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The Moore-ish Church
by Michael Valdez Moses

In the liberal democratic West, the spirit of secularism has now loomed for more than two centuries. One must be impressed by the resoluteness of a writer whose work stands as a testament to the enduring importance and influence of the Catholic Church. Written over the span of more than three decades, the novels of Brian Moore return consistently to the agonized plight of the Catholic believer, and to the worldly vicissitudes of an ancient institution that strikes even many of its priests as an anachronism.
Born in 1921 in Belfast, where he got his formal education, Moore emigrated to Canada in 1948. Since then he has made his home variously in California, the south of France, and Nova Scotia. The novels that helped establish him as a significant voice in contemporary Anglophone fiction, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960), I am Mary Dunne (1968), Catholics (1968), and The Mangan Inheritance (1979), have reflected his profound interest in his Irish cultural heritage.
Of late, his fiction has taken on a more self-consciously cosmopolitan quality, rooted in his searching, and by no means uncritical, exploration of the catholic claims and worldly ambitions of the Church Universal. In Black Robe (1985), for example, he narrates the life of a seventeenth-century French Jesuit in the wilderness of North America, whose mission of converting the Hurons culminates in the virtual destruction of a coherent native culture, for the sake of a religion in which the hero ultimately loses faith. In his roman-à-clef No Other Life (1993), Moore chronicles the careers of a French Canadian priest from Quebec in the impoverished Caribbean island of Ganae (a thinly disguised version of Haiti) and his controversial young student and protégé, whose embrace of liberation theology and success as a radical leader of a revolutionary party parallels the career of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Moore's newest novel, The Statement, further expands the global sweep and deepens the political engagement of his fiction. It is about the final days of Pierre Brossard, a septuagenarian former Chief of the Second Section of the milice for the Marseilles region, and an enthusiastic collaborator with the Gestapo under the Vichy government. Brossard has been formally accused of a crime against humanity in the death of fourteen Jews at Dombey in June 1944, a cause célèbre in the French press because of the Church's complicity in concealing him from justice for over forty years.
Graham Greene, another Catholic writer, brought to the spy novel an unusual ethical complexity and aesthetic craftsmanship. Like him, Moore has succeeded in lending to a popular genre, the detective novel or crime story, a moral depth and political complexity that it customarily lacks. One of the minor characters here, a would-be assassin of Brossard and a man with shadowy links to both a French-Algerian drug syndicate and the French Commissariat of Police, spends his idle moments devouring a formulaic série noir policier. But the crime around which The Statement's action revolves has to do with the Vichy government's deplorable role in the deportation and mass execution of Jews during the occupation.
The vivid narrative tapestry weaves together a number of intersecting plots: Brossard's manoeuvres to elude capture and assassination, the puzzling machinations of a hitherto unknown and perhaps fantastic Jewish organization trying to avenge the Dombey victims, the efforts of a newly appointed juge d'instruction and a French colonel who have reopened Pierre's case and are seeking to apprehend him, the relentless pursuit of the assassin T. and his mysterious employers who want to silence Pierre before he can talk to the authorities, the ambivalent activities of the clergy to protect a man they believe to be unjustly accused and hounded by governmental officials.
Moore brings to life fully rounded and psychologically complex characters, and he deals searchingly with important moral and political questions without sacrificing the more immediate pleasures of suspense, action, and surprise that typify the successful crime thriller. But if French romans policiers are slyly acknowledged models, in the distant literary background stands an Irish progenitor, a 1925 thriller set in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War, Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer, best remembered in John Ford's film version of 1935. But Moore's killer, turncoat, and informer, Pierre Brossard, is rendered with far greater skill than O'Flaherty's brutish and somnambulant Gypo Nolan, and The Statement as a whole proves to be a far more penetrating study of conflicting loyalties to nation, party, and religion than The Informer.
The successful portrayal here of the Catholic anti-hero depends in no small measure on Moore's singular ability to identify and represent dramatically the surprisingly complex and heavily trafficked interchange between religious and political life. To be sure, he occasionally descends into a didacticism and intrusive exposition that bespeaks an impatience with the niceties of naturalistic dialogue. An unsympathetic reader may come to fear that the simplest request on the part of a character for a pan bagnat runs the risk of eliciting from a dinner companion a detailed disquisition on the career of Maréchal Pétain or a fulsome personal reflection on the historical ramifications of the Church's abandonment of the Latin mass. But such aesthetic lapses are rare. The crisis of faith that Moore's heroes and protagonists endure remains rooted in a convincing and genuinely dramatic presentation of the political issues and social controversies that the Church must confront if it is to maintain its moral integrity and spiritual influence.
