Why is Christianity Always Catholic in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

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Picture by Claudio Ungari via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Claudio Ungari via Flickr Creative Commons

Have you noticed how often Christianity equals Catholicism in science fiction and fantasy? Think about it – when was the last time the religious side of the story was represented by a Presbyterian, a Methodist or someone of Eastern Orthodox faith? But look at Daredevil – both in comics and on screen – The Sage of the ExilesThe Sparrow, or many other sf+f works – you’ll see Catholicism all over the shop.

I don’t think it’s because there are more Catholic writers than ones of other denominations in sf+f. After all, Protestantism is bigger both in the UK and the USA, the sources of most of my reading and viewing.

I don’t think it’s because Catholic beliefs are any more interesting to extrapolate from. If I was looking for a faith that does something unusual then I’d turn to the liberal Quakers, with their decisions by consensus, their evolving book of faith and their soothing/eery (depending on your perspective) silent meetings. And if I was looking for something full of angels, demons and holy warfare then I could pick pretty much any old school interpretation of any faith.

I think the reason may be that Catholicism provides a bunch of handy story-telling tools. The focus on sin and guilt creates obvious internal conflict for characters. The confessional provides an excuse for characters to say things out loud that would otherwise remain internal. The heavy use of ostentatious imagery and symbolic ritual creates striking visuals for television, comics and film – Quaker meetings are cool and all, but they usually look like a bunch of ordinary people sitting in a plain room, and much Protestantism looks like Catholicism light.

I’m not saying that the use of Catholicism in sf+f is necessarily shallow – far from it, Julian May built a whole universe around the dissident theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But I don’t think it’s generally chosen for its depth, and the attractions it provides for story-tellers are ones most other Christian denominations can’t match. Much as I’d love to read that Quaker sf story, if I want to then I’ll have to write it myself.

5 thoughts on “Why is Christianity Always Catholic in Science Fiction and Fantasy?”

  1. Good question. Part of it is that you know what Catholic believes. If a protestant pastor turns up, you’ve no idea whether he’s a rabid fundamentalist or a non-realist de facto atheist. And unless your story hangs on that it would become an encumbrance to introduce the pastor’s beliefs. By contrast Catholicism provides a full tool set.

    Whilst Star Trek has no significant religious presence, Babylon 5 has a resident order of Friars – or at least they’re dressed as Dominicans, although some of the details are altered. The story in which they are central

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passing_Through_Gethsemane

    is one of the ones that won a Hugo, and rightly so; it constitutes the standard paradigm of SF story – take a possibility opened up by technological advance and explore the consequences.

    The X files has a few non-Catholics as significant plot characters; snake handlers among others. However Dana’s religion is indeed Catholic – for all the usual reasons.

    And note that MASH’s chaplain is Catholic – again for much the same set of reasons, as is The West Wing, as in the episode on capital punishment. The only counter example that springs to mind is ‘The Simpsons’. Perhaps the fact that they wanted to do comic scenes in services and felt that Catholics would object too much might have been a motivation there?

    1. I think you raise a really good point about knowing where you stand. While Catholic theology and practice is arguably as diverse as Protestantism, especially around the fringes, there’s a clearer core image people can hook their understanding on.

      And that episode of Babylon 5 was one of my favourites – a really interesting exploration of what motivates people.

  2. “Catholic” means “universal,” which is how we use the term in our own Lutheran services. And I think it’s also universal in that everyone knows the Catholic Church, whether they do or not, whether that perception is good, bad or neutral. Mention any other denomination and you’ll get blank looks. I’ve written stories with clerical characters, but they’ve never been Lutheran, which I am now, or Southern Baptist, what I was born into. No, they’ve all been Catholic or C of E, or some future projection. I want the reader to make the emotional or intellectual connection, then get on with the story. Unless I’m writing a story about snake handlers or magic mushrooms, I stick with Catholic or C of E. Choosing anything else is, I think, a guaranteed story derailment, if only because I then have to stop to explain everything.

    1. I think you’re right about that universalism. That use of ‘catholic’ as ‘universal’ also comes up in Methodism, which I was raised with, and it confused me when I first came across it. And given its global influence, I suppose it’s unsurprising that the Catholic church is universally recognisable.

      Interesting that you chose C of E for your Protestant characters – is it big enough in the US to achieve that level of familiarity, or is that more because of writing British settings?

      1. C of E if the story is set in Britain, or part of the Empire, such as Canada or Mars; if a U.S. locale, then some amorphous Protestant non-denominational church. I would use Anglican, but that would cause confusion since the average American does not know that Anglican is C of E…after the 1776 war, England wasn’t too popular for some reason.

        I was thinking about this subject again the other day. Catholicism seems “normal” to me, while others don’t, normal in that it’s what my mind flies to first. If I had to have a church for a post-apocalyptic world, I would probably do what Walter Miller Jr did…if I wanted an optimistic vision of a world in reconstruction. If I wanted to plunge the world deeper into darkness, I would choose snake handlers, Muslims, Elvis Impersonators or Mormons…though probably something else since I think those may have already been used.

        Regardless of recent press, most people still have a favorable opinion of the Catholic Church and Catholics, which makes it a handy tool for writers.

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