Newman and the Importance of Catholic Literature

Over the years, I have often written on the importance of spiritual reading for growth in holiness. Good Catholic books are also a great outreach to family, friends, and multitudes of ignorant and fallen-away Catholics, not to mention the millions of our countrymen who are pagans at best and atheists in practice.

But in addition to what we might technically consider “spiritual” reading, I would like to offer some recommendations of a rather different kind of book. Many people are not fully aware of the depth and breadth of Christian literature covering two millennia and every genre of writing.

Of course, Christian literature goes back to the Scriptures and the first centuries of the Faith. A lot of that is well enough known or at least appreciated. My emphasis here is on recommendations from Catholic poetry and fiction, including great novels from all over the world that are generally available in translation and easily accessible via your iPad or Kindle. Some of these may even be gathering dust in your attic or basement, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Blessed John Henry Newman gave a classic justification for paying attention to such works. In his lectures to the students at the Catholic university that he founded in Dublin in the mid-1800s (later published as The Idea of the University), he discusses the meaning and purpose of Catholic literature. And he draws very interesting distinctions – and lessons from them:

When a “Catholic Literature in the English tongue” is spoken of as a desideratum, no reasonable person will mean by “Catholic works” much more than the “works of Catholics.” The phrase does not mean a religious literature. “Religious Literature” indeed would mean much more than “the Literature of religious men;” it means over and above this, that the subject-matter of the Literature is religious; but by “Catholic Literature” is not to be understood a literature which treats exclusively or primarily of Catholic matters, of Catholic doctrine, controversy, history, persons, or politics; but it includes all subjects of literature whatever, treated as a Catholic would treat them, and as he only can treat them.

John Henry Newman by John Everett Millais (1881)
John Henry Newman by John Everett Millais (1881)

Newman was clearly trying to stake out a particular kind of writing that would not be the usual apologetics or spiritual works or theology. In his day, he could assume most people would understand what he was getting at: “Why it is important to have them treated by Catholics hardly need be explained here. . . .For it is evident that, if by a Catholic Literature were meant nothing more or less than a religious literature, its writers would be mainly ecclesiastics; just as writers on Law are mainly lawyers, and writers on Medicine are mainly physicians or surgeons.”

The point has a bearing far beyond what might apply in professional groups or academic disciplines: “if this be so, a Catholic Literature is no object special to a University, unless a University is to be considered identical with a Seminary or a Theological School.”

For Newman, the importance of literature stems from our very nature and God-given powers as human beings, especially language:

if by means of words the secrets of the heart are brought to light, pain of soul is relieved, hidden grief is carried off, sympathy conveyed, counsel imparted, experience recorded, and wisdom perpetuated,—if by great authors the many are drawn up into unity, national character is fixed, a people speaks, the past and the future, the East and the West are brought into communication with each other,—if such men are, in a word, the spokesmen and prophets of the human family,—it will not answer to make light of Literature or to neglect its study; rather we may be sure that, in proportion as we master it in whatever language, and imbibe its spirit, we shall ourselves become in our own measure the ministers of like benefits to others, be they many or few, be they in the obscurer or the more distinguished walks of life,—who are united to us by social ties, and are within the sphere of our personal influence.

In the desire to propagate these and other benefits of Catholic literature, some years ago I hosted two series on Catholic authors. (They are still available from EWTN, online as MP3s or may be purchased in DVD format.) I chose men and women much more knowing than I as my guests (people like Ralph McInerny, Joseph Bottom, and The Catholic Thing’s own Robert Royal). So if you want to get a flying start into Catholic literature, you won’t go wrong here: St. Augustine, Dante, Pascal, Manzoni, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sigrid Undset, Bernanos, Tolkien, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Sienkiewicz, Calderon de la Barca, Hilaire Belloc, Fr. Ronald Knox, Fr. Robert Hugh Benson, G.K. Chesterton, Shakespeare, Edwin O’Connor, Ralph McInerny, Fr. Thomas Merton. And there are dozens upon dozens more for you to encounter.

With the general decline in knowledge of Catholic culture, it’s a good time to start that Catholic Book club with your friends, as well as pagans, agnostics, or fallen-away and potential Catholics. And there are plenty more great works where these came from. Who knows? Maybe you will one day write one yourself!

Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.