David Lodge earned his doctorate at the University of Birmingham, England, and according to Wikipedia, “was brought up a Catholic and has described himself as an ‘agnostic Catholic’. Many of the characters in his works are Catholic, and their Catholicism, particularly the relationship between Catholicism and sexuality, is a consistent theme. For example, The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965) and How Far Can You Go? (1980; published in the U.S. as Souls and Bodies), examine the difficulties faced by orthodox Catholics vis-a-vis the prohibition of artificial contraception. Other Lodge novels where Catholicism plays an important part include Small World, Paradise News (1991) and Therapy (1995). In Therapy, the protagonist Laurence Passmore (‘Tubby’) has a breakdown after his marriage fails. He reminisces about his adolescent courtship with his first girlfriend at a Catholic youth club and seeks her out while she is on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the legendary and contemporary hike to the Cathedral of St. James in Spain where the saint’s bones are reputed to rest. Lodge has said that if read chronologically, his novels depict an orthodox Roman Catholic becoming ‘less and less so as time went on’.”
To be honest, I was not familiar with Lodge or his body of work until Souls and Bodies, and from scanning reviews of his body of work he is not regarded with the same esteem as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, or Flannery O’Connor. But any fair Catholic novelist, in a Catholic milieu, is always a matter of considerable interest to me. Novelists—even the agnostics, maybe in particular the agnostics--bring two considerable advantages to the Catholic populace—they can bring the nuts and bolts of Catholic worship and discipline to the public in compelling and blunt ways, and as non-clerics they suffer no repercussions for addressing matters of controversy with a brutal honesty that we rarely see in the Church’s everyday public life but take very seriously in private. Flannery O’Connor, a devout communicant till her death, observed to anyone who asked that the biggest miracle at Lourdes is that more people don’t die from contagion at the facilities. Catholic novelists can call ‘em as they see ‘em.
Souls and Bodies  is a period piece, to be sure—twice removed, one might say. Lodge completed this novel in 1980 as a retrospective piece on young Catholic collegians in the late 1950’s, daily Mass attendees at their college chapel, who go on to navigate the next two decades of the “Vatican II era” through their twenties and thirties. It is captivating in a way to look back on the sexual mores—particular Catholic teachings—of the pre-Vatican II era. Lodge captures the ambiguity of the time—a feeling among many, if not all Catholics, that the Conciliar age of religion was on the cusp of a more humane approach to the strict mandates of the Church in matters of the body and sexual pleasure. A recent theologian has noted that the Sixth Commandment [“thou shalt not commit adultery”] has been stretched so far that it is the only commandment against which it is impossible to sin only venially. Every sexual misstep was [and still is, by the books] held to be mortal in nature, i.e., the road to eternal damnation without sacramental confession to a priest.
Souls and Bodies traces the passage from college to full adulthood of Dennis, Angela, Michael, Polly, Ruth, Edward, Miles, and Adrian, with primary emphasis upon the triad of Catholic religion, sexual desire, and that elusive mix of purpose and identity we struggle to find in our twenties. This would not be much of a book if the players were not Catholic. In that case, the reader would yawn and say, “they’ll figure it all out eventually.” In fact, this is true for the protagonists in Souls and Bodies, except that they bear varying degrees of allegiance to a church which plays a heavy hand in human sexuality.
Lodge’s coterie of young people, in addition to the universal challenge of “finding themselves,” are faced with the added burden of the will of the divine, as the Church proclaimed it, which doubled and tripled the ante of their sexual exploration. The curiously titled second chapter, “How They Lost Their Virginities,” is a tug of war between the restraints they have been taught, their own curiosities and hungers, and a society becoming more permissive. For several, the confessional is a lifebuoy until its penitents awaken to the sin/guilt/absolution/sin matrix they have fallen into and begin to question the very meaning of moral revelation and Church authority.
One would think, then, that by the time many of the old gang had married and the premarital moral challenge had abated, the moral conundrum would have eased as a disturbing factor in their lives. But the sixth commandment was the guardian of the Church’s teaching on matters of sexuality within marriage as well as outside of it, at least in the second millennium of the Church. Married couples in Souls and Bodies faced new moral crises—how many children, and how to space them.
