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I am writing a book in which one of my main characters is a devout Catholic. His struggles with reconciling his religion and his experiences in life are crucial to his character and I'd like to portray them as unfiltered as I reasonably can through close 3rd-person limited narration. (He'll be my POV character perhaps 40% of the time.) His dogmatic beliefs shape many of his decisions, including insisting that another POV protagonist convert to Catholicism before they can marry (and I will therefore have to reckon with her thoughts on conversion and religion as well; she's committing to the marriage for her family's financial security).

But his religion is emphatically not the point, the moral, or the widely held worldview of my story, which also explores the impacts of the industrial revolution, scientific progress, multiculturalism (with characters from around the British Empire who do not necessarily have an English or Christian worldview), and (surprise!) supernatural elements. I don't want to pass judgement on it, either affirming or rejecting it, even as I allow for the existence of magic and he becomes aware of it.

Many books dealing with magic often avoid any mention of religion, even in historical settings when everyone was religious. Maybe it's because they run into this difficulty? In any case, I haven't found many examples of books with actively or profoundly Christian characters that aren't "inspirational", preachy, or otherwise judgmental.

What should I include or avoid in my story to ensure that the reader can empathize with this protagonist but not feel that I am either evangelizing or sending anti-religious messages?

What I've got so far:

  • My narrative voice, when it isn't in the directly in the POV character's head, will be rather passively agnostic.

  • I currently intend to at least represent in passing a variety of worldviews to avoid establishing a direct dichotomous religious conflict as a theme in the book.

  • I also currently intend not to give him any unequivocally religious or disillusioning experiences. (If he interprets something as a sign or a punishment, it will be ambiguous. If something magical happens, well, Catholics acknowledge the existence of witchcraft, demons, and miracles.)

Edit: (Side note, since it's a topic of interest below: Yes, this is set in early-mid 19th c. England-- probably 1840/1, but I'm considering moving it to 1828/9 to capture the Catholic Relief Act that might newly allow my character to run for Parliament, if I can reconcile it with the new industrial technologies I'm including. (E.g., do I really need railroads?) I've been doing my homework on the evolving relations between Catholics, Anglicans, and other Protestant denominations in Great Britain and the Empire.)

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    @Ash Since the OP's story needs a Catholic perspective, it is important to note that Catholics (and most Christians) see the church on Earth as established by Christ (Eph 4:11-13) and as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-14). – kingledion Jul 24 at 12:57
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    I suggest referencing the works of Christopher Stasheff. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Stasheff & christopher.stasheff.com . While not exactly the same (in his worlds Catholicism proves to be "The One Correct Religion", or at least his personal idealized view of how it should work is, rather. In any case, worth using for comparison and contrast at the very least. – nijineko Jul 24 at 15:39
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    A pretty good example for a character like this, IMHO, is Michael Carpenter, from the Dresden Files. He shows up in Grave Peril, if you want a book reference. – Daniel B Jul 24 at 16:56
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    I suggest reading Arthur C. Clarke's The Star. – Patricia Shanahan Jul 24 at 22:17
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    @Ash Catholics form a little over half of the global Christian population, but there are many plurality-Christian countries where Catholics are a minority of the Christian population. See the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom as examples. – Justin Lardinois Jul 25 at 20:44

12 Answers 12

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Show his religious practices more and his explicit beliefs less. What does a devout Catholic do? Probably he doesn't spend all day talking about his beliefs; instead he lives them. He tithes. He fasts on Fridays. He attends mass daily before going to work (or wherever he spends his days). He teaches in Sunday school. He studies self-defense but it's the "passive redirection" styles, not the "active beat-up-your-opponent" styles. He says grace before eating. He tries to avoid swearing and never says "oh my God" in response to something trivial. He prioritizes Sunday mass over the big game on TV.

Missionaries and evangelists preach, sometimes to anybody who doesn't say "no" forcefully enough, but you're not writing that kind of character so you have to be more careful in what words you put in his mouth. He can talk about his beliefs, but he shouldn't break character in doing so.

I'm far from an expert on Catholicism, but the Catholics I know are not generally pushy when it comes to religion -- but if you ask them questions at least the more learned are happy to answer. Depending on the needs of your plot and character ensemble, you might be able to get some of that by having an outsider character. I've read Christian-themed fantasy fiction that uses outsider characters (someone from a neighboring realm, elf, etc) to provide those conversational prompts. Use it sparingly since that's not your primary purpose in writing, and you should be fine.

(As an example where the religious discourse is a primary function, see -- with a different religion -- Conversations with Rabbi Small, where most of the book involves a vacationing rabbi answering questions from a very curious non-Jew. The book is about the conversation more and the vacationing characters less; this is not what it sounds like you're doing.)

