The Catholic Novels of Graham Greene

Last year, Graham Greene’s centennial prompted a major reconsideration of his work. His publishers brought out a new edition of his novels, the third and final volume of Norman Sherry’s biography appeared, and all the major literary reviews ran retrospectives on his life and work. The consensus from writers as disparate as James Wood, Christopher Hitchens, and John Updike was that Greene is still very much worth reading.

The Catholic element in Greene’s work also received a fair amount of attention, and nowhere more provocatively than in a review of Sherry’s book by the English writer Simon Heffer, who argued that for non-Catholics Greene’s faith is “simply irrelevant” or, worse, “an exposition of hypocrisy.” Taking into account the novelist’s chronic adultery, his inveterate absence from the communion rail, and his own admission that he was what he called a “Catholic agnostic,” Heffer concluded that Greene’s religion was “a pose…which he turned into a series of money-making opportunities.” Such charges prove that Greene’s faith remains a contentious issue, but to see whether they survive scrutiny, we need to revisit Greene’s four Catholic novels—Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951)—and relevant aspects of his life.

One measure of the boldness of Greene’s achievement is how persistently it has been misunderstood. The knuckle-rapping from the English reviewer recalls George Orwell’s famous review of The Heart of the Matter. There Orwell upbraided Greene for perpetuating “the idea…floating around since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingu( in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only, since the others, the non-Catholics, are too ignorant to be held guilty….”

That Catholics have been given the means of recognizing sin more accurately than non-Catholics and are therefore more damnable is a teaching that one should think atheists would find consoling. But Orwell was implacable. His objections to Scobie, the hero of The Heart of the Matter, were of a piece with his objections to Christianity: He thought both absurd and inhumane. He took particular exception to Greene’s quoting Charles Peguy in the book’s epigraph—Le pécheur est au coeur même de chrétienté—because, as he said, “All such sayings contain, or can be made to contain, the fairly sinister suggestion that ordinary human decency is of no value….” But it was precisely to examine the limits of “ordinary human decency,” bound by pity and pride, that Greene wrote The Heart of the Matter.

In another piece, Orwell declared: “I do not want the belief in life after death to return, and in any case it is not likely to return…. Reared for thousands of years on the notion that the individual survives, man has got to get used to the notion that the individual perishes. He is not likely to salvage civilization unless he can evolve a system of good and evil which is independent of heaven and hell.” This is comical stuff, coming from someone who objected to the allowances the Church makes for invincible ignorance. Orwell complained that Greene assumed that “no one outside the Catholic Church has the most elementary knowledge of Christian doctrine.” The problem was that Greene assumed altogether too much knowledge. When it came to matters of the Faith, Orwell was like Pinkie’s girlfriend in Brighton Rock, about whose unfamiliarity with evil Greene says, “It was as if she were in a strange country: the typical Englishwoman abroad, she hadn’t even got a guide book.”

At first, Greene meant only to visit the strange country of Catholicism. In 1926, at the age of 22, while working in Nottingham as a sub-editor of the Times, he sought instruction to please his Catholic fiancée, Vivien Dayrell-Browning. As he told an interviewer much later, “I slipped a note into a collection box in the cathedral…. I wanted to understand what she believed in…. I had no thought of becoming a convert.” Then he met Father Trollope, who was a convert himself. Before entering the Church and becoming a priest, Trollope had been playing villains on the London stage for ten years. In his autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), Greene described his stage-struck catechist as “a very tall and very fat man with big smooth jowls which looked as though they had never seen a razor…. He resembled a character in one of those nineteenth-century paintings to be seen in the wrong side of Piccadilly—monks and cardinals enjoying their Friday abstinence by dismembering enormous lobsters and pouring great goblets of wine.”

Catechist and catechumen debated points of theology while traveling by tram. Greene tried parrying Trollope’s doctrinal thrusts with the arguments of atheism, In Brighton Rock, Greene’s first Catholic novel, there is an exchange that one can imagine Greene having had with Trollope. “I don’t believe in what my eyes don’t see,” one character says. To which Pinkie, the hell-haunted gang leader responds, “They don’t see much then.” When Greene eventually recognized the reality of the Faith, he made his general confession with “somber apprehension.” He was surprised by the depth of his conversion. “Suppose I discovered in myself what Father Trollope had once discovered, the desire to become a priest…. At that moment it seemed by no means impossible.” Later, in Mexico in 1938, when the Socialists had outlawed the Church, he felt his faith deepen when he saw what he described in The Power and the Glory as “an odd grove of crosses” standing up “blackly against the sky…some as high as twenty feet, some not much more than eight”—palpable proof of the “dark and magical heart of the faith” and its resilience.

