Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

“Its hour come round at last”

Brian Moore, Catholics (1972)

This is the second work of fiction I’ve read recently that was set in the near future when it was written, but where the imagined future period has now become part of our past. Last week, I wrote about Philip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation, written in 1992 about a futuristic 2013. Today, I’m concerned with Brian Moore’s 1972 novella, Catholics, published some seven years after the Second Vatican Council ended, but set in the aftermath of the (fictional) Fourth.

The exact date of the setting isn’t identified but it’s shortly before the end of the twentieth century. When James Kinsella lands on the island of Muck in a helicopter, the abbot of the island’s monastery tells him:

“… that’s the first flying machine of any description that has ever landed on Muck. You’ve brought us the symbol of the century. Just when I thought we’d be able to close the hundred years out and say we’d missed our time.”

Later, not long before Kinsella leaves the island, he responds to the abbot:

“This is the end of the twentieth century, not the beginning of the thirteenth. How can we even define what heresy is today?”

So, we seem to be in or around 1999. The novella dramatizes a conflict between personal faith and institutional loyalty, between conscience and the duty to obey. This kind of conflict has existed as long as people have had consciences and institutions. Moore’s exploration of the conflict isn’t particularly dramatic but it holds some surprises.

Some of the monks of Muck Abbey, on an inaccessible, storm-tossed island off the south-west coast of Ireland, have been crossing to the mainland every Sunday to say Mass in the traditional manner: in Latin, with the celebrant and congregation facing the same direction, and preceded by private, individual confession. The unapproved form of Mass becomes very popular, drawing large attendances from all over the world.

This causes embarrassment to the Vatican, which is engaged in ecumenical negotiations with Buddhism, so the father general of their order sends a troubleshooter whose task is to leave the abbot in no doubt that any continuation of these heterodox practices will not be tolerated. That the institution will win is all but inevitable. The abbot has the same rank as a bishop and can’t simply be told what to do by his provincial, but the father general has the right to transfer him to a very different office, and can put pressure on him by threatening to do so.

It’s usual in conflicts of this sort for author and reader alike to sympathize with the rebel cause. And these rebels are personally sympathetic. Father Manus is patently sincere and well intentioned when he defends the traditional Mass in Latin, leading the abbot to respond, “I wish I had all that fire and conviction, Manus”. Father Matthew, the “Master of novices with no novices to master”, is more confrontational but no less sincere in his convictions. Like Manus, he insists that the Mass and the consecration are a mystery and “a miracle”.

Kinsella, an American whose ancestors came from County Mayo, is the priest sent by the father general to sort out the problem. Before he leaves, he tells the father general that he visited Ireland once before, for the Yeats Summer School in Sligo. The father general quotes the penultimate line of “The Second Coming”:

“‘What rough beast, its hour come round at last.’ Appropriate. I want you to bury this beast. And I think the way to do that is for me to give you plenipotentiary status. Emissaries who must report back to headquarters, especially young ones, would seem to these old mastodons to be mere novices …”

As Kinsella goes to meet the abbot for the first time, there is an echo of the poem’s opening phrase:

Kinsella, turning and turning in that cold stone turret to come out through the narrow door into the abbot’s parlor, was dizzying, confusing, causing him, at first, to miss his host’s welcoming hand.

Perhaps the second-best-known lines of the poem come at the end of the first verse paragraph:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

These lines aren’t quoted in the novella but there’s little room for doubt that Moore had them in mind. There’s been some disagreement as to whether Yeats was attempting to describe a universal truth or merely commenting on the circumstances of that historical moment. The Irish Times’s Patsy McGarry favours the second alternative. The quote, he says:

… has been used again and again over the past century, or thereabouts, to give intensity a bad name. It’s as if some believe Yeats was promulgating a profound insight into the human condition, whereas he was just making an observation from a particular place and time.

The particular place and time were the aftermath of the first world war in Europe, so he has a point. I’d find McGarry’s argument more convincing, though, if it didn’t focus solely on intensity but paid more attention to passion. It’s not intensity in itself that’s characteristic of “the worst”, but passionate intensity, that is to say an intensity that has a person in its grip and can’t be controlled.