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    Catholics had their time with the fanatical recruitment a few hundred years ago, but yeah, other than a nasty incident in WWII, they've backed off that stance. – Carduus Jul 24 at 15:52
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    @Carduus right, I was talking about modern Catholics. If the story is historical fiction, the author will need to do some research into the target time. – Monica Cellio Jul 24 at 19:29
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    WRT saying "Oh my God" -- this can actually be a great bombshell if something extreme does happen, and you've established that he doesn't take God's name in vain. Or, equivalently, if this character has been saying "Goodness me" and "Oh dear" the whole book, a sudden "Oh, shit" will let the reader know things have gotten bad. – Nic Hartley Jul 25 at 0:09
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    It would, I'm afraid, be a severe misrepresentation of a genuinely religious person to focus entirely on their actions without in any way describing their inner life. You wouldn't write any other kind of protagonist without saying anything at all about what they thought. – DJClayworth Jul 25 at 1:21
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    @DJClayworth I don't mean don't say anything; I just mean don't exceed what you would do for any other inner thought about important beliefs or identity. (I said to focus more on action than belief, not only.) Religious people do not think about religion to the exclusion of almost everything else, despite how they're sometimes portrayed. (The same goes for members of many other groups too.) – Monica Cellio Jul 25 at 2:18
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What should I include or avoid in my story to ensure that the reader can empathize with this protagonist but not feel that I am either evangelizing or sending anti-religious messages?

Treat the character fairly, and present the character's views as-is.

If religion is not he point of the story, then simply write a character that is motivated by the precepts of his faith. I can't see clearly from your OP if the character himself is judgemental or preachy. If the character is not intended to be preachy, then this isn't really an issue at all. Simply present the character as a devout Catholic at the time would be.

To some modern readers the tenets of the church would be unappealing. But, keep in mind that the base of your readers might be broader than you seem to think. There are many people in the world who are Catholic (like, a billion of them) and would view a faithful Catholic positively.

Alas, I was not born in Victorian England, so I can't tell you what the church emphasized at that point. But the generic, timeless homily subjects include

  • regular attendance at mass and confession
  • faithfully giving to the poor and to charity,
  • prayers for the pope and for national leaders and other local concerns, and
  • encouragement to witness Christ in your daily life.

In the late 1800s, the Catholic church was not very strong in England. Catholics had only relatively recently been allowed to own land and participate in politics, and as such were something of a persecuted minority; although by 1850 and later liberalism had dispersed much of the previous prejudice. Catholicism would have been more strongly associated with the Irish; an unpleasant association at the time, to be sure.

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    +1 Welcome to Writing|SE – wetcircuit Jul 24 at 13:43
  • Were they not still tithing in the 19th century? – RedSonja Jul 26 at 13:02
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    @RedSonja They have always been tithing. That doesn't seem to be emphasized as much these days, but perhaps was more in the 19th century. – kingledion Jul 26 at 14:31
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    Actually the Catholic Church doesn't teach tithing. They teach giving to the church, but without any set percentage. – curiousdannii Jul 27 at 0:44
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Save the cat

All the standard tricks will still work. Readers can like the protagonist through some simple actions that show he he is a kind person. Allow him to help someone in need, show a kind heart, concern for suffering, and consideration for those who would go unnoticed.

Make him relatable

Allow him to have (human) flaws, family, and friends. Give him petty career politics, and workplace drama that embeds him in real life. Give him money worries, and keep him rooted in mundane life (even as he has adventures and finds the paranormal).

Make him scholarly, but curious

"Bad" religion is controlling, narrow-minded, and authoritarian. "Good" religion is personal, welcoming, and nonjudgemental. Theology is the study of many different religions, so if he is well-read he will have influences from Greek and Latin philosophers, as well as religious teachings from other faiths. When he travels, make himn genuinely curious to see and learn. Give him a strong sense of wonder.

Evangelist Missionaries are going to be hard to defend in the 21st Century

A present-day missionary is going to face a lot of cultural criticism. The recent death of a missionary attempting to convert the remote Sentinelese tribe was unanimously cheered in my social feed. I don't have any suggestion to get around this other than to set your story in the past, maybe you can give him a sense of charming naiveté. Watch out for colonialism and racist exoticism (almost unavoidable in this context?).

Don't make him arrogant to spread gospel, instead he tries to set an example and internalizes lessons trying to grow in his own understanding of faith. He's on a journey, not a mission.

Good, whatever the doctrine

Make his religious presence "felt" by others. He says a few kind words, not high mass, but his conviction is palpable. He is devout, and even the witches (and exotic whatnots) acknowledge the legitimacy of his faith – whatever that means in this context.

There is obviously some cognitive dissonance in the Catholic teachings that you will have to downplay, lampshade, or avoid. A lot of that will come down to the tone of the story, and the plot-things you need him to do.