Years later, when he felt his faith wavering, he described the counsels of the lapsed with sad precision: “We…become hardened to the formulas of confession and skeptical about ourselves: we…only half intend to keep the promises we make, until continual failure or the circumstances of our private life, finally make it impossible to make any promises at all and many of us abandon Confession and Communion to join the Foreign Legion of the Church and fight for a city of which we are no longer full citizens.” The circumstances of his private life that kept Greene away from the communion rail were a series of long-term adulterous affairs—at first with Dorothy Glover, an intellectual bohemian with whom he shared a passion for Victorian detective fiction; then with Catherine Walston, an American beauty who was as besotted with theology as she was sexually insatiable; and finally with Yvonne Cloetta, a married Breton woman, whom Selina Hastings, Evelyn Waugh’s biographer, described as “a brightly coloured Barbie doll…a glamorous bourgeoisie…smart, sexy, practical and tough.” He also invested a fair amount of time and money in the society of prostitutes. The remarkable thing is that he remained on good terms not only with his wife but with all his lady loves. Clearly, Greene was something of a card—a pistolero, to use a word he uses to good effect in The Power and the Glory—but an unusually endearing one.

In Life Everlasting (1952), a brilliant exposition of the four last things, the Dominican theologian Garrigou-Lagrange remarks that “the mysteries of iniquity and wickedness, and their consequences, are more obscure than the mysteries of grace. They are obscure not only to us, but even in themselves.” In Brighton Rock, a book of breathtaking originality, about the writing of which Greene once said, “I have never again felt so much the victim of my own inventions,” he revealed the heart of those mysteries with stunning vividness. V. S. Pritchett rightly observed that Greene’s greatest achievement was to revive the sense of evil in the English novel, from which it had been absent since the death of Henry James. The Brighton in which the book is set is a tawdry, seaside inferno, where the only character aware of the stakes of good and evil is Pinkie, a nail-biting young thug who declares that, “When they christened me, the holy water didn’t take. I never howled the devil out.”

The extraordinary thing about this most relentlessly nasty book is how exhilarating it is. And although no good Catholic novel should read like a theological tract, it is remarkable that a book whose hero has his heart set on damnation should ultimately reaffirm the power of grace. The book illustrates Garrigou-Lagrange’s point: “Darkness and evil show in their manner the value of eternal light, of the sanctity that cannot be lost.” Or, as Lacordaire, another Dominican, put it, “A soul, the most precious work of the Creator, will live on forever. You can soil that soul, but you cannot destroy it. God, whose justice you have challenged, turns even lost souls into images of His law, heralds of His justice.”

In 1949, Evelyn Waugh wrote his friend Nancy Mitford, “I had an excruciating weekend in a convent in Surrey conducting a ‘Catholic Booklovers Weekend’…. The sorts of questions are, of course, ‘Why does Mr. Greene have such a nasty mind?” Greene’s nasty-mindedness was deliberate. He used nastiness not to remonstrate with the ill-behaved or gratify prurience or exhibit the pathologies of vice but to appeal to his readers’ sense of goodness. In The Power and the Glory, his best book, the whiskey priest is thrown in jail for being caught with a bottle of brandy. There, in a crowded cell, he encounters a fellow prisoner who “had the tiresome intense note of a pious woman.” The priest surmises that the woman has been locked up “for having a holy picture in her house.”

The novel is set in Mexico in the late 1930s when the Marxists were persecuting the Church. Such women “were extraordinarily foolish over pictures. He had always been worried by the fate of pious women: as much as politicians, they fed on illusion: he was frightened for them. They came to death so often in a state of invincible complacency, full of uncharity. It was one’s duty, if one could, to rob them of their sentimental notions of what was good.” When the woman objects to some prisoners copulating in a corner of the cell, the priest turns to her and says, “Saints talk about the beauty of suffering. Well, we are not saints, you and I. Suffering to us is just ugly. Stench and crowding and pain. That is beautiful in that corner—to them. It needs a lot of learning to see things with a saint’s eye.” The woman is shocked. “I can see you’re a bad priest,” she says. “You sympathize with these animals.” The priest does sympathize with the animals, as did Greene, and he proved his sympathy by disabusing readers of pharisaical “notions of what was good.” His nasty-mindedness was salutary.

