Graham Greene against ‘piety’


I’ve been reading a lot of Graham Greene over the summer, and am now onto reading about Graham Greene, taking a lot at Mark Bosco’s Graham Greene’s Catholic Imagination (it is indicative of my love for the subject matter that a Lay Dominican is reading a book by a Jesuit).

A lot of ink has been spilled on the nature of Greene’s Catholicism, and its orthodoxy or otherwise. He has been accused variously of being a manichean, a protestant, a gnostic, a Pelagian and a Jansenist. Combining these jointly inconsistent positions would have been a challenge for a mind even for a mind of Greene’s depth, so we can assume that at least some of the accusations are unjust. As it happens, I think his is an entirely mainstream Catholicism conscious, as anyone attentive to the signs of the times ought to be, to the brokenness of the world, and, as anyone attentive to the doctrine of Original Sin ought to be, to the brokenness of our lives within that world. He knows the attraction of evil; he knows that we often find ourselves in situations where that attraction is all that we can feel, and yet that this experience somehow works to the good. In all of this, however, and this is the fundamentally Catholic thought – human nature is never utterly corrupt nor is the grace of God ever absent. His is a world in which goodness shines forth in the most unexpected places, and in which grace manifests itself through the cracks. O felix culpa, as the Easter proclamation has it.

This realistic, yet thoroughly merciful Catholicism is one thing I love about Greene. Another is nicely captured by these lines about the whiskey priest, a character who instances grace in spite of it all if any does, from The Power and the Glory:

God might forgive cowardice and passion, but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety? He remembered the woman in prison and how impossible it had been to shake her complacency. It seemed to him that he was another of the same kind . He drank the brandy down like damnation: men like the half-caste (sic) could be saved, salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild meeting and the feel of humble lips on your gloved hands.

The target here is not pietas in Aquinas’ sense, which is a form of justice which involves honouring a certain kind of debt one might have (to God, or one’s parents, for instance). Indeed in many ways piety is an absence of pietas (I think, by the way, the English word ‘piety’ is beyond rescue, and should be ditched as a term for anything desirable). Part of what is being attacked is what the Jesus of the synoptic gospels denounces in the ‘hypocrites’: performance of religious duties without this being accompanied by the practice of love for God and neighbour (this is precisely nothing to do with ‘inner’ devotion versus ‘outward’ religion, a Reformation distinction that would have made no sense to a 1st century Jew).

The pious person is more than a hypocrite, however. They are self-satisfied, superior, self-reliant. And this, as Greene perceptively notes, is the real problem. For not only does piety kill the possibility of mercy towards others – the woman in prison mentioned above is utterly bereft of the quality – it closes one off towards God’s mercy for oneself. The pious cannot be open to grace because they do not see themselves as in need of it. Contrary to Greene’s detractors, this is an anti-Pelagian motif. Closed off to both nature and grace, to the surprising beauty of human life and the transforming power of divine love, the completely pious person’s only genuine love is themselves. And that is, quite literally, a living hell.

The warning was a timely one because, as religion recedes from view in contemporary British culture, there is a great temptation to piety. Do not confuse this with Catholic distinctiveness. That is no bad thing. The difference is a subtle one, but makes all the difference in the world. We are called to be distinctive by grace and for the world. A confident distinctiveness, not overly anxious because received as a gift rather than earned, which is not exclusive but is open to the fullness of human life: this is our vocation. Piety is not.



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