Over the past few weeks, I have read far more about and from Graham Greene than I had previously thought possible . To be sure, I have known about him as a writer for some time, reading Our Man In Havana and enjoying it, and I have heard of other works of his that have been made into familiar movies. Yet, the more I read about and from Graham Greene, the less I enjoyed him. The more I read his continually dark and corrupt stories, the more I saw his grim mentality as a moral cowardice in which he knew the right but could not bring himself to do it. The more I saw of his casual approach towards the betrayal of his duties to country–nowhere more evident than in his assistance to Kim Philby during the Cold War–as well as his betrayal of his marriage vows, the less I liked him as a person and the less I enjoyed reading his semi-autobiographical novels. Indeed, the more I read by him and about him, the less I liked those who saw themselves as inspired by him, except with regards to his travel books.
Yet it came to mind recently that Graham Greene was more than a supremely bad Catholic convert with seriously mistaken views about the Cold War. While all of this is noteworthy enough, Graham Greene serves as a canary in the coal mine of what is wrong with the Catholic Church, and how early the rot set in that has led to the current crisis that has threatened to overwhelm the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church as its leadership is shown to be corrupt to the core. During the middle part of the 20th century, it appeared that there was one standard for Graham Greene and one for everyone else. Greene aided cold war traitors and Communist spies, bought houses for his mistresses, and wrote novels that reflected his own misguided political worldview as well as showed of his own moral corruption. Meanwhile, he got paid to take trips to research various areas for the Catholic Church, witnessing anti-church persecution in Mexico and writing two books about it, one nonfictional (The Law Less Roads) and one fictional (The Power And The Glory), where unsurprisingly the author focuses on a whisky priest who is a corrupt but loyal Catholic. Indeed, corrupt Catholics are something of a trademark of Graham’s writings, appearing prominently in such novels as Brighton Rock and The End Of The Affair.
Yet Graham’s writing as well as the double standard which he benefited from are useful in understanding the current state of the Roman Catholic Church in a variety of ways. For one, they demonstrate the way that in seeking to encourage celebrity converts the Roman Catholic Church sold out its moral standards, making life tough for ordinary Catholics but relaxing standards for those who had the approval of those high up in the hierarchy. This is something that we have seen in spades in the current crisis, where the forms that must be filled out to become a mandatory reporter and deliver cookies to a Catholic school can be contrasted with the casual attitude many bishops and archbishops and cardinals have towards sexual abuse of seminarians. Likewise, Graham’s writing and status within the English Catholic Church demonstrated that so long as one had the right (i.e. leftist) political credibility, matters such as sexual morality did not matter so much. Here again we see echoes of the extremely tone deaf approach of Chicago’s Cardinal Cupich towards such matters, witch his ill-advised statement (straight out of the Babylon Bee satire website) that the Pope has more important things to deal with than sexual abuse, like climate change and immigration reform. Greene was certain a harbinger of this contemporary problem.
To be sure, loyal Roman Catholics have an understanding that the universal Church has always had a wide gulf between the ideals that believers strive for and the sometimes pathetic level of achievement reached by those who have power and authority and influence but little godliness. After all, for centuries a variety of corrupt popes sought temporal power and lives of luxury and moral dissipation during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, corruption that eventually led to schism. Indeed, for several decades, more traditionalist Catholics have been a minority among their own church, a subculture that is deeply out of touch with the institutions of their faith. As someone who is nothing if not an outsider and an odd and eccentric person wherever I have been, coming to understand this has given me a great deal of compassion. Such people, as a result of their loyalty and alienation to the institutions they hold in such high regard, are in a good place to ponder about what needs to be done to restore credibility and trust.
Yet we would be unwise to assume that it is only the Catholic Church that can learn lessons from the moral corruption and treachery of Graham Greene. Indeed, it seems as if every institution that Graham Greene was a part of has a similar tale of corruption and double dealing at present. For some years Greene was a screenwriter in Hollywood, and over the past few years we have seen one Hollywood figure, male or female, after another fall to revelations that they abused others sexually as a result of their power. Even some of those who claim to have been abused by some have been found to abuse others. Likewise, Greene’s interest in the deep state, having served as an intelligence officer himself during World War II, has proven itself to have a great deal of problems and difficulties. In postwar Great Britain, one of Greene’s close friends, Kim Philby, was found to be a Soviet mole, and in the contemporary United States we have found that our security and intelligence establishment has been deeply compromised and corrupted by people loyal to a political ideology but not to the well-being of the American people or their elected leadership. Here too we see Graham Greene to have been a harbinger of trouble, for any sort of institution that can find such a man as Greene to be an acceptable standard bearer for them is likely going to be as corrupt as he was.
What are we to do about this? It is one thing to point a finger at others for having such corruption in their midst, but if there is one thing we can tell from these widespread problems, it is that any institution that offers power to those who are ambitious, legitimacy for those who wish to push an ungodly agenda, and access to vulnerable people who may be taken advantage of is going to attract the wrong sort of people. In other words, no institution is safe from having such revelations come out. We would do better, therefore, to stare into the abyss and face the devil inside. After all, if our institutions of church and state and corrupt, they are corrupt because people have become corrupted and have had their corruption hidden and enabled by others who saw their talents and abilities as more important than our character. None of us are immune to this sort of trap, in which we have (at least for a while) a glorious public reputation even while our own lives are a shambles. But the time comes for us all, as it has come for many right now, when the jig is up, and when all that has been hidden will be revealed. We would do well to struggle and gain victory within ourselves and within our institutions while there is yet time to do so without the harsh glare of cameras and carping critics.
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