Sin vs. Flourishing

This week’s Mubi selection prompted a viewing of Brighton Rock, an allegedly classic British film noir based on Graham Greene’s novel of the same name.

Pinkie Brown is a small-town hoodlum whose gang runs a protection racket based at Brighton race course. When Pinkie murders a journalist called Fred Hale whom he believes is responsible for the death of a fellow gang-member, the police believe it to be suicide. This doesn’t convince Ida Arnold, who was with Fred just before he died, and she sets out to find the truth. She comes across naive waitress Rose, who can prove that Fred was murdered. In an attempt to keep Rose quiet Pinkie marries her. But with his gang beginning to doubt his ability, and his rivals taking over his business, Pinkie starts to become more desperate and violent. (from IMDB)

The Roman Catholic aspect of the movie was striking. Pinkie seems to know that God exists and will exact a penalty for his life of crime. His wife, Rose, is a Roman Catholic like Pinkie and also has a strong sense of right and wrong even while aiding and abetting her criminal husband. (Yes, the Roman Catholic version of antinomianism — think Mafia dons and whiskey priests — comes to mind.) Here is one description of Greene’s novel and his characters:

All of Greene’s novels were written after his conversion to Catholicism and a religious sense pervades most of them. However, Catholicism was not a vital ingredient in his fiction until Brighton Rock (1938) in which it was developed with a Manichean rigor. . . . In Brighton Rock, for example. Pinkie, the seventeen-year-old Catholic punk, seems possessed by evil and, therefore, in his own eyes—and in those of many of Greene’s readers—capable of being condemned to hell. Brighton Rock is easily classified as a religious novel. But Greene has commented in recent years that Pinkie’s actions were conditioned by the social circumstances in which he had been born and he could not, therefore, be guilty of mortal sin. . . .

[Greene] says, “I don’t believe in hell. I never have believed in hell. . . . They say God is mercy … so it’s contradictory.” (Many years earlier Greene wrote in Lawless Roads, a work of non-fiction: “One began to believe in heaven because one believed in hell, but for a long while it was only hell one could picture with a certain intimacy.” This view is quite close to that of Pinkie in Brighton Rock, except that Pinkie had difficulty in making the leap to a belief in heaven. Still, as Greene noted, one shouldn’t expect unchanging constancy in a writer.)

Greene was, obviously, all over the place when it came to faith. An excerpt from one of his books, which included an interview on faith, suggests he was not in step with the trads, the rads, or the trad-rads:

I don’t like the term ”sin”: It’s redolent of a child’s catechism. The term has always stuck in my throat, because of the Catholic distinction between ”mortal” and ”venial” sin. The latter is often so trivial as not even to deserve the name of sin. As for mortal sin, I find the idea difficult to accept because it must by definition be committed in defiance of God. I doubt whether a man making love to a woman ever does so with the intention of defying God! I always remember the example of a Dominican priest who found his life in Europe too easy and left for Africa, where he lived for years in a hut made out of old tin cans, only to discover that he was suffering from the sin of pride. He came back to England and confided to a friend that during all this time of hearing the confessions of the faithful, he had never come across a single mortal sin. In other words, for him, mortal sin didn’t exist. The word ”mortal” presupposes a fear of hell, which I find meaningless. This being the case, I fear that I’m a Protestant in the bosom of the church.

Vatican officials worried about Greene’s views (and especially the adultery that supplied material for his novels). But they gave him a long leash because England was Protestant and it wouldn’t look good to crack down on Roman Catholic novelists with so many Protestants watching:

Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, according to expert opinion, are to be considered the two major living English novelists: being Catholic they do credit to Rome’s faith, and they do credit to it in a country that is of Protestant civilization and culture. How can Rome be gruff and cruel? They are the successors of Chesterton and Belloc and, like them, rather than attempting to convert the small fry, strive to influence superior intelligences and the spirit of the age in a manner favorable to Catholicism. Their level, unlike that of a Bruce Marshall, is not that of average I.Q.s or, like the clergy in general, that of uneducated readers or pure professionals. Their level is the higher intelligentsia in the contemporary world which they sway and influence towards Rome …

All of this is fascinating, but what is striking about Greene’s novels (and the movies based on them), along with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is that the point of becoming Roman Catholic is not to flourish as a human being or civilizationally. The believing characters like Rose, and the defiant non-practicing ones like Pinkie, do not look at Christianity as a way to live the good life. Theirs is a world haunted by moral choices and a God who judges them. Heaven and hell give meaning, not flourishing.

