Musings of a ‘Catholic Agnostic’

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The novelist Graham Greene belonged to a grand era in English Catholicism that began with Newman and ended around 1960. According to the author, his many books fall into two general categories: those works of fiction he described as “entertainments,” and the others he called simply “novels.” The latter reflect the degree to which Greene—a convert and later a self-described “Catholic agnostic” with a disordered private life—was haunted by the Faith he neither could nor wished to abandon, while persisting in his idiosyncratic understanding of it.

This, of course, is the intellectual and spiritual condition of many modern Catholics. No one, however, has explored that condition more consistently, poignantly, and dramatically than Greene did. His friend and admirer Evelyn Waugh, in a lengthy review essay of The Heart of the Matter, observed that only a Catholic could have written the book, and only a Catholic could understand it. Greene chose aptly when he took for his epigraph several lines from Charles Péguy: “Le pécheur est au coeur même de chrétienté… Nul n’est aussi compétent que le pécheur en matière de chrétienté. Nul, si c’est le saint.” (“The sinner is at the heart of Christianity… No one is as competent as the sinner in matters concerning Christianity. No one, unless it is the saint.”)

Greene’s story has to do with a British police officer living with his wife in a dingy coastal West African town during the Second World War. The couple are Catholic. The husband, Scobie, is humiliated by being passed over for promotion. He borrows money from Yusef, a Syrian trader, to pay for his wife’s holiday in South Africa, where she is accompanied by the English police spy who has become enamored of her. While she is absent, he falls in love with a pathetic English girl whose ship was torpedoed off the African coast. Yusef, having smelled out the affair, blackmails Scobie into participating in criminal activity. In his conscience, Scobie feels unable to abandon either woman, and with the law on his trail he takes poison. He dies believing himself damned for his adultery and his suicide, but tells himself that his damnation is a sacrifice of love.

Waugh saw The Heart of the Matter as the complement to an earlier novel of Greene’s, Brighton Rock, which I recently read for the first time after running across it in a secondhand bookshop. I am uncertain whether “complement” is le mot juste or not, but certainly both novels grapple with similar moral ideas and theological perplexities.

Pinkie, the book’s anti-hero, is evil incarnate—and he knows it. He is a Catholic, as is the underage girl, a waitress in a tea shop, with whom he contracts a civil marriage as a means to prevent her from testifying against him in a murder she knows he committed. He is anticipating a murder-suicide pact for the two of them when his plan is thwarted by a woman who was acquainted with his victim and has pursued him ever since the killing. The girl is saved, and Pinkie drinks a bottle of vitriol.

Waugh, considering the two novels together, renders the theological import this way: “The warning of the preacher was that one unrepented slip obliterated the accumulated merits of a lifetime’s struggle to be good. Brighton Rock might be taken to mean that one has to be as wicked as Pinkie before one runs into serious danger.” This is not how I read Graham Greene’s intent. Waugh judged that The Heart of the Matter deals with “a vastly more subtle problem” than does Brighton Rock. I am not sure that this is so. Indeed, the “problem posed” by both books may be essentially one and the same thing.

Pinkie is seventeen years old. A small-time racketeer operating a minor criminal ring in the seaside town of Brighton, Pinkie wants to move up into the big time by supplanting his much older and immensely more experienced and sophisticated rival in the business. He is also a serial murderer whose victims include his own associates when he suspects they have double-crossed him. Killing apart, he has no vices. He neither drinks nor smokes, and he remains a virgin. The thought alone of sexual intercourse disgusts and repels him; his sole lust is for murder.

Yet Pinkie retains a twisted respect for the Church in which he was raised, and for her teachings. Rose—is the name perhaps a Marian allusion?—lies about her age to “marry” Pinkie in a civil service, though she is fully aware that he is a thief and a murderer and that their “marriage” is a lie in the eyes of the Church. He succeeds in overcoming his unnatural revulsion by consummating this “marriage” in an act both partners consider a mortal sin. Rose, for her part, is resolved to act as a loving, faithful, and loyal wife in her relationship with the man to whom she intends to present a child. Pinkie feels stirrings of affection for Rose, but he sullenly stifles them. Indeed there appear to be elements of a Liebestod in the double crime that he is contemplating and that is prevented barely in time by the avenger who is determined to see him brought to justice and rescue the girl from a terrible death at her “husband’s” hand.

Afterward, Rose goes to Confession where she tells the old priest, “ ‘It’s that I repent. Not going with him… I ought to ‘ave killed myself…. I don’t want absolution. I want to be like him—damned.’ ” The priest responds to this blasphemous outburst by telling her the story of “a Frenchman” who, having decided that were any soul in the world to be damned he would be damned with it, spent the rest of his life in deliberate sin. After adding that no one can imagine “the appalling… strangeness of the mercy of God,” he addresses her perplexity by explaining: “ ‘I mean—a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone. I think perhaps—because we believe in Him—we are more in touch with the devil than other people. But we must hope,’ he said mechanically, ‘hope and pray.’ ” Rose replies that she wants to hope but doesn’t know how.

“If he loved you, surely,” the old man said, “that shows there was some good…”

“Even love like that?”

“Yes.”

“And if there’s a baby?”

He said, “With your simplicity and his force… Make him a saint—to pray for his father.” 

What are we to make of these seeming Catholic paradoxes, these apparent theological contradictions? I think that what Graham Greene is dramatizing here is the proposition that living a devout and faithful Catholic life need not be accomplished by adhering to a strict moral and theological formula.

This doesn’t mean that I imagine Greene would have denied Flannery O’Connor’s assertion that “Christ did not abandon us to chaos.” I believe his point is rather that Christ did not—nor did He mean to—resolve all the nearly unlimited moral complexities that Catholic life and a Catholic conscience imply by bequeathing to us a blueprint by which to trace our spiritual progress toward salvation, and that spiritual integrity and acts of Christian love, faith, and truth require imagination, intuition, trust, and a certain moral and theological daring in acknowledging and facing these complexities.

This, of course, is a perilous doctrine to recommend to fallen man. Yet it seems to me for that reason to be a noble one as well. Certainly it conduces to great art, a fact that by itself speaks worlds on behalf of its insight, accuracy, and truth.

By

Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column "Prejudices" appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review. He blogs at chiltonwilliamson.com.

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