Writers are often asked what they’re reading: a question that always makes me squirm. After all, reading is personal and intimate, and literary folk can be so judgey. Do I really need to show you mine, even though you haven’t shown me yours?
There’s a temptation to dodge the whole question—in a creative way, of course. For example, I could skip over books altogether, reflecting instead on how I was recently engrossed by the old Coles shopping receipts I found in my elderly mother’s kitchen drawer. Seemingly prosaic, yet seeing that she paid $1.95 for a pack of Iced VoVos back in 2012 triggered a poignant reflection on the passage of time, my own childhood, and why Arnott’s never included a Madeleine knock-off in their family packs.
If I wanted to impress the high-minded among you I could rhapsodise about an incredibly obscure tome I’ve discovered: the musings of a little-known performance artist, who composed her entire manuscript with a quill dipped in menses. It might be a rubbish read, but no one would have even heard of it, so who cares.
As a postscript, I’d mention a more celebrated French author, and the fact that, paradoxically, I enjoyed her work more in translation. Not surprising, since I don’t actually read French. But why dwell on awkward details?
Okay, I’m stalling. I’m several hundred words into this piece, and still haven’t mentioned one actual book.
My real problem—other than a tendency to overthink simple tasks—is that for several years, almost every book I’ve read has been in the service of researching a book I was writing. Now, post-publication, I’m left rummaging through my psyche, wondering: what do I actually like to read, when I read for pleasure? I find myself standing in bookshops feeling lost, random and unfocussed. I’m not used to having so much choice, and I’m out of practice at exercising it.
If you did track the miles of words I’ve read over the past few years, you’d find that all roads lead to Rome. The Vatican, to be precise.
I’ve read reams and reams about Jesus, God, and sundry saints. I’ve dragged myself through memoirs about losing your religion, academic tomes about religious conversion, and treatises on its opposite, deconversion. I’ve devoured books about the history of Christianity, and delved into the arcane world of canon law, where dense and impenetrable legalese meets magical woo woo. I’ve also read about the despicable crimes the Catholic Church committed against generations of children—accounts that make me burn with rage.
My reading list was certainly focussed, but that doesn’t mean it was narrow. After all, the story of Christianity and Catholicism encompasses a good part of the history of Western civilisation. So, it might be useful to break it down, into handy, manageable categories. I’ll begin with:
The Wacky and the Weird
A stand-out was David Farley’s An Irreverent Curiosity, about his search for a missing Holy relic—the foreskin of Christ, to be precise. Given that Our Lord ascended bodily up to heaven, the usual finger bones and skulls left behind by saints are not available for veneration. So when it comes to Jesus, you’ve got to make do with the bits and bobs that might plausibly have remained. Fingernails and hair clippings, I suppose, but also, perhaps, His holy foreskins. And the plural is intentional, since in the Middle Ages, churches across Europe claimed to hold as many as a dozen of them.
Another highlight was The Incorruptibles, which sounds like a spin-off Marvel superhero series, until you get to the subtitle: a Study of the Incorruption of the Bodies of Various Catholic Saints and Beati. Sure enough, it’s full of stories about the Great Unrotted: dead saints, whose bodies apparently show all the staying power of a McDonald’s pickle thrown onto the ceiling.
Maybe it’s got something to do with their diets, or lack thereof—a subject memorably explored by historian Rudolph M. Bell in his Holy Anorexia. It’s here that I learned, and immediately tried to forget, about Saint Catherine of Siena’s attempt to ‘obliterate her bodily senses’ by drinking the pus from the cancerous breast sore of a woman she was nursing.
Which brings us to:
Hard Core Kooks
No discussion of Catholic kooks would be complete without a mention of David Martin, whose self-published The Dawning of Apostasy argues that Pope Paul VI was replaced by a body double, as part of a Satanic scheme hatched by a gang of nefarious Vatican bureaucrats. It seems that the true pontiff was kept in an induced coma, while his stand-in subverted the Vatican II Council reforms, in order to deliver a more Satan-friendly result. If you don’t believe Martin, he helpfully includes before and after pictures of the Real and Imposter Popes, highlighting their slight difference in nose length. Compelling!
