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.