The corollary of Greene’s refusal to pander to false notions of good was his readiness to acknowledge the ubiquity of evil. “Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth,” observes the narrator in The Heart of the Matter. “Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death; on this side flourished the injustice, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst.” In Greeneland, whether in Brighton or Mexico, Sierre Leone or London, the worst is inescapable. Lust and deceit, hatred and betrayal thrive, and what virtue there is—like Scobie’s honesty—comes to grief. The only thing that redeems the characters is their sense of their own unworthiness: There are no plaster saints in Greeneland.

The special attention the pope has recently accorded the Eucharist makes one doubly aware of the humility with which Greene’s characters approach the body and blood of Our Lord. Neither for Scobie nor the whiskey priest is the heart of the Mass what Scobie’s lover calls “hooey.” The words of the Latin liturgy haunt them: “Domine, non sum dignus… Domine, non sum dignus… Domine, non sum dignus…” Scobie’s prayer is on the lips of nearly all of Greene’s conscience-wracked Catholics: “O God, I have deserted you. Do not you desert me.” Greene has often been called a Jansenist—Cornelius Jansen was the 17th-century Dutch theologian whose misreading of Augustine caused him to share the theological pessimism of Luther and Calvin—but he inclined to see good and evil in the more flexible, forgiving terms of Jansen’s enemies, the Jesuits.

In The End of the Affair, Greene ransacked the details of his affair with Walston to create a vision of love and hate that transforms the novel of adultery, uncovering possibilities in the genre that never occurred to Tolstoy or Flaubert. The story has the simplicity of melodrama. (Greene was an avid student of James’s moral melodramas.) An adulterous affair ends—or perhaps one should say begins—when the heroine, Helen, vows to God during a bombing raid to cut off her illicit relations if He spares Maurice, her lover. Maurice is spared, and Helen makes good her promise. When she dies shortly thereafter, Maurice is left to ponder the nature of his lover’s devout departure. For him, God has absconded with his lover, and he spends the rest of the book protesting the fact in a rage of jealousy.

The funny bits of the novel are some of the funniest Greene ever wrote. Despite his preoccupation with sin, or perhaps because of it, Greene was a superb comedian.

“You’d be surprised,” Miss Smythe said. “People are longing for a message of hope.”


“Yes, hope,” [Mr.] Smythe said. “Can’t you see what hope there’d be, if everybody in the world knew that there was nothing else than what we have here? No future compensation, rewards, punishments.” His face had a crazy nobility…. “Then we’d begin to make this world like heaven.”

“There’s a terrible lot to be explained first,” I said.

“Can I show you my library? It’s the best rationalist library in South London,” Miss Smythe explained.

In another memorable exchange, Maurice is speaking with his lover’s husband, Bendrix, and the topic of the Real Presence comes up. Bendrix says, “In the Mass they still believe in transubstantiation.” To which Maurice responds, “Materialism isn’t only an attitude for the poor…. Some of the finest brains have been materialist, Pascal, Newman. So subtle in some directions: so crudely superstitious in others. One day we may know why: it may be a glandular deficiency.”

For all its jokes, there is a serious side to the book. The blasphemies heaped on God by Maurice are the blasphemies of impenitence. Garrigou-Lagrange describes this rebellious state with unsettling lucidity: “The soul has a horror of God, an aversion which comes from unrepented sin which still holds it captive. Continuing to judge according to its unregulated inclination, it has not only lost charity, but it has acquired a hatred of God. Thus it is lacerated by an interior contradiction. It is carried towards the source of its natural life, but it detests the just judge, and expresses its rage by blasphemy.” There is no better gloss on the God-hating hero of The End of the Affair.

John Henry Newman, whom Greene read closely, always insisted that Catholic literature should not be confused with theology. Otherwise, the “literary layman” might very well “wince at the idea, and shrink from the proposal, of taking part in…the formation of a Catholic literature, under the apprehension that in some way or another he will be entangling himself in a semi-clerical occupation.” Greene sought to obviate this confusion by reminding readers that he was a novelist who simply happened to be a Catholic.

