Bringing Catholic Culture Back into the English Curriculum

Roy Peachey FAITH Magazine March – April 2011

Mr Peachey convincingly argues that there are worrying lacunae in the school curriculum. His piece is also a masterly and succinct guide to the unbalanced development of post-Reformation literature. He is an English teacher at Woldingham School, Surrey, and maintains a blog — — where some of the books mentioned in this article are discussed in greater depth.

The Via Pulchritudinis

On 21st November 2009 Pope Benedict XVI addressed 250 artists, both believers and non-believers, in the Sistine Chapel. Following in the footsteps of Paul VI and John Paul II, he took as his theme the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, and sought to draw inspiration from artists while simultaneously challenging them to work with the Church. For any educator wanting to examine ways of bringing Catholic culture back into the school curriculum, this magisterial theme is worth close consideration.

The theme builds on the insights of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, in which the Fathers of Vatican II had affirmed that:

"Literature and arts are also, in their own way, of great importance to the life of the Church. They strive to make known the proper nature of man, his problems and his experiences ... revealing man's place in history and in the world, ... illustrating the miseries and joys, the needs and strengths of man, ... foreshadowing a better life for him. Thus they are able to elevate human life" [Gaudium et Spes 1965, para. 62]

In 1965 Paul VI developed upon this by referring to artists as people "who are taken up with beauty and work for it". John Paul II in 1999 called them "ingenious creators of beauty" and Benedict XVI, in 2009, "the custodians of beauty".


In tune with Gaudium et Spes these three popes discussed the importance of beauty in art only in the context of a fallen world. For example John Paul II wrote:

"In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption."

Similarly, before he became pope, Joseph Ratzinger argued that the Church's emphasis on beauty needed to be counterbalanced by a coherent analysis of what beauty means in a wounded world. He argued, for example, that in the face of the evil seen at Auschwitz "a purely harmonious concept of beauty is not enough. It cannot stand up to the confrontation with the gravity of the questioning about God, truth and beauty." [Ratzinger 2002, 6] Instead a deeper understanding of beauty was required:

"Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested himself, precisely in the altered appearance of Christ crucified as love "to the end" (John 13:1), knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also embraces offence, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it."

As Pope he further argued that "the expression of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful." [2009]


The post-conciliar popes were not just interested in the final artistic product but in the creative act itself. John Paul II, for example, who was himself a poet and playwright, argued that, as well as being a creator of beauty, the artist is a craftsman who mirrors the work of the creator God:

"The opening page of the Bible presents God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator. This relationship is particularly clear in the Polish language because of the lexical link between the words stworca (creator) and tworca (craftsman)."

In so doing he perhaps had in mind the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which reminds us that, "Created 'in the image of God', man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works" before further explaining that, "To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God's activity in what he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man." [1994,2501]

These recent papal comments reveal a deep vein of Catholic thought on the role of art in the world and yet the sad truth is that most English lessons in most British Catholic schools are all but untouched by such ideas. Where Catholicism impinges upon the English curriculum, if it does so at all, it is by and large in the work of novelists who are more interested in sin than beauty and in doubt than faith. Nevertheless, signs of hope for a revival of Catholic culture in the school curriculum have emerged in recent times from some unexpected quarters. The so-called God Debate and recent educational changes have combined to change the environment in English Catholic schools. In particular, changes to A Level English Literature specifications, giving students the chance to study linked textsof their own choosing, have allowed Catholic schools to introduce a broader range of Catholic texts into the curriculum than has recently been possible, thereby creating an opportunity for teachers and students to respond to papal and conciliar insights into the role of Catholic culture.

In its 2009 support materials for AS Level English Literature, the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR) board suggested that one possible topic for the compulsory coursework essay on post-1900 linked texts could be "Faith in the world - how the spiritual is made real". In their explanation of the thinking behind this suggestion, the unnamed authors of the support materials claimed that "much modern literature has explored the place of belief systems in the modern world. Religion is a subject which can arouse strong feelings and give rise to interesting classroom debates. Students enjoy engaging with this topic in the light of contemporary political and secular debate as in the current controversies stimulated by Richard Dawkins for example." [OCR 2009]

That a major examination board should regard faith in the world as a topic worthy of study is encouraging even if the grounds on which such a topic seems to have been chosen might be questioned by Catholic educators. It is significant that the terms of the debate about faith in the world are deemed to have been set by people like Richards Dawkins, just as it is significant that the debate is seen as a "political and secular", rather than a religious, one. The rich tradition of Catholic thought on how the spiritual is made real rarely makes its way into either the English classroom or the offices of examination boards.

