I was hesitant to begin a Catechist Café Stream on Catholic novelists because, sad to say, I never received a strong education in American literature. In the seminary I read J.F. Powers’ Morte d’Urban, the story of a Midwesterner priest during the collapse of his religious order in the 1950’s, just prior to Vatican II. I confess, then, that this Stream of the Café is as much for me as the reader. The inspiration to enter the world of Catholic novelists came from two sources. Nick Ripratazone’s Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction  caught my eye and I eventually reviewed it for Amazon last year.
The other source of inspiration was, surprisingly, a short-lived weekly podcast called “Marlon and Jake Read Dead People.” The Jamaican bestselling novelist Marlon James teamed up with Jake Morrissey, editor of Riverhead/Penguin Books to discuss literature by authors who have passed away. [Their tongue-in-cheek premise: the dead cannot complain.] This was a humorous, salty, and erudite examination [R-rated] of authors and their works, going back as far as Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. What surprised me—stunned me, actually—was the interest of these two worldly academics in authors and works in a Catholic milieu. There was never a week, for example, when mention of Flannery O’Connor or Toni Morrison was overlooked.
It would surprise many Catholics, I think, to learn that one of our own, namely Morrison [1931-2019], is an aggressively targeted author in states which are into the book banning business, such as Texas. Morrison’s body of work is a vivid description of the African American experience, past and present. To my way of thinking, an exploration of Morrison’s novels on racial struggle would be an ideal resource for older adolescents and adult faith formation. Morrison is the first African American woman author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature for her body of work. 
There are four ways I study Catholic novelists—a format I developed for myself.  What is the author’s biography, or specifically, how did he or she encounter the Catholic Faith in the first place? Edwin O’Connor [1918-1968], the author of the classic The Edge of Sadness ’ was a cradle Catholic from Rhode Island. [I reviewed this work for Amazon in 2014.] By contrast, Graham Greene [1904-1991] converted to Catholicism to marry his girlfriend, a devout Catholic. Caroline Gordon [1895-1981] converted in her adult years, influenced by fellow Catholic novelists Flannery O’Conner and Walker Percy. Morrison converted to Catholicism in her teen years.
The second stage is examining how a Catholic novelist lived and/or experienced the faith and how that experience impacted the writing. This is not always easy, and in some cases I have had to read biographies of the authors to get a sense of that. The Unquiet Englishman , for example, reveals that Graham Greene did not give up all his worldly habits of the flesh immediately after his adult baptism, but neither did he give up going to confession in times of crisis.
We know a great deal about some Catholic novelists, and precious little about others. I am sure that as I sit here at the keyboard, there are dozens of graduate students working on doctoral theses involving Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964], whose small but powerful body of work—novels and short stories—is one of the most enigmatic of all Catholic twentieth century writers. O’Connor, in turn, received considerable guidance from a lesser-known Catholic novelist and professor, Caroline Gordon.
The third thing I look for is the religious influence in the authors’ novels. The question of the relationship of Catholicism to the author’s product is not accidental. Graham Greene’s biographer notes that the author gave considerable thought to the question, as did Flannery O’Connor in her letters, and Gordon with her students in her years as a professor at the University of Dallas.
In some novels the connection is obvious, in that the very subject is a Catholic setting. I reviewed Jame Carroll’s The Cloister  a few years ago, a novel set intermittently between the medieval couple Abelard and Heloise, the Holocaust, and a burned-out Catholic priest in the 1950's. I just completed my second read of The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor. This is the story of a middle-aged priest returning to his diocese after four years in alcohol rehabilitation. He is assigned pastor to the poorest downtown church in his diocese. What he discovers about his soul and his priesthood in this broken parish is profoundly moving. And yet, the novel is not clumsy piety, far from it. Flannery O’Connor—who, as my mother was wont to say, “had a mouth on her” -- despised what we would call in the seminary “smarmy tales” of piety, religiosity without art. As a rule, outstanding Catholic novels in my experience are true to either Aristotle’s principles of drama in The Poetics, one of the most valuable books in my seminary training, and/or the existential “slice of life” style, the unvarnished account of human experience that penetrates the soul. Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood  the first time was a punch in the gut.
The fourth focus of Catholic novels is their purpose—all the works by Catholic authors which have stood the test of time are conversion and redemption stories. It is as if the Catholic novelist can never quite run away from the essential truth of the universe, that God has reached out to save—sometimes in the most subtle of ways, and at other times in overly dramatic ones. The way that the conversion is narrated in their plotlines varies, as well as the depth of the conversion. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American  the jaded British journalist reporting on the 1954 defeat of the French in Viet Nam is changed by the traumatic experience—though we are not talking Paul on the road to Damascus here. Conversion in this work is confined to giving up a Vietnamese lover and the opium pipe, but it is something, with a promise of more to come. [As a working journalist Greene did cover the final French-Vietnamese clash in 1954, and having gotten caught in a crossfire, he desperately sought and found a Catholic priest to hear his confession.]
Which brings me to an ultimate point. What I am about to say regarding Catholic authors and their novels has been true of all the great art in history. Those creating from positions of Faith, in its broadest sense, are preaching sermons that we can never hear from our pulpits. In our churches and religious education programs we teach and learn the framework—the outline if you will—of Biblical/Christian life. In art—in this case, the novel—we see the framework lived or not lived in real time. Jesus was a master at the existential expression: his parables, notably the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, to cite a few, put flesh on the bones to the question of what I must do to be saved. I referred earlier to Aristotle’s Poetics; written several centuries before Christ. In this treatment on the rules of classical tragedy, Aristotle describes the emotional catharsis [literally, the “washing out of the emotions”] of beholding good people who make dreadful mistakes and the inevitable fates that befall them. Consider Oedipus Rex.
The Catholic novelist with any meaningful grasp of the Redemptive Act cannot but reenact the fall of Adam and the Redemption by Christ in his or her narrative. The great Catholic novelists, past and present, are celebrated not just by elegant narrative and imaginative events—though these are present—but for taking us to a deeper dimension of the Christian Mystery. They belong in our journey of Faith.