The Catholic Faith Can Shape Science Fiction

There were many reasons why I left the Church when I was fifteen, just after my Confirmation. One of them was the science fiction I had consumed in my early teens. The stories I read and the motion pictures I watched seemed always to champion pure reason as the sole pathway to better worlds. Unless it was being criticized, or portrayed in some gnostic fashion, religion was nowhere to be found.

 Decades later, I hold degrees in both engineering and theology and am the author of a science fiction novel with a crime-fighting protagonist who’s a former atheist turned Catholic priest from Boston.

Science fiction, it turns out, is not only compatible with Christianity, but when portrayed authentically, the latter can and elevate the former to new, extraordinary heights.

Seeking the Heavens

Some, including not a few twentieth-century science fiction authors, had assumed that the study of astronomy and the rise of rockets would spell the demise of religion. Once we saw with our own eyes what was up there—the reaches of space with its myriads of suns, planets, and galaxies—the old stories of gods and creation, of a heaven within the clouds, would be seen as mere primitive superstitions.

 

Thanks in no small part to Catholic researchers, we have indeed seen a good deal of the cosmos. And yet the eyes of faith have not faltered. Rather, religion, especially Catholicism, is confident that the natural sciences cannot threaten what God has definitively revealed to humanity.

“Though faith is above reason,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind … methodical research … can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.” (CCC 159)

Consequently, Catholic intellectual thought is rooted in the embrace of faith and reason. From Saint Paul to Saint Bonaventure to Saint Pope John Paul II, Catholic teachers have long championed this truth: the more we understand creation, the better we can appreciate our Creator.  

And, as it turns out, what is true for science is equally true for science fiction.

Seeking the Moral High Ground

Noted scientist and science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once quipped that “one of great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.”

By the mid-twentieth century, it was easy to believe that if our medicines could wipe out diseases and our engineers could bring clean water to cities and electricity to rural communities, if our computers and our rockets could bring us to new worlds, then our technologies and our industry could ultimately bring peace to this one.

Or could they?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is arguably the best-known cautionary tale of an over reliance on technical prowess. Playing God with human life comes with consequences, Shelley warns, especially if love is factored out of the equation.

A lesser known but and perhaps more unsettling novel is H. G. Wells, The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth. Set in England’s Edwardian era, Wells’ tale begins with a seemingly less threatening creation than Dr. Frankenstein’s monster: a food that amplifies the growth of lifeforms, humans included. Told with comic tones in its earliest chapters, Wells slips in darker ones as the grasses, wildflowers, and wasps of the English countryside grow to monstrous proportions and a race of giants, first enslaved, soon rebel. Scariest of all, everyday people are generally apathetic toward the early fruits of the titular scientific breakthrough. They become accustomed to their world’s larger inhabitants until little is anything like what they, you, or I would ever recognize.  

It’s a brilliant story, but it lacks something.  

As with Shelley and many contemporary writers of dystopian futures, what’s missing in The Food of the Gods are the sorts of realities that later writers, like Arthur C. Clarke, would openly reject: transcendent truth, most especially the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the grace that allows us to live it—to say nothing of a community of believes through which this grace can be mediated, encouraged, and shared.

Writing About Faith, the Future, and the Power of Free Will

I’d been writing about the Catholic perspective of ecology for over a decade when I opted to follow Shelley, Wells, and Clarke. I’d present to a wider audience the questions and answers of my non-fiction writing within a fictional world. Rather than avoid or criticize religion, however, I’d place it front and center.

Set in 2088 after the discovery of the first murder in outer space, A Printer’s Choice explores free will, and thus the Christian understanding of the word choice.

When it’s learned that the dead man is a Roman Catholic priest, and when the authorities “upside” can’t solve the crime, they ask for help from the old world below. Enter Fr. John Francis McClellan, a former atheist, retired United States Marine, and an expert in the artificially intelligent three-dimensional printers that had been used as the murder weapon.

It’s through McClellan—aided by his own journey of faith—that the reader is presented with some small taste of the Church’s rich intellectual and theological tradition, not to mention the transformative truths of revelation.

When I began writing, I was determined to strike the right tone for a general audience—a tone that wasn’t preachy. To do this, my strategy was to keep Catholic realities (like Mass) to a minimum. The first draft included only one homily—at the funeral of the dead man. I was surprised, however, when my secular editor gave some of his highest praise to that chapter. He then demanded a second homily, which I gladly added.

Secular reviews, such as from Publishers Weekly, confirmed what that editor encouraged. From all this I learned two lessons. First, always listen to your editor. Second, science fiction is decidedly more meaningful when it includes the voice, the influence, and the hope of faith.

Baptizing all nations

In A Printer’s Choice, the designers of the orbital new worlds had made faith all but illegal until they needed a priest’s help to solve a murder. The presence of this priest—his witness and his words—may not only be the first introduction for some readers to the priesthood, but also to the Gospels. Moreover, through Fr. McClellan and other characters, such readers may have their first opportunity to relate to believers who struggle with their choices. And, of course, the Christian characters can offer a unique understanding of human dignity and a future that still has hope.

If in my mid-thirties it was this hope and the Catholic intellectual tradition that helped steer me back to the Church, might other fallen-away Catholics have the same response when exposed to these truths—especially when embedded in unexpected places like a sci-fi novel?

I believe that they may.

When authentic Christianity is present, there are few better genres than science fiction for speculating about our futures—with all their technological possibilities—in ways that can strike a balance between utopian dreams and dystopian despair.

Which means that given the growing darkness of our age, there may be no better time to start writing the next generation of Catholic literature—and so preach ever anew the true hope that dawns only from the timeless God Who is love.

W. L. Patenaude

By

W. L. Patenaude has been writing and speaking on the intersection of faith and reason for almost two decades. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MA in theology. Patenaude has served as a special lecturer in theology at Providence College, writes at CatholicEcology.net, and has provided analysis for The National Catholic Register, Catholic News Agency, Associated Press, National Geographic, Crux, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Patenaude is a Knight Commander with the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. 

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