Catholic Intellectual Tradition Reading List (2017-2020)

Faculty must include at least one author/text from the list below. Faculty are encouraged to consider putting at least two of these texts in critical dialogue with each other. 

Papal Encyclicals

Pope Francis’ second encyclical letter, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, was released in 2015. Informed by principles and examples from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the encyclical letter offers a moral argument for the development of an “integral ecology” as a response to the global environmental crisis and the suffering of the poor and the marginalized. The encyclical letter is addressed to “every person living on this planet,” and in it the Pope expresses the wish to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (sec. 3).  Notable, for some, is Pope Francis’ embrace of climate science and his call for dialogue between religions and sciences to help solve the crises (see especially sections 199-201).

The first chapter is a resume of the environmental crisis and a description of how that crisis is concomitant with, as the title of one subsection indicates, the “decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society.” As he explains, “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (sec. 48). Chapter Two is an explication of the “Gospel of Creation,” beginning with the creation accounts in Genesis. People of faith may be motivated to work towards an integral ecology after coming to realize, as the creation accounts suggest, that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (sec. 66). Chapter Three is an argument about the “human origins of the ecological crisis” (sec. 101). The Pope contends that the crisis is enabled by a technoscientific paradigm and a distorted conception of the place of human beings and of human action in the world (we believe that our technology will allow us to solve all environmental problems [even those it creates] and, indeed, to master, to create and improve upon, life itself). The crisis is also financed by an economy that “accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings” (sec. 109). Chapter Four is an general outline of an “integral ecology” that seeks to acknowledge the interrelatedness of the environmental, economic, and social ecologies. Chapters Five and Six contain respectively a call for action and a reflection on the resources, the images and practices, from with the Christian tradition that can help positively transform our destructive ways of life. “Many things have to change course,” he writes, “but it is we human being above all who need to change”, but we are not without resources for understanding in what ways, just how, we should change (sec. 202).

The encyclical letter is rich with material that can help organize an ACS1001 syllabus and/or that can be linked up with other major themes and texts typically taken up in ACS1001. Chapter Three, on the “Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” could be read at the beginning of the semester and taken as a provocation: Will we read anyone/anything this semester that challenges the Pope’s claim that, "Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which . . . continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds’ (sec. 116)"? The encyclical offers a specifically Catholic Christian voice to debates about the environmental crisis; the meaning and role of technology in our lives (and it would work well when read with Shelley’s Frankenstein, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, or any of several texts by Wendell Berry, etc.); the role and significance of capitalism (and neo-liberalism) in shaping the values of our contemporary consumerist society; and the consideration of various Modern religious and secular utopian visions, images of other and of better ways of life. 

Laudato si’ is available for free via the Vatican’s website. You can download a pdf of the text here: One book version of the encyclical letter that includes discussion questions is put out by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. [$ 8.75; ISBN: 1612783864].

Published in 1963, a time of great global fear about nuclear war, this encyclical addresses the threat of international conflict as well as scientific progress, the increasing power of technology, and the responsibility of all human beings to work communally and cooperatively. Addressed not only to Catholics but to “all men of good will,” the encyclical responds to the myriad changes of the postwar world (selective social and economic advancement, the beginnings of recognition for women and minorities, and the continuing struggles of oppressed peoples) with clear statements fundamental to Catholic Social Teaching: solidarity, subsidiarity, and concern for the common good while respecting the rights of the individual. Pope John XXIII calls for greater respect for all people and collective responsibility for the welfare of all: “may Christ inflame the desires of all men to break through the barriers which divide them, to strengthen the bonds of mutual love, to learn to understand one another, and to pardon those who have done them wrong.”

