The Pensive Catholic - The Moral of Catholic Fiction
Recently a reviewer expressed how much she liked the short stories in my collection, A Hero For The People – Stories From The Brazilian Backlands (Press 53, 2013). She then when on to say:
“I have to admit that in some stories I had trouble understanding the moral or what I should have learned from reading it.”
This is a valid comment, and one that deserves a thoughtful response.
I am a Catholic, an orthodox Christian who avidly believes in the risen Christ. I am also a son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather, a Midwestern American who lived thirty years in Brazil, a lawyer who attended a Great Books college, was trained as a community organizer, and worked many years with subsistence farmers. Morals and meaning are important to me. All of these things are part of who I am, and they inform my fiction and poetry.
But I am also a story teller. As with most story tellers I know, stories grow within me and cry out to be born. They bother me until I write them. Writing them is part of my vocation.
There are many fine stories that do have a lesson. Aesop’s fables come to mind, as do many folk tales. Jesus’ parables teach lessons – though the more complex ones (the prodigal son, the good Samaritan) are many leveled.
Usually I don’t write stories to teach something specific (I have done so for catechism classes and ethics classes, but those are a different matter). Rather, I seek to be as true to my art – and as true to my characters – as I can be. “Truth” in fiction may seem to be a contradiction, but truth is not the same as facts; there is more truth in a Shakespeare play than there is in a telephone book. Ocassionally, once I have written a story, I –or more often a reader – will find a lesson in the story, but that is not the intent in writing it. Simply, I have tried to convey the story in as true a manner as I can.
Does that mean that fiction of that sort (which is most literary fiction) does not have moral value? Studies show that readers of fiction are more empathetic than those who do not read fiction. When we read fiction, we learn to see the world through the eyes of other people, very often different from us. To use examples from A Hero For The People, through the eyes of a subistence farmer in the Brazilian Amazon, a small businesswoman in Recife, a Belgian brother facing danger, an upper middle-class girl from Rio whose sister was tortured by the military government. When we see the world through another person’s eyes, we begin to understand other people, other ways of viewing the world.
This indeed has moral value. So I learn each time I read, each time I stretch my imagination to encompass the viewpoint of another human being, each time I gain new insight into God’ wonderful world.
I am glad this is so. But I write not to teach that lesson. I write because I am called to write.