Liberal, As It Was

If you want to know what a culture is like, it helps to look not only at the masterpieces but at the best of the “popular.”  That will include many a fine work whose appeal is not in the same category as the appeal of Goethe or Milton.  You sing the hymns of John Newton and William Cowper.  You recite the poetry of Longfellow.  You watch the films of Frank Capra.

What was liberal Catholicism like before the second Vatican Council?  The question is too broad to admit of one answer, but I think that some of its features appear in The Keys of the Kingdom by the Catholic novelist and physician A.J. Cronin.  It’s not a great novel.  It’s a very good novel of the kind I am talking about.  It is solidly of its provenance; like a well-wrought Victorian armoire.

Those who remember the book or the film made from it will recall the principal figure: Father Chisholm (played by Gregory Peck), an un-clerical Scottish priest who is placed in charge of a mission in the interior of China.  He had been expecting a thriving church and school, according to the statistics sent home by the previous pastor.  Instead there is mud, a stable hardly fit for horses, and a pair of avaricious “rice Christians,” eager to assist the new Shang-Fu for money and influence.

Father Chisholm sends the hypocrites away with a manly begone, Satan.  None of that trimming for him.  Instead, he first wins the people over by his elementary skills in medicine, and slowly, with his back and shoulders, and the help of a few true Christians, he builds up a real church.

His first breakthrough occurs when he treats a little boy dying of an infected arm, lancing it, squeezing out the pus, and wrapping it with bandages steeped in antiseptic.  The boy is the son of a rich Chinese landowner, Mr. Chia, who in gratitude gives to Father Chisholm some prime territory in the Hills of the Brilliant Jade.

No man could do this job alone, so Father Chisholm appeals to his superiors and they send him three nuns, to cook, wash, mend clothes, and teach the children in the parish school.

He and the Mother Superior, for a long time, do not get along.  She is severe, he is lenient.  She is doctrinal, he is something of a freethinker.  He is like an overgrown boy, and she is all woman and no girl.  She is the daughter of German aristocrats, while he is the son of poor fishermen and shepherds.

She is scandalized when Father Chisholm’s old friend, Willie Culloch, a medical doctor and an avowed atheist, comes to help him.  Culloch dies from the plague, after having tended to hundreds.  There is no deathbed conversion, but Father Chisholm seems confident that Culloch is in the arms of God.  His confidence shakes the staid old nun.

Chisholm is not much like other priests, particularly one whom he knew as a lad, the ostentatiously pious, social-climbing, institution-founding, comfort-pursuing Anselm Mealey.  When Mealey comes to China to visit, he can see only failure, much of which he attributes to Chisholm’s unorthodox ways.  Chisholm has, for instance, no paid Chinese catechists to help pad the baptismal statistics.


Monsignor (later Bishop) Mealey patronizes the Chinese without knowing that he does so.  They are to him a quaint race in darkness.  His example brings the Mother Superior around: a “gross, worldly priest,” she says to herself.  She and Father Chisholm become friends.

One motto for the novel might be, Extra ecclesiam plena salus.  Father Chisholm makes his most important convert almost unwillingly: it is the elderly Mr. Chia, who after decades of mutual benevolence and friendship wishes to join Father Chisholm in the faith, because the courage of the old priest has persuaded him.  Doctrine seems not to matter.

Indeed, when Chisholm returns to Scotland, a bent old man whom the other priests think little of, he is fond of making Chinese kites for a boy in his care, and he fastens sayings to them, one of which is that tolerance is the greatest of virtues, and humility is second.  He also gets in trouble for saying in the pulpit that although Jesus was wiser than Confucius, the Chinese sage had a better sense of humor.

Cronin had lost his Catholic faith when he was a medical student, regaining it later in what appears to have been a theistic and universalist form.  He was remarkable for his charitable work.  You might say that Father Chisholm and Doctor Culloch were the two sides of his character, or his character in two wished-for manifestations: both amiable, impatient of ceremony, unambitious, diligent, broad-minded, but one a believer and the other an unbeliever.

As I say, it’s a good book, and Chisholm is a true hero and an immensely attractive figure.  If this was liberal Catholicism, it had a lot to say for itself: care for the poor, real engagement with another culture, and the heart of Christ in humility, uprightness, and love.

Noticeable by their absence are political ideology, the sexual revolution, sacramental carelessness, and modern idols.  Chisholm is a man’s man and a genuine father.  And his favorite hobby is fishing.

Well, that can’t survive without the foundation of orthodox faith and a conservative, even ascetic, moral discipline.  Most of the Mealeys of our day have been clerical pole-climbers and blandly heterodox; socialite unitarians with a dollop of Jesus.  They don’t keep the faith.  The faith – the institution – keeps them, in clover.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that for most people the best witness of our faith – not the best gift, but the best witness of its scandalous truth – will be what Father Chisholm gives to the Chinese.  That, ultimately, is more than one man’s generosity and courage and his willingness to toil beside them.

It is the crucified and risen Christ.  He it is, whether Cronin grasped it clearly or not, who opens the door.


*Image: Gregory Peck as Fr. Chisholm, Rose Stradner as Rev. Mother Maria-Veronica, and Vincent Price as Bishop Mealey in the 1944 film.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.