Specifically, the invention of the birth control pill around 1960 and its contraindication by Pope Paul VI in 1968 became the chief moral neurosis of those Catholics who still tried to remain faithful to Church teaching. The pill was more attractive and practical than barrier methods of contraception, and certainly a more tasteful solution than Natural Family Planning, the one method tolerated by the Church. I give credit to Lodge for working in the frank details of NFP, which in the 1960’s were quite complex and not always effective. To be truthful, I have no idea if the NFP programs presented by Catholic dioceses today as part of their pre-Cana or pre-marriage preparation package are as complicated as it was two generations ago, nor do I know if Catholics must attend before getting married in the Church. [As a pastor, a teacher, and a psychotherapist, I have never been asked or consulted about NFP.]
Lodge narrates how his characters attempt to reconcile the permissibility of NFP with the prohibitions against pharmaceutical and barrier birth control methods. All methods work toward the same end, they reasoned, and it appears that no clergyman had explained to them the incompatibility of physical birth control devices with the “natural law,” a broad principle dating back to the Roman thinker Ulpian, who describes natural law as “that which man has in common with the animals.” [Not that the historical explanation of natural law was or is a panacea of self-evident logic.] Although the Bible commands us to “be fruitful and multiply,” there is nothing strictly speaking upon which one could hang his hat as a condemnation of the pill. Lodge notes that his players, some of them at least, were aware that a commission of cardinals and Catholic laity were debating the moral philosophy of contraception quietly as Vatican II was still in progress. Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae  overrode that commission’s recommendation of a reset.
The story line navigates other trials and tribulations of these adults as they approach the first light of early middle age. Divorce, mental illness, homosexuality, substance abuse, abuse of power in sexual encounters, and Downs Syndrome are among the challenges through the plot. Relationships to the Catholic Church of their youth vary widely, as the reader might expect. One curious episode is infatuation with an extreme grassroots liberal movement with a national following, a splinter group from official Catholicism, “The Catholics for an Open Church.” It was established to complete the unfinished business of Vatican II, although I cannot recall many unfinished discussions by the Council itself.
I remarked earlier that Souls and Bodies was a period piece, perhaps twice so. I was referring first to the text itself and its times in English Roman Catholic history. Lodge completed this work in 1980, over four decades ago, and I could not help but reflect upon the 40+ years since the publication of Souls and Bodies. The fictional children born in this book would be nearing middle age themselves, born in the papacy of Paul VI and making their way through John Paul, Benedict, and Francis.
Certainly, this “second generation” does not carry the angst of their parents over artificial birth control, which is peculiar since every pope in their lifetime—including Francis—has left Paul VI’s teaching on contraception abandoned along a lonely roadside. I attend a weekly Saturday night Mass here in the United States, in a large parish with a healthy school and lots of two and three child families who receive communion routinely. I would strongly bet against the probability that all these parents regulate their family size via the NFP method. If they are using the pill [and there is strong research to indicate that they are], then technically speaking, they are living in mortal sin. But where have you heard that anomaly preached or discussed lately, like in the past forty years?
It is very likely that the second generation of children from this book’s protagonists would carry within them the same amount of stress as their parents, but their stressors may be different. Whereas their parents wrestled with the authority of a church that permeated their lives, today’s young people—at least in the U.S.—seem torn about where they belong, period. I suspect that the rise of the gender transitioning movement is one response to this lost identity. [I am not current with the mental health literature about transitioning, but I am registered for a therapists’ convention on the issues next February.] I do know that mental health distress measures among teenagers and young adults are high for mood disorders—depression, anxiety—as well as substance abuse and higher suicide rates.
It would certainly be intriguing to build another novel of this sort around children born in, say, 1960, living through the church life of the latter half of the twentieth century. That generation would have lived through the loss of priests and religious, many of whom had significance on young people in earlier times. Their religious education since Vatican II—if they had any—was/is of the “gas up and go” model, consisting of Confirmation and prepackaged answers to issues still germinating in youthful minds. They have been exposed to wholesale clerical scandal in the United States and elsewhere. The closing of parishes has removed one of the few genuine watering holes for youthful community building around the home of Christ. [Remember the CYO gatherings in the church basements?]
As I type this in 2023, we in the United States are struggling to stay afloat not just as parishes, but as the “salt of the earth.” Time will tell how we address that Gospel challenge. But works like Souls and Bodies remind us that the chessboard of salvation facing each generation will, to paraphrase the Gospel, “call forth new moves and old.”