Summary

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1507

First published: Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972

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Genre(s): Novella

Subgenre(s): Catholic fiction

Core issue(s): Alienation from God; Catholics and Catholicism; clerical life; conscience; faith; monasticism; obedience and disobedience

Principal characters

Tomás O’Malley, abbot of an ancient monastery

James Kinsella, a young priest sent from the Vatican to secure compliance

Father Manus, an older monk devoted to old traditions

Father Matthew, another unyielding and independent traditionalist

Overview

In Catholics, Brian Moore’s typical antipathy toward Catholicism is transformed into a tolerant skepticism as he pits two contrasting definitions of the Church against each other. Set in what seemed to be the not-too-distant future at the time of the novella’s publication (most likely the late 1990’s), Moore’s novel depicts a clash between the traditionalists and the progressives, who battle for the devotion of the laity.

It has come to the attention of hierarchy in Rome that monks from a remote abbey off the coast of western Ireland are still celebrating the Latin Mass, and the ritual has become so popular that pilgrims travel from throughout the world to celebrate in the ancient ceremony. The popular press has seized on the phenomenon and plans a major documentary. Seeing a threat to its authority, Rome dispatches a young, radical priest, James Kinsella, to stop the practice and preserve the new orthodoxy.

Kinsella is a disciple of the revolutionary Father Gustav Hartman, a priest who has been tortured by totalitarian regimes for inciting seditious ideas. Kinsella’s theology is thoroughly modern and, as he sees it, progressive; he is impatient with the older practices of the monks from the abbey. His foil, Tomás O’Malley, a sixty-nine-year-old abbot on Muck Island, is a practical, hardworking man in charge of twenty priests who live an anachronistic, ascetic life. As strongly as Kinsella believes the old Mass must be abandoned, O’Malley is convinced that it serves a profound theological purpose, and its growing popularity is potent evidence of its efficacy in reaching the laity and reviving flagging congregations.

The body of the narrative is taken up with a debate between the two priests’ antithetical notions of the role of religion in the lives of the faithful. Kinsella believes in a church that advances the social welfare, while O’Malley is concerned with the condition of people’s souls. In the figure of the humble Father Manus, Moore creates a stirring defense of the old Mass when he argues for the miracle of “God coming down among us,” as opposed to the modern ritual of “singing and guitars and turning to touch your neighbor, playacting and nonsense, all to make the people come into church the way they used to go to the parish hall for a bingo game.”

Kinsella and O’Malley, through their debates, represent notions of theology that have long been associated with the Catholic Church and that continue to define its future. On one hand, the Church can be seen as an instrument of social revolution, and in Kinsella’s post-“Vatican IV” era, private confessions have been abolished and distinctions between mortal and venial sins are moot. Most important, the celebration of the Mass, the cornerstone of Catholic ritual and faith, has been rendered nothing more than a pious act of symbolism; members of the Church hierarchy no longer accept the notion of transubstantiation. By contrast, for O’Malley—and even more so for his monks—the Mass is a daily miracle; through the taking of the body and blood of Christ, “God com[es] down among us.”

The novella hinges on two central ironies. The first of these ironies involves a priest dedicated to revolution and world ecumenism who is actually an agent of orthodoxy and conformity. He seeks to stamp out heresy and thus reminds O’Malley of the Grand Inquisitor and an intolerant Church bent on quashing all dissent. The second and more profound irony is that O’Malley, the voice defending the sanctity of individual belief, has lost the security of his faith. Overwhelmed by the commercialism and tawdry spectacle of the “miracle” of Lourdes, O’Malley has come to know “the hell of the metaphysicians: the hell of those deprived of God.” All of this begs the question, How can a man who has lost his faith remain in the Church and supervise others? O’Malley’s answer is that belief is a gift from God, and if he can nurture and protect that belief in others—his congregation and his brother monks—he has done God’s work.

