Stephen Schloesser, S.J., is an assistant professor of modern European history at Boston College and a visiting assistant professor of church history at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. The excerpts contained in this article come from letters found in the Graham Greene Archive, in the Burns Library of Rare Books, Boston College.
On Nov. 17, 1953, the secretary of the Holy Office, Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo, sent a letter to the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Bernard Griffin. Graham Greene’s book THE POWER AND THE GLORY, it began, published in London in 1940 and afterwards translated into several languages, has been denounced to this Sacred Congregation. Although their eminences of the Holy Office had borne in mind the fact that the author was a convert from protestantism, their verdict was nonetheless altogether adverse to the novel. While the author’s intention had been to bring out the victory of the power and the glory of the Lord in spite of man’s wretchedness, this aim had not been achieved. Rather, the latter elementthat is, human wretchednesshad appeared to carry the day in a way that did injury to certain priestly characters and even to the priesthood itself. Moreover, the novel portrayed a state of affairs so paradoxical and erroneous that it would disconcert unenlightened persons who formed the majority of the readers.
In conclusion, the Holy Office begged the archbishop of Westminster to use his accustomed tact while informing Mr. Greene of the unfavourable verdict of the Holy See on his book. The archbishop was to exhort Greene to be more constructive from a Catholic point of view in his writings, as all good people expect[ed] him to be. Finally, Cardinal Griffin was not to fail to ensure that the author introduced the necessary corrections that the foregoing remarks would suggest into any further reprints or translations of The Power and the Glory.
Archbishop Griffin wrote Greene on the last day of December 1953, saying that he should very much like to see Greene and discuss a matter with him. Greene did not receive this invitation. He was in Indochina at the time, as the Battle of Dien Bien Phu was beginning, surveying the situation that signaled the end of French colonization in Asia and the ascendancy of Communism. But even if he had received it, he might very well have tried to avoid it. Just weeks earlier (as Norman Sherry relates in his Life of Graham Greene), Cardinal Griffin had condemned a number of Catholic writers in a pastoral letter for Advent 1953. Their novels, purporting to be the vehicle for Catholic doctrine, frequently contained passages which by their unrestrained portrayal of immoral conduct proved to be a source of temptation to many of their readers. Although the presentation of the Catholic way of life within the framework of fiction might be an admirable object, the inclusion of indecent and harmful material could never be justified as a means to that end.
Griffin wrote Greene again on April 6, 1954, and invited him for a noontime meeting the next Friday, April 9. Greene went and received the translation of the letter from the Holy Office. On April 12 Greene wrote his solicitor, Harold Rubinstein, and proposed a letter that he might send to Cardinal Pizzardo. In this letter, he laid out the fundamentals of copyright law: The right to reprint rests with the publishers in the various countries and for Your Eminence’s information I append the addresses of the publishers in the countries where the book has appeared. Since the right rests with them it might be the wish of The Holy Office to communicate their desires to these publishers. Greene also noted that the novel was already 14 years old and that new translations were unlikely. Would your Eminence wish me to give you information of any further translation that might be proposed? he asked. In pencil, Greene added the handwritten concluding sentence: If any further explanations should be needed at Rome, I would be very ready to go out to Italy in order to place them before the Roman authorities. While the typewritten signature read, I remain with respect, Yours faithfully. Greene later added in pencil: I remain with deep respect for the Sacred Purple, Yours faithfully.
Ten days later, Greene received a short note from his Jesuit friend, the brilliant Father C. C. Martindale, with whom he had visited for lunch. Martindale observed that by a happy coincidence one of the priests that very evening had brought up without any coaxing that really grand book, The Power and the Glory. The priest had said reading the novel had entirely captivated him, made him much more understanding and able to hear priests’ confessions with much more sympathy. I can say that there is nothing theologically wrong with it! exclaimed Father Martindale. Referring to the Holy Office’s directive, Martindale countered that one can’t well talk about correcting’ it, any more than one can pull one or 2 threads out of a sheet, especially if one doesn’t know which are the ones that ought to be extracted. Finally, he suggested that the number of Little Ones who might read it would be negligible and concluded enthusiastically, Anyhow, I do thank God that that was the book the Denouncer was silly enough to hit on!
A week later, Greene wrote his friend Archbishop David Mathew that Evelyn Waugh had been at one of Greene’s recent parties. Waugh surprised Greene by becoming immediately indignant and angry upon being told about the Holy Office’s letter and wrote him the very next morning. Since you showed me the Grand Inquisitor’s letter, Waugh began, my indignation has waxed. It was as fatuous as unjusta vile misreading of a noble book. If Greene wanted a demonstration by the novel’s admirers, Waugh assured him that he would be delighted to take any part in it. But he counseled Greene not to act: It seems to me, as a layman, that it is the business of the Inquisitors to act next. After all, Greene had not asked for an imprimatur. The next move belonged to the Holy Office: It is their business to propose detailed alterations and to make themselves ridiculous in doing so. Waugh concluded with disgust: They have taken 14 years to write their first letter. You shall take 14 years to answer it.
