The Happy Fault

Graham Greene, the equivocally Catholic novelist, writing against the background of the Mexican Revolution in The Power and the Glory, pitted the pursuing Jefe against a pursued alcoholic priest to contrast the worldly view of life and the religious view. The one man represents the confidence that there is a political man-made solution to human life, one that requires the elimination of distracting other-worldly views. The priest of course represents those distracting other-worldly views, with their consciousness of sin and the need for redemption. Call it the contrast of church and state.

The Jefe pursues the weak and fallen priest who somewhat reluctantly and with a sense of his own unworthiness fulfills his role, saying Mass, hearing confessions, baptizing, in a dangerous environment. At one point in the story, the priest has the opportunity of escaping across the border to the United States. He looks across at the glitter, the ease, the safety from pursuit, seemingly heaven on earth. This gives Greene an early opportunity to vent his dislike for America. It is clear that we are to see Gringoland as the apotheosis of the Pelagianism represented by the Jefe. The priest turns back and resumes his furtive ministry, knowing that it can only lead to his execution, as it does.

It is a powerful scene. In his travel book on Mexico, The Lawless Roads, Greene cited Cardinal Newman’s remark about Original Sin – it is inescapable that some primordial catastrophe occurred, the effects of which hang over human history. Original Sin as a matter of observation, not simply doctrine.

Kierkegaard wrote that before you throw a rock, you are free to do so or not, but once you have thrown it, you cannot unthrow it, so to speak. Sin is like that. We can commit it, all too easily, but we cannot undo it without the forgiveness of God. We cannot save ourselves. Greene underscores the gratuitousness of God’s mercy by making the priest a weak and sinful man. We cannot imagine him defying the firing squad, shouting, Viva Cristo Rey!

Something happened to Greene’s outlook over the course of his career. I think the turning point can be found in The Honorary Consul, set in Argentina with a background of liberation theology. Consider its motto, taken from Thomas Hardy: “All things merge in one another – good into evil, generosity into justice, religion into politics….” Religion into politics! A more complete reversal of the assumption of the earlier novel could not be imagined. We are all Pelagians now.

The merging of religion into politics is an abiding temptation. A phrase, difficult to bring trippingly off the tongue, sums it up. The immanentization of the eschaton. Heaven on earth, achievable by our unaided efforts. It is the original temptation that led to Original Sin. You shall be as gods.

Since at least St. Augustine’s City of God, believers have been pondering the correct balance between the supernatural and the natural, between the divine and human, between church and state. It is no part of Catholicism to swallow up the natural in the supernatural. We have two ultimate ends, Aquinas wrote, one commensurate with our nature and obtainable by our own efforts, another inexpressibly beyond anything owed us and attainable only by grace. The divine mercy not only restores us to our natural state, but confers on us the goal of the vision of God. That is why Augustine called Original Sin a felix culpa.

Self-reliance is a wonderful thing, just ask Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it demands a true conception of the self. The attainment of natural happiness by the acquisition of virtue is a chancy thing, difficult of realization, indeed all but impossible without the aid of grace, natural through it be. We persistently forget our creaturely condition and our fallen nature. A power outage or an economic downturn can concentrate the mind. What Karl Jaspers called “limit situations” bring home to us the nature of human existence. Things like misfortune, illness, mortality. We are not the ultimate masters of our life, thank God.

Even if we don’t know Aramaic, every time we say the Our Father, we are saying words that Christ put into our mouths. Simone Weil never tired of meditating on that prayer. She was unlikely to think she was making a political statement when she prayed, thy kingdom come. We must earn our bread by the sweat of our brow, and yet we ask God to provide it. Call that the paradox of Christianity.

Greene’s weak and sinful priest is all of us. And each of us, whether by firing squad or jammed arteries, will die. That is only a depressing thought if we think that death is the absolute end of us. Viva Cristo Rey!

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.