An encounter with a second monk, Father Matthew (a strong, uncompromising figure who holds an all-night vigil, praying that Kinsella’s orders are countermanded), encourages O’Malley’s ultimate decision. When Father Matthew refuses to terminate his vigil and go to bed, O’Malley stands on his authority and orders the priest to concede. The next morning, when Kinsella braces himself for more debate and dissension, he is shocked to find a compliant O’Malley, who now follows the very demands he placed on Father Matthew: He obeys authority regardless of personal opinion.

After Kinsella’s departure, the brother monks are distressed and angry. O’Malley calms them by insisting they pray: “Prayer is the only miracle,” he said. “We pray. If our words become prayer, God will come.” As the community kneels and offers their supplications, O’Malley is left alone, yearning for faith yet denied its comfort and assurance.

Christian Themes

Moore’s principal concern is with the phenomenon of faith, and more specifically with what constitutes that devotion. The novel questions whether faith is a product of instruction, coercion, or the imposition of authority. Certainly Kinsella and his ilk would argue for orthodoxy and conformity. Indeed, the central conflict can be seen as the differences between institutional and private faith. O’Malley well understands that modern people are not typically defined or animated by a deep, abiding sense of spiritual faith. He notes to Kinsella that attendance at Mass has declined with the institution of the vernacular Mass, whereas people flock to the Latin celebration. His argument highlights a central feature of faith: It is not rational, it cannot be legislated, and it will assert itself in often private, highly individualistic ways. Faith is furthermore not antagonistic or seditious, except to those authorities who demand conventionality. Thus a skeptic like O’Malley can yearn for and thoroughly respect the beliefs of the naïve Father Manus and the self-righteous Father Matthew, for he sees in each the radiance of true faith, which is absent from Kinsella’s secular demeanor and authoritarian obsession.

A second important concern is with the tension between tradition and modernity and the ways in which religion finds itself torn between these extremes. As the novel makes clear, for a people like the Irish, who endured the Penal Laws of a colonizing nation bent on eradicating their religious beliefs, a dedication to tradition is more than reactionary complacency. For the Irish, to lose their sense of tradition is linked to the serious losses of identity and culture. The appeal of modernity is not only that Catholicism will join other world religions (Kinsella is concerned that the persistence of the Latin Mass will undermine the Vatican’s apertura with Buddhism at a forthcoming World Ecumen Council) but also that religion can answer directly the most pressing issues of human rights and freedoms. Catholics is extraordinary in its evenhanded treatment of these issues, making each compelling and each intellectually and spiritually legitimate.

A last key concern is the tension between individual will and obedience to authority. Once again, Moore gives equal validity to each point of view. Although O’Malley eventually concedes to Kinsella’s authority, the debate is never resolved. Perhaps the most concise articulation of the dilemma comes in one of O’Malley’s retorts, “Yesterday’s orthodoxy is today’s heresy.”

Sources for Further Study

  • Craig, Patricia. Brian Moore: A Biography. London: Bloomsbury, 2002. The first full-length biography of Moore’s life, writing, and fictional concerns.
  • Dahlie, Hallvard. Brian Moore. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A general study of Moore’s novels up to the publication of The Temptation of Eileen Hughes in 1981.
  • Gearon, Liam. Landscapes of Encounter: The Portrayal of Catholicism in the Novels of Brian Moore. Calgary, Alta.: Calgary University Press, 2002. A book-length examination of Moore’s treatment of Catholicism in the majority of his novels.
  • McSweeney, Kerry. Four Contemporary Novelists. London: Solar Press, 1983. A study of four contemporary novelists who share a dedication to the novel as a genre that represents and re-creates lived human experience.
  • O’Donoghue, Jo. Brian Moore: A Critical Study. London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991. Perhaps the best critical examination of Moore’s works, revealing his deep spiritual concerns as well as an extraordinary understanding of female experiences.
  • Sampson, Denis. Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist. Dublin: Marino, 1998. In a work that is part biography and part critical study, Sampson traces Moore’s enduring fictional concerns and his ability to immerse himself in whatever tradition or subject he explores.

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