Catholic writers' agnostic appeal


Graham Greene 'The Power and the Glory'Though I consider myself agnostic, a curious pattern, and a source of jest for my friends, has emerged from my reading. Most of my favorite imaginative writers are Catholic. And not just cultural or nominal Catholics but devoted practitioners like Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor and Czeslaw Milosz, who wrestled unabated with all the demands of their faith.

This curious confluence is unintentional. I would enjoy a novel or book of poems and only later learn that the author was Catholic. But it has happened too many times to be coincidental. Why are Catholic writers attractive to one such as me, who is unable to take the final leap of faith?

Greene insisted he was not a Catholic writer but a writer who happened to be Catholic. This sounds disingenuous. It would be hard to imagine a more Catholic novel than The Power and the Glory. In his introduction to the Penguin edition, John Updike wrote of 'the Roman Catholicism, which infuses, with its Manichean darkness and tortured literalism, his most ambitious fiction'.

The priests in The Power and the Glory are ineluctably compromised: Father Jose has capitulated to state pressure to marry; the unnamed whisky priest has fathered a daughter and drugs himself with alcohol.

But Greene's achievement, and a marker of his faith, is his ability to 'distinguish ... between the man and the office'; the former, hopelessly flawed, the latter, indispensable. 'What he wanted now was [sacramental] wine. Without it he was useless.' Yet with the sacrament the whisky priest becomes a symbol of resistance to terrorised villagers who are well aware of his failings.

Catholicism is a strict system, yet preaches the forgiveness of all who fail it. The Church acknowledges the universality of human experience beyond the borders of class, race and other distinguishing factors.

There is something attractive about an absolute moral order in any time, but possibly more so in our frenetic and increasingly interconnected yet isolating world. And despite what many seem to think today, religious belief can be a friend of progress. According to Greene, 'Conservatism and Catholicism should be ... impossible bedfellows'.

It is currently fashionable to say, as Les Murray does in his essay 'Some religious stuff I know about Australia', that 'the religious dimension in man is quite possibly the most dangerous thing on earth'. But for Murray this is the strongest argument in favour of organised religion. The universal impulse to religion manifests itself in many ways, some healthy, some not. Catholic writers understand that this impulse, the source of human tragedy, must be actively directed if it is not to destroy.

'My audience are [sic] the people who think God is dead,' wrote Flannery O'Connor, whose belief made her an oddity in evangelical Georgia, and indeed she made explicit the connection between her work and her religion. Almost all of her stories end in revelation yet they remain, like all good art, illuminating but not didactic. Her world speaks for itself, as it must.

An absolute moral order, as distinguished from a fanatical moral order, however it is obtained, also allows an imaginative writer to do more. This might seem paradoxical but it makes sense. When all ideas are equal, irreverence is rendered toothless. With no standard there can be no transgression.

As Evelyn Waugh said, 'all literature implies moral standards and criticisms'. The novel, if nothing else, is a world with its own, invented order. Its temporality and finitude impose order on it. It is possible to imagine a novel without order but impossible to imagine a reader for one.

As for Czeslaw Milosz, his Catholicism can be summed up in one poem. Born near what is now Vilnius in Lithuania, Milosz lived through the worst of Nazi and Soviet brutality, but his poetry meanders around the experience, rarely touching directly on it.

In 'Pierson College', Milosz is lecturing to his students at UC Berkeley. Louis is his childhood friend, lost in Eastern Europe's dismal last century. This is the end of the poem:

Quality passes into quantity at the century's end
For worse or better, who knows, just different.
Though for those students no Louis ever
existed and the old professor's passionate tone
Is a bit ridiculous as if the fate of the world depended
on truth.

A clear sense of a truth received from beyond themselves is a prerequisite to the consolation Catholic writers offer: that no one is irredeemable. What could be more attractive than that? 

Lucas SmithLucas Smith co-edited the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago, in 2010. His work has been published in The Lifted Brow, New Matilda and Australian Book Review

Topic tags: Catholic writers, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, John Updike, Flannery O'Connor, Les Murray



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Existing comments

Lucy Beckett is an English, Catholic novrelist. Her latest work Postcard From the Volcano is the story of two young men's search for truth in western Europe between the wars. It is a magnificent but unheralded piece of literature recommended to all who identify with Lucas Smith's fine article.
grebo | 29 February 2012

Thank you Lucas. Green is one of my favourite authors and 'The Power and the Glory' is one of my favourite novels. Our co-operation with grace can exist and grow in ways transformative when life has rendered us humble enough.
Andrew | 29 February 2012

Thank you, Lucas Smith, for this intellectual critique of the influence of belief on the work of master writers. Catholic writers, as you explore here,do betray the philosophy that formed them even sometimes in their own abandonment of that philosphy. You clearly identify the deficiencis that the absence of an absolute moral order visits on our society which seems to flee moral order to the arms of the cult of self. You should be careful thinking as revealed in your writing here or you may lose the comfort of agnosticism!!!!! For me, this is a wonderful treatise you have written.
john frawley | 29 February 2012

Why are Catholic writers attractive to one such as me, who is unable to take the final leap of faith? In a sense, we are all Agnostics, since as Thomas Aquinas pointed out, God is so far beyond the limits of the human mind that the closest we can come to understanding God is to realise that God is beyond the limits of our mind. Occasionally we find a reflection of God in some person or institution, and faith is like a determination to move towards that glimpse of light, like a person lost in labyrinth of caves will move toward any light, one step at a time. A difficulty arises when the glimpse we see seems to want to claim to be more than they really are, and that all progress stops with them.
Robert Liddy | 29 February 2012

Thanks Lucas. Great article. I greatly admire, and empathise with, the poetry of Kevin Hart, a Catholic. I'm an Anglican, but two people I love dearly and who are integral to my life, are Catholic. So my interest is profound.
Pam | 29 February 2012

instead of "catholic", i would like to use the word "religion" the most imaginative field. the world's best myths, poetry, novels, paintings and music have come out of religion. This is why Blake called God imagination . UNLESS YOU ARE RELIGIOUS, YOU CANNOT CREATE.
asha viswas | 29 February 2012

Thanks Lucas. Have you tried the other Green, Julien - the classic Catholic French novelist who wrote about guilt and sin and his own homosexuality? 'The Other One' is a great novel.
Stephen Hough | 01 March 2012


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