On God & Goodness: 8 Lessons on the Euthyphro Dilemma

Listers, does God will something because it is good or is something good because God wills it? The question lies at the heart of the dialogue Euthyphro, written by Plato c. 399-395 BC, recounting a conversation between Socrates and a man named Euthyphro on the meaning of holiness. Though the dialogue overall is seeking to define holiness (or piety), it is the Euthyphro Dilemma that has captured the attention of Catholic, protestant, Islamic, atheistic, and agnostic thinkers throughout the centuries. Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In monotheistic terms, it may be rendered “does God will something because it is good or is something good because God wills it?” or “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” The question demands an explanation on the relationship between God and what is good (and how to be good, i.e., moral). Theologians and philosophers have disagreed over the years as supporting either horn of the dilemma imports substantial differences to the nature of God and the nature of the good.

The following list intends to simply introduce the Euthyphro Dilemma by reproducing a basic survey of the issue as presented through various texts. The majority of the list is taken verbatim from the respective cited sources and were gathered with the Catholic intellectual tradition in mind.1


1. Summary of the Narrative

"A Row of Philosophers - Busts of Greek philosophers from Socrates to Epicurus as seen in the British Museum, London." - Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
“A Row of Philosophers – Busts of Greek philosophers from Socrates to Epicurus as seen in the British Museum, London.” – Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

The Euthyphro dialogue occurs near the court of the Archon basileus (Magistrate–king), where Socrates and Euthyphro encounter each other; each man is present at the court for the preliminary hearings to possible trials (2a).

Euthyphro has come to present charges of manslaughter against his father, who had allowed one of his workers to die of exposure to the elements without proper care and attention. (3e–4d) The dead worker, earlier had killed a slave from the family estate on Naxos Island. As Euthyphro’s father awaited to hear from the exegetes (cf. Laws 759d) about how to proceed, the bound-and-gagged worker died in a ditch. Socrates is astonished by Euthyphro’s confidence in being able to prosecute his own father for the serious charge of manslaughter, despite the fact that Athenian Law allows only relatives of the dead man to file suit for murder. (Dem. 43 §57) Euthyphro misses the astonishment of Socrates, which confirms his overconfidence in his own critical judgement of matters religious and ethical. In an example of Socratic irony, Socrates said that Euthyphro obviously has a clear understanding of what is pious (τὸ ὅσιον to hosion) and impious (τὸ ἀνόσιον to anosion). Because he is facing a formal charge of impiety, Socrates expresses the hope to learn from Euthyphro, all the better to defend himself in the trial.

Euthyphro says that what lies behind the charge of impiety presented against Socrates, by Meletus and the others, is Socrates’ claim that he is subjected to a daimon, (divine sign) which warns him of various courses of action. (3b) From the perspective of some Athenians, Socrates expressed skepticism of the accounts about the Greek gods, which he and Euthyphro briefly discuss, before proceeding to the main argument of their dialogue: the definition of “piety”. Moreover, Socrates further expresses critical reservations about such divine accounts that emphasize the cruelty and inconsistent behavior of the Greek gods, such as the castration of the early sky-god Uranus, by his son Cronus; a story Socrates said is difficult to accept. (6a–6c) After claiming to know and be able to tell more astonishing divine stories, Euthyphro spends little time and effort defending the conventional, Greek view of the gods. Instead, he is led to the true task at hand, as Socrates forces him to confront his ignorance, by pressing Euthyphro for a definition of “piety”; yet, Socrates finds flaw with each definition of “piety” proposed by Euthyphro.(6d ff.)

At the dialogue’s conclusion, Euthyphro is compelled to admit that each of his definitions of “piety” has failed, but, rather than correct his faulty logic, he says that it is time for him to leave, and excuses himself from their dialogue. To that end, Socrates concludes the dialogue with Socratic irony: Since Euthyphro was unable to define “piety”, Euthyphro has failed to teach Socrates about piety. Therefore, from his dialogue with Euthyphro, Socrates received nothing helpful to his defense against a formal charge of impiety. (15c ff.)2


2. The Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (10a) The dilemma has had a major effect on the philosophical theism of the monotheistic religions, but in a modified form:

“Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”3

Ever since Plato’s original discussion, this question has presented a problem for some theists, though others have thought it a false dilemma, and it continues to be an object of theological and philosophical discussion today.4


Analyzing the Euthyphro Dilemma


The First Horn

3. Does God will it because it is Good?

The first horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is right is commanded by God because it is right) goes by a variety of names, including intellectualism, rationalism, realism, naturalism, and objectivism. Roughly, it is the view that there are independent moral standards: some actions are right or wrong in themselves, independent of God’s commands. This is the view accepted by Socrates and Euthyphro in Plato’s dialogue. The Mu’tazilah school of Islamic theology also defended the view (with, for example, Nazzam maintaining that God is powerless to engage in injustice or lying), as did the Islamic philosopher Averroes (arguably, however, the majority of Islam embraces the second horn, as stated below).

St. Thomas Aquinas never explicitly addresses the Euthyphro dilemma…5 Aquinas draws a distinction between what is good or evil in itself and what is good or evil because of God’s commands,6 with unchangeable moral standards forming the bulk of natural law.7 Thus he contends that not even God can change the Ten Commandments (adding, however, that God can change what individuals deserve in particular cases, in what might look like special dispensations to murder or steal).8 For a full treatment of Aquinas’ view, see the section bearing his name below.


4. Concerns with the First Horn

Sovereignty: If there are moral standards independent of God’s will, then “[t]here is something over which God is not sovereign. God is bound by the laws of morality instead of being their establisher. Moreover, God depends for his goodness on the extent to which he conforms to an independent moral standard. Thus, God is not absolutely independent.”

