Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I like essays -- writing and reading them.  In law, the essay is kind of a hybrid creature and a still-emerging stylistic form.  The essay is missing some of the stolidly self-conscious seriousness of the article but it's so much more fun than the review.  For me, the distinguishing feature of the essay -- what separates it from the prideful autonomy of the article -- is its reactive quality.  It's a writing form that is somehow more socially connected, as what begins as a discrete counterpoint can blossom into broader, but still comparatively narrow, reflections.

For Christmas, my dear mother-in-law gave me the "Best American Essays of the Century" (a little late, you say?  Maybe, but I still prefer it to similar collections of the past decade).  Most of the essays are by American-born writers, but not all (e.g., John Muir).  I have not read many of the essays and have only really read the work of about half the authors.  Some of my favorites are in the book -- T.S. Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent, Henry Adams's A Law of Acceleration, Susan Sontag's Notes on "Camp."  Others I care less for (Updike's The Disposable Rocket is the usual from him: "From the standpoint of reproduction, the male body is a delivery system, as the female is a mazy device for retention.").

With only a few exceptions, I noticed that there are almost no Catholic essayists on the roster (difficult for me to count Mary McCarthy or Annie Dillard).  One is Richard Rodriguez -- a new author for me -- here's something from his essay, Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood, "Supporters of bilingual education imply that students like me miss a great deal by not being taught in their family's language.  What they seem not to recognize is that, as a socially disadvantaged child, I regarded Spanish as a private language." 

But how about it, knowledgeable MOJ writers and readers: who are your favorite Catholic essayists?  Definitions are always tricky, so please construe the labels broadly -- writers of short, non-fiction pieces who have been influenced by their Catholicism in one way or another.  Fire away!     


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Walker Percy's essay on Bourbon. "Jesus, is this it?"

Posted by: DFoley | Dec 29, 2010 11:58:37 AM

Garry Wills

Posted by: David Nickol | Dec 29, 2010 12:58:23 PM

Richard John Neuhaus was one the best polemical writers, Catholic or non-Catholic, of our times. He wrote many short pieces that were essay-like, although he did not specialize in what we traditionally think of as an "essay."

Posted by: Dan | Dec 29, 2010 1:12:48 PM

Wilfrid Sheed.

Posted by: DFB | Dec 29, 2010 1:30:27 PM

The few below are among those whom I have enjoyed, though not all are known as essayists, unless (as you note) broadly defined.

1. Richard John Neuhaus

2. Elizabeth Anscombe

3. Christopher Dawson

4. G.K. Chesterton

5. J.V. Schall

6. Hilaire Belloc

7. Bl. John Henry Newman

8. George Weigel

9. John Haldane

Posted by: Jonathan | Dec 29, 2010 1:40:13 PM


If homilies count as essays - and they certainly are akin to them -- Pope Benedict must be on any list. I have long thought he is a homilist for the ages. I recently came across a Sandro Magister article that reports on others who share this view (the link above).

Flannery O'Connor was also a superb writer of short spiritual pieces (usually in the form of letters or speeches); the best America has ever produced for that particular genre, in my opinion.

Jonathan's list is a pretty good one (although I have never heard of John Haldane and I personally am not a huge George Weigel fan).

Posted by: Dan | Dec 29, 2010 4:56:06 PM

Paul Johnson, Conor Cruise O'Brien

Posted by: Patrick Molloy | Dec 30, 2010 9:01:07 AM

Non-Catholic: Marilynne Robinson.

Posted by: Timothy Bauman | Dec 30, 2010 10:20:21 AM

Father James V. Schall, SJ -- for sure.

Father George Rutler, too

These are superb essayists!

Posted by: William Eshelman | Jan 1, 2011 6:23:46 PM