In his previous novel, No Other Life, Moore explored the moral dilemmas faced by the most radicalized left-wing elements among the Catholic clergy, who understand their greatest religious task to be the advancement of the material interests of the poor and oppressed, together with the realization of egalitarian social principles. In The Statement he focuses on the most conservative and traditional groups in the Church, who condemn the reforms of Vatican II and look back with nostalgia to the age of Pius XII.
His sympathies clearly lie with the progressives rather than the reactionaries, but one of his greatest virtues as a novelist is his ability to render with delicacy and conviction the inner world of even those characters whose political and ethical views he rejects. Monsignor Le Moyne, Brossard's confessor and ardent defender, a priest who has spent over two decades seeking a government pardon and religious asylum for a fascist collaborator and vicious anti-semite, might in less skilled hands have appeared as a caricature of religious bigotry and prejudice. Moore bodies him forth with a subtlety that reveals a tangle of moral defects and creditable virtues:
"These last days of his life, in the broken corridors of memory, Rome and Lyon came rarely to mind. What had he accomplished in his life as a priest? In truth, nothing seemed to have succeeded. Nothing. Perhaps, over the years, he had managed to show a few sinners the light of God's grace. . . . There were those who had profited from his counsel, yes. But to take credit for bringing sinners back to God was in itself a sin: the sin of pride. And to be honest, that had not been the driving force of his ministry. His dream of national reconciliation, of obtaining a pardon for his protégé which would serve as an example of how we French must forgive and forget the errors of our country's past, had, in the long run, failed, failed completely. . . . The enemies of national forgiveness had once again triumphed. Poor Pierre was now hounded more than at any time in the past. The Jews want my hide, Pierre always said. And alas, he's right. Not that I can say that today. We must forgive our enemies, especially the Jews. Now, I am ashamed of the things I said against them long ago. Impossible to criticize, after seeing what I know to be the truth: the films of the mass graves, the naked, emaciated bodies, the Nazi soldiers with their guns. The numbers of dead are exaggerated, no doubt, but what matter? Sin is sin in any number."
Le Moyne's patronizing conceit that the Jews are enemies to be forgiven, and his misguided and offensive belief that they are ultimately responsible for the failures of "national forgiveness", are rendered with the same clarity and economy as his religious convictions, which in the end have led him to condemn his former conduct and to feel shame for his outspoken bigotry. Although Le Moyne's anti-semitism lingers in his continuing skepticism about the specific claims of widely accepted historical accounts of the holocaust, his conclusion-"Sin is sin in any number"-reveals the paradoxically redemptive moral potential of the same faith that fed his intolerance.
But Moore's sympathies with and interest in the Catholic clergy are not limited to how they adapt their beliefs to the progressive agenda of liberal democracies. In fact, one of the most intriguing features of his fiction is its ability to capture the profound attractions of a completely non-modern or stridently anti-modern existence, especially that of the contemplative and ascetic soul who withdraws from the world, in favour of devotion. Father Le Moyne appears most favourably in this twilight aspect, a retired cleric living in a retreat in Caunes, a voluntary exile from secular life:
"The retreat house here was like a small monastery. The Sisters of l'Enfant Jésus, who ran it as a home for retired clerics, belonged to an old-fashioned Order: the nuns wore long habits, confined themselves to work and prayers within the convent walls, and obeyed the local bishop in every way. Caunes, a village which had changed little in appearance over the centuries, was a daily reminder of that true France, la France profonde, of values, beliefs, and customs fast disappearing in this end-of-century turmoil. In Caunes, in the silence of the village church, he would kneel for hours, ignoring the pains of his joints, his eyes fixed on the altar, seeking, through prayer and meditation, to forget his efforts to save Pierre and instead to enter a state of devotion in which he, Maurice Le Moyne, had no wishes, no ambitions, save to worship Jesus Christ, Our Lord."
Moore's narrative attentions to the intégriste right-wing schismatics-the Fraternity of St Donat, which defiantly rejects the reforms of Vatican II-and to the ultraconservative laymen known as the Chevaliers de Ste Marie, who together help Brossard hide from the authorities, follow from his abiding fascination with the anachronistic elements in the modern world that form a sedimented residue of the pre-modern age. Moore seems especially gripped by the flickering after-image of an all-powerful Church that formerly claimed, with considerable justification, that it was "not bound by man's law," that its authority, derived from God's law, was higher than that of any earthly power.