The character in Moore’s novella who most obviously lacks all conviction is the abbot. He twice utters the phrase, “I am not a holy man”. The second time, he goes on to explain:

“I am a sort of foreman here, a sort of manager. It’s not a lot different from a secular job. The monks work hard and my job is to keep them together and see that they make a go of it. It’s a simple life here. Little jokes, little triumphs, little disasters. We’re like a bunch of children, we pass the days as if we had an endless supply of them. It’s only when someone like yourself comes along that we ask ourselves what we are here for.”

The abbot has long since given up praying. There had been times, culminating in a visit to Lourdes, when attempting to pray had brought on him a sense that he was entering a void, “the hell of no feeling”, which made him tremble unbearably. The prayers seemed false and without meaning. In Lourdes, he had protected himself from these feelings by shutting himself in his room for two days, claiming to have dysentery.

So the abbot avoided prayer. One could pretend to a preference for private devotions. One’s Mass could be said alone. He no longer read his daily office. As for public prayers, in a community like this there were always others, greedy to lead. Sometimes, one had to say a grace. One said the words, but did not pray. If one did not risk invoking God, one did not risk one’s peace of mind. He was needed here. He did his work. He did his best. But did not pray.

If the abbot is unwilling to end the Latin Mass and the private confessions, it is not on the grounds of belief or doctrine but rather because he feels a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of the monks, like Manus and Matthew, for whom faith in the miracles of consecration and transubstantiation is the essence of their religion.

The abbot decides that his duty of obedience to the order and its father general must outweigh that responsibility to his subordinates. He writes a letter to the father general and assures Kinsella that he will give the order that in future Mass must be celebrated and confession heard in accordance with the approved rites. But he wants Kinsella to leave the island before he announces his decision to the monks:

“You see, that will be the important part, how I break it to them. Some of them are very devout. They will take it hard. No, it will not be easy at all. To tell you the truth I am a bit nervous about it.”

On first reading of the novella, I suspected that the abbot was playing some devious game. He would profess obedience to his superior and loudly proclaim the end of the outdated, traditional practices, while tacitly encouraging dissent and revolt among the monks. Surely, that was the point of his exchange with Father Matthew the night before Kinsella’s departure:

“I am informed by Rome that the Mass is now merely symbolic. Do you understand what I am saying?”
“That is heresy, pure and simple!”

And shortly afterwards:

“Our visitor brings an order from our father general. Would you obey that order, Father Matthew, even if that order instructed you to consider the Mass not as a miracle, but, let’s say, just a pious ritual?”

Kinsella believes that the Mass is no more than a pious ritual that doesn’t entail the real presence of God, and he assures the abbot that this is the belief of most modern Catholics. But it’s a misrepresentation on the abbot’s part to suggest that the father general’s order requires the celebrant of the Mass to believe likewise. The order concerns the form of the ritual, not the priest’s state of mind. It doesn’t attempt to compel belief, or disbelief.

In other words, the abbot is presenting the situation to Father Matthew in the way that it least likely to be acceptable to him. Is he doing so to stir up dissent or merely to test the other man’s obedience? After Matthew has gone to bed, as he has been ordered to do, the abbot regrets his own “unruly temper”.

Once Kinsella has left in the helicopter, the abbot makes his decision known to the monks. As he expected, they take it hard.

… he saw in those faces that he was failing, that he was losing them, that he must do something he had never done, give something he had never given in these, his years as their abbot. What had kept him in fear since Lourdes, must now be faced. What he feared most to do must be done. And if, in doing it, I enter null and never return, amen. My time has come.

Telling them that “Prayer is the only miracle” and “If our words become prayer, God will come”, he kneels to lead them in the “Our Father”.

His trembling increased. He entered null. He would never come back.

So, the abbot was sincere in his professions of obedience after all. The ending of the novel is clearly based on a paradox: it is the man without faith who, to bring about a more secular Church where the traditional beliefs are no more than optional, who must sacrifice himself to “a sort of purgatory presaging the true hell to come”.

I don’t find the paradox wholly convincing; but arguably it’s in the nature of paradox to tend to undermine itself. Moore’s novella was certainly a more interesting and rewarding read than I feared it might be.

Posted by Art, 03-Oct-2021.