The Catholic Church and Science Fiction

Co-blogger Sasha Volokh asks for examples of Catholic science fiction. As with the debate over Jewish fantasy literature a couple years ago, a lot depends on the definition of the relevant field. But even under a pretty narrow definition, there are many, many examples.

One of my personal favorites is Frank Herbert’s Dune series, where the Bene Gesserit order (which plays a key role in the plot) is based on the Jesuits, and the dominant religion has substantial elements derived from Catholicism. The characters even often quote from the “Orange Catholic Bible,” the result of a future rapprochment between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Another famous example is Keith Roberts’ alternate history novel Pavane, which portrays a world in which the Catholic Church managed to crush the Reformation and then went on to severely constrain social, economic, and technological progress. Roberts viewed that result as a natural outgrowth of the Church’s doctrines if it had succeeded in staving off challenges to its position as the dominant church for all Western Christians.

If we expand the focus to include fantasy literature, there are even more examples. As Tom Shippey documents in an important study of Tolkien’s work, Catholic theological concepts significantly influenced the themes of The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien was a strongly committed Catholic). Criticism of the Catholic Church and its theology are central themes of Phillip Pullman’s atheistic Dark Materials trilogy, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s well-known feminist reinterpretation of Arthurian legend, The Mists of Avalon.

It would be easy to extend this list. Overall, I would say that the Catholic Church and its theology get far more attention in science fiction and fantasy literature than any other religion, possibly more than all others combined. That’s not surprising, given that the Church has had more influence on Western history than any other, and to this day epitomizes organized religion in the minds of many Americans and Western Europeans.

UPDATE: I did not cover Walter L. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz because it was already mentioned in Sasha’s original post.