OCR's suggested set texts are also informative in this regard: the main suggested texts are the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels, and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. Other suggested texts include Antonia White's Frost in May, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. It would be difficult to argue against the presence of Waugh and Greene on any list of twentieth century religious writers but more significant are the absences. Why, Catholic teachers might be entitled to ask, are the novels of Muriel Spark, the short stories of Flannery O'Connor, or the poetry of Les Murray not included on the list? Why, for that matter, is the work of Mauriac and Bernanos not recommendedgiven that texts in translation may be studied in this unit? One can understand why a list of recommended A Level English texts should be anglocentric but the complete lack of texts in translation inevitably creates an unbalanced view of what faith in the world might actually be like in the twentieth century. With the exception of Arundhati Roy's novel there is nothing written from outside a largely post-Protestant, Anglo-American world.

Perhaps the inclusion of Greene's The Power and the Glory and White's Frost in May, written before her return to the Catholic faith, provides the answer to these questions. Examination boards (and publishers and booksellers) are still more at ease with literature that dwells on doubt rather than faith. Nevertheless, despite the misgivings educators might have about the basis on which such literary choices have been made, it is clear that the new A Level specifications have at least created an opportunity for Catholic culture to be brought back into the curriculum.

It is possible, of course, to argue that Catholic culture has never been lost from the classroom. The National Curriculum for England claims to be, and in many ways is, comprehensive and non-discriminatory. Among the authors deemed "appropriate for study" at Key Stage 3 (11 -14 year olds), for example, are the Catholics Frank Cottrell Boyce, Geoffrey Chaucer, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Jennings and Siegfried Sassoon (though he converted to Catholicism long after his war poetry was written). At Key Stage 4 (the GCSE syllabus) the names of John Dryden (another late convert), Gerard Manley Hopkins, Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh are added to the list. However, the presence of a few Catholics on a list of approved authors is in itself no guarantee of the presence of Catholic culture in theclassroom.

Even though the creators of the National Curriculum are keen to emphasise the importance of what they call "the English literary heritage", by which they mean "authors with an enduring appeal that transcends the period in which they were writing, and who have played a significant role in the development of literature in English" [Qualifications and Curriculum Authority 2007, 71), their choice of recommended authors reveals a set of post-Protestant secular assumptions which need to be challenged if Catholic culture is to flourish in Catholic schools. We would need to ask why Chaucer is the first (and only pre-Reformation) English author to be deemed appropriate for study, for example. The complete absence of Old English, and the almost complete absence of Middle English (Catholic)classics, reveals a stunning neglect of the English literary heritage rather than a statutory protection of it. What is more, the post-Reformation list of authors is not much more balanced. It appears from the list of suggested authors that there were no Catholics writing in English after the death of Geoffrey Chaucer (with the notable but limited exception of Dryden) until Gerard Manley Hopkins took up his pen in the late nineteenth century. No less a figure than John Henry Newman may once have argued that "English Literature will ever have been Protestant" [Newman 1852, 314] but, as authors from G.K Chesterton [1928, 236-242] to Ian Ker [2003,1-12] have argued since, the literary outlook was never quite so bleak for Catholics.

The Post-Reformation Development of Literature

It is less easy to agree with Newman's analysis of literary history given what we now know about the ideological factors that went into the creation of the English literary canon. As Professor Alison Shell of Durham University, for example, has demonstrated "the unmasking of prejudice, and the dissection of its imaginative complexities, have been central to post-war study within the humanities; and many of the best scholars have also tried to go outside the literary canon, respecting and recovering cultural traditions, texts and histories which earlier generations, influenced by prejudiced hierarchies of taste and importance, have buried, forgotten or despised." [Shell 1999, 17] What has only recently begun to take place, however, is the inclusion of Catholicism in this list of losttraditions, texts and histories. As Shell, who has led the way in this area, puts it: "There would be a good case for including the Elizabethan or Stuart Catholic alongside women, racial minorities, Jews, homosexuals and the common sort in lists of the historically downtrodden." She then specifically demonstrates the factors which have lain behind the suppression of the poetry of Robert Southwell and Richard Crashaw, two great Catholic poets from the Early Modern Period.