Buyer’s Remorse or Remorse over Buyers?

Alan Jacobs warns converts who would be apologists:

Waugh is one of those converts in whom Catholics take great pride. If I were in their position, I would do everything in my power to prevent the world from finding out that he belonged to my communion. If the rightly administered sacraments are presumed to be instruments of grace, it appears that Waugh, at any rate, was invulnerable to their power. I would appreciate it if my Catholic brothers and sisters took the unremitting nastiness of the man more seriously. I have yet to hear one say that when Waugh took the Sacrament he did so unworthily, though I do not believe, given his gleeful and freely expressed hatred of almost everyone he knew, that anyone could reasonably say that he did so worthily.

He believed that by becoming Catholic he had ensured his own salvation, and from that elevated seat taunted his friends who remained Outside: “Awful about your obduracy in schism and heresy,” he wrote to the Anglican John Betjeman. “Hell hell hell. Eternal damnation.” Only some wholly unacquainted with Waugh’s views would think he was joking. Betjeman certainly didn’t.

Evelyn Waugh Would Have to Re-Write Brideshead

Phil Lawler wonders about the pastoral implications of Pope Francis’ pastoral advice in Amoris Laetitia. Consider the plight of “regular” Roman Catholics:

In any Catholic community there will always be some devout believers who, following the Lord’s advice, “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” They will pray often and ardently, try to attend daily Mass, practice their own private devotions, and seek out spiritual direction from priests who demand a lot of them. For these people—let’s call them “high-octane” Catholics—Gresham’s Law will not apply. They are the equivalent of the folks who demand payment in doubloons.

But most Catholics, in most times and places, are not of the high-octane variety. Most “regular” parishioners will do what the Church demands of them, but will not seek out extra rigors. They will attend Sunday Mass on a regular basis, raise their children in the faith, follow the precepts of the Church as they understand them, contribute to the parish. Faithful if not zealous, they will form the backbone of the Catholic community. Nourished by the sacraments and encouraged by their pastors, they will grow in faith; some will eventually become high-octane Catholics.

Now notice how these “regular” Catholics—who sincerely intend to meet their obligations, without taking on extra burdens—are likely to choose between two hypothetical parishes:

In Parish A, Sunday Mass lasts 90 minutes or more; the liturgy is “high” and solemn; the Gregorian chant is unfamiliar. In Parish B, Mass is out in 40 minutes; the hymns sound like (and sometimes are) snappy show tunes.

In Parish A, religious-education classes are demanding, and students who do not master the basic catechism lessons do not advance. In Parish B, teachers assume that “they’re good kids” and don’t worry about details.

In Parish A, when a young couple comes to discuss marriage, and the pastor notices that they list the same home address on their registration forms, he tells them that they must live separately. In Parish B the pastor “doesn’t notice” the matching addresses, and plans for the wedding can move forward.

In Parish A, priests often preach on controversial topics, driving home the Church’s least popular messages, reminding the parishioners of their sins. In Parish B, the homily is always a gentle reminder that we should be kind to one another, and not too rough on ourselves.

Needless to say, high-octane Catholics will flock to Parish A. Regular Catholics will gravitate toward Parish B. Human nature being what it is, most people will choose the less demanding of two options.

Now notice what happens to priests in these parishes when they meet a couple that has been re-married:

In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis sets up the model of a pastor who will meet with these couples, help them to review and assess their lives, to repent their past failings, to bring their lives closer to the Christian ideal, and to do everything that they can in their current circumstances to grow in holiness. Exactly how this process will unfold is unclear, because, as the Pope explains, it is impossible to anticipate all the unique circumstances of any individual case. But clearly the Pope is describing a rigorous process, rather than a quick solution.