The ecyclical letter is available for free, in pdf form, on the Vatican's website:

Rerum Novarum is a papal encyclical from 1891. It is a response to Marxism and socialism, clarifying the Church’s positions on the dignity of workers (and all human beings), the responsibility of capital, the problems of industrialization, and the role of governments in mediating the conflicts among classes and in promoting the common good. It is considered one the founding documents of Catholic Social Teaching. Its themes were reaffirmed and clarified in subsequent encyclicals, such as Piux XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (1991). (Available free online:

Catholic Social Thought

Dorothy Day was an American convert to Catholicism and the principal founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Her life spanned nearly a hundred years and she lived through the Great Depression, both World Wars, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. She was a social activist for most of her adult life and she is under consideration for sainthood. The Catholic Worker emphasizes solidarity with the poor and marginalized, social justice, economic redistribution, disregard for national borders, civil disobedience (and, often, contempt for temporal governments), pacifism and nonviolence. Day’s reduction of Christianity to a lived pattern of daily actions (pray, feed the hungry, clothe the naked) leaves not much room for those things most of us view as essential (no matter how much she listened to the opera on the radio, or read Dostoevsky).  When she died in 1980, the New York Times eulogized her as a "nonviolent social radical of luminous personality." The Long Loneliness is her autobiography, half of which is about her own life, the other half about the founding and development of the Catholic Worker movement. Loaves and Fishes focuses more on the movement and the other personalities involved; From Union Square to Rome is a short, early version of Loaves and Fishes. (Long Loneliness: HarperOne, 2001; $12; 304 pp. From Union Square to Rome: Orbis, 2006; $12; 177 pp. Loaves and Fishes: Orbis, 2003; $15; 221 pp.)

Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P. (b. 1928) is one of the founding figures of Latin American liberation theology. Born and raised in Peru, Gutiérrez studied medicine in Peru, philosophy and psychology in Belgium, and theology in France with such Catholic theological luminaries as Henri de Lubac and Marie Dominique Chenu. He was ordained a priest in 1959. For more than half a century Gutiérrez has ministered to the poor in Lima, Peru. He has also held numerous teaching positions, in Peru, Europe, and the United States. He is currently (2017) teaching at Notre Dame University. Villanova awarded Fr. Gutiérrez the Civitas Dei Medal in 2016.

The concept at the core of liberation theology is the biblical notion of the “preferential option for the poor.” (“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40). Although the term had been used by other Latin American bishops, the concept received its initial explication in Gutiérrez’s most famous work, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (1971). The most significant historical fact of the 20th century in Latin America is what Gutiérrez describes as the “irruption of the poor.” The existence of widespread, dehumanizing, systemic poverty throughout Latin America could no longer be ignored. In this context, “poverty means death.” That is, poverty means,

Lack of food and housing, the inability to attend properly to health and education needs, the exploitation of workers, permanent unemployment, the lack of respect for one’s human dignity, and unjust limitations placed on personal freedom in areas of self-expression, politics, and religion. Poverty is a situation that destroys peoples, families, and individuals.

At the same time, what can be described as “spiritual poverty” is an affirmative “way of living, thinking, and loving, praying, believing, and hoping” that entails “being involved in the struggle for justice and peace, defending one’s life and freedom, seeking a more democratic participation in the decisions made by society . . . and being committed to the liberation of every human being.”

The concept of “liberation” at the heart of liberal theology is complex and controversial. In the early 1980’s then Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, expressed concern that liberation theology seemed to be merely a version of Marxism. However, for Gutiérrez, “liberation” is another name for the process, the work, of salvation, and it takes place in three different but integrally related “dimensions” or “levels”: first, there is “the liberation from social situations of oppression and marginalization [“oppressive socio-economic structures”] that force many . . . to live in conditions contrary to God’s will for their life”; second, there is personal liberation, the “personal transformation by which we live with profound inner freedom in the face of every kind of servitude”; and, finally, there is liberation from sin, from “the breaking of friendship with God and with other human beings.”

There are several short essays and short books by Gutiérrez that would work well in ACS1001. Gutiérrez’s work can be read in any section that takes up questions of suffering, sin, social and political justice, the common good, individualism, consumerism, capitalism, and the transformative role of Catholic Christianity in the contemporary world. There are two essays in On The Side of the Poor: The Theology of Liberation (2015) [co-written with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] that can be read and discussed in a day or two: “The Situation and Tasks of Liberation Theology Today” briefly reviews what Gutiérrez calls three great “challenges” to faith today (pervasive, systemic poverty; modern and postmodern individualism and relativism; and, religious pluralism and the need for interfaith dialogue) and ends with a discussion of the “current tasks” for contemporary Catholic Christians (for example, discerning how economic globalization implicates us in the systemic exclusion of many from the benefits of that exchange.) The slightly longer essay, “Where will the poor sleep?” interrogates the relation between economic issues and spirituality. These short texts might productively be read alongside the US Catholic Bishop’s pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All” (1986) in an effort to concretize Gutiérrez’s concerns in the US.  

