The Racism, Antisemitism, and Ableism of A Canticle for Leibowitz

Grace Lapointe
10 min readApr 9, 2024
Cover of A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. White text on a black background. Red ink from a pen forms a pattern and blends into smoke from a candle.

CN: spoilers for A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.; examples of racism, antisemitism, ableism, nuclear war, slurs, and cannibalism in fiction. The book also contains scenes of physical abuse, which are not discussed here.

Today on Book Riot, I mentioned that the 1959 sci-fi novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. influenced the later sci-fi mode of atompunk. Another BR article also mentioned this novel recently. It was originally published by J. B. Lippincott & Co. in the United States.

Here’s an excerpt from my article:


Atompunk uses mid-20th century history, like the development of nuclear weapons and the Cold War, as starting points for speculative, often post-apocalyptic, fiction.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

In this novel, thousands of years after a nuclear war, the Catholic Church is one of the world’s only remaining educational, news, and societal institutions. This gives the novel a medieval European atmosphere, despite its far-future setting. In an ancient fallout shelter, the protagonist finds everyday artifacts from a 20th-century engineer, but he considers them the relics of a saint. This book was originally published in 1959, and it contains a lot of racist stereotypes of Indigenous peoples from the Americas. This novel is fascinating and helped innovate atompunk, but I also wanted to link this list with more diverse, recent examples.”

I finally read this influential novel last year when Christopher Nolan’s movie Oppenheimer was released. The novel’s title figure, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, seems likely based on J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American, Jewish theoretical physicist who helped to develop the atomic bomb. Though it’s imaginative and contains interesting ideas, I wanted to list and analyze some examples of this novel’s constant racism, antisemitism, and ableism.

While serving in World War II, Miller participated in the bombing of a Benedictine Abbey in Italy. He was traumatized by this experience and later converted to Roman Catholicism. Note: I personally am no longer religious at all, but my family are lifelong Catholics. My Catholic upbringing, sometimes reflected in my writing, means I have a lot of opinions and knowledge about Roman Catholicism. A canticle is a prayer (often sung) taken from Biblical text other than the book of Psalms. It is one of many English words in the book derived from Latin. The novel also contains long passages of Ecclesiastical Latin.

Also, like with the Dune series, my ebook doesn’t have page numbers. This book is so complex, I can’t encapsulate all my thoughts about it, but I’ll try to list some of them here. I don’t make any money from my WordPress or Medium blog posts, unlike my Book Riot articles. In free posts, I sometimes quote long passages and lyrics that might require permission if I were being paid for my posts.


In the novel’s first section, Brother Francis, a young novice in a Roman Catholic monastery in Utah, meets an elderly Jewish man in the desert. The man is kind and offers him food, but Francis tells the old man: “Apage, Satana!” (This is Latin for “Away with you, Satan!” and one of the many examples of Biblical quotes and Latin phrases in the novel.) Francis is fasting for religious reasons, but the man doesn’t know that or share Francis’ beliefs. Francis reacts with hostility to generosity and different beliefs than his own, as if the man is tempting him to sin.

The elderly man writes on a rock in Hebrew, a language Francis does not recognize. Francis wonders if the Hebrew letters are “witch markings.” As the Jewish, feminist writers at Hey Alma explain, in general, there’s a long, antisemitic history of equating Jewish people and Judaism with mythical, evil “witches.” The Hebrew words lead Francis to an ancient, 20th-century fallout shelter, where he discovers mundane “relics” of Leibowitz, including blueprints and a grocery list.

Francis initially assumes the old man helping him is Isaac Edward Leibowitz himself, the Jewish engineer who helped develop nuclear weapons in the novel. Following nuclear devastation and a backlash towards scientists and engineers, Leibowitz hid in a Cistercian monastery. Leibowitz later converted to Catholicism and founded Francis’ order. Francis is determined to help canonize him as a Roman Catholic saint. The old man, named Benjamin, is Jewish, thousands of years old, and a relative of Leibowitz.

The novel repeatedly depicts Benjamin as the mythical “Wandering Jew,” which is an inherently antisemitic myth. Later in the novel, he claims to be over 5,000 years old, which would date his birth to around the birth of Jesus in the novel’s far future setting. The offensive “wandering Jew” myth depicts Jewish people as evil and damned for not believing in Christ and blames them for being persecuted. This mythical figure, called the “Eternal Jew” in German, was cursed with immortality, wandering the Earth forever, simply for being Jewish. This is one of the main antisemitic myths motivating genocidal attacks on Jewish people since medieval Europe.

