12 Nov

Brian Moore lost his Catholic faith as a young man and proceeded to carve a literary career out of it.  In the 1950’s he wrote The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), in the 1980’s Black Robe (1985).  In between there was Catholics (1972). 

With only 102 pages, Catholics is very much a novella, easily read in one sitting.  In 1972, however, it was judged a novel and was duly awarded the W H Smith Novel of the Year. It is certainly as intense as a novel.  There is so much distilled into its 102 pages –   many a modern author would have stretched it to 250+.

Catholics is a parable centring around issues of dogma, doctrine, and religious practice.   Using the backdrop of Vatican II (1965), Moore projects a program of reform continuing into the near future.  His Catholics are coming to terms with the outcomes of Vatican IV – a council which has capitulated to the power of secularism.  The Church is negotiating a merger with Buddhism.  Mass is no longer a mystery, it has been relegated to mere symbolic ritual.

The monks at Muck Abbey, however, refuse to part with the traditional faith.  They continue to practice the rosary, private confession and even hold the Latin mass.  Thousands flock weekly to a mass held in the open.  Such is its popularity that it is now televised and a media circus has ensued.   This, in turn, has brought the abbey to the notice of the higher Church authorities, who send their envoy, James Kinsella, to turn them away from their heresy and into the contemporary Church.

Surprisingly, it is the abbot of Muck, Thomas, who takes the role of the faithless one.  He has spent years running the abbey purely as an enterprise, going through the motions of piety and devotion without the benefit of a sincere faith. It is his lack of conviction that has led, ironically, to the abbey becoming the stalwart defender of the traditional. 

I am not a holy man, but, maybe because I am not, I felt I had no right to interfere.  I thought it was my duty, not to disturb the faith they have.

Kinsella’s arrival upsets the abbot’s internal compromise and Thomas, the man without any real conviction, must choose between Kinsella’s passionate secularism or the monks’ passionate traditionalism.

Thomas’s difficulty is explored with skill.  His decision is of great significance, not only for himself, but for his small community of devoted monks.  An abbey that is depicted, even by Moore’s lapsed-Catholic pen, with skill, respect and sympathy.  Its centuries of history resonating through its walls.  The simplicity of the lifestyle and sincerity of the devotion (Thomas very much the exception at the Abbey) rendering Kinsella, shallow, crass and opportunistic by comparision.

Dramatic tension aplenty in the ensuing theological vssecular head-to-heads between Thomas and Kinsella that necessarily fill the majority of the pages.  Layer upon layer of irony as the man with no faith defends traditional dogma against the secular man from Rome.  A complicated little book, this Catholics.  Do not be fooled by its meagre page count.



Posted by on November 12, 2008 in Catholics, Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal


13 responses to “Catholics

  1. Colette Jones

    November 29, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Thanks Lizzy, I’ve read Catholics now and I really liked it. I hadn’t quite figured out that it was meant to be futuristic. I thought, how can he expect us to believe that Vatican IV in all it’s radicalness occurred less than a decade after Vatican II? Once I read your review, I understood and liked it more.

    Did I miss some clues which would have helped me spot that it is futuristic?

  2. lizzysiddal

    November 29, 2008 at 9:44 am

    I admit I didn’t spot them either. But half-way through the novel, my bearings were all over the place – in a this isn’t Catholic theology as I know it kind of way – and I had to look up information on the novel in Moore’s biography. At which point I settled down and got it! However, in some instances Moore’s predictions are eerily accurate …..

  3. reader

    December 18, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    Hi, I enjoy reading your reviews and am glad someone has finally gotten around to putting up a Brian Moore website.

    Any idea when you’ll be reviewing “An Answer from Limbo”?

    • lizzysiddal

      December 18, 2008 at 9:46 pm

      No idea. But if you recommend it, I can always promote it up the TBR.

  4. Colette Jones

    December 20, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    Me too…

  5. John Self

    December 22, 2008 at 10:50 am

    I have a review of An Answer from Limbo on my blog, which I can reproduce here, if you give me a minute (or a day).

  6. reader

    December 29, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    Oh dear…

    It was Lizzy Siddal’s review I was looking forwards to. I had seen John Self’s review on his own website some time back.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say “if you can recommend it”. I think it’s Moore’s weakest novel. Very frustrating, padded, and unlikable. It’s too close to what passes for modern day “serious” fiction. Lacks the life and fire his other novels have.

    • lizzysiddal

      December 30, 2008 at 7:22 am

      In which case, I’ll read it after “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and “The Doctor’s Wife”. Probably March sometime.

      I wouldn’t mind JS posting his reviews here too. TheMooreTheMerrier, after all!

  7. Colette Jones

    January 3, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Yes, I thought that was the point. More, JS!

  8. John Self

    January 3, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Indeed it was, Colette. Unfortunately I’m only up to book 7 (The Revolution Script) in my own Mooreathon so I don’t have many more to share. Catholics next, appropriately.

    Sorry to disappoint you, reader.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say “if you can recommend it”.

    She means ‘if you can recommend it’. Clearly you don’t. I can’t say if it’s Moore’s weakest novel as there are still a few I haven’t read, but I certainly thought it more interesting than, say, The Statement or Fergus. It may be less coherent than some of his other early novels, but I’m always interested by writers writing about writing. Even so, Moore’s weakest (f it is) would still be thoroughly worthwhile.

  9. Colette Jones

    January 5, 2009 at 8:28 am

    The Revolution Script is the only one I do not have.

    I look forward to seeing what you think of Catholics, JS.

    I’ll be reading The Doctor’s Wife soon, I’ve chosen it for my face-to-face group. I hope they like it. I am pretty sure I will. (Thanks again for the book, by the way).

  10. John Self

    January 5, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    I think The Doctor’s Wife is one of his best, Colette. Note, however, that it is sexually explicit which I believe caused some admirers of Moore’s early works (such as Philip French) to dislike it, and which caused Mary Wilson, Booker Judge that year and unliterary wife of PM Harold Wilson (one of the other judges used the word ‘Kafkaesque’ and she didn’t understand), to veto its winning the Booker prize. I don’t know your face-to-face reading group, but it’s conceivable that some could be turned off by this.

  11. Colette Jones

    January 5, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Ah, that should be interesting. We haven’t had one like that yet so might get us talking! A few seem to be going through a bit of a mid-life crisis though. Perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen this book – they might get ideas of affairs with younger men. At least none of them are married to a doctor (but they are all wives!)


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