If the 16th and 17th centuries produced their own particular brand of anti-Catholic prejudice, which has continued to affect literary judgments up to the present day, the age of the novel was scarcely any better. Georg Lukacs, for instance, famously argued that "the novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God" [Lukacs 1971, 88] while Peter Faulkner claimed that it was the "one secular literary form" [Faulkner 1976,11], following the argument of Ian Watt's classic The Rise of the Novel [Watts 1957]. Valentine Cunningham took the argument one step further, the novel being, in his view, not merely a product of a newly secular age but one which emerged from a specifically non-Catholic world.

"'Novels', I would allege, have rights to that designation only insofar as they display their origins in and their debt to the Northern European Protestant matrix; they have, as it were, the matching DNA." [Knight & Woodman 2006, 39]

The Novel

Cunningham is not alone in holding this view: influential novelists from Sir Hugh Walpole to George Orwell have agreed with him, seeing in Catholicism a fundamental threat to the supposed twin foundations of Protestantism and the novel: freedom and the value of the individual.

Mired as some of this analysis is in an anti-Catholic tradition that stretches back long before the rise of the novel, there is some truth in the link between the novel and the post-Protestant secular consensus, a link which might throw into question the elevated status of the novel in Catholic English curricula. It is well known, for example, that the Gothic (a staple diet of A Level syllabi) was grounded in anti-Catholicism. Novels like The Castle of Otranto and, more famously, Dracula are characterised not just by their sensational plots and their use of the macabre but also by their deep-rooted and, sometimes explicit, opposition to the Catholic Church. As one recent critic has pointed out, "in its ideological structure, the English Gothic novel, though it typicallyrepresents Catholicism, is fundamentally a Protestant genre." [O'Malley, 2006] This writer is not complaining but describing the Victorian crisis in British Protestant identity. This crisis arose from the development of the Oxford Movement, the high-profile conversions to Catholicism and the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy, which ensured that Catholicism, far from being a relic of the past, instead "erupted into the present".

Clearly Catholic educators would not wish to remove the Gothic, the detective story (which W. H. Auden claimed was part of a Protestant tradition) or the novel from their school curricula, not least because redemption is a central Catholic concept and even the novel can be redeemed. There may not be much in the way of traditional Catholic Gothic fiction but the short stories of the impeccably orthodox Flannery O'Connor, for example, are often discussed as representatives of the Southern Gothic, and the role of Catholics in the development of detective fiction is even more difficult to deny. Auden himself wrote admiringly of Chesterton's Father Brown but Father Brown was only the first in a very long line of fictional Catholic detectives, and Chesterton the first in a long line of Catholicauthors of detective fiction that stretches from Ronald Knox to Graham Greene to Ralph Mclnerny and William Brodrick.

However, the mere presence of Catholic authors is not in itself enough to undermine post-Protestant, secular understandings of the novel. Where so-called "realism" continues to flourish in Catholic schools, the Catholic teacher needs to be wary. It was only in the nineteenth century that the real became synonymous with unidealised treatments of contemporary life and the deliberate rejection of the supernatural, and yet the Realist Novel soon swept all before it. Rather than accept the post-Protestant secular assumptions that are part and parcel of this realist tradition, teachers should ensure that the recognition in recent literary criticism that "'realism' itself has come to be seen as a convention, a selective version of reality" [Knight & Woodman 2006, 4] is taken more seriouslywhen curricula are drawn up.

J.R.R. Tolkien, who was both a Professor of English and an author, knew this full well, which is why "the basic structural mode of The Lord of the Rings [is] the ancient and pre-novelistic device of entrelacement." [Shippey 1992,143] According to Tom Shippey, it was precisely Tolkien's use of entrelacement, or "chronological leap-frogging", which enabled him to create a book in which the necessarily limited perspectives of individual characters pointed, albeit obliquely, to a larger reality which could only be understood from a perspective outside the fiction itself. In fact, what Tolkien strongly suggested was that ultimately only God could understand that reality.