A Theology of Liberation is too long and complex for ACS1001. However, there are two excellent short books that easily link up to several themes and texts routinely read in ACS1001.  On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (1987) is a short commentary on Job that relates Job’s suffering to the pressing situation of the “innocent poor.” (Are we not quite familiar with those today who would say to the poor, as Job’s friends say to him, that they somehow deserve their suffering, that they are suffering because of, say, poor decision making or bad morals?) The book is a natural extension of a reading of Job in ACS1000 and/or a move beyond the focus on personal, moral sin and suffering in Augustine’s Confessions. In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez (2013) will appeal in particular to students who seek vocations in the sciences, engineering, and medicine. The book is a collection of short speeches, texts, and interviews about the influence that Gutiérrez has had on the work of Paul Farmer. Farmer, Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, founded Partners in Health, an international non-profit organization that provides health care services and undertakes advocacy on behalf of the sick and poor. Gutiérrez claims about Partners in Health that it “has deep resonance with the message of the gospel.”  In the Company of the Poor can be read alongside Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) (Gutiérrez explicitly reflects on this novel in one of his contributions) to raise questions about why and how we combat what might seem to be inevitable or overwhelming suffering. The main character of Camus’ novel, Dr. Rieux, is an atheist without hope, so to speak, who nonetheless works tirelessly to end human suffering (see the entry on Camus in the Moderns annotated bibliography).

There are relatively inexpensive editions of both texts available: On Job (Orbis Books, 1987; 160 pages; ISBN: 0883445522; $18.50 pb); and, In the Company of the Poor (Orbis Books, 2013; 192 pages; ISBN: 1626980500; $20 pb).

                                                                                                                                        Greg Hoskins

A convert to Catholicism, Thomas Merton (1915-68) was a Trappist monk brought to unexpected fame through his spiritual writings and social activism. His spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) is a modern-day Confessions, wherein Merton describes his early wanderings, his dissatisfactions with modern mores and academic life, and his conversion to Catholicism and embrace of the rigid and structured life of a Trappist. New Seeds of Contemplation is his principal work of mysticism. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and Raids on the Unspeakable feature essays on various subjects: theological, literary, sociological, and personal. (Seven Storey Mountain: Mariner, 1999; $9; 496 pp. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: Random House, 2009; $11; 396 pp. Raids on the Unspeakable: New Directions, 1966; $12; 182 pp. New Seeds of Contemplation: New Directions, 2007; $13; 324 pp. A good general reader that includes an essay on liberal education: Spiritual Master, The Essential Writings. Edited by Lawrence S. Cunningham: Paulist Press, 1992; $21.64; 448 pp.)


Playwright and philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) is considered an early French existentialist. He converted to Catholicism in 1929 and his work addresses the possibility of human beings being in communion with one another despite the distraction and dehumanization of a materialistic and mechanistic society. Man against Mass Society is an intensely Socratic work that diagnoses our crisis, which Marcel identifies as “metaphysical, not merely social.” He also takes up the issues of fanaticism and false egalitarianism, particularly relevant to our own time. (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008; $15; 208 pp.)

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) was a leading proponent of the neo-Thomist school of philosophy in the first half of the 20th century. In The Person and the Common Good (1946), he offeres a concise and vigorous response to various "modern" ways of defining the human individual in opposition to the common good. Following Aristotle and Thomas, Maritain develops the idea that "the good of the city is more noble, more divine than that of the individual" (p. 86). Maritain argues that the good of the person, the human essence, cannot be construed in opposition to the common good, but at its limit, is that common good. He further claims that in the Churc, the common good is not a practical good to be realized, but a subsisting good to which to adhere. As such, the comon good, "is the very life of God" (p. 86), and thus instrinsically linked to the beatific vision. This text works well in dialogue with texts of modern political thought, such as Hobbes or Rousseau, whith authors such as Pascal or Nietzsche, or as a complement to the texts of Catholic Social Teaching. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1973; $14; 100 pp.)