Three days later, however, Greene did answer the Holy Office. In a letter dated May 6, 1954, Greene began by explaining the delay in answering the letter to Westminster. He had been in Asia where he was doing all in his power to present before the world public...the difficulties in which the heroic Catholics of Indo-China now find themselves in face of the Communist menace. He continued by affirming his very strong personal devotion to the Vicar of Christ which had crystallized in the admiration he had felt for the wise guidance that the Holy Father has always given to the Church of God. Greene reminded Cardinal Pizzardo that Pope Pius XII had granted him the honour of a private audience in the Holy Year 1950. Although he had always been profoundly impressed by the deeply spiritual character of the rule of Pius XII, the private audience had made upon Greene an impression which would be life long.
At this point in the English manuscript, Greene inserted his own French phrase for the translator to use in the official letter to Rome: je suis navré. (The French phrase means I am sorry, but it carries complex overtones of being emotionally upset by something, even to the point of being distressed.) Your Eminence will understand, Greene continued, que je suis navré to learn that my work The Power and the Glory has been subject to the criticism of the Sainte Office. The purpose of the book was to show forth the contrast between the strength of the Sacraments and the indestructibility of the Church and the purely temporal power of a State essentially Communist. Your Eminence will understand that this book was written in 1938-9 before the menace which I had personally witnessed in Mexico had spread within Western Europe.
Greene concluded with his explanation of the copyright situation. In view of the fact that the book was already 14 years old and that the licence to print has passed from my hands to various publishers in different countries, all Greene could do was hand the Holy Office the names of the publishers concerned in whom the sole right of re-publishing is vested. He concluded with a reassurance: I must assure Your Eminence that I treat with profound respect any communication that emanates from the Sacred Congregation of the Index.
Poignantly, there rests in the archives along with the carbon copies of the letter to Pizzardo another letterthis one an original typed on letterhead, along with carbon copies and an envelope apparently never sent but addressed to: Son Excellence Monseigneur Montini, Secrétaire d’Etat de Sa Sainteté, Cité du Vatican. In this brief letter, bearing the same date as that to Cardinal Pizzardo, Greene unburdened himself to Giovanni Battista Montini, who would become Pope Paul VI nine years later. Your Excellency will be aware of my profound and filial devotion to the person of the Sovereign Pontiff. I am therefore the more deeply disturbed by the difficulty which has arisen in regard to the judgment of the Holy Office in respect of my book, The Power and the Glory. I feel it is only right that I should send to Your Excellency a copy of a letter that I have today addressed to His Eminence, Cardinal Pizzardo. It is not that I ask Your Excellency for any comment on this matter which is so intimately painful to myself. I feel however that I should keep you informed on this question.
On May 7, 1954, Greene sent the letter for Pizzardo to the archbishop of Westminster. Archbishop Griffin wrote Greene three days later, thanking him for the letter and assuring him that he would bring the letter with him to Rome at the end of the month and give it personally to His Eminence, Cardinal Pizzardo. Greene’s solicitor, Harold Rubinstein, wrote the same day thanking him for a copy of the letter. It would hardly become me to make any comment, wrote Rubinstein, but I will confess my complete bewilderment at the occasion of this correspondence. Greene replied to Rubinstein: I assure you that your bewilderment is shared by me, by Archbishop Mathew and by most people over here!
The archived correspondence regarding Rome and The Power and the Glory ends here. The letter to Monsignor Montini, originally typed on letterhead, still lies in the archives along with its envelope addressed to the future Paul VI. This seems to have been the end of the affair.
Twenty-five years later, in late April 1978, much had changed. The French had quit Indochina and the Americans had soon followed; they too had quit Vietnam, evacuating Saigon three years earlier in April 1975. Pius XII had died and so had his successor, John XXIII. The Second Vatican Council had come and gone, its conclusion presided over by Monsignor Montini, who had become Paul VI. He was to die three months later on August 6, 1978.
In the archives lies a letter from that late April 1978. In it Greene responded to a woman who had written Greene about her attack of scruples while reading his work back in the late 1950’s. Greene replied to her with his customary kindness and solicitude. Thank you for what you say about my books, he began, and I am sorry that twenty years ago you had scruples!
He then continued with obvious affection: Perhaps I ought to tell you what Pope Paul said to me in a private interview when I pointed out to him that among the books of mine he had read was THE POWER AND THE GLORY which had been condemned by the Holy Office. His reply, was: Parts of all your books will always offend some Catholics and you shouldn’t pay any attention to that.’