But to no avail: All his life he was obliged to defend himself against criticisms from Catholics who charged that his novels were theology, and heterodox theology at that. (Ian Ker’s reading of Greene’s Catholic fiction in his recent The Catholic Revival in English Literature is a brilliant exception.) If the criticisms of his coreligionists tend to be muddled, those of secular critics are worse. In his critical biography of Greene published in 1994, Michael Shelden accused his subject of being homicidal, sadomasochistic, homosexual, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and treasonous. Yet he was particularly venomous about Greene’s faith, which he contrived to see as the faith of a double agent. According to Shelden, the Catholic Church for Greene “was an enormous edifice that could sustain heavy assaults without collapsing. He could subject it to one indignity after another, turning its good points into bad ones, making its God a devil, and Lucifer a saint. He could ridicule its priests and parody its rituals. Best of all it was possible to do this from within, to pose as a friend in the day and to chip away at the foundations at night. And in the end the Church would have to forgive him, because that is what religion is all about.”

A propos The End of the Affair, Shelden says, “No major novelist has shown as much ingenuity in abusing the God of Christianity. It is a dubious distinction, but one that Greene fully deserves.” This is tantamount to saying that Greene deliberately used the novel to advance treacherous anti-Catholic prejudices, a conspiracy theory that would have amused the old spy in Greene. It also misinterprets Greene’s use of blasphemy, which is never so much to abuse or ridicule as to reaffirm God. Deny this ABC truth, and the blasphemies of Maurice in The End of the Affair can have no dramatic point whatsoever. Shelden may have acclaimed biographies to his credit of George Orwell and Cyril Connolly, but his ignorance of the faith that inspired Greene prevents his saying anything accurate about his art; and when it comes to recounting the life, he is uncharitable to the point of malice. Sherry, the authorized biographer, is more just about the life, but his insistence on seeing the novels as romans a clef makes for tedious reading.

Some of the best insights into Greene’s art can be found in Greene’s own critical writings. Like T. S. Eliot, he wrote a fair amount of what Eliot called “workshop criticism,” in which he examined the work of others with an eye to refining his own. Thus, about G. K. Chesterton he says, “Much of the difficulty of theology arises from the efforts of men who are not primarily writers to distinguish a quite simple idea with the utmost accuracy. [Chesterton] restated the original thought with the freshness, simplicity, and excitement of discovery. In fact, it was discovery: he unearthed the defined from beneath the definitions….”

This is precisely what Greene does when he gives dramatic life to such concepts as damnation or blasphemy, goodness or pride. In a brilliant series of pieces on Frederick Rolfe, the mandarin novelist and priest manqué, Greene notes that “the greatest saints have been men with more than a normal capacity for evil, and the most vicious men have sometimes narrowly evaded sanctity”—an observation that distills the essence of The Power and the Glory. As the narrator says of the whiskey priest, after he has been condemned to death, “He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted—to be a saint.” In an essay on Somerset Maugham, Greene says, “Rob human beings of their heavenly and their infernal importance, and you rob your characters of their individuality.” Greene may have agreed with Mr. Smythe in The End of the Affair that “people are longing for a message of hope,” but he would never have agreed with him, or with Orwell, that that message was possible without reference to “their heavenly and their infernal importance.”

To answer our English reviewer: Suggesting that Greene can be read without reference to his Catholic faith is like suggesting that Surtees can be read without reference to fox hunting. Suggesting that his faith was bogus, or assumed to sell books, is simply untrue. Greene’s faith was central to his being. That he failed to adhere to certain Church teachings does not invalidate his recognition of the binding truth of those teachings or brand him a hypocrite. He saw his failings clearly enough and never tried to appear better than he was. If anything, like Swift, he delighted in appearing worse.

In all events, in failing his faith, he blamed himself, not the Faith. In “A Visit to Morin,” one of his later short stories, a lapsed Catholic novelist declares:

I can tell myself now that my lack of belief is a final proof that the Church is right and the faith is true. I had cut myself off for twenty years from grace and my belief withered as the priests said it would. I don’t believe in God and His Son and His angels and His saints, but I know the reason why I don’t believe and the reason is—the Church is true and what she taught me is true. For twenty years I have been without the sacraments and 1 can see the effect. The wafer must be more than wafer.

This is hardly the writing of someone whose faith is factitious. As Samuel Johnson once observed, “He that is most deficient in the duties of life, makes some atonement for his faults, if he warns others against his own failings, and hinders, by the salubrity of his admonitions, the contagion of his example.” Greene’s Catholic novels are his best not only because they are his liveliest but because they reaffirm the basis of hope, which is truth. Not the truth as it appears to Scobie, when he claims: “The truth…has never been of any real value to any human being—it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue.” But the truth of the saints, who understand, like St. Francis de Sales, that, “Let us go where we will, be where we will, we shall always be where God is.”


  • Edward Short

    Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries, Newman and His Family, and of Culture and Abortion. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York.

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