Catholics: A Novel by Brian Moore
(Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972, 107 pages)
Which is better, the traditional or the modern; the old paths or the new? When stated in this broad way, such a question might appear to be a simple matter of preference. When it comes to issues of religious belief and the ritual forms that those beliefs take, however, the question often moves from the realm of preference to the realm of right and wrong.
In Catholics Brian Moore depicts a future in which Vatican IV has reshaped the Catholic Church, dispensing with private confessions, traditional clerical garb, and the celebration of the Latin Mass. The Church’s ecumenical ambitions have resulted in a World Ecumen Council and now extended to a proposed union with Buddhist leaders. Father James Kinsella has been sent by the Father General of the Council to deal with a monastery on a small island off the Irish coast led by Abbot Tomas O’Malley. The Order has attracted international attention for its continuation of the Latin Mass.
Now this story would be simpler (and far less interesting) if it were, as it appears at first glance, simply a story about traditionalists versus progressives. However, Tomas himself harbors the misgivings of his namesake, the doubting Thomas of the Gospels. The faith he had as a young priest no longer serves him. A story that was ostensibly about who would win out in a clash between traditionalists and progressives becomes about the very possibility of belief itself. Many people continue in observing traditional faith practices, even when the plausibility of the belief that sustains that faith seems to be discredited. It is possible to live with this tension for an interminable period of time unless, as with Abbot Tomas, the choice is forcibly presented. In the end, the question of old or new is not the decisive one. When faced with a crisis of disbelief, the final issue is as Tomas put it: “Prayer is the only miracle… We pray. If our words become prayer, God will come” (107).
This is a beautifully written novel. There are no wasted words as Moore evokes the loneliness and severity of life on the island. The tension of building storms foreshadows the tensions of the plot. I discovered this book when I heard someone refer to it as a favorite of the deceased novelist David Foster Wallace. I can see why he loved it.