We Learn the Best Lessons from the Worst Sinners

For the last year or two, I’ve made a mission to read as many 20th century Catholic fiction authors as I could manage. This journey, so far, has taken me through;

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
Kristen Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Everything the Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Catha
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

What I noticed pretty quickly was that these novels all had very similar threads, though none were what I expected them to be at the onset. You could¬†probably¬†read a million better literary reviews than what I will try to spew forth here, but what I’ve discovered is that the best Catholic stories contain some of the absolute worst people, and that it is in the tales of the sinners that we can learn a great deal about becoming better Catholics.

20th century catholic novels

I think when you say “Catholic stories” people¬†instinctively¬†imagine Butler’s Lives of the Saints, or dramatic retellings of visions,¬†ecstasies¬†and lives free of all temptation and failure. And it is good to see men and women who could more often than not, choose God and His will over their own.

But while the saints may be the best role models, they don’t need to be the only ones to show us the clear path to heaven. In fact, it is in reading about characters who throw themselves headfirst into sin and damnation that we can often see what makes a Godly life so appealing after all.

In these great works of fiction I have been reminded time and time again that there are consequences for sin, even for those who refuse to believe that anything can be sinful. Satan is real, and his evil pushes people to savage ends. But conversely  there is always hope, because anyone can be saved. These sad miserable people are never abandoned or forgotten no matter how far then try to take themselves away from God. No one is too far gone, and souls can be saved in even the darkest places; a whorehouse, whilst tangled in an affair or under the burden of a grudge carried for decades. 

These books shock us, not always as blatantly as O’Connor but these real situations are happening every day around us but we don’t see them for the sins they are until placed in these stories. Horrible people aren’t always murderers and robbers in black suits with masks. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, fathers, brothers and sons. They are sometimes ourselves.

Through out all these books, there is the lesson that we all suffer. Sinners who choose to follow a life of sin, will suffer. Sinners who choose to turn away from sin suffer in breaking the habit of their sins and the struggle to do better. Even the faithful Catholic will suffer because bad things happen even to the best of us. But only the last two groups mentioned above can find hope in their suffering and take part in the mystery of faith.

I love these books because they reflect life as it is, not a sugar-coated version, and with the clear message that the decision to sin will always carry consequences. This is in stark contrast to the message of the world today; that we can be or do whatever our heart desires with no negative repercussions  Society downplays consequences at all turns and regret is viewed as archaic; like the appendix of feelings or something.

It may seem that faithful believers should have happy, temptation free days full of ease and joy but who do we know like that? It took reading through a bunch of fiction books for me to realize that there is no such thing as a perfect Catholic or perfect Catholic family (except perhaps the Holy Family). We are all struggling mightily in this world to either get to the next, or avoid the thought of it entirely.

Good Catholic books are not just devotionals or saint biographies. they are books that confront us with the darkest parts of the human interior without having to lose our own souls in the process. They shake some sense into us and force an examination of conscience These are the books of the cross; the hard, thorny faith most pop music mega churches want to gloss over. 

But ultimately by the end, there is always hope. It’s always clear that living a life mired in sin leads to hopelessness and needless suffering while even small efforts to seek God are rewarded. This message is why I keep coming back for more; why I’ve already got another Greene title on my nightstand. I need the reminder that I can do hard things and that they’re worth it.

The motto was ‘Pax’, but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with a seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood, yet peace all the same, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love. “It is My own peace I give unto you.” Not, notice, the world’s peace. -‘In This House of Brede’, opening paragraph


  1. Great one!! I think it has taken me a while to learn this. At first I avoided the harsh stuff just because it was hard to deal with. But I am slowly getting how valuable they are. I still have quite a few to tackle on this list though!

  2. I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the difference between “Christian fiction/movie” and something that’s Catholic. It seems like the second is more about presenting the reality of life, and is done with beauty. Christian fiction often fails both those, but features churchgoers more prominently? Something I’ve been ruminating on especially since reading Kristin Lavransdatter.

  3. There’s lots of new (and mostly self-published) “catholic” fiction out there, but virtually NONE of it even tries to work off the model supplied by O’Conner, Waugh, Greene, etc. If I’m wrong I’d love to hear about it.

  4. Wonderful post. I am reading Greene’s ‘End of the Affair’ right now, and ‘Kristen Lavransdatter’ and anything by Flannery O’Connor are two of my most beloved books. <3

  5. Wow, over here from Haley’s blog. This is a really beautiful reflection about the power of good literature. Also, timely because I am about to start In This House of Brede. That quote got me really excited. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Reading Kristin L. helped me become ready to convert to Catholicism. What a powerful story. It’s now my favorite novel.

    The only other ones on this list I’ve read are the O’Connors and Brideshead Revisited, which I loved, so I can’t wait to read the others you’ve mentioned. Thanks!

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