During my late teens and early twenties I underwent the customary intellectual awakening. On the advice of a very sophisticated classmate, I read Meiklejohn’s translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and began to demand empirical evidence for the existence of everything, including God. Inevitably, this led me to a crisis of faith which left me adrift with vague faith until my late thirties, when I first read The Devil’s Advocate of Morris West.
I was taken with West’s deliciously stirring prose and, as happens with the creaking origins of wisdom, my mind thought anew and with far less arrogance about my intellectualized view of religion. I was startled to find that, while Morris West had no delusions about the church, which he saw not so much as the representative of, but the incarnation of, his Roman Catholic faith, he spelled out in clear and vibrant terms how faith was not in conflict with the human intellect, but was in fact an integral part of its processes on a very high and complex level. It was then that I began to see the light of my religion and the Church’s value as nothing less than the greatest agent of civilization in all of known history. I still occasionally wandered from the path of my faith, again out of intellectual confusion, but I always returned to it. I attribute that return in part to what I got from Morris West’s books and can attest to the effectiveness of his intellectual and religious authority to influence me in a spiritually salvific way.
For me, the most important and seminal of his works are The Devil’s Advocate (1959), The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963) and The Clowns of God (1981) together referred to as West’s Vatican Trilogy. The first of these treats the personal crisis of faith of a priest who is faced with imminent death and, as a task to bring his mind and soul to the point of accepting his fate, is sent as Devil’s Advocate to southern Italy to examine and challenge the cause of someone proposed for sainthood. The second book deals with the issues of a Pope who must struggle with the unavoidable politics of the church and the secular realities of the world in which it must exist. In the third book an apocalyptic vision drives a Pope to abdicate his office so as not to panic the entire Christian world.
Observing the undeniable truth that one loves most deeply when one sees the flaws as well as the virtues of the object of that love, and accepts them, West describes not only the glories of Roman Catholic religion, but the oily mechanics of the Church’s bureaucratic inner life.
Morris West was conservative even as Catholic writers go, preserving in his work the essential nature and traditional values of the Catholic Church. That view is colored by many nuances in the core set of beliefs which comprise it. West was a traditionalist and gave us Catholicism as it was before the reforms of Vatican II, when the Latin Mass was dominant and when so-called “social justice” was a matter of true justice and private charity, and not of politics and the government dole. One wonders what his reaction would be to the many controversies surrounding Pope Francis.
West gave us the priesthood in gritty terms, but he did not denigrate priests. He spoke of their flaws as human flaws and did not condemn the entire Church for them as seems popular today. Nor did he elevate his prose to speak only of saints and angels, but chose the intricate web of illusion, disappointment, inspiration and redemption in the private souls of his characters, whether Popes or common people of simple faith. This makes his work far more relevant to the sufferings, longings and fulfillment of ordinary people than do the exquisite sufferings of martyrs (although he did write about the tribulations of Giordano Bruno). It is faith and the internal events of regular human life that informs West’s work.
West is skilled at describing intrigue, politics, banking, espionage and other elements that comprise “thriller” fiction and weaves these elements into his plots with consummate skill. But his treatment of even these subjects is always cast in light of a character’s faith, describing how that faith causes him to deal with the external events. Indeed, West’s books often read like exciting works of popular fiction, yet his ability to inspire is evident throughout.
Likewise, his works have been eerily prophetic. The second and third novels in West’s Vatican Trilogy are prescient beyond mere coincidence and indicate a deep and extraordinary comprehension of human events. In The Shoes of the Fisherman, West predicted the accession to the Throne of Peter by a Slavic Pope some fifteen years before John Paul II was elected. Before that time one hardly considered such a thing likely. Could West’s fictional vision have laid open the possibility for acceptance of this reality? In The Clowns of God, he predicted the resignation of a Pope after having had an apocalyptic vision, some thirty-two years before Benedict XVI resigned. Perhaps “predicted” is too strong and precise a term for what West did, which was to fictionalize events which much later actually occurred in reality. Nonetheless, they seem to indicate something more than simple coincidence, a kind of prescient synchronicity in West’s vision.
We do not know, of course, whether Benedict had an apocalyptic vision, but we do know that Francis, his successor into the Church’s highest office, has come under fire over remarks he has made that suggest his allegiance to socialism and to a different path that would break the 2000 year tradition of the Church and lead the Catholic world into a politics of secularism and what many feel is a false doctrine of social justice. This surely could be apocalyptic in terms of world peace and world solvency. There is no mystery about why West’s Pope abdicated, but there remains considerable mystery surrounding Benedict’s resignation. Benedict was a conservative Pope who was once Defender of the Faith, and in his wake came a priest and Bishop from the third world whose views of rich and poor are by many thought seriously flawed.
Did Morris West himself have an apocalyptic vision of such a shift in the tides of human events when he wrote these books so many years ago? We do not know. But his fictional presaging of these events is uncanny and suggests something beyond merely the insight of, say, an Orwell or a Huxley. As significant as those writers were on projections of future dystopian societies, West’s vision is not of dystopia, but of real world solvency through the medium of true faith. It is a hopeful message, an inspiring one, delivered through the prism of his vision of the future by a keen analysis not so much of events as of human psychology, and his characters are not merely intelligent, but wise in a way one likely finds in people of profound faith, if not directly and admittedly in God, then in the enduring purpose of humanity’s very existence.
As a Catholic writer, Morris West is at the top of my all-time favorites list and, in the pantheon of modern interpreters of the meaning of the Church and of Catholic life as it exists in the maelstrom of today’s worldly events. Even fifteen years after West’s death, he still belongs at the high table of authors sharing this quest. Graham Greene is often named as one of the most prominent and eloquent writers imbued with the ethos of Roman Catholic faith, and he is surely a great writer. But, while West seems to enjoy less critical praise than Greene and other writers, his work deserves much more attention than it gets. Perhaps his novels are thought more popular than “literary.” It is true that almost all of his books were startlingly successful, but that a man’s work has been greatly loved does not make it less valuable. West should certainly share the praise often reserved for other great names of Catholic fiction.
Morris West’s vision of the world and perhaps of the future is uncontestable. And we can ascertain, from reading the works of this great writer of the twentieth century, that his description of fictional events is worth paying close attention to, not only for his eloquence and vision, but for his ability to introduce to whole generations of readers, the depth of meaning to be divined and mined in the great work of the Church and of the Roman Catholic Faith.
(Photo credit for Morris West portrait: Godfrey Argent, 1978)