The many works of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) focus on questions of subjectivity, the limits of reason, and the possibility of radical commitment—to faith in God and/or to another human being. Fear and Trembling is his intense study of the story of the Binding of Isaac and the call for a “leap of faith.” In Works of Love, he expounds on the Christian idea of love, explaining exactly why love, in the Christian sense, has always been, and will remain, a grave offense to the world. Kierkegaard does not have an idea of love that is caressing or coddling; it contains "a sadness which broods over life and is tempered by the eternal.” Either/Or is a large study of the ethical conflict between morality and aesthetics; the opening chapters are suitable for ACS reading. (Fear and Trembling: Penguin, 1985; $11; 175 pp. Works of Love: HarperPerennial, 2009; $10; 400 pp.)



T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), an American ex-pat who became a British citizen and Anglican, was an essayist, poet, and playwright.  He is regarded as one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century.  In his poem, “The Wasteland,” Eliot connects the themes of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King with elements of contemporary British society and Western culture, as well as Buddhism and the Hindu Upanishads.  The poem deals with death, disillusionment, and despair in modern life, and draws upon themes from the mythic past.  In his poem “Four Quartets,” Eliot reflects on time, memory, place, symbolism, the universe, and the possibility of redemption.  Murder in the Cathedral, a play in verse (88 pp.), is about the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, for disobeying Henry II.  It deals with issues of church and state, the human pursuit of power and pleasure, martyrdom and heroism, and the search for the meaning of life.  Eliot offers an effective way of culminating ACS 1001, as it pairs well with Shakespeare.  (The Four Quartets: Mariner Press, 1968; $9; 64 pp. Murder in the Cathedral: Harcourt, 1964; $9; 88 pp. The Waste Land: Dover, 1998; $2; 64 pp.)

Life and Work

1925      Born in Savannah, Georgia to wealthy, Catholic parents

1942      Father dies of Lupus when O’Connor is 16; moves to Andalusia

                Farm in Milledgeville, GA

1946      Accepted to Iowa Writer’s Workshop

1948      Writes at Yaddo writer’s commune in NY

1949      Meets Robert Fitzgerald, lives with him and Sally in Connecticut

1952      Diagnosed with Lupus, returns to Andalusia

            Writes over 12 years, finishing both novels, 32 short stories. Travels to give talks and read her fiction

1964      Dies at age 39



Major Themes


·       Irony, humor, and the grotesque: the prophetic responsibility of the Christian author

·       Christian realism: sacramentality and the fullness of lived life

·       Faith and fiction

·       Violent grace: breaking through the “domestication of despair”


Suggested Texts for ACS

Wise Blood (accompanied by John Huston’s marvelous film adaptation)

Short Stories (collected in The Complete Stories)

·       “Revelation”

·       “The Enduring Chill”

·       “The Displaced Person”

Essays and Lectures (collected in Mystery and Manners)

·       “The Fiction Writer and His Country”

·       “The Church and the Fiction Writer”

·       “Novelist and Believer”

·       “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers”

·       “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (background reading)

·      “On Her Own Work” (background reading)


Major Themes

Irony, humor, and the grotesque: the prophetic responsibility of the Christian author

§  Disparity between character’s limited perceptions and the awesome fate awaiting them

§  “Revelation” story

§  The Christ-haunted South

·      “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted."

·      Often ironic portraits of fundamentalist Protestants who undergo transformations that bring them closer to a Catholic view

·      Attempt of well-meaning liberals to cope with the rural South on their own terms

§  Faith allows us to see what is grotesque

·      “My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable."

·      “The fiction writer should be characterized by his kind of vision."

Christian realism: sacramentality and lived life

§  One of O’Connor’s diagnoses of the modern condition is that we have abstracted ourselves from our lived condition

·      We no longer live life, and instead we have theories about life; we move in worlds of increased abstractions; or rather we don’t move through the world, we prescribe and fulfill functions—we choose method over content

§  “Concreteness” is connected to an awareness of mystery

·      The only way grace is mediated is through life as lived; it is never abstract or theoretical

·      Her art is “incarnational”

§  Conviction: life has become unlived: the secular mind chooses a narrow rationality instead of a fully embodied and aware living

§  Antidote: re-discovery of Christian faith lived fully, i.e., creation infused with Grace, redeemed through incarnation, on the way to resurrection