Omnipotence: These moral standards would limit God’s power: not even God could oppose them by commanding what is evil and thereby making it good. This point was influential in Islamic theology: “In relation to God, objective values appeared as a limiting factor to His power to do as He wills… Ash’ari got rid of the whole embarrassing problem by denying the existence of objective values which might act as a standard for God’s action.” Similar concerns drove the medieval voluntarists Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. As contemporary philosopher Richard Swinburne puts the point, this horn “seems to place a restriction on God’s power if he cannot make any action which he chooses obligatory… [and also] it seems to limit what God can command us to do. God, if he is to be God, cannot command us to do what, independently of his will, is wrong.”

Freedom of the Will: Moreover, these moral standards would limit God’s freedom of will: God could not command anything opposed to them, and perhaps would have no choice but to command in accordance with them. As Mark Murphy puts the point, “if moral requirements existed prior to God’s willing them, requirements that an impeccable God could not violate, God’s liberty would be compromised.”

Morality without God: If there are moral standards independent of God, then morality would retain its authority even if God did not exist. This conclusion was explicitly (and notoriously) drawn by early modern political theorist Hugo Grotius: “What we have been saying [about the natural law] would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to him.” In such a view, God is no longer a “law-giver” but at most a “law-transmitter” who plays no vital role in the foundations of morality. Nontheists have capitalized on this point, largely as a way of disarming moral arguments for God’s existence: if morality does not depend on God in the first place, such arguments stumble at the starting gate.9


The Second Horn

5. Is Something Good because God wills it?

The second horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is right is right because it is commanded by God) is sometimes known as divine command theory or voluntarism. Roughly, it is the view that there are no moral standards other than God’s will: without God’s commands, nothing would be right or wrong. This view was partially defended by Bl. Duns Scotus, who argued that not all Ten Commandments belong to the Natural Law. Scotus held that while our duties to God (found on the first tablet) are self-evident, true by definition, and unchangeable even by God, our duties to others (found on the second tablet) were arbitrarily willed by God and are within his power to revoke and replace.10 William of Ockham went further, contending that (since there is no contradiction in it) God could command us not to love God11 and even to hate God.12

Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin both stressed the absolute sovereignty of God’s will, with Luther writing that “for [God’s] will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure for it”,13 and Calvin writing that “everything which [God] wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it.”14 The voluntarist emphasis on God’s absolute power was carried further by Descartes, who notoriously held that God had freely created the eternal truths of logic and mathematics, and that God was therefore capable of giving circles unequal radii, giving triangles other than 180 internal degrees, and even making contradictions true. Descartes explicitly seconded Ockham: “why should [God] not have been able to give this command [i.e., the command to hate God] to one of his creatures?”

Thomas Hobbes notoriously reduced the justice of God to “irresistible power” (drawing the complaint of Bishop Bramhall that this “overturns… all law”). And William Paley held that all moral obligations bottom out in the self-interested “urge” to avoid Hell and enter Heaven by acting in accord with God’s commands. Islam’s Ash’arite theologians, al-Ghazali foremost among them, embraced voluntarism: scholar George Hourani writes that the view “was probably more prominent and widespread in Islam than in any other civilization.”15


6. Concerns with the Second Horn

This horn of the dilemma also faces several problems:

No Reasons for Morality: If there is no moral standard other than God’s will, then God’s commands are arbitrary (i.e., based on pure whimsy or caprice). This would mean that morality is ultimately not based on reasons: “if theological voluntarism is true, then God’s commands/intentions must be arbitrary; [but] it cannot be that morality could wholly depend on something arbitrary… [for] when we say that some moral state of affairs obtains, we take it that there is a reason for that moral state of affairs obtaining rather than another.” And as Michael J. Murray and Michael Rea put it, this would also “cas[t] doubt on the notion that morality is genuinely objective.” An additional problem is that it is difficult to explain how true moral actions can exist if one acts only out of fear of God or in an attempt to be rewarded by him.

No Reasons for God: This arbitrariness would also jeopardize God’s status as a wise and rational being, one who always acts on good reasons. As Leibniz writes: “Where will be his justice and his wisdom if he has only a certain despotic power, if arbitrary will takes the place of reasonableness, and if in accord with the definition of tyrants, justice consists in that which is pleasing to the most powerful? Besides it seems that every act of willing supposes some reason for the willing and this reason, of course, must precede the act.”

Anything Goes: This arbitrariness would also mean that anything could become good, and anything could become bad, merely upon God’s command. Thus if God commanded us “to gratuitously inflict pain on each other” or to engage in “cruelty for its own sake” or to hold an “annual sacrifice of randomly selected ten-year-olds in a particularly gruesome ritual that involves excruciating and prolonged suffering for its victims”, then we would be morally obligated to do so. As 17th-century philosopher Ralph Cudworth put it: “nothing can be imagined so grossly wicked, or so foully unjust or dishonest, but if it were supposed to be commanded by this omnipotent Deity, must needs upon that hypothesis forthwith become holy, just, and righteous.”

Moral Contingency: If morality depends on the perfectly free will of God, morality would lose its necessity: “If nothing prevents God from loving things that are different from what God actually loves, then goodness can change from world to world or time to time. This is obviously objectionable to those who believe that claims about morality are, if true, necessarily true.” In other words, no action is necessarily moral: any right action could have easily been wrong, if God had so decided, and an action which is right today could easily become wrong tomorrow, if God so decides. Indeed, some have argued that divine command theory is incompatible with ordinary conceptions of moral supervenience.

