Something you are unlikely to come across in your “church life” is the fact that Catholicism has produced a surprisingly large number of first-rate writers and novelists. I am not talking so much about the academic world, though American Catholic theology has improved exponentially since the nadir of the 1950’s. In that decade Church historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis dropped a bombshell of a critique on the entire Catholic educational enterprise in the U.S. in an elegant journal piece describing Catholic study as a mile wide and a foot deep. [Unfortunately, the ballooning costs of college and the overdependence upon marginal catechists may put us back to the 1950’s, if it hasn’t already.]
As one might expect, devotional writing was never in short supply in the U.S., and every household probably owned a book from the television bishop, Fulton J. Sheen. The Catholic market today is glutted with devotional literature, particularly with the arrival of e-books. But writers who bore considerable influence among critical reading Catholics in the twentieth century United States, were for the most part Catholic lay novelists or individuals of letters. In his The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage  Paul Elie profiles what was called at the time the “School of the Holy Ghost,” a circle of American Catholic writers who make their mark from after World War II till virtually the end of the twentieth century.
Elie identifies these four authors as Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. Percy was the last to die in 1990. To varying degrees, they knew each other and read each other’s books. Amazon’s commentary describes the unconventional nature of their work:
“A pilgrimage is a journey taken in light of a story; and in The Life You Save May Be Your Own Paul Elie tells these writers’ story as a pilgrimage from the God-obsessed literary past of Dante and Dostoevsky out into the thrilling chaos of postwar American life. It is a story of how the Catholic faith, in their vision of things, took on forms the faithful could not have anticipated. And it is a story about the ways we look to great books and writers to help us make sense of our experience, about the power of literature to change—to save—our lives.” Put in my more pedestrian language, these artists sought to bring the saving essence of Christian faith in eccentric and imaginative ways.
Talk about unique personalities. Merton, the Cistercian monk who spent most of his adult life in the cloistered Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky, was the most voluminous writer of the group. To my knowledge the only format he did not employ was the novel. His autobiographical journey to the monastery, Seven Storey Mountain, is one of Catholicism’s all-time best sellers, along with a series of works on prayer and communion with God, a seven-volume diary of his monastic life, and several volumes of his letters, entertaining and intriguing.
Dorothy Day [1897-1980] is well-known as the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement after a restless and complicated youth. Her writing genre might be titled “inspired journalist,” for she is remembered for her daily paper, The Catholic Worker, which began in New York City in 1933 and sold for a penny. Her autobiography is titled The Long Loneliness. A convert to Catholicism, she labored at her radical ministry of social justice for most of her life under the autocrat Cardinal Francis Spellman; my impression is that they made each other quite nervous. Thomas Merton wrote frequent editorials for the Catholic Worker, though in the 1960’s they had something of a falling out. Day was a pacifist and felt that Merton’s critique of the Viet Nam War was soft and safe. She was not the only critic of Merton’s distance from the battles in the streets.
Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964] is a product of the Old South, a devout and at times contentious Catholic. She supposedly exclaimed at a dinner party that if the Eucharist was just a symbol, “then the hell with it.” Her short life was plagued with lupus, and she did much of her writing on her family’s peacock farm. O’Connor’s writings—two novels and multiple short stories—are the subject of literary and theological research to this day. Commentators and readers alike are often taken aback at the intensity of violence in her works. I read Wise Blood some years ago and caught something of the author’s belief that redemption is hard fought and hard won. I would recommend that a potential reader may wish to read a good introduction to O’Connor’s works before plunging in, though it is indeed worth the effort.
Many years ago, I attempted to read The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy. I did not know Percy well, except that he was a perceptive observer of the human species and something of a philosopher. I did not finish the book then, and it was not until reading Paul Elie’s biographical sketch this year that I realized that, like Flannery O’Connor, he was a voice of the South, a Catholic, and plagued with health difficulties. In addition, he was a physician, a true philosopher, anathema to the political left, and a profound ethicist. This remarkable 2013 review of The Thanatos Syndrome by George Wolfe explains Percy and the power of fiction to address contemporary society on matters of values. It is not hard to take from Wolfe Percy’s sympathetic Catholic plethora of values. Although this novel is Percy’s sixth, Wolfe recommends that it is the best book to enter the world of Percy’s thought.
Looking at the four Catholic authors presented by Elie, I am struck by the perception that their relationships with institutional Catholicism were far from ordinary. Merton and Day found the Church as adults after a number of personal storms. O’Connor was a rare Catholic in deep Georgia [one of her youthful homes is marked by a plaque across the street from the Savannah Diocesan Cathedral.] I doubt that they considered themselves in any sense catechists; they identify themselves as writers, which they certainly were, and I would add the moniker “Christian existentialists;” i.e., they extracted slices of life to seek the hidden veins of Christianity pulsing through confusion and sin.