·      But this takes the form of shocking readers into a view of the significance of the grace that is communicated

§  Sacrament: the world is charged with God (mystery)

§  Thomistic view: grace perfects nature; this perfection (as change) is painful to undergo


Faith and fiction

·      These are two means of grace: the first through the Church, the second through nature

·      Grace is not a warm feeling, but a sharp form of revelation, indicating truth that sets us free

·      The revelation is of human limitation and sinfulness, but also our created value

·      Both forms of grace work at the intersection of spirit and matter


Violent grace: breaking through the domestication of despair

§  Gentle mocking of intellectual pretense

§  Mystery (or the lack thereof) is what divides the modern world

·      We have domesticated despair.

·      Our crisis lies in separating nature and grace, reason and imagination

·      It leads to bad living as well as to bad art

§  Every story presents grace (it is present, but it can come to us in an ugly vessel)

·      “There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment."


Suggested Texts for ACS

Wise Blood (accompanied by John Huston’s marvelous film adaptation)

·      Hazel Motes is a wounded WWII vet and the grandson of a traveling preacher; he has always doubted salvation and original sin; now he is an avowed atheist

·      Witnesses a blind preacher (Asa Hawks) and teenage daughter (Sabbath Lily Hawks) advertising on the street; decides to start his own anti-God church

·      Asa’s claim to fame: he blinded himself with quicklime to detach himself from worldly pursuits; but he faltered and failed, instead becoming a con-artist

·      A local con artist forms his own ministry of “Holy Church of Christ without Christ,” charging $1 donation to join

·      Motes is enraged, follows the man, eventually killing him by running him over with his car; in a separate incident, a strange police officer has Motes destroy his car

·      Motes becomes sullen and withdrawn; he eventually blinds himself with quicklime, and lives as an ascetic; he goes through a passion experience, eventually suffering and dying

Short Stories (collected in The Complete Stories)


·      Mrs. Turpin is a respectable, middle class Christian woman who would never deliberately harm anyone

·      Her failing is that she is thankful that she is a good woman with a good disposition (like the biblical Pharisee who confidently thanks God he is not a sinful tax collector)

·      The action in the waiting room: social standing and her select judgment of those who are less than her

·      Mary Grace throws “Human Development” at her, hitting her in the head; calls her “a wart hog from hell”

·      Mrs. Turpin experiences this as a revelation from Jesus; goes home to her farm, shouts to Jesus, “Who do you think you are?” which echoes back to her

·      Sees a vision of Jacob’s ladder in which she is the last in line, and her virtues are being burned away

“The Enduring Chill”

·      Asbury is convinced he is going to die, and he is pre-occupied with the dramatic meaning of this

·      Has to return to his small town from New York, but is imposed upon by the local doctor Block, his hovering mother, and Father Finn.

·      The Holy Spirit descends on Asbury along with news delivered by Dr. Block that he will not die but will have a life-long illness, an “enduring chill”

·      He sees that “for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror.” Grace is revealed and made tangible in the continual presence of illness and the uncomfortable penetration of the Holy Spirit.

“The Displaced Person”

·      After WWII in Georgia, Mrs. McIntyre contacts priest to find her a “displaced person” to work as a farm hand; Mr. Guizac, a polish refugee, relocates to the farm with his family

·      The current white farm hands are threatened, try to manipulate Mrs. McIntyre into firing him; she fires them instead

·      Guizac has asked his teenage cousin to come to America by marrying one of the African American farm hands; Mrs. McIntyre is appalled

·      Decides to fire him, but instead silently participates in murder when bitter Mr. Shortley positions a tractor to roll over Guizac’s body as if “by accident”

·      Mrs. McIntyre’s farm hands abandon her and she has a nervous collapse, receiving no visitors except for the priest.