Why do God’s Commands Obligate?: Mere commands do not create obligations unless the commander has some commanding authority. But this commanding authority cannot itself be based on those very commands (i.e., a command to obey commands), otherwise a vicious circle results. So, in order for God’s commands to obligate us, he must derive commanding authority from some source other than his own will. As Cudworth put it: “For it was never heard of, that any one founded all his authority of commanding others, and others [sic] obligation or duty to obey his commands, in a law of his own making, that men should be required, obliged, or bound to obey him. Wherefore since the thing willed in all laws is not that men should be bound or obliged to obey; this thing cannot be the product of the meer [sic] will of the commander, but it must proceed from something else; namely, the right or authority of the commander.” To avoid the circle, one might say our obligation comes from gratitude to God for creating us. But this presupposes some sort of independent moral standard obligating us to be grateful to our benefactors. As 18th-century philosopher Francis Hutcheson writes: “Is the Reason exciting to concur with the Deity this, ‘The Deity is our Benefactor?’ Then what Reason excites to concur with Benefactors?” Or finally, one might resort to Hobbes’s view: “The right of nature whereby God reigneth over men, and punisheth those that break his laws, is to be derived, not from his creating them (as if he required obedience, as of gratitude for his benefits), but from his irresistible power.” In other words, might makes right.

God’s Goodness: If all goodness is a matter of God’s will, then what shall become of God’s goodness? Thus William P. Alston writes, “since the standards of moral goodness are set by divine commands, to say that God is morally good is just to say that he obeys his own commands… that God practices what he preaches, whatever that might be;” Hutcheson deems such a view “an insignificant tautology, amounting to no more than this, ‘That God wills what he wills.'” Alternatively, as Leibniz puts it, divine command theorists “deprive God of the designation good: for what cause could one have to praise him for what he does, if in doing something quite different he would have done equally well?” A related point is raised by C. S. Lewis: “if good is to be defined as what God commands, then the goodness of God Himself is emptied of meaning and the commands of an omnipotent fiend would have the same claim on us as those of the ‘righteous Lord.'” Or again Leibniz: “this opinion would hardly distinguish God from the devil.” That is, since divine command theory trivializes God’s goodness, it is incapable of explaining the difference between God and an all-powerful demon.

The “Is-Ought” Problem and the Naturalistic Fallacy: According to David Hume, it is hard to see how moral propositions featuring the relation ought could ever be deduced from ordinary is propositions, such as “the being of a God.” Divine command theory is thus guilty of deducing moral oughts from ordinary ises about God’s commands. In a similar vein, G. E. Moore argued (with his open question argument) that the notion good is indefinable, and any attempts to analyze it in naturalistic or metaphysical terms are guilty of the so-called “naturalistic fallacy.” This would block any theory which analyzes morality in terms of God’s will: and indeed, in a later discussion of divine command theory, Moore concluded that “when we assert any action to be right or wrong, we are not merely making an assertion about the attitude of mind towards it of any being or set of beings whatever.”

No Morality Without God: If all morality is a matter of God’s will, then if God does not exist, there is no morality. This is the thought captured in the slogan (often attributed to Dostoevsky) “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Divine command theorists disagree over whether this is a problem for their view or a virtue of their view. Many argue that morality does indeed require God’s existence, and that this is in fact a problem for atheism. But divine command theorist Robert Merrihew Adams contends that this idea (“that no actions would be ethically wrong if there were not a loving God”) is one that “will seem (at least initially) implausible to many”, and that his theory must “dispel [an] air of paradox.”16


Catholic Responses to the Euthyphro Dilemma

7. False Dilemma Response

Sts. Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas all wrote about the issues raised by the Euthyphro dilemma, although, like William James and Wittgenstein later, they did not mention it by name. As philosopher and Anselm scholar Katherin A. Rogers observes, many contemporary philosophers of religion suppose that there are true propositions which exist as platonic abstracta independently of God. Among these are propositions constituting a moral order, to which God must conform in order to be good. Classical Judaeo-Christian theism, however, rejects such a view as inconsistent with God’s omnipotence, which requires that God and what he has made is all that there is.

God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.

“The classical tradition,” Rogers notes, “also steers clear of the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, divine command theory.” From a classical theistic perspective, therefore, the Euthyphro dilemma is false. As Rogers puts it, “Anselm, like Augustine before him and Aquinas later, rejects both horns of the Euthyphro dilemma. God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.”17


8. St. Thomas Aquinas

"Doctor Communis Ecclesiæ, St. Thomas Aquinas - This statue of the saint is in the Catholic University of America, Washington DC." - Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.
“Doctor Communis Ecclesiæ, St. Thomas Aquinas – This statue of the saint is in the Catholic University of America, Washington DC.” – Fr. Lawrence, OP. Flickr.

Like Aristotle, Aquinas rejected Platonism.18 In his view, to speak of abstractions not only as existent, but as more perfect exemplars than fully designated particulars, is to put a premium on generality and vagueness.19 On this analysis, the abstract “good” in the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is an unnecessary obfuscation. Aquinas frequently quoted with approval Aristotle’s definition, “Good is what all desire.”((Aristotle, Ethics 1.1; Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics 1, 9 and 11; Aquinas, ST I 5,1.)) As he clarified, “When we say that good is what all desire, it is not to be understood that every kind of good thing is desired by all, but that whatever is desired has the nature of good.”20 In other words, even those who desire evil desire it “only under the aspect of good,” i.e., of what is desirable.21 The difference between desiring good and desiring evil is that in the former, will and reason are in harmony, whereas in the latter, they are in discord.22

St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of sin provides a good point of entry to his philosophical explanation of why the nature of God is the standard for value. “Every sin,” he writes, “consists in the longing for a passing [i.e., ultimately unreal or false] good.”23 Thus, “in a certain sense it is true what Socrates says, namely that no one sins with full knowledge.”24 “No sin in the will happens without an ignorance of the understanding.”25 God, however, has full knowledge (omniscience) and therefore by definition (that of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as well as Aquinas) can never will anything other than what is good.