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    This makes me feel good about my decisions, as already my character already ticks nearly every box, including literally saving animals (and also killing many for scientific specimens-- ah, moral ambiguity). He's not evangelical by nature, really on defense with Catholicism in early 19th c. England, but as part and parcel of his old money life he is awash in colonialist everything, and even "enlightened" compared to his peers he will have some blind spots. – wordsworth Jul 24 at 6:31
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    "Theology is the study of many different religions", and yet if you want to study it at a university, theology will be taught in connection to a specific religion/congregation. (Maybe this is a German thing, but there is a difference between "theology" and "religious studies") – DrCopyPaste Jul 24 at 11:52
  • You know, if I had a bunch of friends in my social feed who were sociopathic bigots that would cheer at the violent death of another human being for simply holding a sincere belief that they disagreed with... well, at the very least I wouldn't go advertising the fact in public. It's said you can judge a person by his friends, and that definitely does not reflect well on you! – Mason Wheeler Aug 9 at 20:45
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Avoid the imputation of naiveté.

In the real world, of course, all most all people hold their beliefs reflexively and naively. Most atheists have not thought through or are even aware of the epistemological and ontological difficulties of their position. The same is true of most Catholics, Jew, Hindus, etc. Thinking through the philosophical difficulties of your faith is rare and difficult. Most people are naive about what they believe.

But when you present any belief system in fiction (as opposed to sticking to events and emotions, as much of fiction does) you inevitably assume a non-naive posture. Your position may in fact be very naive, but your posture, in choosing to treat the matter at all, is one of non-naiveté. You are implicitly claiming (as you claim when you treat anything in fiction) that you are not naive about it.

Implicitly, therefore, you will treat your own faith as non-naive, and the faith of others as naive. If you simply present all the characters of your own world view as non-naive and other characters as naive, you will have produced a devotional or confessional work.

Devotiotional and confessional works exist for every faith, including agnosticism and atheism.

However, it is possible, in life as in fiction, for a person to recognize the philosophical difficulties with their faith and choose to believe it anyway. Their faith then becomes non-naive.

The agnostic position is that the universe is ultimately too mysterious for our limited capacity for understanding. The agnostic therefore refuses to take a position. The naive believer (Catholic or atheist alike) accepts the faith they were brought up with or the faith of their peers without awareness of the philosophical difficulties it presents. A non-naive believer acknowledges the same difficulties as the agnostic, but choose to believe anyway. (And note that there is also naive agnosticism which lazilly refuses to even think through the problem. For them, saying they are agnostic is a means to avoid the argument.)

A good example of establishing the non-naive faith of a character can be found in Brideshead Revisited in which the naively agnostic narrator Charles Ryder questions his dissolute Catholic friend Sebastian Flyte about how he can believe "all this nonsense". Sebastian replies (quoting from memory) "Is it nonsense though? I rather wish it were."

Sebastian's faith is non-naive. He knows there are difficulties. He knows he does not live up to its standards. He knows that many of his co-religionists don't live up to its standards either. He chooses to believe anyway.

Of course, to pull this off, you can't hold your own faith naively either. You have to acknowledge that, whatever your own views, there are philosophical difficulties with them as well. If you hold that position, you can be sympathetic with people who, faced with the same final uncertainty that we all should face (but that most turn their backs on) made a choice different from yours. Then you are no longer looking down on them, you are looking them in the eye. You may be looking at them across an abyss of differing faith, but you are looking them in the eye and acknowledging the intellectual honesty and sophistication with which they have come to a conclusion different from your own.

This does not mean, of course, that you can't also portray naive characters of the faith in question, or of many faiths. But if you also portray non-naive characters of the same faith, it becomes clear that it is the way that the other characters hold their faith, rather than the faith they hold, that is naive.

  • (1/3) I have to point out (as in my answer) that you are making an implicit value judgement here. We could easily replace religious faith every time you refer to it with astrology, or with adherence to scientific method. The structure of your answer still holds, yet in the case of astrology, we would/should just laugh at the fools who non-naively choose to believe in astrology despite understanding the philosophical difficulties of their position, and in the case of science, we would/should just laugh at the fools who "non-naively" (what?!) go the other way. – sesquipedalias Sep 26 at 17:55
  • (2/3) So, you are implicitly treating religious faith as a debatable question--a topic where you could seriously go either way. Now, since, to my understanding, religion is no better than astrology (it is far worse, in fact), to me your argument does not apply to religious faith. Similarly, I imagine that to a truly devout person, it is also meaningless to consider religious faith as an open question. – sesquipedalias Sep 26 at 17:56
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    @sesquipedalias Actually, no, the implicit value judgement is yours. You are deciding, with naive confidence in your faith, that everyone who disagrees with you is foolish. You are perfectly certain in your position and apparently unaware of its philosophical limitations (of which I am pretty sure I cannot convince you). But the paradox of a non-naive faith is that you must hold it with perfect conviction while at the same time acknowledging the sincerity and rationality of those who hold different positions. That is by no means an easy position to achieve. But I'm glad the answer helped. – user16226 Sep 26 at 18:13
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    @sesquipedalias If I wanted to write about a person that sincerely believed in astrology, or disbelieved in science (whatever that may mean), I would have to take their position with as much sympathy and tenderness as I could muster, unless the point of my story was to portray them as fools. The point is not to agree with the protagonist, it is to understand how the protagonist sees the world, which requires some sympathy for their beliefs. Anyway, if you think you have a single opinion that's philosophically unproblematic, go ask a philosopher. They will disabuse you of that notion. – sgf Sep 26 at 20:21
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    @sesquipedalias Re: I imagine that to a truly devout person, it is also meaningless to consider religious faith as an open question Here's something from C. S. Lewis, who certainly was a truly devout person: "Belief, in [the Christian] sense, seems to me to be assent to a proposition which we think so overwhelmingly probable that there is a psychological exclusion of doubt, though not a logical exclusion of dispute.", and, from the same paper, "there is evidence both for and against the Christian propositions which fully rational minds, working honestly, can assess differently." – sgf Sep 27 at 6:16
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I think that having him struggle to reconcile his religion with his life experience, as you said, will really help with the issues you are concerned about. It humanizes the religious character and shows that they aren't so judgmental and steadfast as other books and movies would have the public believe. A huge part of religion is an endless struggle. I think your character will be relatable to both religious and nonreligious readers for this reason.