                                                                                                                    Paul Camacho


Walker Percy was born to a prominent family in Birmingham Alabama in 1916. The year after Percy’s birth, his grandfather committed suicide. Twelve years later, when Percy was thirteen years old, his own father committed suicide. Two years after that, his mother died when her car drove off a bridge (Percy always suspected that this too was a suicide). He and his two brothers were raised by their cousin William Alexander Percy – a respected writer in his own right - who provided the Percy boys with a good education. The young Percy dedicated himself to the sciences, and he graduated with an M.D. from Columbia medical school in 1941. In 1942, he contracted tuberculosis while doing autopsies during an internship at Bellevue Hospital. While recovering in a sanatorium, Percy read the “existentialist” writers - Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Marcel – and became convinced that the mysteries and complexities of human experience could not be reduced to scientific explanations. He agreed with the existentialists that modern man’s condition was best characterized in terms of isolation, a lack of meaning and purpose, and despair. But from Kierkegaard, he also learned that existential despair can be the motivation for a genuine and authentic search for meaning and purpose, a search that ultimately culminates in a leap of faith. After leaving the sanatorium, he took a trip with his life-long friend Shelby Foote to New Mexico, after which, he was resolved to dedicate himself to diagnosing and exploring man’s inner landscape through literature. In 1946, both Percy and his wife Mary Townsend converted to Catholicism (Percy’s parents were nominally Presbyterian, but he and his brothers were raised agnostic). In 1962 Percy won the National Book Award for his first published novel The Moviegoer (1961). He went on to write five more novels (The Last Gentleman (1966); Love in the Ruins (1971; Lancelot (1977); The Second Coming (1980); and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987)); and numerous nonfiction, including two collections of essays (The Message in the Bottle (1975) and Signposts in a Strange Land (1991)) and a “self-help” book (Lost in the Cosmos (1983)). Walker Percy died of prostate cancer in 1990.

It is useful to approach Percy’s work in terms of the following three points:

1. Percy argues that we live in a postmodern, post-Christian world in which our traditional ways of understanding ourselves and the world have been largely replaced by the master narratives of science and technology. But given that science can only deal in universal types, Percy contends, it cannot help us to understand what it means to be a concrete existing individual. This is why, for Percy, art has a cognitive function. The duty of the artist is to bear witness to the truths of the human condition that escape the abstractions and generalizations of the scientific method.

2.The function of art is also diagnostic. First, it diagnoses the inability and failure of science and technology to provide meaning and purpose to our individual lives. Second, it diagnoses the inevitable sense of fragmentation and despair that results from this failure. And third, it diagnoses our endless and fruitless attempts to avoid facing up to this despair by distracting ourselves with either the “angelic” abstractions of science and technology, or the “bestial” enjoyments of a hedonistic and consumerist culture (Kierkegaard’s aesthetic sphere).

3. Finally, the function of art is exploratory. Having finally seen through the illusionary nature of our distractions and having embraced our existential despair, we can then set out as “sovereign wayfarers” on a genuine search for meaning and purpose, a search which culminates, according to Percy’s Catholic worldview, when his protagonists learn to recognize possible “sacramental” signs that point beyond the created order to an ultimate source of meaning and truth.

Percy’s work pairs very well with any texts that explore the question of a spiritual journey; texts that explore existentialist themes such as alienation and despair; and texts that explore the relationship between art and science/technology.



The Moviegoer [1961; 241 pages]

The Moviegoer follows John Bickerson “Binx” Bolling during the week before his 30th birthday on Ash Wednesday in New Orleans, sometime in the late 1950’s. At the beginning of the novel, Binx has a memory of being wounded in Korea and of being struck by the need for a search for some deeper meaning in his life. Having returned from Korea, however, Binx immerses himself in his life as a stockbroker, chasing secretaries and going to the movies. The novel opens with a quote from Kierkegaard - “The specific nature of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair,” and Binx himself is the embodiment of Kierkegaard’s aesthetical man endlessly chasing mindless pleasures, precisely in order to distract himself from his own alienation and despair. Much like Dante’s pilgrim, we accompany Binx’s search for deeper meaning as he negotiates the various distractions of his infernal pleasures. By the conclusion of the novel, Binx makes the leap from the aesthetic to the religious sphere, when he finally learns to recognize the possible signs of God’s grace in the world; the idea that “God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants.” In ACS, The Moviegoer would pair well with both St. Augustine and Dante. In the Moderns course, the novel would work very well with Pascal, Kierkegaard, or any of the existentialist thinkers.

Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World [1971; 416 pages]

In Love in the Ruins, the protagonist, Dr. Thomas More, finds himself in an America on the brink of collapse. Society is riven by political and racial tensions and More himself embodies the existential despair at its heart. More responds to this despair either by distracting himself with the worldly pleasures of sex and alcohol, or by attempting to diagnose and potentially cure this existential despair by means of his scientific invention: More’s Qualitative Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer - a device which he claims can diagnose (and potentially cure) the sicknesses in people’s souls. The novel charts More’s adventures and oscillations between his “beastly” worldly pleasures and his “angelic” scientific aspirations. The novel culminates in More’s managing to resist the temptations of a satanic-like figure who is hell-bent on using More’s invention for evil. By the end of the novel, More prays to his namesake for guidance, so that he can “wait and watch and listen for signs of God’s grace.” Love in the Ruins is a humorous novel that explores the spiritual ills of modern society and the inherent risks of turning to science in order to adequately address them. The novel would work well with any of the existentialist thinkers; with any texts that explore the ills and divisions of contemporary American/Western society; or with any texts that addresses the role of science and technology in contemporary life.


Lost in the Cosmos [1983; 272 pages]

Lost in the Cosmos is a satirical self-help book. It offers a critique of scientism and the postmodern self and suggests a need to attend to the mysteries of the self and its participation in transcendence. The book deals with serious issues (e.g., drugs, sex, violence), but in a comical fashion, proceeding through a series of multiple choices quizzes, a digression on a semiotic theory of the self, and two concluding accounts of a “space odyssey.” To save time, the digression on semiotic theory can be skipped. Lost in the Cosmos is relatively easy to teach: open it to one of the multiple-choice questions, ask the students how they would answer it, and go from there. In moderns, the book pairs well with others such as Hobbes’ Leviathan or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that also deal with themes of science and technology. It would also pair well with works by modern authors who explore the nature of the self in relation to transcendence such as Kierkegaard and Thomas Merton.

Signposts in a Strange Land [1991; 448 pages]

Signposts in a Strange Land is Percy’s second published collection of essays and contains many short and accessible essays that explore a wide range of Percy’s interests. We would recommend the following two essays for ACS (both of which will be made available as pdf files in the ACS depository):

‘Diagnosing the Modern Malaise’ [1985; 15 pages]

This essay is a succinct presentation of Percy’s belief in the cognitive, diagnostic, and exploratory functions of art and literature. Percy challenges the claims of the modern science to have a monopoly on truth. Art has a cognitive function to bear witness to truths about the human condition that resist the abstractions and generalization of modern science. In a discussion of Chekov, Percy compares the contemporary novelist to a physician whose task is to diagnose the ills of the age. The novelist also strives to articulate modern man’s status as a sovereign wayfarer looking for signs that point to a deeper meaning and purpose.

‘Why are You a Catholic?’ [1990; 11 pages]

This essay is a humorous and provocative response to the question “Why are you a Catholic?” and the types of people who ask it. Percy ultimately responds by laying out certain “commonplaces” including the claim that the “denizens of the present age are both sentimental and bored”; that we live in a “theorist-consumer” age, in which actions are justified as either the application of a theory or as satisfying the needs of consumption (a distinction he fleshes out in a brief discussion of abortion); and that Jewish people represent a unique sign that cannot be encompassed by theory.

‘Questions They Never Asked Me’ [1977; 26 pages]

This is witty and revealing self-interview that Percy wrote to himself. In it he discusses what it means to be a “Southern” writer and the issue of race-relations in the South; his writing process; his Catholicism; and his theory of language. This would be a useful to supplement to any Percy text.

Online Resources:

‘The Hope of Walker Percy’ [A short and useful biographical introduction to Percy]

The Walker Percy Project [Website on Percy run by the University of North Carolina]

Interview with Walker Percy and Eudora Welty [from William Buckley’s ‘Firing Line’ program]


Percy’s Jefferson Lecture [‘The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind’]

Introducing Walker Percy: The Moviegoer

Four Comic Cases of Kierkegaardian Despair: A Reading of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins

Lost in the Cosmos: Self-Help We Can Finally Believe In [Peter Augustine Lawlor lecture]


Walker Percy: A Documentary Film by Win Riley

[see trailer at]

                                                                                                                  Liam Kavanagh and Steven McGuire