It has been claimed — for instance, by Nicolai Hartmann, who wrote: “There is no freedom for the good that would not be at the same time freedom for evil” — that this would limit God’s freedom, and therefore his omnipotence. Josef Pieper, however, replies that such arguments rest upon an impermissibly anthropomorphic conception of God. In the case of humans, as Aquinas says, to be able to sin is indeed a consequence, or even a sign, of freedom (quodam libertatis signum). Humans, in other words, are not puppets manipulated by God so that they always do what is right. However, “it does not belong to the essence of the free will to be able to decide for evil.” “To will evil is neither freedom nor a part of freedom.” It is precisely humans’ creatureliness — that is, their not being God and therefore omniscient — that makes them capable of sinning. Consequently, writes Pieper, “the inability to sin should be looked on as the very signature of a higher freedom — contrary to the usual way of conceiving the issue.” Pieper concludes: “Only the will [i.e., God’s] can be the right standard of its own willing and must will what is right necessarily, from within itself, and always. A deviation from the norm would not even be thinkable. And obviously only the absolute divine will is the right standard of its own act” — and consequently of all human acts. Thus the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, divine command theory, is also disposed of.26

  1. With few revisions, most of the article is gleaned from Wikipedia or the sources cited in Wikipedia. Catholic online sources and commentaries on this issue seemed, surprisingly, scarce. Consequently, the point of this article is just to have an introduction to the Euthyphro Dilemma. []
  2. Euthyphro, Background – Section is taken verbatim. []
  3. SPL Note: Another modern monotheistic version – “does God will something because it is good or is something good because God wills it?” []
  4. Euthyphro Dilemma, Introduction – Section is taken verbatim. []
  5. Citing, Haldane, John (1989). “Realism and voluntarism in medieval ethics”. Journal of Medical Ethics 15 (1): 39–44. doi:10.1136/jme.15.1.39; Irwin, Terence (2007). The Development of Ethics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199693856. []
  6. Aquinas, Thomas (1265–1274). Summa Theologica, 2a2ae 57.2. []
  7. ST, 2a1ae 94.5. []
  8. ST, 1a2ae 100.8; this section is adapted from Euthyphro Dilemma. []
  9. Id. []
  10. See Williams, Thomas (2013). “John Duns Scotus”. In Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 ed.); Williams, Thomas, ed. (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus. pp. 312–316. ISBN 978-0521635639; Cross, Richard (1999). Duns Scotus. p. 92 for the view that our duties to others “hold automatically [i.e., without God’s commands] unless God commands otherwise.” ISBN 978-0195125535. []
  11. William of Ockham. Quodlibeta 3.13. []
  12. William of Ockham. Reportata 4.16. []
  13. Luther, Martin (1525). On the Bondage of the Will. §88. []
  14. Calvin, John (1536). Institutes of the Christian Religion. 3.23.2. []
  15. Adapted from Euthyphro Dilemma, Second Horn. []
  16. Id., verbatim. []
  17. Euthyphro Dilemma, False Dilemma Response, taken verbatim. []
  18. Aquinas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Bk. 1, lectio 10, n. 158. []
  19. McInerny, Ralph (1982). St. Thomas Aquinas. University of Notre Dame Press. pp. 122–123. ISBN 0-268-01707-7. []
  20. ST, I 6,2 ad 2. []
  21. Aquinas. Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics 1,10. []
  22. ST, I/II q24, a2. []
  23. ST, I/II 72,2. []
  24. ST, I/II 58,2 and I/II 77,2. []
  25. Aquinas. Summa contra Gentiles 4,92. []
  26. Euthyphro Dilemma, St. Thomas Aquinas, taken verbatim; further Catholic thoughts on it being a false dilemma – Euthyphro’s (False) Dilemma, First Things, citing Fides et Ratio Blog. []

“Who is the Catholic Writer in America?” and 10 Other Questions with Tuscany Press

In a world where the Catholic perspective of life is seen as illegitimate or wrong, Tuscany Press is providing a means in which the Catholic writer who is “anonymously toiling” to have an opportunity to be read and seen.

Listers, recently I have discovered a new outlet of Catholic media that is fighting against the current crisis of Catholic authorship. In a world where the Catholic perspective of life is seen as illegitimate or wrong, Tuscany Press is providing a means in which the Catholic writer who is “anonymously toiling” to have an opportunity to be read and seen. When I received word that Tuscany Press existed I immediately scrambled to their website and discovered that they have great potential to help Catholic writers produce quality and faith-filled or “Christ-haunted” stories that share their perspective to the world. I have recently had the pleasure of having a conversation with Peter Mongeau who is the founder and publisher of Tuscany Press and Christus Publishing. He shared with me some of his insights about the real state of Catholic authorship. He shared with me the amazing opportunity they are now giving Catholic writers, as well the major project they working on right now called the Tuscany Literary Prize. Now on to the interview:

1. Tell us about Tuscany Press.

I was a coordinator in Catholic book club in our parish, and we were always looking to read Catholic fiction. But, we really couldn’t find contemporary Catholic fiction. We could find Catholic fiction, but we had to go back to the mid-twentieth century with Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy or even further back to the early twentieth century with Tolkien and Chesterton. I have a Catholic spirituality publishing house called Christus Publishing, and I was looking to expand it. I knew there had to be some good Catholic fiction out there and we were looking for it, but we couldn’t find any stories that were contemporary. I talked to publishing executives. I talked to literary agents. I talked to writers and other small publishing houses. Basically anybody in and out of the Catholic publishing world. When I did the analysis of the publishing world, I realized that there was no publishing house that was dedicated solely to Catholic fiction. And so, we decided in the springtime to start Tuscany Press. We also noticed that there wasn’t a prize for Catholic fiction. I said “Well, we should create one. Because there needs to be some sort of recognition for great Catholic writers.” So that’s when the Tuscany prize started as well

