A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is one of those books that I read years ago, and when I picked it up again found that I remembered very little of it. I suppose this is one of the hazards of extensive reading—some important things get lost in the noise. I recall having read A Canticle for Leibowitz when I was a grad student at Boston University, and I remembered the detail of a grocery list being taken for holy writ in a post-apocalyptic world where, in a strange reincarnation, monks have once again become the guardians of knowledge. Little else remained. Perhaps part of the reason is that the book requires more experience with the church than I had in those days. One might suppose a seminarian would have about as much ecclesiastical experience as one might need. Not so. It did teach me, however, to read provocative books.
Like most dystopias, there is a deep bleakness to A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the light of recent developments in the papacy, the book is remarkably prescient. In the final pages of the final section, a radiation-sick woman and her young child, in constant pain, seek the government sponsored euthanasia camp. Abbot Zerchi, however, condemns this as a sin against God. Doctrine takes the place of compassion, and only moments later the final atomic strikes wipe the abbot and his monks off the earth forever. Yet there are monks on a spaceship, ensuring that any future planets will have the same uncompromising doctrine planted there as well. For a book published in 1959, it sounded incredibly contemporary. Miller’s anger still echoes throughout. The church builds societies that destroy themselves. A cycle of futility.
I wonder what the result would be if more people read such stories. It is, of course, easy enough to shut out any implications we don’t like and claim it is all a silly piece of fiction. The problem is that Miller is not too far off base. Our civilization does own much to its religious institutions. Those institutions sometimes have considerable trouble relinquishing control when society finds its grounding in science and technology. It is difficult to believe divine proclamations from above in the age of the space telescope. Yet, even so, we still elect to power politicians who look back millennia for the instructions on how to treat those of other genders or races. To do so, as Miller recognized, is to begin building bombs all over again. And even old Ecclesiastes declared that there is, in a Leibowitzian twist, nothing new under the sun.