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American Science Fiction, Classic Novels of the 1950's

When he published A Case of Conscience in England in 1958, James Blish added a foreword describing some of the early reaction to the book, and the ideas that went into its composition.

James Blish

A Foreword to A Case of Conscience

This novel is not about Catholicism, but since its hero is a Catholic theologian it inevitably contains certain sticking points for those who subscribe to the doctrines of the Roman and to a lesser extent the Anglican churches. Readers who have no doctrinal preconceptions should not find these points even noticeable, let alone troublesome.

It was my assumption that the Roman Catholic Church of a century beyond our time will have undergone changes of custom and of doctrine, some minor and some major. The publication of this novel in America showed that Catholics were quite willing to allow me any Diet of Basra, my revival of the elegant argument from the navel to the geological record, and my jettisoning of the tonsure; but on two points they would not allow me to depart from what one may find in the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1945. (No scientist thus far has protested my jettisoning of special relativity in the year 2050). These were:

  1. My assumption that by 2050 the rite of exorcism will be so thoroughly buried in the medieval past that even the Church will teach it to its priests only perfunctorily—so perfunctorily that even a Jesuit might overlook it in a situation which in any event hardly suggests that exorcism would be even minimally appropriate. Yet even today non-Catholics generally do not believe that exorcism survives in the Church; it seems even more primitive and outré than habits and tonsures, which were frozen into Church usage at about the same time, i.e. the thirteenth century. In that period, too, it was commonplace to ring blessed bells to dispel thunderstorms; that had not survived; I think it is reasonable to assume that exorcism will be, officially, only a vestige by 2050.
  2. My assumption that by 2050 a lay person who knows how may administer Extreme Unction, as today he may administer Baptism. Of course, this is not true today, and I can perhaps be excused my impatience with critics who thought me so lazy as to think it was. These amateur theologians forget that in the beginning none of the Sacraments could be administered by anyone but a priest, and that the fact that priests still have reserved Extreme Unction is the result of a bitterly fought holding action which lasted many centuries. The battle to reserve Baptism similarly was lost almost immediately, as was inevitable in an age where the population was small, subject to plagues and other catastrophes about which exactly nothing could be done, and so had to hold every soul precious at the moment of birth. Today, and (I greatly fear) tomorrow, our jammed neo-Malthusian world with its unselective wingless faceless angel of death who may reach us all in twenty minutes from the other side of the planet, confronts us with the probability of deaths in such great masses that no population of priests could minister to all the victims; and since I give the Church credit (against all appearances, sometimes) for being basically a merciful institution, I have assumed that by 2050 Extreme Unction will no longer be reserved.

Anyone, of course, is at liberty to find my reasoning at fault, but I hope they will not quote 1945 doctrine to me as if it were sufficient in itself for 2050.

A number of people who wrote to me felt that my hero’s conclusion as to the nature of Lithia was far from inevitable; but I was gratified to receive also several letters from theologians who knew the present Church position on the problem of the “plurality of worlds,” as most of my correspondents obviously did not. (As usual, the Church, as an institution, is far ahead of most of its communicants.) Rather than justify my hero’s irruption of Manichaeism in any words but his own, I will quote Mr. Gerald Heard, who has summarized the position best of all (as one would expect of so gifted a writer trained as a theologian).

“If there are many planets inhabited by sentient creatures, as most astronomers (including Jesuits) now suspect, then each one of such planets (solar or non-solar) must fall into one of three categories:

  1. Inhabited by sentient creatures, but without souls; so to be treated with compassion but extra-evangelically.
  2. Inhabited by sentient creatures with fallen souls, through an original but not inevitable ancestral sin; so to be evangelized with urgent missionary charity.
  3. Inhabited by sentient soul-endowed creatures that have not fallen, who therefore:
    1. inhabit an unfallen, sinless paradisal world;
    2. who therefore we must contact not to propagandize, but in order that we may learn from them the conditions (about which we can only speculate) of creatures living in perpetual grace, endowed with all the virtues in perfection, and both immortal and in complete happiness for always possessed of and with the knowledge of God.”

The reader will observe with Ruiz-Sanchez, I think, that the Lithians fit none of these categories; hence all that follows.

The author, I should like to add, is an agnostic with no position at all in these matters. It was my intention to write about a man, not a body of doctrine.