In the Vineyard :: July 29, 2016 :: Volume 16, Issue 14

James Joyce and Church Reform

Like many Irish, Joyce was raised in a Catholic family, was active in the Church as a child and young man, and was educated in Catholic schools. However, as he documents in his autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce attempted to “fly by the… nets” of “nationality, language, religion” to find a more liberating life as an artist outside of Ireland. Whether Joyce lost complete faith in God, had merely rejected the institutional church, or transformed his spirituality into something else entirely is a source of debate among critics. What is clear is that Joyce used Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a way of documenting and diagnosing the ills of the institutional Catholic Church in Ireland in the early twentieth-century. Indeed, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in its detailed portrayal of a boy’s formation within the church, strikingly anticipates the reforms of the second Vatican Council half a century later. 
While Joyce rejected the Church as an institution, he held on fiercely to his Catholic identity. After years of living on the continent, Joyce’s attitude toward Ireland softened somewhat, and his work embodied something of a reformer’s impulse decades before such reform was conceivable. This reformer’s impulse manifests itself in Portrait (first published serially in 1914) in which he anticipates the spirit and reform of Vatican II in three major ways:

  1. The need for ecumenism and stronger interfaith relations.

  2. The recasting of the relationship of the priest and layperson

  3. The shift from a theology of fear and punishment to one of love, grace and mercy

Dr. Mottolese is willing to speak with other interested VOTF chapters and can be reached at


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