Graham Greene, one of the most outspoken Catholic writers of the past century, had one consistent belief about the church, no matter how much his depictions of it might vary in other respects: When the church does its job, it serves the poor, the sick, the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, the despairing. Greene was intensely populist and self-consciously radical. His political views were very simple: support the underdog. Through his Catholic characters and his depictions of the church, Greene advocated for a more socially and economically engaged Catholic practice. Though he did not live to see it, the election of Pope Francis gives the church a public face that more closely resembles Greene’s vision.
Greene—a convert—is often described as a “Catholic writer,” possibly because his most enduring and popular books center on specifically Catholic characters and ideas (Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair). Most of his other novels tackle similar themes, if not from an explicitly Catholic perspective. Almost all his major characters grapple with spiritual uncertainty, ethical dilemmas or existential crises. His faith evolved over time, leading him to describe himself in a variety of ways, including as a “Catholic atheist,” but he remains one of the best-known and most respected Catholic writers of the 20th century.
This is not to say, however, that Greene and the church always—or even often—agreed. Indeed, the Holy Office urged Greene to revise The Power and the Glory, which they argued was “a danger to the virtue of the majority” because of to its “odd and paradoxical” views. Greene, in his apologetic, heartfelt reply, affirmed his personal sense of attachment to the pope and wrote, “The aim of the book was to oppose the power of the sacraments and the indestructibility of the church on the one hand with, on the other, the merely temporal power of an essentially Communist state.” The Power and the Glory, which describes the travels of a nameless alcoholic priest in the Mexican state of Tabasco under an oppressive government that was attempting to stamp out Catholicism, drew heavily on Greene’s observations during a five-month trip to Tabasco in 1938. The debauched atmosphere of the novel conflicts with the whisky priest’s heroic self-sacrifice as he values the needs of the church’s people above his own safety. Despite its grimness, the novel affirms both the value and the resilience of the church, as some of the representatives of the Vatican acknowledged. Although the Holy Office censured the novel, Pope Paul VI himself told Greene, “Some aspects of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.”
The connection between religion and politics anchors Greene’s works. In novels like The Comedians and Monsignor Quixote, he explores the connection between Catholicism and Communism—less as a serious consideration of Communism than as a way of examining inequity and social injustice. Humanity, he concludes, whether expressed as a religious obligation or a political one, requires that the wealthy and powerful share with the less fortunate. Moral people devote their attention to the poor and the oppressed instead of ignoring the needy or the downtrodden. As the character Dr. Magiot writes in a letter in The Comedians, “Catholics and communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent.” Greene’s books explicitly connect religious thought with political and social reality.
Similarly, Pope Francis acknowledges the bond between these two spheres, using political language in his homilies and writings. In a homily on June 17, 2013, he exhorted his listeners, “In this day and age, unless Christians are revolutionaries they are not Christians.” He urged the faithful to bear witness not only in words but in acts, instructing them to go toward “the outskirts of existence. All the outskirts, from physical and real poverty to intellectual poverty, which is also real.” In a homily delivered on Sept. 16, 2013, the pope encouraged his listeners to pray for their leaders and to engage with politics, arguing that “politics, according to the social doctrine of the church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good.... A good Catholic meddles in politics.” This language suggests a sharp lack of connection between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote, “Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much.”
A Church to Change the World
Pope Francis is the pope that Greene was waiting for—a pope who has already brought the church closer to Greene’s ideal. Greene and Pope Francis share a conviction that the face of God is visible in the lowest places, the most battered corners of the world (or, to use the pontiff’s word, “the outskirts”). The pope shows no fear of shaking up the public image of the Catholic Church. His statements on topics as disparate as homosexuality, the environment and capitalism, and the weapons industry have echoed all over the globe, reaching non-Catholics as well as Catholics. He is a decidedly public figure, attracting analysis and commentary—complimentary and not—from mainstream publications. The Atlantic asks, “Will Pope Francis Break the Church?” In the subtitle of an essay for The New Yorker by James Carroll, the pope is called “a radical pope.” In other words, this new pope has made serious changes, even if some of those changes are more about tone and image than about policy.
Pope Francis uses the church as a medium for making change in the world; he has natural political savvy and awareness of the immense influence held by the Catholic Church. He frequently uses that influence to foster tolerance and nonjudgment. Although he has certainly made some hard-and-fast moral assertions, his most famous statements are those that show acceptance of different points of view. Asked about his position on homosexuality, he replied, “Who am I to judge them if they are seeking the Lord in good faith?”