But what sort of priest would insist on that rigor in his dealings with a remarried couple? The pastor of Parish A, probably. But that pastor would very likely tell the couple that if they wish to receive the sacraments they must live as brother and sister. And the couple, for that matter, if they were active parishioners in Parish A, would probably have reached that conclusion for themselves already. So Amoris Laetitiae would bring no change in their case.

In Parish B, on the other hand, the pastor—having long ago established the pattern of requiring only the minimum—would be far more likely to tell the couple that they should not worry about details, that they should feel free to receive the Eucharist. In all likelihood he would already have conveyed that message, and they would already be in the Communion line every Sunday. Again, the apostolic exhortation would cause no significant change.

But consider what might happen in the marginal cases, where change is most visible. What will happen to divorced/remarried couples who, after years away from the faith, are inspired by the Pope’s message to return to the fold? If they happen to meet with a priest who expects them to go through a long and difficult process, aren’t they likely to seek a second opinion, and maybe a third, until inevitably, they find a pastor who will welcome them back immediately, with no requirements and no strings attached? Hasn’t that pattern already been clearly established by the young couples who want their wedding scheduled without a demanding marriage-prep program, or want their children confirmed without a rigorous CCD requirement?

This is not exactly the church that was opposed to any trace of modernity for at least 150 years.

Now imagine the real life (fictional couple) of Rex Mottram and Julia Marchmain:

Julia manages to match Sebastian’s dissolute lifestyle through her own acts of intransigence. She eventually plans to marry Rex Mottram, a Protestant Canadian, who has managed to gain a seat in the House of Commons. It is this relationship with Rex that marks Julia’s descent into chronic sin. Julia learns that Rex may be carrying on an affair with a mistress. She thinks that if they become engaged, this can put an end to the affair. When it doesn’t, she then begins to reason that if she is going to keep Rex from being unfaithful, she will have to offer sexual gratification to her fiancé before they are married. Julia justifies this in her own mind and presents the proposition to a priest: “Surely, Father, it can’t be wrong to commit a small sin myself in order to keep him from a much worse one?” The Jesuit responds in the negative and suggests that she make her confession. It is this moment, when Julia does not receive what she wants, that she turns against the faith: “‘No, thank you,’ she said, as though refusing the offer of something in a shop. ‘I don’t think I want to today,’ and walked angrily home. From that moment she shut her mind against her religion.”

During their engagement, Rex agrees to receive instruction so that he can convert to Catholicism. However, matters are exasperated when it is revealed that Rex was previously married and divorced in Canada. Rex does not understand how this can be an impediment to a prospective marriage to Julia and he sees no difference between his divorce and the granting of an annulment. When it is obvious that nothing can be done with only a few weeks before the wedding, Julia and Rex agree to marry in a Protestant ceremony, separating themselves from Catholic society and the Marchmain family. Julia’s intransigence reaches its peak as she voices a modern refusal to recognize objective sin: “I don’t believe these priests know everything. I don’t believe in hell for things like that. I don’t know that I believe in it for anything.”

So which priest would Rex and Julia seek? Parish A or Parish B? This writer thinks Parish B’s priest is closer to Pope Francis’ instruction in his apostolic exhortation:

If they were alive today, would Julia and Charles have had to part ways? Amoris Laetitia offers alternatives: “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” Couldn’t Julia and Charles have spoken with Father MacKay in the internal forum for the sake of contributing to the “formation of a correct judgment”?

Even the idea of living as brother and sister seems to be impossible in this modern age. While Julia explains to Charles that she plans to “[j]ust go on – alone” this is not a sad revelation because she is finally able to receive God’s mercy and to return to a right relationship with Him. However Amoris Laetitia makes it seem that “going on alone” or abstaining from sexual intercourse is impossible in 2016. Pope Francis explains that “many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.’” In the age of Brideshead, one didn’t die if they abstained from sexual intimacy. Apparently, in this sex-obsessed age, it is impossible for one to live without it.

Some will say that no dogma has changed. And sure the dogma of mortal and venial sins have not changed. But if priests’ pastoral counsel, with a green light from the magisterium, is defective by not warning the flock from sin, if it tolerates sinful practices under the guise of being pastoral, something has changed.

Evelyn Waugh knew that the Church of England had changed (even when dogma hadn’t). Do Roman Catholic apologists think Waugh wouldn’t notice this?