Benjamin says that he is this legendary figure, citing his “earlier career” as a “wanderer.” Although Benjamin is kind and helpful, this trope is necessarily antisemitic when used by non-Jewish authors. A plant nicknamed after this antisemitic myth was renamed wandering dude or called its scientific Latin name in around 2022. The novel’s narration also uses many examples of textbook antisemitic language, including “pagan cabals.”


As I noted in a BR article from 2021, the term ableism was coined in the late 1980s. I’m not trying to be ahistorical by mentioning ableism because it has always existed. Ableism, prejudice against disabled people, shows up in history and in fiction from long before the concept was named, even if the authors weren’t conscious of it.

Brother Francis lives in a post-apocalyptic world centuries after the “Flame Deluge” (nuclear apocalypse). Nuclear weapons inevitably caused death and disability, including from genetic mutations. These are real consequences of nuclear weapons and radiation, but the novel repeatedly depicts people with limb and facial differences and other disabilities as “grotesque,” “d*formed,” and violent “monsters.”

This is how the novel introduces “the misborn” (disabled people who live isolated from non-disabled society):

“Brother Francis added a hasty prayer to Saint Raul the Cyclopean, patron of the misborn, for protection against the Saint’s unhappy protégés. (For who did not then know that there were monsters in the earth in those days? That which was born alive was, by the law of the Church and the law of Nature, suffered to live, and helped to maturity if possible, by those who had begotten it. The law was not always obeyed, but it was obeyed with sufficient frequency to sustain a scattered population of adult monsters, who often chose the remotest of deserted lands for their wanderings, where they prowled by night around the fires of prairie travelers.)”

In other words, Francis’ society is culturally Catholic and anti-abortion. Disabled people are allowed (“suffered”) to be born, but they are isolated and given no support as adults. This passage is also a play on Biblical language: the line “You shall not suffer a witch to live” from Exodus. In the novel, visibly disabled people frequently attack, rob, murder, and even eat non-disabled travelers.

The obscure word “misborn” implies disabled people are abnormal, evil, or shouldn’t be born — all prevalent ableist beliefs. It also sounds like “misbegotten.” The ableist descriptions of disabled people as violent and “monstrous” continue:

“The pilgrim’s [face] had been a natural mistake. Grotesque creatures who prowled the fringes of the desert often wore hoods, masks, or voluminous robes to hide deformity. Among them were those whose deformity was not limited to the body, those who sometimes looked on travelers as a dependable source of venison.” Here, hidden disability is conflated with, or possibly symbolizes, the evil act of cannibalism, signified by human “venison.” Mutations are called “natural mistakes.”

Of course, in Christian moral teaching, societal outcasts should be accepted as the beloved of God, though this often isn’t true in practice. In my BR article on Flannery O’Connor, linked earlier, I wrote that some Catholic writing, like O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” merely reverses existing social hierarchies, instead of abolishing them completely. This tension between abolishing or reversing hierarchies is found in other Catholic writers’ work as well.

Later in Miller’s novel, the Catholic Magisterium declares that all disabled people are human, despite comparing them to animals at the same time. Therefore, some people nickname disabled people “the Pope’s children” or “the Pope’s nephews.” However, in the novel, this is derisive, or patronizing at best. Characters often debate disabled people’s humanity, even within the Catholic Church:

“But occasionally the monstrous trait was recessive, and an apparently normal child resulted from the union of sports. Sometimes, however, the superficially ‘normal’ offspring were blighted by some invisible deformity of heart or mind that bereft them, seemingly, of the essence of humanity while leaving them its appearances. [bold emphasis mine] Even within the Church, some had dared espouse the view that such creatures truly had been deprived of the Dei imago from conception, that their souls were but animal souls, that they might with impunity under the Natural Law be destroyed as animal and not Man, that God had visited animal issue upon the species as a punishment for the sins that had nearly destroyed humankind.”

So, although the Church officially disagrees with this position, disability is still often viewed in the book as a curse, punishment, or depriving people of their humanity (the “image of God”). The novel’s disabled characters are often murderers and cannibals, furthering this dehumanizing portrayal. Also, the novel depicts a character’s eye patch as symbolizing bad luck. Non-disabled characters win, steal, and hide a character’s glass eye for laughs.