I think it is worthwhile to spend time showing his inner (or outer) deliberations about his religion and times of doubt for him. Maybe he could even leave the religion for a bit. Just remember to keep it sincere—there are far too many Christian movies where a character "leaves the religion" but there's no real impact to it because the movie is so preachy. But as long as you keep the religion restricted to that character and out of the rest of the book, you should have no trouble with this.

This book sounds really cool and I'd love to read it. I'm especially curious how this character will reconcile his religious beliefs with magic. I also like writing supernatural stories with religious elements, but fitting both together is nearly impossible as you have mentioned in your post.

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    If I ever get it published I'll come back here and let you know. ;) – wordsworth Jul 25 at 1:01
  • "but fitting both together is nearly impossible": I disagree with this. Religion deals with things outside of your normal experience. It does not ask what will happen if I eat too many sweets, it asks what happens to my consciousness after my body is destroyed (we have no reports on the latter). If magic is part of people's normal experience in this world, religion will basically accept it and be about other things (possibly including "where does magic come from?") – sesquipedalias Sep 29 at 10:36
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Most people are largely prone to sympathize - with themselves

If you're writing "close 3rd-p limited", your character will probably see himself as basically good, perhaps with occasional doubts. I'm not sure what you mean by having the narrator be mildly agnostic, since I thought close third-person limited generally involved the beliefs of the POV character bleeding slightly through into the narration.

More generally, treating a character fairly will look a lot like being sympathetic to the character - as long as you're showing us life in that character's shoes. In a story with multiple close-POV characters, this is balanced by having characters "observing" contrasting sides to the same or similar events. When the Catholic character is paying his tithing, maybe it's reasonable, and the right thing to do, and can be filled with his gratitude for the fact that he has an income which provides for his family's needs. When his atheist wife thinks about what else could have been done with the money, maybe it's a stupid waste that's doubly bad because it props up an outdated institution with a decidedly questionable history.

You should probably err on the side of portraying the religious character as sympathetic and justified - whenever that's your POV character. After all, why would he be who he is if it doesn't seem like the right thing to do? Also, if you're really, truly fair to the character, you'll let him be "really right" sometimes. That is, you won't fully explode and even mock, in an unanswered way, all of his perspectives when you've stepped out of his shoes.

(In single-POV stories, hinting that the character's self-justifications might not always be exactly right is somewhat trickier, but that is a different question.)

  • In my experience as a reader, many authors who use 3rd person narration often drift between being quite in the mind of the character (close), usually in moments of high emotion and decision-making, and zooming out to allow a more impersonal take on the situation, without entering into the point of view of a different character. When he's the POV character I don't intend to treat him AS the narrator, but there will be moments where it makes sense to get right up into his thoughts. – wordsworth Jul 24 at 19:40
  • @wordsworth As a reader, I might think it was meant as in-character existential dithering, at least, if the same narrative stream flipped from being warmly religious to being dubious about the efficacy or worship, or the very existence of a God. To shift from emotionally (or spiritually) POV laden to matter of fact would make sense, but anything more than that would be pretty strange. If such vacillation WAS in-character, that would be fine. – Jedediah Jul 24 at 19:55
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As a Catholic, with my entire k-12 education in Catholic schools, Catholics often get some unusual portrayals in media because the United States and England a predominantly protestant (from the Catholic Perspective, Anglican is protestant, just like every other non-Catholic sect of Christianity save for Eastern Orthodox.).