2. Why Contemporary Catholic Fiction?

When we started Tuscany Press, we want to reaffirm our perspective of the world, but we also want to help evangelize our culture. Tuscany press is devoted to great Catholic writers. We have a great responsibility to encourage them and help them write fiction that is infused with our Catholic worldview. As Catholics we know we live in a world with a living God. Our stories should reflect that reality, that fact, that we live in a world with the living God and that his grace breaks into this reality in which we live. Our stories should reflect these facts. That is how we came about creating Tuscany Press and the Tuscany Prize. I don’t think the fiction publishing world appreciates the Catholic perspective. It once did, but I don’t think it appreciates it today […] There are some good to great Catholic writers out there waiting and wanting to be published, and they have not been able to be published. So Tuscany Press is there for them and for all of us to find these stories.

3. You said that you were seeking out good quality Catholic literature. What makes Catholic literature “good”?

There are three things, generally speaking, that make literature good: 1. Is it well written? How much editing does this need? Has the author spent time and energy looking over how they have written the story? Have they taken care to create strong structure, character development, and themes? 2. Is the story interesting? There are some well written bus schedules, but they aren’t going to get published. There are also good stories that aren’t well written. Another question to consider is: Does it capture the imagination of the reader? 3. Is it filled with the presence of God? The Catholic writer knows that world is filled with the presence of God. It is not a truncated view of the world, but an expanded view of the world. It is a view that encompasses everything including the transcending God. That is what makes Catholic fiction so special. It’s not a narrow focus, it includes God, the presence of grace and how it operates in nature […] This can happen either subtly, symbolically or deliberately.

4. Who is the Catholic writer?

There seems to be three different types of Catholic writers out there in general: 1. There is a group of writers who are over the age of 60. They have a totally different experience than most Catholics in America. 2. Then, there is this lost generation in their early 30s to 60s. These Catholic writers were lost in lieu of their culture. 3. Then, there are the young 30s and younger. These Catholic writers feel the most under-siege culturally. They live in a younger culture that does not espouse many Catholic ideals. The literature coming from these people are sharp-edged and jagged, which reflects what it’s like to be a young Catholic trying to live in this world. The Catholic Church has such a various mix of writers, which has been such a fantastic surprise for us.

5. Is there a chance that the Catholic writer can effect the contemporary world of literature right now?

Absolutely! The Catholic writer can definitely effect the contemporary world around them. The experience of most Catholics today in the world is so different. They know that there is a living God, but the state of current fiction is devoid of this fact. These themes hardly ever show up in contemporary fiction. The Catholic writer can bring these themes back to the world of literature. We know as Catholics that we have restless hearts, so it will speak to the restless hearts. Today’s secular world is a world that is fragmented and meaningless to most Catholics. It’s a world that looks upon the people around and doesn’t see the workings of God. The Catholic fiction writer can tell stories and show where grace appears.

6. Catholic writers have this great gift to give the world, but it seems that it is almost impossible for the Catholic writer to break through into the secular arena. What kind of difficulty does the Catholic writer have then?

The publishing world does not appreciate the Catholic perspective. I hope that Catholic fiction writer can find a home at Tuscany Press. That is my goal. However, I also believe that Catholic writer should go to any and all publishers. I don’t believe that they should limit themselves, but I do want them to know that they have home at Tuscany Press. We hope that we can provide a home for them. It will be difficult to break into the secular publishing houses, but if we can prove (and I think Tusacany Press will) that Catholic fiction has a place not only in the marketplace but in the world of culture, then the secular publishers will turn back to the Catholic writers.

7. What happens if a person claims that a book is too Catholic?

My personal response is that no book is ever “too Catholic.” These books are not going to be about good Catholics doing good things, because that is not necessarily good literature. It’s unrealistic, and people cannot relate to them. We are are fallible creatures, and our stories contain fallible creatures.

8. So, some of the content of the books will be gritty?

I don’t know. We have recieved some gritty manuscripts. We have received some not-so gritty manuscripts. We have received fantasy manuscripts. We have received some murder-mystery manuscripts. We have received manuscripts across all genres. We will choose the best though. I will tell you the short stories are great. I am excited about the short stories. The book that wins the prize will be what we consider be the best manuscript, but it might be from a genre that some people might not expect. It could be historical fiction or contemporary fiction. It could be a murder mystery or it could be a fantasy. We have received all types. We won’t know what will be published specifically until we get all the manuscripts in. We had some submissions from some very rural areas in America. Also some of our submissions are from some big cities. East coast. West coast. Mid-America. It is coming from all over.

9. Do you have a date set for your next novel to be printed? Or are you still looking for more manuscripts?

Well, we have the Tuscany prize. The Tuscany prize will end September 30. Our goal will be that we publish the Tuscany prize winners by the Christmas season. We hope to launch some in the spring who are not Tuscany prize winners but who are worthy of being published. Then we plan on launching the Tuscany prize again in 2013 and to have that deadline set around May 31st.

10. What are the future plans for Tuscany Press?

Not only are people looking for contemporary Catholic fiction, but we have discovered that parents are desperate for good Catholic young adult fiction. They are desperate for it. They want their children to read, and they want their children to read good Catholic books. The young adult fiction out there is so desperate, its so awful, and we have discovered that Catholic world, actually the entire Christian world, is looking for good young adult Catholic fiction. We are going to be doing Catholic young adult fiction and we will probably expand the Tuscany prize to include a young adult fiction in 2013. We trying to satisfy the need for contemporary Catholic but also the need for contemporary young adult Catholic fiction.

11. What would encourage the our Listers do?

I want to encourage people to send in their short stories, their novels, and novellas.

