Classic literature through a Catholic lens

Joseph Pearce is an astoundingly prolific writer. A native of England, with a fascinating and moving conversion story of his own, he is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn, and Belloc. He is a senior fellow at the Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal.

Pearce also serves as series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. Recently, he penned a piece for the journal of the Cardinal Newman Society about this series and his involvement, entitled “Critical Editions You Can Trust.” With the permission of the author, we are happy to share the article here with our readers.


Many years ago, when I was teaching a course on Romanticism at Ave Maria University in Florida, I was horrified to see the poisonous criticism that had seeped into the critical editions of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights that I had assigned as set texts to my students. These editions were full of feminist criticism, so-called queer theory and anti-Christian propaganda. Why, I thought, should I put such poison into the hands and therefore the minds of my students? Why, furthermore, should I patronize such trash by assigning the texts in the first place? I felt responsible for increasing the sales of these iconoclastic editions, and felt responsible also for any uncleanness that might enter into the minds and hearts of my students through their reading of them.

In response to this far from edifying situation, I suggested to Father Fessio of Ignatius Press that he should give me the go-ahead to become series editor of new editions of the classics. And so it was that the Ignatius Critical Editions were launched to provide a tradition-oriented alternative to the Norton Critical Editions and other similar series, which have succumbed to the radical relativism of postmodernism and its offshoots, such as the aforementioned feminist criticism and queer theory. These mainstream editions warp the original meaning of the great works through what can best be described as literary abuse. The Ignatius Critical Editions, by way of contrast, would respect the integrity of the works and the intentions of the authors, most of whom were devout Christians whose works reflect their living faith.

A call for papers was sent out to hundreds of tradition-oriented academics across the United States, and indeed to Europe also, and many excellent essays were received. In 2008 the first three titles were published: FrankensteinWuthering Heights and King Lear. Over the following years many more titles followed. There are currently 27 titles in the series, ranging chronologically from Augustine’s Confessions and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from the earliest years of Christendom to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published at the end of the nineteenth century. Included among these 27 titles are seven of Shakespeare’s plays, providing a much-needed corrective to the egregious Shakespeare abuse which is currently rampant in the academy.

My personal favorite of all the editions published thus far is the edition of The Merchant of Venice, published in 2009. Apart from my own introduction to the play and, of course, the full text of the play itself, newly annotated, the edition includes seven critical essays on various aspects of the play by some of the finest contemporary tradition-oriented scholars. Film critic James Bemis wrote about film adaptations of the play; Raimund Borgmeier, from the University of Giessen in Germany, wrote about the role of the family in the drama; British scholar Michael Brennan, from the University of Leeds, compared the functions in the plot of Venice and Belmont; Anthony Esolen, who will be no stranger to readers of the Journal, wrote of “the hazard of love”; James Hartley, a professor of economics at Mount Holyoke College, wrote about the problem of usury in the play, indicating Shakespeare’s evident sympathy with the Catholic Church’s position on the subject; Daniel Lowenstein, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote on law and mercy in the trial scene. Other scholars wrote of ways of reading the play and of the role of friendship. How many different facets of this most difficult and misunderstood of plays were thus revealed within the pages of one solitary edition!

Most of the titles in the series come with Study Guides which contain study questions and a selection of essay prompts. They also include a detachable answer key, so that educators can have guidance with respect to the grading of the questions and the essays, which would be especially useful for homeschooling parents.

The most satisfying thing about my involvement with the Ignatius Critical Editions is the knowledge that no teacher at a Catholic school or college, or no homeschooling parent, need ever again find themselves in the position of putting into the hands of their students those editions of the classics which have been poisoned by the toxic mainstream. There is now a healthy choice and a tradition-oriented alternative.


One thought on “Classic literature through a Catholic lens

  1. My favorite and ,honestly, the only one I have used is also “The Merchant of Venice.” I used it in a community college setting. Unfortunately, I was not able to put the Ignatius Press edition into the
    hands of the students, but i used it as a backup for myself. Mary P{ollack


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