The Grand Inquisitor
John Zmirak, illustrated by Carla Millar, Crossroad, $19.95, 76 pages
A graphic novel is a comic book on steroids: It’s bigger, fiercer, and capable of heavy lifting. What could be a heavier topic than a conspiracy to destroy Christ’s Church from within? That’s the theme of John Zmirak’s latest, The Grand Inquisitor.
My guess is I’m not the target audience for this book. Who is? As one writer put it, “Comic book fans are not known for their interest in the Vatican, and people concerned about the future of the Church are not usually found amongst the geeks and fan-boys in comic book shops.” Surprisingly, a decent number of such intellectual cross-dressers have come out of the closet to endorse this novel. And every single one of them is a guy.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Naturally, I couldn’t wait to read it.
Zmirak’s work is typically . . . well, not typical. His other books include the rollicking historical/gastronomical Bad Catholic’s Guides (see my review) and the scholarly Wilhelm Ropke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist.
Carla Millar’s illustrations bring flesh and blood to the text. The result is a sort of action movie in Miltonic verse. The nearly 80 pages of lavish black-and-white images are unfailingly striking, and often disturbing.
As you may have guessed, the story is a knock-off of the famous tale by Dostoyevsky as found in The Brothers Karamazov. In the original tale, Christ returns to earth. He is a gentle and compassionate Christ who, by healing the sick and raising the dead, soon earns the adoration of the people. It doesn’t last. The Grand Inquisitor summons Christ to stand trial before the Spanish Inquisition. Christ submits silently while He is condemned for giving mankind the dual burden of faith and freedom, “the curse of the knowledge of good and evil.”
The Grand Inquisitor argues that, for a great many souls, freedom results in sin. Therefore a great many souls are lost, condemned to eternal fire. There is a better way: “I will stand up and point out to Thee the thousand millions of happy children who have known no sin.”
Thousands of millions of ignorant souls. Ignorance is bliss, heavenly bliss.
In Zmirak and Millar’s tale, it is not Christ but His vicar who is on trial. The man, poised to become the next pope, is a faithful African priest, simple and direct, accustomed to persecution. On arrival in Rome, he is immediately locked in an asylum. His fellow inmate is an aged Ukrainian cardinal — drugged, incoherent, and prophetic:
Blessed is he who turns this bread to stones, but woe to you when men revile and spit upon you for the sake of the Kingdom of the World . . .
Enter Primo D’Angeli, an aged cardinal too old even to vote in the conclave, at first kindly, even sympathetic — an old white man in stark comic book contrast to the vital, dark young priest. D’Angeli soon reveals himself as the one man who wielded power behind the scenes “these fifty silent years.” His mission: to destroy knowledge of good and evil, promote ignorance, and thus secure the clear, uninformed consciences of the masses. He considers himself another Christ; a corrected version of Christ, a renewed Christ:
Behold the man.
To save the world, my soul’s the victim host
now immolated for my brethren’s sins.
This sacrifice will blot out Christ’s — who slummed
in Hell for one bad weekend, then arose:
I offer up my soul, eternally.
In this he echoes Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: “For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy.”
He accuses the African of teaching the people the true faith under impossible conditions — that is, knowing human weakness.
You’ve given them the Gospel, though, so now they are responsible for it. And then, a terrible persecution begins . . . . All those souls, now damned in tens of thousands for denying the known truth, renouncing Christ. Do you, their helpless shepherd, watch and weep?
Moral theologians have long grappled with this theme: Can the mass of humanity go on in sin and, unknowing, be saved?
The front of the book contains an excerpt of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1991 “Conscience and Truth,” wherein the cardinal recounts a dispute in which the idea is taken to its extreme: Can even those guilty of crimes against humanity, acting so in good conscience, be saved?
I won’t spoil it for you. I will say I enjoyed the change from the old schoolroom dilemma: Can the ignorant African who has never heard of Christ be saved? This African knows Christ; he lives Christ. Far more compelling is what Zmirak proposes here: Can a post-Christian populace that has never heard of Christ be saved?