The Tuscany Prize, which is Tuscany Press’s first major project, is still going on. Peter Mongeau asked St. Peter’s List to encourage all Catholic writers who perhaps have a short story, novella, or novel sitting on their desks to submit it to the Tuscany Prize by September 30th. However, if you are still working on something that is not finished, you can participate in their next prize next year as well. For more information you can check out the Tuscany Press website at www.tuscanypress.com. All I can say is I am extremely anxious and excited to see what will come from Tuscany Press. I am thankful Tuscany’s mission, and I pray that they get lots of success in their endeavor to assist the real starving artists in the world, Catholic writers.

Saint Francis de Sales, Patron Saint of all writers, pray for us!

6 Catholic Poems that Testify to God’s Love

Poetry is an excellent tool of praise and acknowledgement of all that God has given us. Perhaps not as simple nor as easily entertaining as prose would be, poetry has an added facet that is not as evident in prose.

Listers, the Catholic Church has a vast reservoir of beautiful poetry that testifies to God’s love for Creation and us. Poetry is an excellent tool of praise and acknowledgement of all that God has given us. Perhaps not as simple nor as easily entertaining as prose would be, poetry has an added facet that is not as evident in prose.

The beautiful aspect of poetry that sets it apart from prose is the added rhythm creating another layer of description that goes beyond words. For example, in the poem “The Hound of Heaven” I can almost hear the pounding of footfalls against the pavement. It as if with each step a word from the poem is pounded out against the ground. This rhythm creates a sense of urgency that one would feel in a footrace against God. I would argue that if Francis Thompson’s vision of “The Hound of Heaven” was depicted in prose, it would not have given the readers as much of an emotional impact at the prospect of being pursued by God and finally succumbing to His liberating love.

I have selected six poems by Catholic poets and writers who speak and write about God’s gracious gift of his love for His people. My advice is to read them purposefully and aloud to get the full effect. There are far more poems that are probably greater than these, but I selected some of my favorites (“A Child My Choice” is my particular favorite). Some are just excerpts because some of the poems are very long. For those you want to read the poems in total, you can click on the titles which are linked to the a page with the completed poem. If you are interested in more poems by Catholic or at least “Christ-haunted” poets, I would recommend the book Flowers of Heaven compiled by Joseph Pearce.

Now on to the poems (be prepared to be pursued by love and captured by God’s glory):

1.An Excerpt from the “The Hound of Heaven”

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days:
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine way
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I him from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat — and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet–
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
–Francis Thompson

2. “A Child My Choice”¹

Let folly praise what fancy loves, I praise and loves that Child
Whose heart no thought, whose tongue no word, whose hand
no deed defiled.
I praise him most, I love him best, all praise and love is his,
While him I love, in him I live, and cannot live amiss.
Love’s sweetest mark, laud’s highest theme, man’s most desired light,
To love him life, to leave him death, to live in him delight.
He mine by gift, I his by debt, thus each to other due,
First friend he was, best friend he is, all times will try him true.
Though young, yet wise; though small, yet strong; though man,
yet God he is:
As wise he knows; as strong he can; as God he loves to bliss.
His knowledge rules; his strength defends; his love doth cherish all;
His birth our Joy; his life out light; his death our end of thrall.
Alas, he weeps, he sighs, he pants, yet do his Angels sing;
Out of his tears, his sighs and throbs, doth bud a joyful spring.
Almighty babe, whose tender arms can force all foes to fly,
Correct my faults, protect my life, direct me when I die.
–St. Robert Southwell

3. An Excerpt from “The Battle of Lepanto”

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that swat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!
–G.K. Chesterton

4. “The Golden Prison”

Weep not for me, when I am gone,
Nor spend thy faithful breath
In grieving o’er the spot or hour
Of all-enshrouding death;

Nor waste in idle praise thy love
On deeds of head or hand,
Which live within the living Book,
Or else are writ in sand;

But let it be thy best of prayers,
That I may find the grace
To reach the holy house of toll,
The frontier penance-place, —

To reach that golden palace bright,
Where souls elect abide,
Waiting their certain call to Heaven,
With Angels at their side;

Where hate, not pride, not fear torments
The transitory guest,
But in the willing agony
He plunges, and is blest.

And as the fainting patriarch gain’d
His needful halt mid-way,
And then refresh’d pursued his path,
Where up the mount it lay,

So pray, that, rescued from the storm
of heaven’s eternal ire,
I may lie down, then rise again,
Safe, and yet saved by fire.
–Blessed John Henry Newman

5. “Pied Beauty”

Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
for rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
–Gerard Manley Hopkins

6. An Excerpt from “The Quarry”²

He wasn’t alone. His muscles grew into the flesh of the crowd,
energy their pulse, as long as they held a hammer,
as long as his feet felt the ground.
And a stone smashed his temples
and cut through his heart’s chamber.
They took his body, and walked in a silent line.
Toil still lingered about him, a sense of wrong.
They wore gray blouses, boots ankle deep in mud.
In this they showed the end.
How violently his time halted: the points on the
low voltage dials
jerked, then dropped to zero again.
White stone now within him, eating into his being,
taking over enough of him to turn him into stone.
Who will lift up that stone, unfurl his thoughts again
under cracked temples? So plaster cracks on the wall.
They laid him down, his back on a sheet of gravel.
His wife came, worn out with worry; his son returned
from school.
Should his anger now flow into the anger of others?
It was maturing in him through his own truth and love.
Should he be used by those who come after,
deprived of substance, unique and deeply his own?
The stones on the move again, a wagon bruising the flowers.
Again the electric current cuts deep into the walls.
But the man has taken with him the world’s inner structure,
where greater the anger, the higher the explosion of love.
–Blessed John Paul II

St. Robert of Southwell, Pray for us!

