Bad Catholic Book Club (Good Catholics Welcome)

So, I’ve mentioned it on Instagram, but this semester I’m running a book club for college students I’d tentatively called the Bad Catholic Book Club. Thing is, it would seem college kids find this term scandalous — that it implies that they, in fact, are bad Catholics. (But we all are, right?!) So Haley suggested the title Christ-Haunted Novelist Book Club, and while some students now suspect we only read spooky stories, we’ve stuck with that less scandalous name.

But let’s talk about scandal, especially in our reading lives.

The goals my friend Logan and I share in running this club are to help students think about what it means to read Catholicly, and to read the great (bad?) Catholic authors who can sometimes challenge us with their ugly truths. Part of the conversation of our first meeting centered around if a book can shock you without corrupting you, and how to discern the right book and the right time.

We started the semester reading an essay by Flannery O’Connor.

Now we are working our way through Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, which follows an unnamed “whiskey priest” as he flees during the Mexican Cristero Rebellion, during which celebrating the Mass was seen as treason.

In the novel, there is a lot of sordidness on display. There is no neat moral and the book wouldn’t qualify as devotional reading on a neat Catholic bookstore display. Instead, we have a secondary character, Padre José, fearful and ridiculous, who has married in order to save his own skin, but

“Perhaps Padre José was the better man — he was so humble he was ready to accept any amount of mockery; at the best of times, he never considered himself worthy of the priesthood. […H]e had been simply filled with an overwhelming sense of God. At the Elevation of the Host you could see his hands trembling — he was not like St Thomas who needed to put his hands into the wounds in order to believe: the wounds bled anew for him over every altar. Once Padre José had said to him in a burst of confidence, ‘Every time…I have such fear.’ His father had been a peon.”

Isn’t this, after all, devotional? It’s true there are no cookie-cutter ideals, protagonists to inspire and model ourselves upon. Instead, here we can see recognizably human, fallible people reaching their way toward God through all the ugliness of our world. And the world of the whiskey priest is, unremittingly, ugly. We’ve got vultures aplenty, fetid poverty, and a mostly-toothless Judas who follows the priest around whining.

To me, it seems like reading Catholicly requires leaving one’s self open to seeing the story of Redemption play out in a work of fiction. As a reader, we are on the lookout for reminders, clues to the Fall and the Resurrection. To read this way requires sensitivity and discernment — I think a book by a noncatholic can point to Catholic truths, as when An American Childhood so perfectly characterizes a child’s longing, a longing that I believe overlaps with St Augustine’s famous prayer, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

But there is the matter of giving scandal, which should not be overlooked. I never want to espouse a sort of literary/religious snobbery that sneers, “When you’re a grownup, a real Catholic, you can read the really top-shelf stuff without being corrupted or shocked.”

Because a lot of this is violent and ugly and upsetting. In our discussion, most of us had examples of books we’d read too young, or while too vulnerable, but it’s not strictly a linear progression, either. If you’re already depressed, a book like this really can haunt you. There are times when it might be wise to steer yourself toward the very inspirational novels I tend to deride. There’s a place for light and hopeful.

Maybe the key, then, is to select one’s reading with care and guidance. I came across recommendations for The Sparrow at exactly the right time, when I was no longer crushed by first trimester misery, but was still thinking a lot about the meaning of suffering, and still, Father Sandoz’s wounds scared the daylights out of me. As a culture of Catholic readers, we need thoughtful recommendations: not trigger warnings, but also a firm refusal to to descend into hipsterism. “Oh — so-and-so is fun, of course, but have you read…?” We are each on our own path to redemption, and in our reading lives, as in everything else, this will look different for different people.

I’ll close with a little more Greene:

“How often the priest had heard the same confession — Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization — it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”

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