Catholics are also not evangelical as nor speaking of "accepting Jesus to save your soul." The Catholics belief is that Jesus already saved your soul when he died on the cross, and so long as you atone for your own sins with God, prior to the afterlife, you're good (this is why the most common depiction of a Catholic person living his faith is in a confession booth saying "Bless me Father, for I have sinned Mea Culp, Mea Culp, Mea Maxima Culp (Latin: Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault)". And the priests they confess to are not allowed to comment on any confessors sins outside of confession (my own Parish Priest was caught in a squabble with local police over this. Turns out, a murder had turned himself into the cops for his crime and told them that he did so as part of penance assigned to him by the Parish Priest and the cops came to the priest to verify the story, which per the sacrament, he could not do (in the US at least, the law is in his favor so he couldn't be brought as a witness in trial).). The murder is not bound to not talk about what he said in confession, so there's no weight on his immortal soul for this happening.

Catholism also doesn't take the Bible literally and looks for the metaphorical meaning of the works. You won't see a Catholic interpreting Portends of the End of Days from the Book of Revelations nor will you see Catholics insist the world was literally made in six days, plus a rest period or that God created all the animals as is without evolution. The Catholic Church was never opposed to Darwin's origin of the Species. Much to the contrary, Gregor Mendel, a Catholic Monk, conducted his famous Pea experiments in from 1856 to 1863, releasing his seminal paper on the results in 1865, work which would earns him the credit of creating the science of Genetics (While neither was aware of the other's work, Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species was released in 1849. Mendel's work was a continuation of his direct superior's, Abbot C.F. Napp, own work with sheep.). In fact, Saint Thomas Aquinas's (1225-1274) own theological works would discuss creation more akin to God planting a seed that would grow and change over time, and also proposed that the monsters of Greek Myth were not seen in his "modern world" was because they had all died off because there features were no longer useful to the world, which is similar to the concept of Niches and Survival of the Fittest. In fact the most famous charge of church ignorance of science, the House Arrest of Galileo, has nothing to do with Galileo's support of Heliocentric, but because the book he published defending Heliocentralism equated then Pope Urban VIII as an idiot who supported Geocentric theory. This naturally pissed off the Pope Urban VIII, not the least of which was because Galileo's patron of the work was Pope Urban VII himself (who was looking for a defense of Heliocentralism as the Church had recently introduced the Gregorian Calendar, which only worked because it assumed Heliocentrilism was correct and was named for it's most powerful supporter Pope Gregory XIII, which was the Pope two Popes before Urban VII. These facts were starting to become widely known and Urban VII decided he needed an expert to show the Heliocentrilism idea was in fact correct, and turned to Galileo, gave him a really good patronage at the time to boot). Further hurting Galileo, was that the order of priests who would support him, the Jesuit Order, were not fans of Galileo's following a dispute over comets 10 years previous. The Jesuits are famous for two things: scholarly persuits, especially sciences (to the point that seismology, the study of earthquakes, is so populated with discoveries by Jesuit Priests, it's often called "Jesuit Science") and their very strict military devotion, to the point that in Galileo's time, they were the defacto intelligence agency for the Vatican and the leader of the order, The General Superior, is often called "the Black Pope" for the office's tendency to come off as the power behind the papal throne. And this is in a time where Papal Authority was massively over powered.

Another fun little weirdness that gets comment on is "Catholics breed like Rabbits" sterotype and I won't lie, my church parking lot has multiple personally owned family vans that can seat 15 people comfortably parked there every Sunday (average vans seat 7). This is despite Catholics coming off as having taboos about sexual matters. This oddity has it's roots in that Catholic Doctrine holds that Sex is not in and of itself sinful... only sex without possibilty of a child. Among some Catholics, the large families are often jokingly called "Really Good Catholics" as the ones with more traditional nuclear family are more likely to have practiced safe sex. It's also why the Church recently made news when current Pope Francis said that being Gay is not sinful. It's not a new position (Pope Saint John Paul II held a similar position during his papalcy) but again, Francis was asked about people who were attracted to the same gender. Gay sex is still sinful.

All this said, much of what many modern Catholics will tell you about the faith is not entirely true of it in the 1900s. The Modern Church was brought about after a number of reforms in the 1961 Vatican II conference. The big changes to the church were that mass can now be said in the vernacular rather than then the Latin and the Eucharist could now be received in one's hands, rather than being placed on their tongue by the priest (or other administer, Large Churches will often have some of the laity assist the priest during the sacrament). There were many other changes but they are more minor (for one, women would wear head coverings to service, but not when going about their normal lives. They are often lacy and cover only their hair. Another one is a Monastic Order can now set it's own rules for it's religious community and not the vatican (and all Catholics were allowed to disagree with clergy on religious matters. BTW, Papal Infallibility is a real thing, but it only applies in certain circumstances, and must only concern religious matters. It's also very, very rare, and has happened at most 7 times in the church's 2000+ year history). Another big change was to he wording of the Confitor, which is said in the public part of confessions. The one depicted in Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame is an accurate Confitor pre-Vatican II if you want an idea of what that would sound like (The Latin Chanting prior too and continuing through most of the the song "Hellfire", though the prayer does not end where the creepy hooded red monks portion of the song leave it. The chanting from the back half of the song after the monks is Greek, not Latin, and a completely different prayer entirely.). By the way, Hellfire is often thought of as the Best Disney Villain Song and its singer, Frollo as Disney's Best Villain, and Catholics surprisingly think this more so than most people. It's got a lot to do with the fact that the film isn't taking digs at the church, but through this song acknowledging Frollo doesn't really understand his own faith. I could write a paper as to why, but suffice to say, remember seeking forgiveness for ones sins is a big thing in Catholic teaching and Frollo is failing everything about how to do even that.