Ironically, I had planned this post to feature two novels from an author who deserves at least honorable mention on this list, J.F. Powers, whose Morte d’Urban [1963 book of the year] and Wheat that Springeth Green  are two of the best fictional accounts of the Catholic priesthood in the United States. I will come back to them in due time, but for the moment consider the possibilities of faith enrichment in the arts.
I have been receiving piles of catalogues [and emails] from various Catholic publishers advertising “books for Lent.” The custom has developed over my lifetime that our Lenten journey include a daily Scriptural meditation, or a text from a saint, or a current day devotional from a noted contemplative like Thomas Merton or Richard Rohr. The primary purpose of any Lenten exercise is baptismal renewal for profession of faith at Easter alongside the Church’s catechumens preparing for baptism. Our Lenten mission as baptized persons partaking in the universal mission of the baptized before Easter is intensive prayer, fasting, and charitable giving and works. Consequently, one need not anguish over the choice of a Lenten guidebook so long as it is published by a reputable Catholic source and you are at ease with the author’s style.
However, there are some of us whose gift of God’s call to deeper faith took the form of curiosity and learning. I believe that probably all our readers who are still looking for an affective Lenten guidebook probably have access to them, through the local parish or church bookstore, or through other Catholic media, or through online publishers’ sites. Some may get free email updates of seasonal spirituality texts from Paulist Press, Liturgical press, or other companies. In Catholic book shopping, there is a virtual glut of spirituality books on the market, to tell you the truth, and this does not include the world of wireless and podcasts. At the end of this post I will provide some links that may be useful in book selection. It is a mystery, though, that so few parishes make available theological titles for the professional adults in the parish seeking to go beyond the Confirmation checklist in exploration of the Faith.
I should add here that Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles has floated an idea that anyone on social media claiming to be a Catholic teacher of the Faith through an online book, blog, or homemade religion curriculum would need a mandatum or commissioning from his or her local bishop, something akin to the old nihil obstat [“nothing stands in the way of publishing”] on the inside cover of religious books, under the aegis of the local bishop. I’m afraid that horse is long out of the barn for such scrutiny; several publishers from major Catholic companies told me a few years ago at an NCEA Convention [for a Café post] that the U.S. bishops [USCCB] had to labor mightily just to monitor textbook series for use in parish religious education and Catholic school use. [Doubting Thomases, click here.] Monitoring the internet, in their opinion, was an impossibility. So, a Catholic is wise to find the mainstream and exercise due diligence in selecting sources, for Lent and all other seasons and deeds of the Church.
To be honest, “Lenten books” per se have not been my resource of choice over the years. This may be due in part to my education, which included introduction to the Catholic Classics, Scripture, and the great thinkers of the Church, past and present. When I became closer to the Trappist monks about twenty years ago, I took a closer look at their schedule, which included the act of Lectio Divina, which is included in the Liturgy of the Hours, long before sunrise. Lectio Divina [or Divine Reading] is an hourlong period in which the monks study one or two substantive selections—from the Scripture, the monastic tradition, the great saints like Pope Gregory I [or Gregory the Great, r. 590-604]. I discovered a gem of a book for Catholic Lent on this very subject, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina  by Michael Casey. [See my Amazon review here.] This book moved me to consider the importance of humility in reading the Wisdom of God in Scripture or other sacred source. For me, this meant “drop the book critic stance” and listen in openness and obedience.
Lent is still more than a week away, but I got a jump on my daily late afternoon religious read when I started Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity . Transubstantiation is the term in Catholic doctrinal teaching to describe the change of the substance of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Again, I had started reading the text for study and research purposes, but as I continued further, the history of discussion about the Eucharist led to significant reevaluations of the Mass and the meaning of the reception of the Eucharist.
This book is not marketed as a devotional; it is a theological history and present-day commentary of one of Christianity’s most sublime mysteries, the fulfillment of Christ’s command to “eat my body, drink my blood.” It is a scholarly but eminently readable text, published by the Baker Publishing Group, nearly a century old, and reviewed by other theologians at Notre Dame and Mundelein Seminary [Chicago], among other schools. This is how to separate the wheat from the chaff in book selections. I selected this book with the intention of understanding Catholic and other Christian belief in the Eucharist, primarily for teaching and posting purposes. The immediate prompting to buy this work came late last summer.
Back in August 2019 the PEW Research Center shook up the Christian landscape, particularly the Catholic cohort, with its research finding that only 31% of Catholics in the U.S. believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine consecrated at Mass. According to PEW, “Just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.” You can apply the old eye test here: watch the folks who approach the minister for communion in your parish. Does their body language or facial appearance coincide with even the remotest possibility of holding God in their hands?
