My latest review for Catholic Fiction.net is for a book entitled “Fallen Men” by Brian O’Hare:
St. Maximilian Kolbe once said, “No one in the world can change Truth.”
I am a Catholic novelist who writes books with Theology of the Body themes. I am also trained in the Theology of the Body and have been a certified Natural Family Planning teacher for 29 years. In light of this, I looked forward to reading Fallen Men, a novel that tells the stories of three fictional Catholic priests: Ray, Dan and Tony.
The novel’s setting is present day Northern Ireland and Ireland. Father Ray and Father Dan are young priests and good friends; Father Tony is their superior and the temporary bishop of the local diocese. Ray is assigned to a new parish in Drumkillen where the elderly pastor, Father McGennity, is a liberal, self-centered, cruel priest. Because of past circumstances, Ray is a troubled soul. He organizes the youth choir and is immediately attracted to a teenager with a beautiful voice, Maria. He tries to resist the temptation, but scandal soon follows. When Ray tells his superior (Tony) about the scandal, Tony’s initial response is, “What have you done to me?” This self-centered reaction says a lot about the temporary bishop. Ray eventually finds himself on trial for statutory rape in Dublin. Much of this particular plotline was executed extremely well.
In a subplot, Father Dan counsels a professional couple in his parish, Terence and Patricia, who have recently lost a baby because of placental abruption. They have been told by their doctor to become sterilized because another baby “would likely kill her.” Dan tells them (somewhat harshly) that they must not consent to sterilization and gives them information on “natural rhythm.” (By the way, the term “Rhythm” is no longer used. Modern natural methods are called “Natural Family Planning” or “Fertility Awareness.” Modern NFP is 99 percent effective in preventing pregnancy.)
Patricia wants to follow the Church’s teaching. However, Terence refuses to support Patricia in finding information on “natural rhythm” and she ends up pregnant. The doctor pressures them to have an abortion, which Patricia does not want. The couple asks Father Dan to speak with the doctor who tells Dan, “…continuing the pregnancy would be a greater risk to the woman’s life than would ending the pregnancy…” Dan asks the doctor, “Is it possible that Patricia went to term [sic], the baby could, in fact, be safely delivered?” The doctor answers that it is possible, but the risk is high. Dan then says, “there is one moral axiom that Catholics have to live by…[W]e cannot do evil in order to bring about a perceived good. In this case, there is a risk, but there is also the possibility of a successful birth…[T]his child…is a human being with human rights and entitled to life. Abortion is murder…”.
Predictably, tragedy follows and Father Dan questions his faith.
Later, when Tony confronts Dan about his “tight-assed fundamentalism,” I was disappointed with Tony’s advice and the author’s characterization of Dan. It’s important to have compassion, always, but contraception is a mortal sin. There will be grey areas, but I don’t believe the fictional (and unbelievable) case created by the author in this novel is one of them. (My husband and I experienced a situation in which we were pressured by our doctors to become sterilized because they said I would die if I risked future pregnancies. We refused the sterilization; instead, we used NFP to effectively avoid pregnancy.) In the novel, Tony says to Dan, “You could not have condoned artificial contraception simply to prevent pregnancy, but what about contraception as a way to save a woman’s life…[U]ltimately, the issue wasn’t one of contraception. It was about saving a life.” With all due respect, I question Tony’s “theology” here. It was most certainly about preventing a pregnancy. NFP, had it been properly encouraged, accepted and taught to this couple, would have “saved the woman’s life.” NFP would have been morally acceptable and prevented pregnancy just as effectively as contraception. Father Dan was harsh in his approach, but at least he was attempting to state the truth of the Church’s teachings.
The fact that many Catholics ignore the Church’s teaching on contraception does not refute the truth of the teaching. The truth is, like abortion, contraception is “intrinsically evil” (CCC 2370). This teaching is based on objective truth and natural/moral law as well as the constant teaching of the Church. The Catholic Church is not a democracy. Truth cannot be changed because a “majority” of Catholics would like it to be changed. Truth and love are inseparable; this novel (which I believe is weak on truth) misses the point about authentic Christ-like love in the hearts of the priests for the people they serve. The only priest (Dan) who appears to be faithful is then convinced by his superior that he should have “given permission” for Terence and Patricia to become sterilized (supposedly to “save the mother’s life”).
Then again, it is a novel called Fallen Men. Was the purpose to show priests in as bad a light as possible?
I realize that some priests (wrongly) give their own opinions when counseling couples, “giving permission to couples to use contraception” instead of stating the teachings of the Church. No Catholic priest may “give permission” to do what is against the teaching of the Church. My main criticism of this subplot is that the author presented the information in such a way that the “right” way was that Father Dan should have counseled the couple to become sterilized. This message, in my opinion, has the potential of causing confusion, especially with young adult readers.
Moral concerns aside, O’Hare has a pleasant, easy-to-read writing style. I have written five books and edited five others, so I realize the hard work and effort that go into writing a full length novel. In that regard, there are aspects of this book that I thoroughly appreciated. The topic of sexual abuse is dealt with sensitively. There are no attention-seeking graphic descriptions. The flashbacks of child sex abuse and the depictions of the depression, guilt and breakdown after a rushed abortion are particularly well done. I found the court sequences to be believable and compelling.
John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is mentioned, but only in passing. This novel could have been an ideal opportunity to illustrate the Theology of the Body. Instead, this book’s message is one that discourages faithfulness to Church teaching.
Despite novice writing flaws (such as overuse of adverbs as well as a zealous use of exclamation points) and aforementioned moral concerns, this is definitely an author with natural storytelling ability. Because of the less-than-faithful advice given by the fictional priests and the message that advice gives, this novel has the potential to confuse impressionable Catholic readers. So I would only recommend it with caution.