For that matter, there is a difference between Nuns and Sisters (and their male counter parts). Nuns are women who take sacred vows and are typically cloistered and live in nunneries or abbeys (the head of Nunneries is titled "Mother Superior" or "Mother Reverend" and the latter is called an "Abbess") which they rarely leave (usually for medical reasons) and usually support themselves by making food items such as jams or liturgical items to be used in mass. Their male counterparts are Monks who have Monistaries or abbeys (the head is an Abbot... if you meet one, don't greet them with "Heeeeeey Abbot!"... especially if you're addressing Abbot Costello, trust me, he's heard it before.). Nuns can be addressed as Sisters as can Religious Sisters who are not Nuns. Religious Sisters take simple vows, live in a convent. Vows are renewed annually, so they may leave their orders, but the most notable aspect is that they typically practice their religious duties by ministry to the public where as nuns by praying for a specific cause. Such ministries of Sisters include hospitals, charities or caring for a communitie's poor, and most famously, teaching in Catholic School (in a modern setting, a Catholic school doesn't have many sisters these days, as the profession is on the decline, but every character who goes to a Catholic School speaks in hushed horror of Sister Mary Joseph and her dreaded Ruler. While they can be strict (to the point that your standard torture master has nothing on the hero compared to the sister that taught his math class), Sisters tend to be depicted as having a much better sense of humor than Nuns, and will often be depicted as the younger and more sunny personality next to the older dower nun. Two Movies that get their depictions of the differnce are Sister Act, where Whoopie Goldberg's character is placed in witness protection in an Abbey doesn't know the difference and gets admonished for trying to help the minister to the community which the Nuns do not do. Additionally, Maria from "The Sound of Music" is a Religious Sister who is contemplating a move to an order of Nuns. All of this is more to show your work as Vatican II has relaxed a lot of the stricter parts of Monastic Life and the fact that both members are addressed as "sister" results in most lay Catholics not knowing the difference too. As to why they appear in those films, Sound of Music predates Vatican II in story and production while the Nuns in Sister Act are fairly old, being led by Mother Superior Proffessor McGonaclle, who's formality isn't atypical of a Catholic who was fairly conservative in what the accepted of Vatican II (no that's not the character's name... she was just played by Maggie Smith).

And one quick note, a Catholic Priest is always addressed as Father by a Catholic, never Reverend (despite most priests using Reverend in their stylized name).

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    This is a long wall of text about Catholicism and the accuracy of portrayals in media thereof, but virtually none of it actually addresses OP's question: "How to write a sincerely religious protagonist without preaching or affirming or judging their worldview"... – V2Blast Jul 26 at 1:13
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    There is some useful information on accurately representing Catholics buried in this post, but there is so much text it is hard to find it. I suggest a significant edit to focus on answering the question first and foremost. – linksassin Jul 26 at 3:16
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I just have some miscellaneous observations:

  1. Secular people were much rarer then than now. What makes your character different in the England of that era is his Catholicism more than his piety.
  2. It will be important to think about how the Church views magic. Is it, in their view, all witchcraft and hence the work of Satan? Or can they come to view it as a kind of natural philosophy; just using a set of natural principles that are part of God's creation? Do Catholics and Anglicans view this differently? How about Scottish Presbyterians?
  3. In your world, is one of these views actually correct, or do you want it to be ambiguous?
  4. As a case study of this sort of thing, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomican depicts the experience of converting to Catholicism in a sympathetic light without tipping his hand about his own religious beliefs.
  5. This may not be helpful, but The Simpsons shows some sympathy for Flanders' religiosity even while mocking him. If there's any part of this you can use, it's that his religion actually motivates him to try to be a good person. (Not saying this is always true in the real world!)
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Your task as an author is not to moralise, it is to tell a story. This may sound like an odd distinction, but what I mean by this is that the writing style should be objective even if the narrative structure is subjective.

Quality fiction is similar to good journalism or history; it shows what happened and leaves it at that, explaining different perspectives, allowing a window into a lost moment in time. Truth is more potent than opinion, it is better to show why something is wrong rather than to say it is.

In politics there's a tendency to misunderstand the perspectives of others, because they do not fit into a subjective narrative the individual has constructed. For example, many struggle with the fact that Hitler loved children. If Hitler is a bad person, how can he have a likeable trait (assuming you like children)? This simplistic tendency is what an author of fiction or non-fiction should endeavour to overcome.