Francis prays for protection from “the misborn” in the form of an antiphon (a traditional Catholic prayer in a call and response form):

“From the curse of the Fallout,

O Lord, deliver us.

From the begetting of monsters,

O Lord, deliver us.

From the curse of the Misborn,

O Lord, deliver us.”

In a real, Catholic antiphon, the enemy whom worshippers ask God to protect them against is death, Satan, or evil. I’ve heard enough petitions in Catholic Masses to know the formula well. Here, disability is a curse: sin and evil personified. In the novel, the Church’s attitude towards disabled people is condescending and contradictory at best.

The ableism continues in the second section of the novel, set centuries after the first. Dom Paulo, the abbot of the monastery, meets a “two-headed woman and her six-legged dog.” The woman, Mrs. Grales, supposedly has a vestigial, second head. In other words, her conjoined twin died before she was born but is still attached to her body. However, Mrs. Grales shocks everyone by saying her twin, who is named Rachel, is still alive. Grales asks Dom Paulo to baptize Rachel, but he initially resists. Paulo often represents religious hypocrisy.

Dom Paulo is unsure whether Rachel is alive until he hears her speaking, mockingly repeating other characters’ speech. Then Dom Paulo has an epiphany, realizing Rachel is alive and human: “By the repetition, she was trying to convey the idea: I am somehow like you.” Rachel’s repetition, which Dom Paulo perceives as mockery, could instead be echolalia, repeated speech that many disabled people use. After Dom Paulo finally baptizes Rachel, she reverences the consecrated Host. (He ran carrying the Eucharist while fleeing a collapsing, bombed building.)

Like many other Catholic authors (for example, Flannery O’Connor), Miller has his characters undergo epiphanies and moments of grace. In his moment of grace, perhaps the priest recognizes Rachel’s innate humanity. However, this is complicated by the fact that her speech is no longer hostile after she is baptized. In a sense, Rachel is saved by Catholicism. It’s almost as if baptism confers personhood on her and she was evil or demonic before. The baptism functions like an exorcism, a completely different Catholic ritual. This novel tries for a Catholic worldview and sensibility but crosses a line into an attitude of white, Catholic supremacy.


I agree with this review, which I also cited in my BR article out today: readers can’t ignore or excuse this book’s blatant racism. The novel is full of racist stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. It’s set in what is today North America, so, its racist caricatures intentionally stereotype Indigenous people from the Americas. The book is mostly set in the Southwest North American deserts, where the atom bomb was tested in real life. More specifically, it was tested on Indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands and near reservations.

The novel is deeply colonialist and equates settler colonialism and written languages with “civilization.” Indigenous leaders are called “primitive.” The third-person omnipotent narrator explains: “That was the year that a vestige of civilization came to the nomads of the Plains.” A brutal, Indigenous leader character is named Mad Bear, and the narrative uses the racist slur s**** for Indigenous women. Like the “misborn” (the novel’s derogatory term for disabled people), the “forest people” (Indigenous people) often attack non-disabled, white, Christian settler characters.

So, does any aspect of this novel hold up today? The premise is fascinating, as are its ideas about the cyclical nature of history and technology. I’m fascinated by the question of whether sci-fi ever “predicts” the future, either intentionally or unintentionally. The computer in the novel is basically an LLM (large language model), like in AI programs today. The computer can even write in foreign languages that its operators don’t know. There are also AI-generated faces late in the novel.

Technological collapse and a far future North America that resembles medieval Europe are intriguing scenarios. However, these ideas are built on ableism and the erasure and racist stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples from the Americas.

Benjamin is still alive in the later sections of the novel — centuries after Brother Francis’ lifetime. In the context of the novel, he’s millennia old, possibly even immortal. He refers to himself as the “wanderer,” so, the antisemitic “wandering Jew” myth may be true in the novel’s world. Remember, the character in the myth was cursed solely for being Jewish and refusing to convert to Christianity. The novel never tells us exactly why Benjamin is so ancient. Benjamin is a kind, compassionate character, but the trope is still inherently antisemitic.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is ambitious, and I admit that I don’t know what to make of some aspects of the novel. It’s ironic that this book made its Oppenheimer figure become a Catholic saint. It may even equate conversion to Catholicism with atoning for one’s past wrongs, although that’s an essay topic for another writer to ponder. I agree with The Middle Shelf reviewer, C., whom I cited earlier. Miller’s novel is influential in sci-fi, but its biases are too blatant and harmful to deny or ignore.