However, looking back to pre-novelistic devices is not the only option for the Catholic author. As Thomas Woodman points out: "In recent years the rise of postmodernist fiction and of such modes as 'magic realism' [as exemplified most obviously by Latin American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez] have called into question the whole privileging of realism in the novel genre." [Woodman 1991, 4]

Literary postmodernism, with its deliberate mixing of different styles and media, its playfulness and frequent use of popular modes of representation, is highly popular in schools. Novels like Ian McEwan's Atonement and John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman are staple elements of many A Level syllabi. However, the rise of postmodernism in particular has also enabled Catholics to challenge some of the fundamentally un-Catholic assumptions which lie embedded at the heart of the genre.

Muriel Spark, for example, used her newly acquired Catholic understanding of the world to breathe new life into the novel, most notably in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Here, as in many of her novels, the relationship between the omniscient narrator and the characters mimics the relationship between God and his creatures. There is free will but the characters often fail to realise either how free they are or in what ways their freedom is bound up in the greater freedom of the novelist herself. Spark was not the only Catholic to have challenged secular understandings of the novel: Evelyn Waugh's oft-repeated assertion that Helenawas his best novel has irritated a long line of critics who were expecting another Brideshead Revisited and instead got aspects of thepostmodern as early as 1940.

In Helena, Waugh's narrator plays around with the whole notion of storytelling, as in many postmodern novels. He starts his story twice, firstly as legend and then as history. He also skates over events of apparently huge historical significance and focuses on the life of a clearly anachronistic figure, a horsey girl from the British provinces who becomes Empress Dowager and a modern seeker after truth.

It is this search for truth and, more importantly, the solid reality of the cross which holds the novel together. The postmodern trickery is not designed, as in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, to cast doubt on the Church's understanding of the world, or even on the very nature of truth itself, but to tease the reader into asking the right questions, into becoming a pilgrim.

The image of the pilgrim is perhaps the most important in the book. Helena is a traveller - from Colchester to Rome to Jerusalem - who begins her travels not knowing where she is going or why, but who ends the novel by being led, we assume, by a greater author who works through and with the narrator and his characters. This is postmodernism as written by a Catholic.

Indeed it is only if we take this postmodern mixture of playfulness and hardheadedness seriously that we will be able to appreciate Helena. What Waugh gives us is not history and certainly not hagiography but a carefully constructed (and funny) novel about a piece of "wood which has endured". As Helena herself put it: "Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union, there's a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against."

The rise of the postmodern novel has also thrown English insularity into sharp relief. Umberto Eco may have made more of an impact outside his own country, but in Italy itself he is rivalled by the postmodern Catholic author Antonio Tabucchi. Other Catholics, such as Hungary's Peter Esterhazy, have also written from a postmodern perspective, though I would not necessarily recommend his The Book of Hrabal, in which two angels in the guise of secret policemen stake out a Hungarian household during the Stalinist 1950s and communicate with God by walkie-talkie.

It is true that Woodman cautions against an overreliance on either postmodernism or magic realism as the critical means by which to escape the constraints of secular realism, arguing instead with Muriel Spark's priest in Mandelbaum Gate that "a supernatural process is going on under the surface and within the substance of all things". [Woodman 1991,113] Nonetheless, it is also clear that the Catholic English teacher needs to challenge the dominance of the nineteenth century realist novel in the classroom if he is to remain true to his Catholic principles. This does not mean that realism is wholly unimportant but it does mean taking the views of Flannery O'Connor, who thought more deeply about these matters

than most novelists, seriously: "All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real," she wrote, "but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality." [O'Connor 1970, 40-4]


The post-conciliar popes remind us is that there is much more to Catholic literature than doubt and dissent. As O'Connor once memorably put it: "The question of what effect the Church has on the fiction writer who is a Catholic cannot always be answered by pointing to the presence of Graham Greene among us." [1970,143] The individually tortured, dissenting tradition that Greene represents is not the only or even the main, tradition in Catholic literature, but reading some commentators you would be hard pressed to know it.

We have more resources already at our disposal than we often appreciate. What we lack is a sustained educational movement to help us make use of them. Nonetheless, even without this movement we can begin to work on helping our students to develop a Catholic imagination, as several very different books have recently suggested. [Whitehead 2003; Boyle 2004; Murphy 2008]. And for that to happen the Catholic school needs to take on board Benedict XVI's reminder to Catholic educators in the USA in 2008 that there is much more to Catholic education than the nature of the curriculum: "Catholic identity," he said, "is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of yourlearning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith."


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