I don't think avoiding religious experience is actually helpful. The ambiguity of the supernatural is an interesting way of examining the difficulty we all have in trying to figure out what reality actually is, and where to draw the line.

What is helpful however is having a narrator which is not agnostic, but is ambiguously objective. Yes, this character just had that experience, that is what I have told you... but I have not told you whether their perspective after the fact was factual or subjective!

An excellent author would add to this by deliberately acknowledging either internal doubt or internal consistency, and gradually revealing how the individual's changing memories inform their gradual rewriting of their own narrative.

Some people have beliefs, be they religious, political, or otherwise, which are so foundational to their personal identity and emotional stability that they cannot accept anything to the contrary, not even to themselves. Some people just don't suffer doubt, for better or worse. So to present a religious character as a scholarly doubting Thomas may not be appropriate if they genuinely have the psychology of a fanatic.

Importantly, that's not preaching or judging, it's just stating the fact that this person never doubted their belief. That is the way this person is.

  • 2
    "Your task as an author is not to moralise, it is to tell a story." Hmm, many stories very deliberately moralize. Many stories are explicitly moral tales, trying to say, "see, this is what happens when you are dishonest" or "... use drugs" or whatever, or purport to show the virtue of some moral or ideological belief or practice. You may not like such stories, but it's a tried and true tradition. – Jay Jul 25 at 16:09
  • @Jay The fact the story ends up as a morality play is a subjective matter. It may be the author's intention, but there is no guarantee the reader will interpret it this way. Morality in this case simply is the inspiration for plot and circumstance. I'm not disputing this is a format, I'm just saying it's kind of besides the point in the end. – inappropriateCode Jul 25 at 18:18
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    Well, I don't want to get into an argument. But I think it's often not a subjective matter. Many writers deliberately set out to write a story with a moral message. "1984" was clearly and overtly about the evils of tyranny. The movie "Reefer Madness" was about the evils of marijuana. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was about the horror of slavery. On the flip side, "Birth of a Nation" was about how wonderful racism is. Etc. – Jay Jul 25 at 19:39
  • @Jay Yes, that's true, I think I need to rephrase my point to emphasise the point that the style needs to be objective even if the narrative is subjective. If you see what I mean. – inappropriateCode Jul 26 at 8:05
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To write a book you need to study first!

As a Catholic, I know we are not supposed to preach all the time, but to try living as best and "rigther" way as possible and always help and forgive everyone around us. It's our habit to go to mass at least on Sundays, cofessing frequently and do charity with our friends at church.

Also, you don't need to be catholic to marry at a Catholic church. If the other party is catholic you just need to agree on educating your children on the catholic beliefs. If both aren't catholic and have never been, the Church considers their marriage valid all the same but they don't marry at the Church.

About the magic, for us it doesn't exist. It is either God's Will or some angel (good or bad) doing something that seems abnormal to us or it's a just trick from a human.

A common "religious" englishman would be someone a bit like G. K. Chesterton (born a bit after your story takes place), married and with kids and living his life normally. It's different from being a priest.

He would be rather revolutionary if he was english and a real catholic then - since many catholics were from other nationalities and suffered prejudice, and probably have lots of foreign friends too.

Hope I helped.

All the best!

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    You provide information about Catholicism, but that is not what OP is asking for. What OP is struggling to do is to integrate the Catholic worldview of the character with the rest of the story in a way that would neither affirm this worldview as the sole right one, nor pose it as a wrong one: neither evangelise, nor send an anti-religious message. – Galastel Jul 26 at 13:41
  • I see, I should've posted just "Make him a normal catholic at that time" without explaining how he should be or how things were back then. That's up to the writer. Sorry! Got too detailed here... – user40393 Jul 26 at 13:49
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How to write a sincerely religious protagonist without preaching or affirming or judging their worldview?

At a basic level, you can't. You've already identified this character as a protagonist, meaning you are already passing judgment on him (his morals and character) as essentially good and you are expecting your readers to judge him similarly. As for his "worldview", clearly he has got something right if he's a basically good guy, or sincerely striving to be the best he can. He doesn't have to be flawless or perfect in order for you to place him in a position as a protagonist of the story, nor must you call explicit attention to which practices or thought processes make him worth of writing about, only that you must express those things which are noteworthy. A person can be basically good and yet have numerous flaws, imperfections, paradoxes or holes in his/her worldview and even behavior. This is part of what makes the experience of following a character so interesting and relatable.

What should I include or avoid in my story to ensure that the reader can empathize with this protagonist but not feel that I am either evangelizing or sending anti-religious messages?

You can make it clear that many endorsements or apparent faults are not all-or-nothing. We often fall into the trap of arrogance, presuming that we know everything and can judge everything with exactness. For many readers, what will be most engaging and helpful is the development of empathy, which is a direct consequence of struggle. Prodding others to search their own Conscience for answers and not telling them what to think in every case can be a powerful and thought-provoking tool. Jesus often did this by speaking in parables, without always telling His hearers what conclusions to draw, but those who engage in honest inquiry will always arrive at the inspiration each needs.

