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March 27, 2012

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Crisis in the Confessional from Graham Greene’s Human Factor

by quaesitor
confessionalbooth

Maurice Castle is the wary protagonist of Graham Greene’s 1978 novel, The Human Factor. He works on the Africa desk for the British secret service. He loves his South African wife and her young son but has a deeply burdened and heavy heart. He is a very sympathetic character – a man who, as his mother cuttingly observed, an over-inflated sense of gratitude. And it is his sense of gratitude and indebtedness that gets him into trouble. But I won’t plot spoil.

Throughout the book, Greene throws in comparisons between the life of the communist and the life of the Catholic (as a Catholic in a Protestant country, he felt a sense of empathy with his old friend and boss, the Communist Third Man himself, Kim Philby). But in this episode, Greene exposes everything that is wrong with formalised religion – a rigid concern for form and process, over and above the needs of individuals in crisis. Castle is here in crisis. He walks into a Catholic church and, despite himself, enters the Confessional Box.

A patient who didn’t know the ropes. He drew the curtain to behind him and stood hesitating in the little cramped space which was left. How to begin? The faint smell of eau-de-cologne must have been left by one of the women. A shutter clattered open and he could see a sharp profile like a stage detective’s. The profile coughed, and muttered something

Castle said, ‘I want to talk to you.’

‘What are you standing there for like that?’ the profile said. ‘Have you lost the use of your knees?’

‘I only want to talk to you,’ Castle said.

‘You aren’t here to talk to me,’ the profile said. There was a chink-chink-chink. The man had a rosary in his lap and seemed to be using it like a chain of worry beads. ‘You are here to talk to God.’

‘No I’m not. I’m just here to talk.’

The priest looked reluctantly round. His eyes were bloodshot. Castle had an impression that he had fallen by a grim coincidence on another victim of loneliness and silence like himself.

‘Kneel down, man, what sort of a Catholic do you think you are?’

‘I’m not a Catholic.’

‘Then what business have you here?’

‘I want to talk, that’s all.’

‘If you want instruction you can leave your name and address at the presbytery.’

‘I don’t want instruction.’

‘You are wasting my time,’ the priest said.

‘Don’t the secrets of the confessional apply to non-Catholics?’

‘You should go to a priest of your own Church.’

‘I haven’t got a Church.’

‘Then I think what you need is a doctor,’ the priest said. He slammed the shutter to, and Castle left the box. It was an absurd end, he thought, to an absurd action. How could he have expected the man to understand him even if he had been allowed to talk? He had far too long a history to tell, begun so many years ago in a strange country. (pp177-178)

I don’t quote out of denominational point-scoring (even though I have serious questions about the whole business of the formalised confessional works). It’s simply that Greene articulates the reality for so many when they encounter the church.

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