In offering this list, I’m not making an attempt to define the “Catholic novel,” which would be a very foolish enterprise. There are many reasons why a novel can, and sometimes should, be called “Catholic,” but to attach that impulse to a a grand metaphysic or aesthetic theory would require a book in itself. Whether such a book would be worth reading when that time could be spent reading one of the 100 below has, for me, a self-evident answer. No!
My purpose here is merely to recommend good books to those who take the time to find good books and to read them. Not all the authors below are Catholic, strictly speaking, but more importantly these novels listed have explicitly Catholic themes and perspectives. (Perhaps I will attempt a list of Catholic novels with implicit Catholic themes and perspectives…)
That a great novel can explore religious themes directly is a tribute to the artistry of the writer since such explicitness usually leads to preaching and is, thus, deadly to writing of any kind. I have included a few selections that will not strike the reader as “Catholic” since the usual signposts are either missing or even rejected outright. In such cases, I can only ask for the reader’s trust that these recommendations have been made with care and are based on over forty years of steady reading.
Any good list should be controversial by including books some will find questionable, even ridiculous, but I am prepared to defend my choices if a reader would like to question them. Indeed, I welcome any controversy that may ensue from this list; in fact I will be disappointed if no one takes me to task.
I’m always anxious to learn of titles I don’t know, or have forgotten, or should know better, or be reminded that my own certainties may be unfounded.
Some of the novels listed are difficult to acquire, others are a click away at a modest cost. The year of publication references the original language edition.
A final note — readers may immediately notice that I’ve not included the great Fyodor Dostoyevsky or any writer from one of the Orthodox traditions. My intention in doing this is not to refuse the adjective “Catholic” to Orthodox writers, but to save the space of, say, 6-10 novels, for those the reader may not be familiar with. Be assured then this is not meant as a slight, but rather the recognition of a literary tradition that differs in significant ways.
The choice of non-English novels in English translation is, perhaps, the most significant limitation of my list. For example, Leon Bloy’s novel Le Désespéré (“Despairing”) from 1887 is still untranslated, in spite of the popularity of Bloy’s other novel, The Woman Who Was Poor (1897) translated in 1937.
Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed, 1827.
Adalbert Stifter, Rock Crystal, 1845.
Joris-Karl Huysmans, En route, 1895.
Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis, 1895.
Wladyslaw Reymont, The Comedienne, 1896.
Leon Bloy, The Woman Who Was Poor, 1897.
Antonio Fogazzaro, Little World of the Past, 1901.
Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World, 1907.
G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, 1908.
Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavansdatter, 1920-22.
Sigrid Undset, Master of Hestviken, 1925-27.
Georges Bernanos, Under the Star of Satan, 1926.
Francois Mauriac, Therese, 1928.
Su Xuelin, Heart of the Thorn Bush, 1929.
Maurice Baring, The Coat Without Seam, 1929.
Myles Connolly, Mr. Blue, 1929.
Georges Bernanos, Joy, 1929.
Miquel de Unamuno, Saint Emanuel, Martyr, 1930.
Maurice Baring, Robert Peckham, 1930.
Gertrud von Le Fort, The Song at the Scaffold, 1931.
Francois Mauriac, The Viper’s Tangle, 1932.
Maurice Baring, Darby and Joan, 1935.
Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest, 1936.
Georges Bernanos, Mouchette, 1937.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937.
Morley Callaghan, More Joy in Heaven, 1937.
Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine, 1937.
Riccardo Bacchelli, The Mill On the Po, 1938.
Joseph Roth, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, 1939.
Riccardo Bacchelli, Nothing New Under the Sun, 1940.
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, 1940.
Franz Werfel, Song of Bernadette, 1941.
Irene Nemirovsky, Suite française, 1942.
George Bernanos, Monsieur Quine, 1943.
Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear, 1943
Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil, 1945.
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 1945.
Francois Mauriac, A Woman of the Pharisees, 1946.
Franz Werfel, Star of the Unborn, 1946.
Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter, 1948.
Giovanni Guareschi, Little World of Don Camillo, 1948.
Evelyn Waugh, Helena, 1950.
Elisabeth Langgasser, The Quest, 1950.
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair, 1951.
Paul Horgan, Things As They Are, 1951
Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, 1952.
Jose Maria Gironella, The Cypresses Believe in God, 1953.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957.
John Howard Griffin, The Devil Rides Outside, 1952.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 1954-55.
Heimito von Doderer, The Demons, 1956.
Julien Green, The Transgressor, 1956.
Alfred Doblin, Tales of a Long Night, 1956.
Caroline Gordon, The Malefactors, 1957.
Shusaku Endo, Wonderful Fool, 1959.
Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowtiz, 1960.
Julien Green, Each in His Own Darkness, 1960.
William Goyen, The House of Breath, 1960
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 1960.
Shusaku Endo, Volcano, 1960.
Morley Callaghan, The Many Colored Coat, 1960.
Morley Callaghan, A Passion in Rome, 1961.
Edwin O’Connor, The Edge of Sadness, 1962.
J.F. Powers, Morte D’Urban, 1962
Anthony Burgess, The Wanting Seed, 1962.
