unsettling, these novels remind us that the search for something more than nothingness can take us to hell as easily as to heaven. And they remind us that in a lost, a broken, a hungry world — perhaps as true of now as of then; perhaps true of time always — the aesthetic of spiritual superiority, of being somehow special, is as much of a pull as the hunger for true transcendence.

Among my favorite Catholic novels — and one which I most enjoy rereading — is one that deals precisely with the very tension between religious transcendence and imagined superiority. Scottish novelist Muriel Spark's 1961 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the story of a magnetic teacher and her devoted pupils at a 1930's Edinburgh girls' school, functions as both a mirror and a counterweight to Brideshead Revisited. (Miss Brodie herself, unlike Spark, is not a Catholic but a Calvinist, but one whose Calvinism — like Greene's Catholicism — focuses on the spiritual superiority of the perceived chosen “elect.”) Passionate about her pursuit of a world of aesthetic transcendence (in one memorable scene, she expresses fury at a school sign mandating “Safety First,” announcing to her rapt charges that “Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth, and beauty come first.), Miss Brodie ultimately manipulates her charges into sympathy for fascists like Mussolini, and later Hitler, about whom she will only ever concede that he was “a little bit naughty.” She inspires one of her less-favored pupils — desperate to gain her approval — to run away and fight on the fascist Franco-ist side in the Spanish Civil War. She at once nurtures her students' desire for goodness, truth, and beauty, and then prunes that desire into something malformed: a worship of power, of strangeness, of the extraordinary rather than the good. Ultimately, Miss Brodie's dysfunction leads one of her former charges, Sandy — the novel's protagonist — to seek a new kind of faith: refuge from the world not as a Spanish fighter but as a Catholic nun, an anonymous and ordinary vocation. Sandy, now Sister Helena of the Transfiguration, writes a book about which Spark tells us little but the title: The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, and the fact that Miss Brodie has inspired it. The ordinary, for Sandy, has become the site of the true and the beautiful good.

It's a lesson I wasn't ready to learn at 16. But it's one I'm grateful for.

Tara Isabella Burton is the author of the novels The World Cannot Give (S&S, 2022) and Social Creature (Doubleday 2018), and the nonfiction Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (Public Affairs, 2020).