What is the fascination that Catholicism has for prominent British thinkers? The list of prominent converts is a long one (Cardinal Newman, Evelyn Waugh, Tony Blair, G.K. Chesterton, Beryl Bainbridge, Thomas Merton, John Dryden), but, honestly, the whole phenomenon just baffles me a little bit. I don’t think we have anything like it in America. I mean, I guess in America, intellectuals would become evangelical Christians (since that is our rebellious yet conservative religion). But I don’t think that happens very often, does it?
Now, I went to a pretty decent Catholic school that was run by pretty open-minded monks, and I think that’s given me a much more positive view of Catholicism than is possessed by most non-Catholics, but I’d still never to become a Catholic. Even if madness was to strike me and I was to suddenly harbor a belief in the divinity of Christ, I think I’d probably become an evangelical Christian.*
But I think I come closest to understanding the appeal of Catholicism when I read the novels of Graham Greene. He is unflinching. He doesn’t stack the deck in favor of the Church at all. In Brighton Rock,** the Catholics are silly, strange and immoral and the non-Catholics are admirable and forthright.
For instance, the two Catholic protagonists of Brighton Rock are Pinkie, a 17 year old gangster who commits a reckless series of murders, and Rose, his 16 year old girlfriend. They both have a primitive, unreasoning belief in Hell and Good and Evil and in the ritual of Catholicism. They believe in the magical powers of the sacraments. Pinkie thinks that one confession can wipe away his sins. Rose thinks that she is going to hell because she doesn’t marry Pinkie in a church wedding.
Their primary antagonist is one of the world’s unlikeliest detectives, a bartender (rapidly approaching forty) named Ida. She is a sybarite who believes (in a simple, primitive way) that there is nothing after death and that living well is the only important value. However, she has a good heart that she opens to all passersby. And she has a simple instinctive understanding of the difference between Right and Wrong.
These come into play when she briefly comes into contact with a man, right before Pinkie murders him. When she reads about the death in the paper, she is touched by the man’s lonely plight and she decides to investigate his death. Slowly, inexorably, she chases down all possible leads (in between betting on horses and going on sprees with her boyfriend), and eventually ferrets out the truth.
The novel provides two main joys. The first is seeing the contrast between Ida’s worldview and that of the young lovers. Ida lives a clean, brief, uncomplicated life that contains much which is admirable. But you also see the value that is provided to Pinkie and Rose by their morbid, superstitious religious belief. They are as poor and lost as people can be, but their religion provides them with a sense of elevation. Catholicism has a place for them in a way that Ida’s secular humanism does not.
And the second joy is the setting. The novel takes place in Brighton, which is a somewhat-seedy seaside destination for 1940s British people. It seems a lot like Ocean City or Santa Cruz. In a place like Brighton, fun doesn’t mean relaxation…fun is something that you have to work for…fun must be pulled out of the arms of the grasping, heat-stricken crowds who are all searching for the same thing. Fun requires hustle and energy. It’s a grim (but somehow empowering) view of lower-middle-class leisure. These are people who aren’t really supposed to have vacations. And, as such, they’ve been given this horrible little place in which to try to relax. But they make the most of it. They have fun anyway.
And the subtle class distinctions are fascinating. For instance, Ida and Rose are neither of them rich. And they both work in food-service. But Ida is clearly from a somewhat higher class than Rose. For Ida, life is not the struggle that it is for Rose.
Brighton Rock was dark. Not dark in terms of its outcomes or moral universe…but physically dark. When I read it, it felt like all the action was occurring in the background of a faded black-and-white photo. It was an odd feeling…but one that was not without its pleasures.
* Protestant beliefs have always seemed a little cleaner, simpler, and more logical to me than Catholic ones. And evangelical Christianity seems a little more fun and colorful than mainline Protestantism. Although, realistically, I’d probably have to become an adherent of some mainline Christian church that’s tolerant of the gays, like Episcopalianism or something.
**I made this same observation in my post on Graham Greene’s The Power And The Glory.