Bishops, monks, chaplains, vicars and deacons - men of the cloth are found through all genres of fictional writing, including science fiction. They were key figures in several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and can still be found in modern bestsellers like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. They feature so often in literature not because of their good work in God’s name but usually because of their flaws. They are tempted by the flesh, their faith is questioned and tested, and they have doubts about themselves and their vocation. Some priests are simply evil. Of course, they are also heroic, comedic and sometimes pompous, and there is a raft who are sleuths – detectives in habits or dog-collars.
Very few of literature’s priests are perfect. Graham Greene, an author who loved to use men of the cloth in this writing, famously coined the term, Whisky Priest, in The Power and the Glory to describe clergymen whose own morals do not match the sermons they are preaching. The phrase can be neatly applied to dozens of novels where the priest is less than godly in his actions.
From Damien Karras’ chilling exorcism to the struggles of the Vicar of Wakefield and William of Baskerville’s powers of deduction, take a pew and listen to sermons from 25 of literature’s most fascinating (and often flawed) clergymen.
If you are a member of the clergy, please tell us your thoughts about how priests are portrayed in literature. Email your experiences to firstname.lastname@example.org
William Peter Blatty
Father Damien Karras, who is suffering a crisis of faith, goes head-to-head with a demon.
Office of Innocence
Father Frank Darragh is a naïve World War II-era Catholic priest in Sydney who becomes entangled in murderous events.
The Thorn Birds
Handsome Father Ralph de Bricassart is torn between God and his feelings for Meggie.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller Jr.
Brother Francis Gerard is just one of the key monks in this epic sci-fi tale of church vs state.
The Power and the Glory
Greene coined the term ‘whisky priest’ for flawed clergyman in this novel of church vs state.
The Case of the Stuttering Bishop
Erle Stanley Gardner
A vintage Perry Mason mystery published in 1936 – is Anglican bishop William Mallory legit?
Henry Morton Robinson
Father Stephen Fermoyle climbs the hierarchy of the Catholic Church between the wars.
Diary of a Country Priest
A fragile priest arrives in the village of Ambricourt and endures nothing but problems.
The Chocolate War
Father Leon is an assistant principal in an American high school and evil to the core.
The Vicar of Wakefield
The ebbing and flowing fortunes of Rev Charles Primrose has stirred literary debate since 1766.
Mark Robarts, the young vicar in Barsetshire, has trouble when asked to guarantee a loan.
Ambrosio is very ungodly. His downfall includes lust, rape and murder in this Gothic novel.
Death Comes for the Archbishop
A Catholic bishop, Jean Marie Latour, and a priest, Joseph Vaillant, struggle in New Mexico.
Mary Doria Russell
A sci-fi yarn where the Jesuits send a mission into space and just one man returns - Father Emilio Sandoz.
Pride and Prejudice
Clergyman William Collins asks Elizabeth to marry him but she spurns him despite his wealth.
The Innocence of Father Brown
A compilation of 12 stories printed in 1911, this priest/sleuth was the author’s best known character
A Morbid Taste for Bones
Ellis Peters aka Edith Pargeter
First Brother Cadfael novel – a monkish medieval mystery set in Shrewsbury. There are 19 more Cadfael novels.
A Meeting by the River
A story of relationships, social taboos and two brothers, one of whom has entered a monastery.
The Monastery: A Romance
Sir Walter Scott
A medieval love story set in Scotland with two brothers, one of whom becomes a monk, who fall for the same girl.
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
Reverend Lee suffers from a Back-to-Front Dyslexia and says the most vital word (often the verb) in a sentence backwards.
I Heard the Owl Call My Name
Young Anglican vicar Mark Brian, who is dying, learns about the meaning of life after being sent to British Columbia.
Be Near Me
It all goes horribly wrong for Catholic priest David Anderton in this Booker-listed novel from 2006.
Her Death of Cold
The first Father Dowling novel in a series of 25+ mysteries. Dowling is a Catholic priest in Chicago.
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
Father Damien Modeste works on an Indian reservation for more than 50 years but he is not what he seems.
Grandmother and the Priests
A group of Victorian priests share tales about how their faith has been tested. A forgotten classic.