The answer, historically, has been, “You are the pope—the human voice of God among men, the representative of one of the most culturally influential institutions in human history.” Francis, in rejecting his own right to judge, makes a powerful statement about the role he envisions for the Vatican. Like Greene, he rejects any suggestion that a person’s appearance, actions or words adequately reveal the contents of that person’s heart. Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock traces the conflict and possible salvation of a ruthless young gangster, Pinkie. Near the end of the novel, a priest tells Pinkie’s wife, Rose, “The church does not demand that we believe any soul is cut off from mercy.”
This, of course, is standard doctrine: No one is beyond salvation. Pope Francis, though, emphasizes—like Greene—that not only does every human being have the possibility of salvation but also that God exists in every life in ways that we may not easily see. In an interview published in America (“A Big Heart Open to God,” 9/30/13) the pope explains:
Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow.
As Greene’s novels suggest, grace is not always visible.
In a Small Boat Tossed About
In a related vein, Greene and Pope Francis agree that doubt can be salutary. In his novel Monsignor Quixote (1982), Greene describes the friendship between the protagonist, Monsignor Quixote, and his traveling companion, the mayor (nicknamed Sancho). They spend a great deal of their time discussing religion and politics, for Quixote is a Catholic and Sancho is a Communist. The details of their agreement and disagreement, however, are swept aside in favor of the shared experience of questioning their most important beliefs. They agree that “it’s human to doubt.” As Quixote thinks to himself, “It’s odd...how sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith.” The shared experience of questioning and examining their different faiths allows Quixote and Sancho to understand, respect and love one another.
In On Heaven and Earth, a dialogue with the Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Pope Francis (then still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires) says:
The great leaders of the people of God were men that left room for doubt.... He that wants to be a leader of the people of God has to give God His space; therefore to shrink, to recede into oneself with doubt, the interior experiences of darkness, of not knowing what to do, all of that ultimately is very purifying. The bad leader is the one who is self-assured, and stubborn. One of the characteristics of a bad leader is to be excessively normative because of his self-assurance.
The radicalism of this statement is easily overlooked, partly because the first half expresses a common religious belief. But the second half—that doubt is useful even in a leader—is a much more revolutionary idea. By contrast, Pope Benedict XVI spoke energetically against what he called “relativism,” arguing that “we are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” He described the thoughts of many Christians as a small boat, “tossed about” by the “waves” of ideas “from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth.” While Pope Francis can hardly be called a relativist, his public speeches and writings incorporate ideas and language from many different places. Instead of considering different doctrines or worldviews to be threats to Catholic belief, he takes the useful parts of those theories and uses them to support his faith, drawing connections instead of establishing boundaries.
Politics aside, Pope Francis embodies the sort of faith Greene describes in his novels by focusing on the poor and afflicted. In November 2013, the pope was photographed embracing and kissing a man with neurofibromatosis, a disorder that caused disfiguring (though benign) tumors on his face. The photographs show the pope’s hands on each side of the man’s face, his eyes closed in prayer as he confers a blessing. Irresistibly, I am reminded of Greene’s character Sarah Miles, kissing Richard Smythe’s cheek in The End of the Affair. She records it later in her diary, remembering, “I shut my eyes and put my mouth against the cheek. I felt sick for a moment because I fear deformity, and I thought I am kissing pain and pain belongs to You as happiness never does.” While Greene tends to romanticize pain, seeing it as a source of meaning, the pontiff seeks out pain and powerlessness to attempt to remedy them. In practice, however, Greene and Francis agree that the job of the church—and of the clergy—is to serve the people who need it most: those who suffer. On March 19, 2013, the pope tweeted, “True power is service. The Pope must serve all people, especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.” The message resonated with his followers: as of this writing, his assertion has been retweeted 24,222 times.
Although Greene took more extreme positions on some issues, Pope Francis embodies the kind of religious and spiritual conduct that Greene imagined in his novels. The presence in the Vatican of a pope who supports liberation theology’s focus on the poor suggests that the church is approaching Greene’s vision of what it ought rightfully to be: not a police force or a moralizing agent, nor an isolated city where the pontiff lives in lonely grandeur, but an instrument of outreach for those who would help the poor, stand up for the oppressed and provide for the needy.