¹This particular poem I dedicate to all of God’s children who left this world too soon.
²I couldn’t find of the full text of this poem in total, so there is no link to the entire poem.

Et Vidit Deus Quod Esset Bonum: 5 Reasons to Read the New Novel “Christopher”

Listers, the crisis of contemporary literature can only be alleviated by the united effort of the Catholic community. One of my proposed remedies to this grievous situation is by encouraging (nay, beseeching) Catholic media outlets like blogs, television, and radio to give Catholic writers and artists the exposure they deserve. Today I am going to put my money where my mouth is. I am going to review a novel I recently finished called Christopher by Catholic writer, David Athey. This is book is an example of the artistic and literary potential that Catholic Church has within its pews. I hope that SPL will become a place where authors like David Athey have an opportunity to exhibit their work. Now on to my analysis of his most recent book Christopher.

#1 Realistic Plot

Christopher follows the life of a boy named Christopher Lagorio who lives in Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior. Through his spiritually tumultuous journey from prepubescence to adulthood, he encounters three different young ladies who somehow impact his fledgling spiritual formation. With each girl he discovers some new and different aspect about God that sets him on mission for self-discovery and fulfillment. Although this may sound like the typical coming-of-age novel, the plot is bent on maintaining the gritty realism of prepubescence while attempting not to coddle or rationalize poor decisions and bad behavior. Christopher weaves a genuinely realistic tale of faith mixed with lifelike characters, worshipful imagery, glimpses of the Devil, and visions of the Divine without sacrificing the honesty of the hard truths and lessons of life.

#2 Lifelike Characters

One the main elements that makes a story real is if the characters develop in natural way, which is what annoys me about much of contemporary literature, secular or otherwise. Why should we care about a character if there is either nothing much to change or if the character hasn’t a bit of redeeming qualities whatsoever? There are many books in which I honestly hoped that such-and-such character would just be swallowed up by the earth because they were either too good or too bad (I fully acknowledge the wickedness of this thought). In Christopher, many of characters are likable and yet mysteriously flawed. As you read, you desire to understand what motivated them to do a particular set of actions. Just when you think you got one character pegged they do something subtly and yet naturally unexpected. In other words, the characters are wonderfully human, which is refreshingly odd for contemporary Christian fiction.

#3 Worshipful Imagery

In addition to excellent character development, the exquisite and intricate descriptions of Christopher‘s world is certainly a delight to read. The setting is particularly breathtaking. It is centered around the northeast corner of Minnesota near Duluth, which is on the shore of Lake Superior. David Athey’s familiarity of the native landscape is certainly brought to the forefront. The idyllic imagery brings forth the whimsy and wonder of God’s creation in full detail. Christopher is a celebration of God’s creation with all the emphasis on beauty, glory, and grace.

#4 Glimpses of the Devil

Unlike the many modern Judeo-Christian novels, Christopher is a honest portrayal of a teenager who has questions in which answers are hard to find and even harder to accept. The story starts around the age when Christopher can branch out from the beliefs of his upbringing and begin forming his own conclusions about life, love, and faith. None of these three main issues are in my opinion really well depicted in most contemporary Christian literature; however, David Athey manages to describe the contest between God and the Devil for the attention of our young people rather well. He manages not to gloss over the struggles of teenage development for the sake of propriety but addresses the issue directly and in no uncertain terms. The realism may make the more squeamish readers a little hot around the collar with the outright honesty of the hormonal battle between chastity and instant gratification; however, I do not believe that this is a fault, rather I firmly believe that the explicit acknowledgement of the main peril that teens grapple with is what sets this book apart from the rest. Quite simply its acknowledgement of the devil using God’s great gift of sexuality against creation is something that Christian readers need to hear. Sometimes glimpses of the devil is all we need to flee to comforting arms of the Divine. With its heartbreaking realism, Christopher certainly will challenge you with its stark honesty that is uncharacteristic to the average contemporary Catholic novel (I recommend that only high school aged persons or older should read this book).

#5 Visions of the Divine

David Athey has managed to depict the twisted handiwork of the devil; however, that isn’t what makes my favorite part of the book (fortunately for my soul). What makes this story so outrageously beautiful is the constant presence of God in His Creation, His people, and His Sacraments. Throughout this book, God’s presence is certainly evident on every page. While at first this may sound like it would be a bit preachy to a non-Catholic, it is in truth not. God is presented in a different way than the average Christian novel. Instead of having the main character constantly talking about their certainty in “Buddy Jesus” without having an ounce of doubt, in Christopher God is present in spite of overwhelming trials. His presence is subtle and yet deeply moving. The book reminded me time again of what an amazing God we have who makes himself available to us in different ways throughout the stages in our lives. It reminded me of our Catholic belief that God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. Christopher captivated my imagination with the visions of the Divine. Obviously, I highly recommend this book and encourage you all to check it out when you get the chance.

Et vidit Deus quod esset bonum!!

*Athey, David. Christopher. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2011 **If you don’t recall or if you haven’t read my thoughts on this Catholic community’s role, you can read my recent list entitled “The Crisis of Contemporary Catholic Culture: 4 Reasons Why You Should Care.

5 More Short Stories That Every Catholic Should Read

Fiction has a savage appeal to authors and readers because they get entertainment out of some character’s suffering or unhappiness.

