One of the most celebrated of Catholic novelists, Graham Greene, is also one of the most controverted figures in Catholic letters, or indeed English literary life period. As novelist and biographer A. N. Wilson recently noted, “for some, [Greene] was the great Catholic novelist, for others a mountebank, capable of peddling theological paradox for sensationalist effect.”
I was reminded of this sharp contrast of assessment following the publication of a new biography of Greene—Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene—by yet another Greene, one Richard, a Newfoundlander, a poet with an Oxford doctorate and professorial perch at the University of Toronto, and no relation to Graham. I remember publishing some of Richard’s poetry when I was editor of Grail, an Ecumenical Journal and I recall reading his impressively edited and informative volume of GG’s letters.
What I most treasure in Graham Greene’s fiction, in addition to his masterful command of narrative, is his extraordinary portrait of Catholic priests. The conventional ones often fare poorly—especially the prelates. Power, privilege and rank—the accustomed habiliments of ecclesiastical authority—are seldom depicted with sympathy. The Archbishop of Asuncion, Paraguay, eats fine fish and drinks French wine with the country’s aged despot and a Spanish bishop retains close ties with Franco’s regime and abominates the new class of liberals. These are the clerics Greene abhors.
But there is more to Greene’s priests than villainy; there is holiness. The fallen priest, the reprobate, the renegade—in such priests as these can be found a spark of the divine too easily extinguished in those of the Sanhedrin.
The “whisky priest” of The Power and the Glory, the guerrilla priest of The Honorary Consul, and the priest-quester of Monsignor Quixote are all criminals in the eyes of the law—both civil and canonical.
Greene’s priests are most like their Teacher, most strikingly the alter christus or other Christ, not in the degradation of the cross, or in the triumph of the empty tomb, but in the exquisite torment of Gethsemane.
The priest-rebel of Greene’s fictive world is a persistent reminder of the author’s predilection for the fallen and disobedient as the prism through which can shine the disturbing light of faith.