Graham Greene’s Catholic ImaginationMark Bosco, SJOxford University Press, $47.50, 216 pp.
Like the writers associated with the term “Southern literature,” those associated as “Catholic novelists” have a shared achievement. In the case of the Catholic novel, the cast spans several nations—England (Waugh, Greene, Lodge), the United States (O’Connor, Percy), and France (Mauriac, Bernanos), to name a few. All wrote in the twentieth century, and each presents an image of lived Catholic faith in a world that challenges it. In this company, Graham Greene was the most prolific, and arguably the greatest. The particular challenge his novels present—the starting point of Mark Bosco’s illuminating study—is the widely held dictum that the forty-plus years of his imaginative work divides into two contrasting periods: one earlier and Catholic, the other later and “post-Catholic.” The novels thus present not continuity but rupture: the Catholic era, running from the publication of Brighton Rock (1938) through The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951), is succeeded, even trumped by, a more despairing, post-Catholic set of excurses into politics and a return to Greene’s earliest work as a writer of thrillers and detective novels. Examples of the turn include Our Man in Havana (1958), A Burnt-Out Case (1961), The Honorary Consul (1973), and Dr. Fischer of Geneva, or the Bomb Party (1980).
Bosco demurs from this reading of the Greene canon. To show why—the inspiration of his decision to use the term “catholic imagination” rather than “catholic novelist”—he argues that continuity can be discovered by placing Greene’s later novels in the context of the Second Vatican Council. The later Greene, according to Bosco, is not post-Catholic but postconciliar: his imagination was engaged by the council in ways that account for a change in his fiction, but change within a continuity that is recognizably Catholic.
This is a deeply appealing argument, and I find myself in broad agreement with it. If it seems a bit too neat, there is no question that it presents a more coherent view of Greene than the consensus it contests. By itself this is an accomplishment, but the book offers a bonus: Bosco’s argument requires him to provide a reliable and nuanced guide to theology in and around the council. This he does through the discerning eyes of Greene, who emerges here as what may seem an ever rarer bird—the ironic convert. The book thus invites its reader to consider anew the legacy of the council—still the abiding question for the church in this new century. So it is a valuable book for at least two distinct, if complementary, reasons: it is an informative contribution to the study of Greene’s novels, and it is driven by a larger historical and theological argument that is clear and consequential.
Bosco argues for a consistent imagination in Greene by invoking John Henry Newman’s formulation concerning the history of doctrine: the novels are characterized by continuity and development. The constant in Greene’s imaginative work was his depiction of the human fall from grace into sin, and its consequences for the details of our living and our relationship with God. For Greene, sin resides at the heart of the matter and pervades all the symbols of the church, most decisively the cross: to be a Christian is, for Greene, to be a sinner. From his whiskey priest to Monsignor Quixote, from Bendrix to Scobie, this is his refrain and the nub of his art.
Bosco’s argument for development is perhaps less directly rendered, or at least, less directly textual: for this he turns the reader’s attention to Greene’s engagement with the council, his close attention to the writings of Hans Küng and Teilhard de Chardin, and his appreciation of liberation theology. Through his analysis of Greene’s engagement with these sources and theologians, Bosco argues for a complementary, deepening attention in the novels to the presence of God not only in the individual person but in political struggles for justice, especially in The Honorary Consul. As Bosco makes clear, Greene was nuanced in his reactions to the council and its aftermath: he lamented equally the vernacular liturgy and the failure of John Paul II to affirm the part South American liberation theologians played in the daily lives of the faithful. And he continued to write novels that did not so much depart from the themes of his earlier fiction as extend them.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate Bosco’s point would be to compare Greene’s two most fully realized portraits of clergymen. The Mexico depicted in The Power and the Glory and the Spain of Monsignor Quixote each represses religion, and in each case the heavy hand of the state has its counterpart in the sense of the ubiquity of human sinfulness. (It is striking how Greene manages in both books, indeed in all his fiction, to document ruthless political repression without even a hint of righteous superiority. Is this the ultimate testament to his conviction about the universally fallen state of humanity?) In each novel Greene fashions a double ending. The Power and the Glory concludes with the apprehension and murder of the whiskey priest, and then, as Bosco writes, “the timely arrival of the priest’s replacement...[which] suggests that it is the whiskey priest’s vision that may eventually win the ideological battle, one person at a time.” Monsignor Quixote closes with the death of Monsignor Quixote after he has mimed the Mass in his madness and deprivation (brilliantly realized by Alec Guiness in the film adaptation), and the subsequent reflection of the devoutly Marxist mayor that “the hate of a man—even of a man like Franco—dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Fr. Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and final silence.”
As these endings begin to suggest, Graham Greene’s late fiction was of a piece with his earlier work, and was not post-Catholic in any meaningful sense. Whether it can be neatly mapped with pre- and postconciliar categories is perhaps more difficult to know, but what Bosco does suggest here, quite appositely, is the role of the imagination in sustaining faithful continuity through times of dogmatic development and debate. As history shows again and again, conciliar documents can be made to serve many purposes. In this fine book, Mark Bosco shows that the Catholic imagination of Graham Greene allowed him to take seriously the developments of the council without turning his steadfast gaze from the sense of his own sinfulness that underlay his conversion and sustained the conviction of his faith. Greene knew what he liked and what he did not like about Vatican II, but Bosco shows that he could find no better way to express his faith than to keep on writing as he always had. We who read can ask no more of our Catholic imaginers.
Continuing the Conversation: Bernard Bergonzi, "The Catholic Novel"