Listers, fiction has a savage appeal to authors and readers because they get entertainment out of some character’s suffering or unhappiness. However, to the credit of all fans of the written word, they also derive entertainment in a resolution, but that always means that something must first be resolved. Why are we, members of humanity, so obsessed with this tension between conflict and resolution? I was discussing this very topic with a group of friends recently, and we concluded that the story is not good if it does not capture some aspect of our conflict with sin. Fiction is one way humanity proclaims its utter brokenness. As Catholics we always struggle with concupiscence. Even though Christ died for our sins, we still feel we are unworthy of his redeeming grace. Even some of the words we say at Mass reflect this:

“Lord, I am unworthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Fiction, I think, is a reflection of this struggle between concupiscence and grace. We struggle with sin, which is our conflict, yet we fly to the Lord in the Sacraments and find our resolution. So, our obsession with suffering in fiction exists because we are ever looking for a hope for our redemption. I often wonder about the day when there will no longer be a conflict with sin (i.e. the completion of the Kingdom of God). The conclusion I came to is that fiction will no longer be necessary. The only thing that will exist is the poetry of praise, the great Gloria. However, as we all are still alive in this corrupted world, we still need fiction. We need that brief glimpse of redemption through suffering. Fiction points to this ideal of justice and resolution that people, Catholic or not, perpetually seek.

Therefore, I submit to you all, listers, my promised part 2 of short stories that every Catholic should read (if you haven’t read part 1 of this posting you can view it here ). Please do not presume that all of these authors are Catholic or remotely Christian. However, each of the following stories testify to the human’s struggle with concupiscence and our desire for eternal freedom from sin. Please note that these books are listed in no particular order. Now on to the stories…

#6 “The Hint of an Explanation”

by Graham Greene

Known for his intense writing style and thrilling historical mysteries, Graham Greene is one of the best authors to describe the epic struggle of man against his lesser angels. Many of Graham Greene’s writings are particular provocative, which is probably why Hollywood turned many of his stories into film (so if you read something by him other than this story, reader beware). However, “The Hint of an Explanation” is not so much provocative as it is particularly terrifying for those who love the Eucharist (and probably why Hollywood decided not to make this particular story into a feature film). The story takes place on a train where the main character, an agnostic, starts a conversation with a Roman Catholic stranger about what God allows. The Roman Catholic says that it is impossible to understand why somethings happen, especially occasions of corruption, but he says there are moments in life when there are hints as to why God allows them to occur. He then describes his own personal story of one of these hints. The gripping story the Roman Catholic stranger weaves takes you to a heart-wrenching moment when his younger self  is offered a terrifying and yet tempting bargain.

#7 “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does”

by J. F. Powers

As a married Catholic, I often forget about the struggles of parish priests, monks, and others who live the consecrated life. I mistakenly think of them effortlessly following  the rules of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Sometimes when I read The Imitation or The Interior Castles, I envy their access to God and their relationship with the Almighty. However, when I find myself slipping into this envious mindset, I look to J. F. Powers to set the record straight. Known for his realistic portrayal of priests, J. F. Powers discusses the often ignored topic of the struggles of the clergy. Often addressing the misnomers of clergy life, he describes the issues, the annoyances, the struggles, and the uncertainties that often might plague priests and monks. “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” is one such story. Brother Didymus, a Franciscan monk, struggles with the issue of false humility when he refuses to go see perhaps for the last time his aging brother. This story is a beautiful tale of the internal struggles of elderly monk. It certainly made me appreciate the precarious line that those of the consecrated life often have to toe. This story has helped me appreciate more fully the sacrifice that our priests, monks, and nuns for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

#8 “The Last Ugly Person”

by Roger B. Thomas

Although not as well known as the rest of the authors in this list, Roger B. Thomas holds his own. His writing style is poignant and emotive, not to mention the fact that the late Dr. Ralph McInerny put his stamp of approval on him. In a country that is so confoundedly image obsessed, “The Last Ugly Person” perhaps is one way to keep yourself inoculated from the temptation of vanity and pride. “The Last Ugly Person” is about a dystopian society where beauty, or rather a certain perception of beauty, is law. Those who don’t fall under the rules of beauty and acceptability, the Uglies, start to mysteriously disappear. As their numbers tick away, the struggling vagabonds are forced to rely on strangers to help them survive their wickedly and deceptively beautiful surroundings.

#9 “The Story of the Bad Little Boy”

by Mark Twain

Like most of Mark Twain’s stories, “The Story of the Bad Little Boy” is written in a laughing, sarcastic, and lyrical manner that upon further reflection will lead you to see a striking and disturbing reality. The story is based on those little Sunday school instructional tracts that churches used to hand out to children about proper behavior. This story refutes the premise of those pamphlets that good little boys are always rewarded and bad little boys are always punished. Upon first reading you will find yourself bursting with laughter at the fiendish misdeeds of naughty little Jim, and afterwards you will marvel that what appears to be exaggeration is really the awful truth: “Nice guys finish last.” I suggest you pair this story with “The Story of the Good Little Boy” because they are both extremely short and the meanings of both are enhanced when read consecutively. My recommendation is to read these stories during the election season.

#10 “The Passing of the Third Floor Back”

by Jerome K. Jerome

This last selection could be described as a situation in which grace collides with human folly. Also written as a widely popular play, “The Passing of the Third Floor Back” is a tale about a stranger who rents a room at a boarding house in London. He discovers that his fellow inhabitants are egregiously twisted in their own personal failures. However, as he meets with each individually, his presence and kind words create a curious effect on them. This beautifully written story testifies to the hope and the promise of grace to the worn and gnarled souls of all who are crippled by sin. I recommend this story to be read a couple hours before Confession.




Listers, please click the title of the short story to view the work on Amazon. Thank you.

The Authors and Catholicism: Although the majority of the authors in this list are Roman Catholic, there are a couple who are not Catholic. Regardless, all of the selected stories’ subject matter fall into line with the Catholic teaching.

Other Lists by JE Foyer
5 Short Stores that Every Catholic Should Read
6 Children’s Picture Books Perfect for a Catholic Family Bookshelf
8 Quotes from Christian Authors about the Importance of Good Fiction