I always love a bit of Freudian-weirdness, and sociologist Michael P. Carroll doesn’t disappoint in his book, Catholic Cults and Devotions: a Psychological Inquiry. A highlight is his assertion that rosary beads are essentially stand-in poo pellets, which the faithful push through ‘the crevice formed by the thumb and forefinger,’ in unconscious imitation of the act of excretion. For anyone who has been on the sharp end of moralising judgement from devout Catholic relatives, you can rejoice in the idea that they have spent an enormous amount of time getting anal-erotic kicks by playing with their own poo.
For those who get their jollies in a more conventional way, there were:
Catholic Sex Books (or, more accurately, Catholic please-don’t-have-sex books)
These are attempts to spin repressive Catholic ideas about sex and sexuality into positives, usually featuring smiley, shiny, white, heterosexual families on their glossy covers. The titles generally speak for themselves: Holy Sex!, Raising Pure Teens (nothing to do with personal hygiene, I assure you), and The Thrill of the Chaste (gotta love a Catholic pun.) Aside from pushing the idea that the only good sex is married, hetero sex, they’re chokkas with misinformation—including the lie, still propagated by some Church luminaries today, that the HIV/AIDS virus can pass through ‘microscopic’ holes in condoms.
No self-respecting book about the Catholic Church would be possible without an examination of:
There are masses of books about Jesus, full of fascinating academic disagreements and debates as to who Our Lord really was. Assuming he existed in the first place. But my favourite Life of Jesus is a bona fide historical document, the second-century apocryphal, Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It stars a homicidal child-Jesus, who performs various magic tricks, before striking a child dead in the street. When the murdered child’s parents complain to Joseph about his son’s murderous ways, Jesus blinds them for good measure. Not so much a lord and saviour, as a first-century Charles Manson in training.
But of all the books I encountered in the course of my research, there is one that delighted me more than any other: Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, by German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann.
Ranke-Heinemann was a respected academic and fearless renegade, who lost her Chair in New Testament and Ancient Church History after controversially denying the virgin birth of Jesus—astutely describing the idea as ‘stork theology.’
First published in 1988, Eunuch is a history of Catholic ideas about sex and sexuality. Hardly unexplored territory, but what makes it sing is Ranke-Heinemann’s fury, coupled with her colourful prose—all delivered with deadpan earnestness. It’s a book by an insider, full of flair, humour, and incredulity, that slashes through the Catholic Church’s weird teachings on how we should and should not use our genitals.
Most compelling is Ranke-Heinemann’s attack on the mythology surrounding the Virgin Mary, a symbolic figure who was ‘developed not by women, but by men, unmarried men at that.’ As a consequence, Jesus’s mother was entirely robbed of her sexuality and her humanity, yet became the impossible ideal that all Catholic girls and women were expected to emulate and compare themselves with.
Church beliefs concerning Mary’s hymen are a particularly bizarre example of this phenomenon, driven by the idea that Mary must have remained ‘intact,’ even after giving birth. Ranke-Heinemann memorably observes that the many learned discussions of Mary’s naughty bits seem to be less concerned with discovering serious theological truths, and instead display ‘features of theological pornography, with sexual fantasies disguised as piety.’
You want to read something? If that’s the point of this list, other than me showing you mine, then read Eunuchs. Even if you couldn’t care less about God, or the Church. Not only is it a rollicking good read, it’s also a stellar example of what fury matched with scholarly expertise can produce.
On top of all that, Ranke-Heinemann will make you laugh. And when it comes to the Catholic Church, sometimes that’s really all you can do.
Monica Dux’s latest book is Lapsed: losing your religion is harder than it looks, HarperCollins ABC Books, 2021. monicadux.com.au