A Canticle for Leibowitz: Science Fiction for Our Time

canticle for leibowitz

by Nancy Parode

When my high school literature students fall in love with science fiction – usually via our study of Fahrenheit 451 or Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” – they ask me for book recommendations. My reply, always, is that they should read Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I give the same answer to adults who want to delve into the best of science fiction, and I especially recommend A Canticle for Leibowitz to my Catholic friends. Although Miller’s novel was published in 1959, when World War II memories were still fresh and Cold War fears permeated American society, it continues to make “best of SciFi” lists today precisely because we still fear the future, even as we look for glimmers of hope in our broken world.

Miller gets this. What’s more, in the three sections that make up A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller tells us that in any post-apocalyptic world, hope will endure, preserved in some form by the church Jesus Christ established so long ago. Miller’s Catholic Church of the future looks a lot like the Church of our own distant past, and it is run, as ours is, by flawed humans. However, the Church of Miller’s fictional future, specifically the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, has given itself a secondary mission: to preserve what knowledge remains after the post-atomic destruction of all things scientific, safeguarding the few books and papers hidden by Isaac Edward Leibowitz, Jewish convert to Catholicism, and the order he founded, just in case someone from another century might want to try to make sense of the information.

The first section of A Canticle for Leibowitz, titled “Fiat Homo,” (yes, there is plenty of Latin in this book) focuses on Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, a would-be priest of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, who encounters an unusual, Hebrew-writing pilgrim during his Lenten fast in the desert of the American southwest. After the pilgrim wanders away, Brother Francis uncovers a hole that leads to a fallout shelter – what matter of beast a “Fallout” is, Brother Francis cannot imagine – and inside the shelter, to his amazement, Brother Francis finds writings that appear to be those of the Blessed Leibowitz himself. Like many who encounter God in our world, Brother Francis must endure years of delay and disbelief before he learns the truth about the Blessed Leibowitz.

A Canticle for Leibowitz’ second section, “Fiat Lux,” vaults us into the year 3174 A. D. The abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz is thriving in a world that reminds us of pre-Renaissance Italy. Science scholar Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott, cousin of Prince Hannegan II, Mayor of Texarkana, learns of the existence of the Memorabilia that the Order has preserved for centuries. Eager to get his hands on this treasure-trove of knowledge, Thon Taddeo hastens to the abbey – and the age-old faith-versus-science debate plays out once again.

“Fiat Voluntas Tua,” the novel’s final section, begins with a nuclear weapon, code name Lucifer, that has detonated somewhere across the Pacific. Abbot Jethrah Zerchi of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, who has a love-hate relationship with technology, must stand and watch as international leaders lurch toward nuclear war – again. As children throw stones at a wandering tramp named Lazar, rescue workers turn against the Church’s pro-life teachings, and a tomato seller affected by yet another “Fallout” begs for someone to baptize “Rachel,” her second head, Abbot Zerchi prepares to execute the Order’s daring plan to preserve knowledge until humankind needs it once again.

In A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller reminds us that human nature has not changed since the Fall – or the first Fallout. Skulls, buzzards, and a wandering Jew are more than characters in the novel; they are motifs that force us to contemplate our own histories and futures as well as the Church-versus-state debates of the present day. Science alone cannot save Miller’s future Earth. It is left to the Albertian Order of Leibowitz to show the people of that future  ̶ and us ̶ the origins of hope and the reward for virtue and obedience. Just as St. Pio urges us, “Pray, hope, and don’t worry,” A Canticle for Leibowitz reminds us that even though human nature seldom changes, God’s eternity awaits.