Furthermore, people are not static. For every villain, there was a point prior to which he was redeemable or more easily redeemable. A person can be basically good and yet have an imperfect worldview. There is a spectrum of goodness made up of individual parts and bits of progress. For every good person, there were moments of decision and long periods of preparation that were character-defining. We change regularly when we are sincerely interested in doing what is right. When a person doubts he has got everything right and is trying to find answers but still proceeds with such incomplete and flickering light as he has got, there is bravery and resolve illustrated. Showing examples both of strength and of weakness on the protagonist's part will illustrate dynamism, as well as a wholesome amount of uncertainty, because no character is made perfect without some amount of uncertainty, necessitating trusting in what one does know, and confidence that things will turn out well in the end by so doing. This optimism is an irresistible trait of those we know who are religious.

The writers of the Bible often state happenings rightly as matter-of-fact, and sometimes add their own inspired editorials about attribution of causes. Since yours is a work of fiction, it would not be nearly as authoritative, compelling or inspiring to make such overt attributions. However, fiction gives us an important opportunity to soul-search and play things out, in effect role-playing or simulating a scenario to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally for similar circumstances in real life.

In summary, it is perfectly acceptable to share a story you thought was worth sharing about a person whose character you deemed worthy of reflection, even if you can't put a finger on what exactly was right or wrong in his comportment and thinking in every dimension, and so leave judgment suspended on a great many particulars--yet by identifying him as a protagonist, you invite engagement in the search for such virtues from your readers. By writing a good story, you are evangelizing to a basic degree and you do not have to hide or be ashamed of that fact, nor must you compel congruence of belief between your readers and the protagonists. A novel provides a good opportunity to build up a case for endorsing at least one principal component, so to speak, of a worthwhile character, and so all but the most insipid readers will have an expectation for some real-world principle and insight, which expectation you should not disappoint.

  • I disagree with your premise that a protagonist is necessarily a good person. A protagonist is the person the author puts forth as the leading character, usually written in a way to get the audience to sympathize with them in at least a minor way, or at least to understand their motivations. An antihero is a perfectly worthwhile protagonist, as can be someone who is very morally ambiguous. – wordsworth Jul 26 at 21:43
  • I beg to differ with the idea that a protagonist is not necessarily virtuous. It would be counterproductive to try to stir up sympathy for someone who lacks goodness altogether. As I specified, a protagonist need not be perfect, but should excel most other characters morally. The point of identifying a protagonist is someone who is 'first in importance'; other shadier or less noble characters are by implication secondary, but not primary in importance. – pygosceles Jul 26 at 22:36
  • I would agree that the reader is predisposed to assume the protagonist they are given is a reasonably good or well-intentioned person, but the author is free to subvert that. It is possible to justify their actions to the satisfaction of the reader without having the justification that they are acting in a pious or altruistic fashion, or even based in a generally-accepted code of morality. It takes very little goodness for people to be sympathetic and supportive. If you want real-world examples, allow me to direct your attention to Hitler and Trump. Every person is a hero in their own story. – wordsworth Jul 27 at 0:43
  • I agree with the first line of your comment, but I'd recommend you amend your comment to remove the unwarranted Trump reference. Political bias should not be so blatant or overbearing as to dictate or subvert the purposes of literature... – pygosceles Jul 27 at 3:22
  • Sympathy with the protagonist does not arise from the virtue, but from their humanity. Sympathy means the ability to feel as they feel, and we can feel as bad people feel, even while disapproving of their badness. But what we really need is for the reader to feel fascination for the protagonist, to want to follow their adventures. And you can, most certainly, feel fascination for bad people. This is why the villain so often outshines the hero in stories. – user16226 Sep 26 at 17:57
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Just note that there is an underlying value judgement that inevitably biases your view on the matter.

Compare the following:

"How to write a sincerely religious protagonist without preaching or affirming or judging their worldview?"

"How to write a sincerely altruistic and philanthropic protagonist without preaching or affirming or judging their worldview?"

"How to write a sincere neonazi protagonist without preaching or affirming or judging their worldview?"

"How to write a sincerely communist protagonist without preaching or affirming or judging their worldview?"

"How to write a sincerely capitalist protagonist without preaching or affirming or judging their worldview?"

"How to write a sincerely paedophiliac protagonist without preaching or affirming or judging their worldview?"

"How to write a sincere robin-hood protagonist without preaching or affirming or judging their worldview?"

"How to write a sincerely superstitious protagonist without preaching or affirming or judging their worldview?"

So, for instance, I understand religion to be a particularly virulent (and popular) form of superstition, so I read the first and last of the above examples as basically identical. But if you are religiously devout, you probably read them very differently.

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