Graham Greene's Vatican Dossier

Documents from the archives of the Holy See reveal the deliberations among papal censors over how to deal with The Power and the Glory—and wise counsel from an unexpected source
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"In common with many Catholics," Graham Greene wrote in a letter to The Times of London in June of 1954, "I have little regard for the Index in the rare cases in which it deals with imaginative writing ... So far as imaginative literature is concerned (according to rumor both Tolstoy and Lewis Carroll have been condemned) most Catholic laymen follow their own consciences." Greene was ostensibly responding to a letter in The Times that had drawn a comparison between the Roman Index and prosecutions for obscenity in British courts. What readers of the newspaper could not have known was that Greene himself had just been sternly reproached by Church authorities. Greene alluded to this episode in later writings. The records of the deliberations at the Vatican over his novel The Power and the Glory, first published in 1940, have recently come to light. They provide a rare glimpse into the exercise of what was once a great power, and one of particular interest in the history of twentieth-century literature—the power of the Church to ban the books it deemed dangerous or offensive.

The Vatican had sought for centuries to wield influence over various kinds of writing; in 1571, at the height of the Counter-Reformation, it established the Congregation of the Index, a department responsible for censoring and even banning books (when it had some power over the author or the publication process), or at the very least for telling Catholics which books they simply shouldn't read. The Congregation of the Index was abolished in 1917, but censorship continued to be exercised by another department, the Holy Office, and an official Index of Forbidden Books was maintained until 1966.

How did the Holy Office operate during a tense and troubled period in recent history such as the Cold War? What was its policy toward Catholic authors? To what extent was it informed about new developments in scholarship and literature? What kinds of internal disagreements did the department experience? Such questions are prompted by the cases of a number of twentieth-century writers, some of whom were converts to the Church of Rome. Greene was one of these. In the introduction to a later edition of The Power and the Glory he wrote,

The Archbishop of Westminster read me a letter from the Holy Office condemning my novel because it was "paradoxical" and "dealt with extraordinary circumstances." The price of liberty, even within a Church, is eternal vigilance, but I wonder whether any of the totalitarian states ... would have treated me as gently when I refused to revise the book on the casuistical ground that the copyright was in the hands of my publishers. There was no public condemnation, and the affair was allowed to drop into that peaceful oblivion which the Church wisely reserves for unimportant issues.

In July of 1965 Greene had an audience with Pope Paul VI. He told the Pope that The Power and the Glory had been condemned by the Holy Office. According to Greene, the Pope asked, "Who condemned it?" Greene replied, "Cardinal Pizzardo." Paul VI repeated the name with a wry smile and added, "Mr. Greene, some parts of your book are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that."

These sentences have intrigued me ever since I first read them, some years ago, in Greene's Ways of Escape. The records of censorial investigations undertaken after the death of Leo XIII, in 1903, are in the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and are not available to be consulted by outside scholars. In February of last year I sought and obtained an audience with the Congregation's prefect, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. To my request that an exception be made to the rules, the reply was one word, uttered without hesitation: "Ja."

The Power and the Glory is set in the southern-Mexican state of Tabasco, which is governed by a ruthless persecutor of Catholics, Tomas Garrido Canabal. It is based on a journey to Mexico that Greene made in 1938. An atheist and a puritan, Canabal detested organized religion and alcohol. The central figure in Greene's book is a whiskey priest, who is put to death by Canabal's police at the end of the novel. The priest, whose prime quality is self-knowledge, is his own strongest critic. Although he anticipates his execution, and knows that he is walking into a trap, he chooses to perform what he sees as his duty and attempts to give the last sacraments to a fatally wounded criminal. The priest puts the chance of saving another man's soul ahead of his own survival. Is this martyrdom? Or is it retribution for moral lapses? The moral and theological criteria of The Power and the Glory are ambiguous—so ambiguous that self-appointed censors have sniffed an odor of heresy in the book.

Denunciation or inquiry was the usual means by which news reached Rome of a book that deserved investigation. In the case of The Power and the Glory, the news traveled circuitously. Its point of departure was Einsiedeln, in Switzerland. There, in 1949, the Catholic publisher Benziger was planning to bring out a German translation of the novel. Alarmed by the "polemic" that he claimed Greene's book was raising in France, a Swiss priest asked the Holy Office for its opinion. Pressure slowly mounted over the years from other parts of Europe, and finally, in April of 1953, Rome looked into the matter closely. Greene's case was examined (as were similar cases involving Evelyn Waugh and Bruce Marshall). The Holy Office appointed two consultants to consider The Power and the Glory. The first of these wrote in Italian, and he displayed his bewilderment at differences of culture and outlook. Greene's mentality was "odd and paradoxical, a true product of the disturbed, confused, and audacious character of today's civilization," he wrote. "For me, the book is sad." Sadness and sorrow, rather than anger and indignation, colored his tone. The work's title implies an emphasis on God's power and glory, but as the consultant read the book itself, he found only a barren landscape of despair. "Immoral" or married priests; the ambiguity with which the central figure refers to God and the doctrines of the faith; the conviction or the virtue attributed to Protestants and atheists—all this made it impossible for Greene's first reader in the Holy Office to see why the book was regarded as excellent literature. "Troubling the spirit of calm that should prevail in a Christian," The Power and the Glory, in his judgment, ought never to have been written. Since the novel had been written, and published, and widely disseminated, the consultant hoped that its fame was already in decline. A condemnation would do no good, because the author, with his "paradoxical modes of thought," would probably not accept it, and the repercussions of an intellectual condemnation could be dangerous, given the author's fame. Better, the consultant recommended, to have Graham Greene "admonished" by his bishop and "exhorted to write other books in a different tone, attempting to correct the defects of this one."

The opinion of the second consultant, delivered in Latin, supported that of the first. Both readers acknowledged that Greene was not only the leading Catholic novelist in England but also a convert from Protestantism. Despite his many failings, the comfort he offered to enemies of the Church, and his "abnormal propensity toward ... situations in which one kind of sexual immorality or another plays a role," it would not do to put him on the Index, because his book was a best seller. The second censor therefore concurred that Greene should be told that "literature of this kind does harm to the cause of the true religion," and that "in the future he should behave more cautiously when he writes."

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