Shusaku Endo, Silence, 1966.
Rumer Godden, In This House of Brede, 1969.
Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat, 1970.
Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time, 1971.
Julien Green, The Other One, 1971.
William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist, 1971.
Otfried Preussler, The Curse of the Darkling Mill, 1972.
Brian Moore, Catholics: A Novel, 1972.
Jon Hassler, Staggerford, 1977.
Shusaku Endo, The Samurai, 1980.
David Lodge, How Far Can You Go? (Souls and Bodies, USA), 1980.
Walker Percy, The Second Coming, 1980.
Czeslaw Milosz, The Issa Valley: A Novel, 1981.
Alice Thomas Ellis, The 27th Kingdom, 1982.
Torgny Lindgren, Bathsheba, 1984
Morley Callaghan, Our Lady of the Snows, 1985.
Brian Moore, Black Robe: A Novel, 1985.
Torgny Lindgren, Light, 1987.
Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome, 1987
J.F. Powers, Wheat That Springeth Green, 1988.
Shusaku Endo, Scandal, 1988.
Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington, 1988.
Piers Paul Read, On the Third Day, 1990
Alice Thomas Ellis, The Inn at the Edge of the World, 1990.
Ayako Sono, The Watcher from the Shore, 1990, English trans.
Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy, 1991.
David Plante, The Accident, 1991.
P.D. James, The Children of Men, 1992.
Sara Maitland, Daughter of Jerusalem, 1995
Laurence Cosse, A Corner of the Veil: A Novel, 1996.
Michael O’Brien, Eclipse of the Sun, 1998.
Ayako Sono, No Reason for Murder, 2003.
Pierre de Calan, Cosmas, or the Love of God, 2006.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 2006.
William Giraldi, Busy Monsters: A Novel, 2011.
Wonderful list! I’d propose the following for consideration:
A Canticle for Lewbowitz
The Island of the World
At the Back of the North Wind
And something by Charles Williams. I haven’t read enough to identify his best work.
I would go with William’s All Hallows Eve, although they are all worth reading, Best, Deal
I haven’t read The Road by McCarthy but loved another of his, The Crossing. Will read The Road for sure.
Thank you for including Canticle for Leibowitz. It is missing on too many lists. Some others worth consideration:
1. R.A. Lafferty, Past Master (Just back in print after some fifty years, and unlike anything ever written)
2. Gustavo Corcao, Who if I Cry Out Hard to find in English, but it is everything Tolstoy’s “Death of Ivan Ilyich” should have been.
3. Edzard Schaper, The Dancing Bear
4. G.K. Chesterton The Return of Don Quixote Beats Man Who Was Thursday with a stick!
5. Bruce Marshall The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith Best novel I’ve seen about what it’s like to be a priest.
The only book with which I take enough issue to comment is Diary of a Country Priest . As a priest, I must say it is a valiant attempt to describe what the priesthood is like, but the inner struggles are the sort that would be imagined by a layman. The priest described is unrealistic, another product of the reaction against the mawkish saint’s lives of the late 19th to early 20th centuries that goes too far and understands too little. The priest of The Power and the Glory , while overdrawn and seriously confused on his moral theology, is a far better-done example of the genre.
Father, I’m ordering all five. I’d like to talk to you about them and the list in general. Please email me firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks. Deal
I would add Joan of Arc by Mark Twain. Like my favorite book The Song of Bernadette, it was written by a non-Catholic. Twain did a lot of research before writing it and it was very well done. It was also his favorite book that he wrote. I have read several books about Joan of Arc and it is the best that I have found.
Thanks for the recommendation. Deal
Jose Maria Gironella – The Cypresses Believe in God. And, since you’re including short stories ( The Little World of Don Camillo), the short stories of Eudora Welty.
Cypresses is on the list. Welty is a Protestant writer, but a great one. I’ve read the Don Camillo book, found them charming but not memorable, best, Deal
Sorry, I missed seeing Cypresses. But, I intended to write Flannery O’Connor. I don’t know why I wrote Welty.
Flannery stories are phenomenal, but in this list I confined myself to novels. Maybe I should attempt 100 Best Catholic Stories? Deal
The Little World of Don Camillo is on the list (#41 or 42) Right after The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene and before Helena by Evelyn Waugh
Would you include in a further list any of the fictions by the soon-to-be-saint John Henry Newman? I mean “Loss and Gain” and “Callista”.
Claudio, I have read those novels but don’t they they belong in the first 100 — definitely in the second 200! Best, Deal
Death Comes For The Archbishop, A Case of Conscience, The Sparrow
I will have to take a look at ‘A Case of Conscience.’ I’m still waiting for Cather’s fiction to stir me, but I know it’s my fault not hers. I found ‘The Sparrow’ flew away from into non-comprehension “:) Best, Deal
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_a_Pope I enjoyed Piers Paul Reed’s The Death of a Pope. Fr. Elijah by Michael O’Brien is a classic. Sono Ayako who was introduced to me on your wonderful radio program Church and Culture on Ave Maria Radio is one I must seek out.
An impressive list, although I must admit I was a bit surprised that none of Morris West’s novels were included.