This is not to criticize anyone who approaches the Eucharist with the best good will they can muster, even if they cannot grasp the nuances of transubstantiation. And in fairness, there are still many theological and pastoral questions which are not answered in the formula of transubstantiation, first decreed at the Council of IV Lateran in 1215. And these research figures do not address the large number of Catholics who have discontinued weekly or periodic participation in the Mass and reception of communion.
Brian Salkeld’s Transubstantiation [above] addresses in its first chapter the dramatic switch at Vatican II where the Catholic Church reversed its “outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation” stance to its recognition of the need for some kind of fraternal, ecumenical unity and understanding between all Churches who look to Christ as their savior. The Council’s “Document on Sacred Liturgy” [Sacrosanctum Concilium, our Café Saturday stream], speaks repeatedly of the great wish—articulated by Jesus in Scripture—that “they all may be one.” Vatican II gave push to both scholarly and pastoral pursuits of ecumenical ventures, which had been pursued quietly for nearly a century before the Council began.
Ecumenists of all interested Christian traditions came quickly to realize that failure to address the painful division points of separation between churches would result in “unity-lite,” and scholars turned their attention to such matters as the nature of justification, the office of the papacy and church authority, the power and interpretation of Scripture, etc. These issues notwithstanding, the most pressing question, even during Vatican II, was the degree and extent that Christians might worship together. [Protestant observers attended the Council at Pope John XXIII’s invitation, though they did not partake of Catholic communion.] Naturally, the question of interfaith communion arose, and scholars turned to medieval times and the Reformation to explore how the divisions about the Eucharist had arisen in the first place.
Where Salkeld’s book truly amazed me on this subject was in the diversity of understandings on the process by which the bread and wine became the Real Presence. Martin Luther [1483-1546] grew up during an age when the transubstantiation formulation was several centuries established. Transubstantiation [the changing of the substantial reality of bread and wine into the substantial realty of Christ] was, by this time, the approved formulary for what happened at Mass. It may come as a surprise that neither Martin Luther, nor John Calvin, several years later, denied Real Presence, though there are plenty of Catholics who use the term “Protestant” as a term of derision and just assume that many reformers of the Renaissance era were infidels and troublemakers.
Luther denied the mechanics of transubstantiation with an ingenious and devout alternative. He viewed the Mass as a sacrament of the Incarnation and appealed to the Council of Chalcedon [451 A.D.] which taught as doctrine that the divine essence of God did not diminish the 33-year humanity of Jesus. Chalcedon passed on to us the Christological slogan that Jesus has two natures—divine and human—in one operative person. Luther observed that since the divinity of Jesus did not overpower his humanity, why was it necessary that the communion bread abandon its reality as bread when it was consecrated at the Mass. The coexistence of God’s presence with real bread and wine seemed to him a reflection of the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary. Later the term “consubstantiation” would come into the academic discussion to elaborate Luther’s eucharistic theology, though he himself did not use the language of the scholastics for the most part.
John Calvin [1509-1564], the next major figure in the Reformation, described Real Presence in terms of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharistic Prayers of today’s Mass, as there has been for centuries, the priest extends his hands over the yet unconsecrated bread and wine and prays in words similar to these, “Let your Holy Spirit come upon these gifts so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” This invocation is referred to as epiclesis and in Eastern Catholicism is considered part of the consecration. Calvin’s intention was to include the full Trinity in the Eucharistic gift.
I agree with Bishop Barron that American Catholicism, at least, has done a poor job of catechizing on the full understanding of the Mass, including its history, development, and meaning. As I wrote earlier, the immediate post-Vatican II era witnessed unprecedented meetings, forums, and studies on a multitude of topics, including the precise purpose and understanding of the Eucharist. Salkeld comments that on the matter of “transubstantiation,” the Catholic Church has never veered much from the IV Lateran definition of 1215. In the half-century since the Council Vatican II, much has changed in the church and in society. Today is an age of polarization; discussion of issues that separate the Churches has fallen to the wayside as an almost desperate effort to clarify denominational unity of worship and morals currently preoccupies the scene on the ground. The author raises a very good point that in the post-Vatican II era, and probably at the time of the Reformation, the academics got too far ahead of the faithful, who instinctively resist formulations that seem foreign to their piety and practices.
The sins of arrogance and pride are never too distant, and I took this lesson so well-articulated by Salkeld above as a Lenten point of penance. Ministry of education is an act of enrichment, not coercion. In addition, I took from Salkeld [thus far] a greater appreciation of Eastern Rite Catholics and the Orthodox emphasis upon the Holy Spirit in their celebration of Eucharist; Luther’s vision of the Eucharist as associated with the Incarnation; and Calvin’s sense of consecration as the work of the full Trinity. While these insights will be useful in future teaching, they are right now food for meditation. Theology is the study of God, and if read obediently, saves the soul of the reader as it equips.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything