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Catholics:  A Novel

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Catholics: A Novel

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Author: Brian Moore
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1977
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973
Jonathan Cape, 1972

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Theological
Alternate History (SF)
Alternate/Parallel Universe
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In Rome, surrendering to secular pressures, the Fourth Vatican Council is stirring a revolution with their official denial of the church's core doctrines. They've abolished clerical dress and private confession; the Eucharist is recognized only as an outdated symbol; and they're merging with the tenets of Buddhism. They're also unsettled by the blind faith of devout pilgrims from around the world congregating on a remote island monastery in Ireland--the last spot on earth where Catholic traditions are defiantly alive. At the behest of the Vatican, Father James Kinsella has been dispatched to Muck Abbey with an ultimatum: Adhere to the new church or suffer the consequences.

But in Abbot Tomás O'Malley, Kinsella finds less an adversary than a man of bewildering contradictions--unyieldingly bound to his vows, yet long-questioning his devotion to God. Now, between Kinsella and O'Malley comes an unexpected challenge that will reveal their truths, their purpose, their faith, and their doubt.



Robert Ellsberg On a storm-swept island off the coast of Ireland, a community of "Albanesian" monks maintains the "faith of their fathers," worshipping God as the church has for centuries, "changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ the way Jesus told his disciples to do it at the Last Supper." It was monks such as these who kept the faith alive during previous times of invasion and persecution, and who, indeed, as Thomas Cahill has put it, "saved civilization" when barbarians roamed the land. Except that now, it is the barbarians who are running the church.

Such is the background of Catholics. Brian Moore's short novel, first published in 1972, is set sometime in the near future, after a fictional Vatican IV has completed the church's wholesale capitulation to the spirit of secularism. Far beyond Vatican II's famous aggiornamento

("--updating"), the church is now on the brink of a historic apertura, allowing for the first time "interpenetration" between the Christian and Buddhist faiths.

But suddenly, on the eve of this breakthrough, comes disturbing news. Catholic pilgrims from around the world have been converging on a coastal town in Ireland where the monks of Muck Abbey, ignoring current church teaching, continue to say Mass in Latin according to the old Tridentine rite. To put an end to this scandalous anachronism, an American priest, James Kinsella, has been dispatched to deliver an ultimatum to the recalcitrant monks: either conform to the new order or face the consequences.

Kinsella is a perfect embodiment of the new Catholicism. Dressed "like a soldier boy" in denim fatigues, he is bemused by the monks' references to "mortal sin" and their attachment to the rosary, to outmoded prayers, and to the practice of private confession. Religion for him is mainly a vehicle for social change. Asked to provide his own understanding of the Mass, Kinsella, speaking for "most Catholics in the world today," describes it a purely symbolic act: "I do not, in the old sense, think of God as actually being present, there in the tabernacle," he says.

Facing Kinsella is Tomás O'Malley, the abbot of Muck, whose wily graciousness leaves us in doubt, right up to the end, about how he will respond. Will he yield to authority and give up the Latin Mass, or will he stand up defiantly for the old way? It is more than simply a dispute over language. As the monks see it, the conflict is really about the religious content of the liturgy. As one of them puts it, "This new Mass isn't a mystery, it's a mockery, a singsong, it's not talking to God, it's talking to your neighbor."

Complicating the abbot's decision, as we soon learn, is the fact that he himself has long since lost his faith. He continues in his post, much as a foreman or manager, making sure the job gets done, while dreading the day when he must face the void and enter "null." On his response rests the future of Muck Abbey, and perhaps even more.

Although the specific drama of Catholics is set in an imaginary future, the conflict it describes reflects a real tension in the post--Vatican II church. The decision in those years to replace the Tridentine Latin Mass with a new liturgy in the vernacular was a jarring transition, even for those who accepted it. For centuries, Catholics had been raised on an image of the church as essentially timeless and unchanging, united by one language, one liturgy, and one symbol of unity (an infallible pope). For some, the reforms of Vatican II called everything into question, removing the ancient symbols of faith without offering anything substantial in their place.

Of course Vatican II's reform of the liturgy, which sought to put more emphasis on the role of the community, involved no retreat from the traditional Catholic teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Nevertheless, pockets of resistance arose from the likes of Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers. After he ordained several traditionalist bishops without Vatican authorization, Lefebvre was excommunicated.

But he was by no means the most extreme case. More-radical sectarians have entirely rejected the legitimacy of Vatican II, holding that Pope John Paul II and his immediate predecessors were in fact apostates from the true faith. One can find their screeds on the internet, denouncing the pope's interfaith prayer meetings at Assisi with such vehemence that one might assume that the fanciful "apertura" was already upon us.

And yet quite apart from this paranoid fringe, concerns about the place of faith and tradition in the modern, secular world are shared by many believers. In recent years Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, were among those who warned against the danger that Christians, in the name of dialogue and openness to the world, would lose any sense of transcendent truth.

In words that might have been spoken by a monk of Muck Abbey, Cardinal Ratzinger proclaimed the following in 1988:While there are many motives that might have led a great number of people to seek a refuge in the traditional liturgy, the chief one is that they find the dignity of the sacred preserved there. After the Council there were many priests who deliberately raised "desacralization" to the level of a program, on the plea that the New Testament abolished the cult of the Temple: the veil of the Temple which was torn from top to bottom at the moment of Christ's death on the cross is, according to certain people, the sign of the end of the sacred. The death of Jesus, outside the City walls, that is to say, in the public world, is now the true religion. Religion, if it has any being at all, must have it in the nonsacredness of daily life, in love that is lived. Inspired by such reasoning, they put aside the sacred vestments; they have despoiled the churches as much as they could of that splendor which brings to mind the sacred; and they have reduced the liturgy to the language and the gestures of ordinary life, by means of greetings, common signs of friendship, and such things.This is the same man who warned, on the eve of his papal election, of the "dictatorship of relativism." In the conflict between Muck Abbey and the church of "Vatican IV," it is not hard to imagine where his sympathies would lie. What is at stake is whether the church will opt for "relevance" at the expense of emptying out the essential religious content of its faith.

Flannery O'Connor, a Southern Catholic novelist who

died in 1964, wrote extensively about this tension, as she saw it, between faith and the secularizing tendencies of her age. Long before Father Kinsella (citing the "standard belief in this day and age") would describe the Eucharist as a symbol, O'Connor supplied her own memorable reply: "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." To a liberal friend, she wrote, "All around you today you will find people accepting 'religion' that has been rid of its religious elements. This is what you are asking: if you can be a Catholic and find a natural explanation for mysteries we can never comprehend. You are asking if you can be a Catholic and substitute something for faith. The answer is no."

That is ultimately the dramatic crux of Moore's novel--not a parody of contemporary ecclesiastical politics, but a question about the ultimate mysteries that lie at the heart of faith. Kinsella and his ilk believe passionately in not much of anything. The monks of Muck Abbey, in contrast, believe just as passionately in the old certainties. And then there is Abbot Tomás, who cannot be identified unequivocally with either faction. He is a man with nothing but doubts. And yet those doubts, which at least pertain to matters of ultimate significance, may be the slender thread that preserves his connection to God.

In that light, it is fair to wonder whether the abbot's dilemma doesn't speak for the author himself. Brian Moore, who was raised as a Catholic in Protestant Belfast, claimed to have abandoned his faith long before he left Ireland for a new life in North America. And yet in many of his twenty novels he wrestled with the problem of faith and the things that take its place when it is gone. One option in this novel is the proud secularism of Father Kinsella. Another is the "null" that haunts Abbot Tomás. But is there also a third option, a "faith beyond faith," that lies beyond these characters' imagination?

According to Scripture, faith is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." There is always an element of risk in trusting in the hidden God. And so the tension between belief and doubt is not a contest between "true Catholics" and the general mass of modernists. It is a tension that runs through the heart of every believer. How will we distinguish between the essentials of faith and the changeable traditions in which it is conveyed? Is it not possible to opt for both relevance and sacred mystery? Openness to the world and a passion for truth?

Whichever choice Abbot Tomás makes will involve a leap into the void. The same is true for every Christian. We can only trust in the abbot's final words (whether he and Moore believe them or not): "If our words become prayer, God will come." Robert Ellsberg is editor in chief of Orbis Books and the author of several books, including All Saints and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

Copyright © 1972 by Brian Moore


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