Even Moore's concern with the most radically progressive and revolutionary elements of the Church, as represented by the liberation theologian and quasi-Marxist revolutionary, Father Jean-Paul Cantave of No Other Life, paradoxically follows from his interest in the peculiar historical conditions of the Third World, which in his fiction resemble those of the European Middle Ages or of Palestine in the first century AD. In an "undeveloped" country like Ganae, the priest who speaks for the downtrodden of the earth may appear as he did in the distant past, a flesh-and-blood saint or saviour, a human type that has all but vanished in the industrialized West. Underlying the best of Moore's recent fiction is an imaginative engagement with the pre-modern institutions, morals, beliefs, customs, and above all, human souls that often seem to have become nearly extinct in our time.
His fictional investment in historical anachronism is often conjoined with an intense concern with the peculiar privileges and excruciating burdens of a life in exile. Far more corrupt and less sympathetic than many of his previous protagonists, Pierre Brossard nevertheless follows in a long line of homeless, displaced, and wandering characters who populate his novels. In part what distinguishes Brossard from his predecessors is the corrosive irony that he is, in effect, an exile within his own country. On the run for more than half his life, Pierre moves relentlessly through the south of France from Benedictine monastery to Cistercian residence to Carmelite abbey and priory in an endless circuit of flight and involuntary migration. As the years pass, his vital contact with post-war France becomes increasingly attenuated; he longs for a time in his youth when he felt united with a country and a culture that seemed the mirror of his own provincial, limited, and passionately naive self. With the waves of immigration in the postcolonial era, the liberalizing reforms of the new Catholic Church, the industrial and technological modernization of France and its increasing integration into a hybridized global culture, the country that Brossard has so ardently clung to has become the most anemic of shades. As the novel approaches its shattering conclusion, and the forces determined to apprehend or kill him close in, Pierre feebly embraces the imminent prospect of permanent exile in Canada, where, he notes with minimal relief, "They speak French."
The Statement is a suggestive exploration of the temptations and dangers of ardent nationalism, for Brossard is nothing if not a passionate and xenophobic patriot whose faith in God and country is inextricably tied to an intense fear and hatred of all that is foreign:
"Back in those days, I could have had false emigration papers, straight from the Vatican ... But I said no. I didn't want to be like Barbie in some South American backwater, peddling his arse as a secret policeman for a cheap little South American dictator, speaking Spanish, eating that greasy métèque food. I love France, it's my country, they're not going to drive me out of my own country. I'm French, I'll die in France!"
Brossard's life-long yearning for a "pure" homogeneous French society, free of the slightest taint of "foreign" influence, be it Jewish, Algerian, African, or American, is in his own mind perfectly consistent with his self-proclaimed ardour for the true Catholic faith. What Brossard conveniently neglects, and what Moore's fiction has for years served to illuminate, is the cosmopolitan potential of Catholicism that at least in principle, and to some degree in practice, offers to unite peoples of different regions, races, and cultures.
Despite its focus upon the particular historical and cultural situation of contemporary France, The Statement illuminates one of the great themes of modern Irish literature, the problematic relationship between a national cultural identity and devotion to the Catholic faith. Though conservative Irish Catholicism, like its French counterpart, inclines toward conflating religious and national affiliation, the potential for a universal spiritual imperium, a transnational and interracial community of souls, remains for Moore the great promise and unfinished project of the Church.
Like many of the great Irish writers of this century, Moore explores the particular dangers for Catholicism when it lets itself become the captive of a constrictive cultural nationalism supported by the crutch of religious sectarianism and intolerance. And just as many of his most famous predecessors went into voluntary exile to escape a claustrophobic social and cultural atmosphere, Moore's decision to spend the greater part of his adult life as a nomadic citizen of the world signals his embrace of a cosmopolitan existence that his latest anti-hero finds so terrifying and repellent. But if his most recent fiction harks back to one of the central preoccupations of Irish literature, in a historical moment beset by the revivified spectres of violent nationalism, ethnic conflict, and cultural xenophobia, The Statement also stands as a testament to the enduring imaginative appeal of a truly catholic-that is, universal-community. It is exile from this that is the deepest source of the homelessness that haunts both the characters of Brian Moore and their creator.

Michael Valdez Moses is a professor of English and director of graduate studies at Duke University. His most recent book is The Novel and the Globalization of Culture (Oxford University Press).


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