Recently I read a couple of novels about Catholic priests. Something to read (I’m a book addict), and a different world from mine. The first was The Cardinal, by Henry Morton Robinson, an American author. The second was Monk Dawson, by Peirs Paul Read, an English writer, and they’re set in different time periods, as well as different social classes.
Robinson’s novel begins in the early 20th century. The main character is either the eldest, or nearly so, of a large Irish Catholic family in Boston. He’s had the desire to become a priest since his early teens, and he’s just finished his preliminary education in Rome as the novel begins, and is on his way back to Boston to become a curate, the bottom rung of the Catholic hierarchy.
The novel follows him as he goes from curate to priest, to bishop, to archbishop, and he’s just become a cardinal as the novel ends. I suspect the novel presents a fairly realistic picture, though I think it’s probably a bit idealized too. Not everyone can have the energy and sense the main character has. Undoubtedly there are bad priests as well as good in the Catholic church, but we don’t see too many of them in the novel.
One thing I did like about the novel, in particular. I had read another novel about a priest (title and author long forgotten) in which the question of his chastity came up. He said something like, it never seemed important, which I thought was a cop-out. The cop-out has been underlined in recent years with the revelation that there have been a number of pedophile priests, and that the Catholic church has conducted a cover-up on their behalf. I don’t know exactly why chastity seemed to be so important to the Catholic church, when it wasn’t in the Orthodox church. An anti-sexual movement came along at about the time Christianity was beginning, and that probably had some influence, but it’s still difficult to understand.
In Robinson’s novel, chastity isn’t something that always comes easily to the main character. It’s not something he thinks about constantly, but he’s very attracted to at least two women, and his attraction to one of them leads him into a crisis of faith, which he needs help to overcome. He does successfully overcome it, but at least the issue isn’t treated as trivial.
That novel ends just before World War II begins. The second novel is set in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and was published in the late sixties. Of course the picture is very different.
The novel begins in an English boy’s school. The main character is someone the narrator knows, who decides (although he’s somewhat pushed into it) he has a vocation to be a priest. He goes directly from school into the education a priest needs, and eventually becomes a priest. But things don’t go too smoothly, and he has a crisis of faith, which leads him to resign from the priesthood and become an ordinary civilian.
Naturally, this is pretty disconcerting. The narrator is a journalist, and helps him find work in journalism. Now he’s able to support himself, if not lavishly, and at some party meets a woman he’s attracted to, and who’s attracted to him. One thing leads to another, and he moves in with her, her husband being out of the picture since having driven into a tree, and died.
After some time with her, he begins writing a series suggesting that humans have grown up enough to no longer need religion. It’s just a matter of enjoying the wonderful things of the world, and the idea of God need no longer be taken seriously. He’s not entirely comfortable with this theme, but decides, why not?, and writes it.
Not long after this the woman he’s been living with runs off with a younger man. He finds this rather devastating, but perhaps even worse is when he writes an article about a prominent union organizer, and the magazine he’s working for refuses to print it. He becomes depressed.
Rescuing him from his depression is a young woman whose confessions he used to hear as a priest. They become involved sexually, besides being friends, as she tries to take care of him. They eventually marry, but that doesn’t go well: she’s not very comfortable with sex, becomes very unhappy, and commits suicide. The main character disappears.
The narrator looks for him, and eventually finds him, living as a contemplative monk in a monastery. The man is no longer interested in the outside world. Most of the people he’s been exposed to have been fairly wealthy, and their lives consist of parties, travel, buying things, and sex. Not that he hasn’t enjoyed that life, but he’s seen that it doesn’t prevent suffering, and it’s also trivial. To the narrator, he seems to be happy in the monastery.
Catholicism in particular has made the whole year a continuing drama to move everyone who may be open to it. There seem to be fewer now than there used to be, and I doubt that makes the world richer. On the other hand, what once was liberating eventually becomes imprisoning. Many people feel that about religion now, but what will they put in its place? What many people see as freedom is just licentiousness. Conservatives aren’t wrong when they say that freedom goes with responsibility, but they sometimes see responsibility differently than others. The whole concept becomes politicized in our current cultural wars, and then it’s hard to talk about it reasonably.
Catholicism is alien to a lot of us, but aspects of it may still speak to many who aren’t Catholic. The Roman Catholic church has done its share of wrong, as has any human institution, and perhaps more than most, in its longevity and power. Let’s not let that detract from the good it’s done, while being clear-eyed about how what once was good has sometimes turned to evil. I think St. Francis would have been appalled to see Franciscans forcing Serbs to convert to Catholicism or be killed. Christians have generally behaved better when they were being persecuted than when they were doing the persecuting.
The message in both novels is that life takes effort, if it is to be good. How can anyone disagree?