Like Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy, Brian ("Bree-an") Moore's oddly titled novella Catholics (1972) is populated with monastics. But while Hansen traffics in the miraculous, Moore's world is almost completely secularized. Graham Greene once said that Moore was his "favorite living novelist." Since Moore didn't start publishing until the 1950s, this must have been the late Graham Greene talking -- the one who considered himself a "Catholic agnostic."

The novel is set at the end of the twentieth century, after "Vatican IV" has sheared Catholicism of all its interesting stuff: private confession, the rosary, priestly "dog collars," extra ecclesiam nulla salus, etc. The Latin Mass is everywhere forbidden. Most importantly, the hierarchy (of whom we meet two apparently typical members) doesn't actually believe in God anymore.

This dreadfully evacuated church is at the service of a "World Ecumen Council," which is headed by the Father General of the Albanesian order, Fr. Humbertus Von Kleist. All you need to know about the father general is that he doesn't know who St. Patrick is, and that his sentences are peppered with "Oh, lala!" (14, 17). Father James Kinsella, one of Von Kleist's protégés (American with Irish roots), plays a more important role in the story. Kinsella prefers not to use his title, introducing himself like a business card: "I'm James Kinsella, Catholic priest" (20). Like his superior, the young Kinsella has no supernatural faith, and in fact he joined the priesthood "as a means toward social action" (23).

Von Kleist hopes to merge Catholicism and Buddhism in the near future, but he is concerned about the uncouth, i.e., traditional, goings-on in the small Irish town of Cahiriciveen (actual town, in County Kerry). The head of the Albanesians has learned via BBC broadcast that the monks of nearby Muck Abbey perform open-air Latin masses which have become internationally popular. Pilgrims from all over the Western world come "simply to hear at least one Mass, say the rosary" before leaving (9). Kinsella's task, which is the central problem of the novel, is to shut it all down by requiring conformity. If necessary, he will translate the monastery's abbot.

[Be warned: Here there be spoilers.] The 69-year old Abbot O'Malley is a fascinating character. He is not the straightforward foil to Fr. Kinsella that we perhaps expected (though many of the monks are pious, and several are zealous). In fact, we learn towards the end that the abbot stopped praying years ago, because whenever he has tried, "prayers seemed false or without meaning at all. Then his trembling began, that fear and trembling that was a sort of purgatory presaging the true hell to come, the hell of no feeling, that null, that void." (99). Again:

And the man who sits facing the tabernacle is a man with the apt title of prelatus nullius, nobody's prelate, belonging to nobody. Not God's abbot, although sometimes he tries to say the words; "Our Father who art in heaven," but there is no Father in heaven, his name is not hallowed by these words, his kingdom will not come to he [sic] who sits and stares at the tabernacle; who, when he tries to pray, enters null. (100)

O'Malley isn't a man of faith, but neither is he simply a former Christian. He is rather like the waiter in the famous Hemingway short story, to whom Moore is undoubtedly alluding with that "null." Hemingway's waiter prays, "Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it in nada." In context it's actually sort of funny and humane -- but Hemingway's final line is terrifying: "After all, he said to himself, it's probably only insomnia. Many must have it." The line reveals that the casual blasphemy is a pose, that the waiter's unfaith excludes him from peace, and (worst of all) that he cannot see or admit his own pitiful condition.

It is the same with Abbot O'Malley. He appears to have achieved a kind of peace by running Muck Abbey with the discipline it requires. But after accepting Fr. Kinsella's orders to conform to the new worship, the abbot agonizes over the suffering it will cause his monks. The key difference between the abbot and Hemingway's waiter is that the abbot is called to Gethsemane, and he goes. For the first time in years, he leads his monks in prayer, and his Pater Noster (in English, not Latin) closes the novel:

He bent his head. "Our Father, who art in heaven," he said. His trembling increased. He entered null. He would never come back. In null.

It's very much a Graham Greene moment, a paradoxical-blasphemous "mystical substitution" or "voluntary damnation", though translated into secular, atheistic terms. As drama it is enormously powerful.

Brian Moore. Catholics. 1972. Chicago: Loyola, 2006. Print..

AuthorSeth Holler