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Friday, April 13, 2018

Damnation, Mercy, And Despair, The Church’s Only Unforgiveable Sin–The Catholic Novels Of Graham Greene

Suicide is an important theme in the work of Graham Greene.  Scobie, the main character in The Heart of the Matter kills himself for the sake of his wife whom he has deceived and ignored their long marriage.  it is not enough that he has been excommunicated by the Church for his sacrilege – receiving Holy Communion unconfessed and therefore unrepentant before God – he must suffer the final, and irremediable fate of eternal damnation without hope.  He commits suicide, he says, to provide for his wife through an insurance policy, but does so more in a final, prideful, and self-centered act.  He, despite his obedient faith, cannot be honest with his wife and his God, and seek forgiveness and absolution. He must defy God even if it means eternal damnation.

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Pinkie Brown, the main character in Brighton Rock, also commits suicide with the same self-centered, prideful purpose.  He, like Scobie, has committed many mortal sins; yet feels a liberation in what he feels is God’s condemnation, for he is now free to act according to his own individual will in what he considers – quite enjoyably – Hell on earth.  How can anyone, he says, possibly believe in goodness or heaven when history, the slums of Brighton, and life itself show nothing but venality, selfish ambition, and greed. Why not join ‘the other side’?  He is condemned anyway; only Hell exists; life on earth is but part of an amoral continuum leading to it, so why not become an Übermensch – strong, determined, and with an unstoppable will and irresistible power?

Greene offers a glimmer of hope of salvation for Pinkie – he frequently cites William Camden about the possibility of repentance and salvation ‘Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found. Greene himself regarded the mysteriousness of Divine grace as the theme of this novel: “

Brighton Rock is written in such a way that people could plausibly imagine that Pinkie went to hell, and then I cast doubt upon it in the ending. The real theme ... is embodied in the priest’s phrase at the end o f Brighton Rock: ‘You can’t conceive, my child, nor can anyone, the ... appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’. A reader who understands Greene’s preoccupation with the paradoxical nature of religion, as well as with the anti-hero, a man stripped of all his finery and superficial civilization, will not regard Pinkie as beyond God’s mercy. It may therefore be conceded that, however evil his life might have been, his earthly destruction may lead to his spiritual resurrection.

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In this regard Greene shows an affinity with the seventeenth-century Jansenists, whom Ian McEwan regards as “somewhat heretical Catholics” who stressed that only the “completely mysterious workings of divine grace” can save human beings from hell. The Priest tries to console Rose when she goes to confession after Pinkie’s death by reminding her of Péguy who could not “bear the idea that any soul could suffer damnation”. He also remarks “We must hope and pray ... hope and pray. The Church does not demand that we believe any soul is cut off from mercy”.

The question of God’s mercy has been asked since the days of the Early Church whose Founding Fathers were as troubled as those following them by the notion of eternal damnation from an otherwise loving and compassionate God.  It was to be the eternal paradox, insoluble, always defended by the Church, but always doubted. 

The Church’s conclusion that a punishment of eternal damnation is a worthy, non-arbitrary one is based on the premise of defiance, pride, and rejection of God.  Mortal sin is less a grievous secular action than it is a sign of willful, spiteful one. Of course critics of the Church are quick to point out that such irremediable punishment was devised as the way to control the faithful.  While the promise of Heaven was alluring, it is the fear of eternal Hellfire that encourages obedience, faithfulness, and belonging to the Church. In the early days of the Church through the Renaissance and before Martin Luther, the threat of excommunication was a serious one.

Suicide is considered the one unforgiveable sin because it not only is a prideful rejection of God’s forgiveness and compassion, but an act of despair.  One who commits suicide sees no remediation on earth and no possible salvation in Heaven.  A life of despair is the final, ultimate rejection of all that Jesus Christ has offered the world.

Greene, Péguy, Camden, the Jansenists, and many other religious philosophers and theologians have wondered about the concept of an unforgiveable sin according to which anyone who dies with a mortal sin on his soul is automatically condemned to death, beyond reprieve, mercy, or salvation.  There are none of Dante’s circles of Hell.  There is only one place for those who have rejected God’s grace one way or another.  All mortal sins including suicide are unforgiveable. Yet these same philosophers have suggested that there is no accounting for God’s mercy.  Who knows what he, in his infinite wisdom, might do for the sinners in Hell. 

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The Catholic Church condemns suicide unequivocally because it is a ‘sin of despair’. It is not so much than an individual takes his own life – i.e. murder in contradiction to the Sixth Commandment – but that he has finally, absolutely, and unequivocally rejected God and the possibility of salvation. There can be no absolution for a heinous sin that results in death so the sin is ipso facto unforgiveable; but the censure of the Church is more threatening and frightening.

What mysterious cruelty in the human soul, to have invented despair as a sin! Like the seven deadly sins, despair is a mythical state. It has no quantifiable existence; it is merely part of an allegorical world view, yet no less lethal for that. Unlike other sins, however, despair is by tradition the sole sin that cannot be forgiven; it is the conviction that one is damned absolutely, thus a repudiation of the Christian Savior and a challenge to God's infinite capacity for forgiveness. The sins for which one may be forgiven -- pride, anger, lust, sloth, avarice, gluttony, envy -- are all firmly attached to the objects of this world, but despair seems to bleed out beyond the confines of the immediate ego-centered self and to relate to no desire, to no thing. The alleged sinner has detached himself even from the possibility of sin, and this the Catholic Church, as the self-appointed voice of God on earth, cannot allow (Joyce Carol Oates, NYT 1993).

Does this mean that suicide may be beyond God’s mercy? That no matter how beneficent he might be, the sin of despair falls beyond the pale of even divine mercy?

Greene was a Catholic convert and perhaps because of that took more of Catholic dogma to heart than most others who have come to religion more because of family tradition or heritage.  He took the Church’s position on redemption, salvation, damnation, and forgiveness seriously with no room for error.  Yet the intellectual Greene could not overlook the breaks in the wall – the inconsistencies and often torturous justifications of Church authority.  Why should suicide be an unforgiveable sin if all moral sins are unforgiveable? Even Dante had not considered suicide as having a special place at the bottom of Hell after Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery.  More importantly, if the essential lesson of Jesus Christ was forgiveness – after all he died for all men’s sins, not just a select few.  in fact the Church explains his suffering and death on the cross by stating that the sins of the world were too great for anyone else but God himself to forgive.  If this is the case, then why did he draw a line at suicide? Or for any mortal sins for that matter.  Mercy is not selective.  Not only some mortal sinners should be considered for divine mercy.  God the Divine should show a greater mercy than his creations who cannot escape prejudice. 

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A further complication for Greene and others is the concept of grace.  Protestants believe that good works cannot ensure salvation. Only Jesus Christ can confer it based on his own reasons and vicissitudes.  Yet this grace – this ‘selection’ is made before death. Christ knows who will be saved and who will not.  There is no provision for grace after death.

There are those who deny this premise.  Jesus is in fact as concerned with the souls condemned to Hell as he is those who have not yet.  Some Protestant theologians suggest that the most powerful proof that souls in eternity can be helped is that according to the Bible, Jesus ‘descended into Hell’ to preach the gospel to those who had been relegated there. "For this reason the gospel was preached also to those that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit." (1 Peter 3:19,20 and 4: 6).  Romans 14:9 is often cited:  “Jesus is Lord of both the dead and the living”.  According to the Bible, he told His disciples, "Most assuredly I say to you, the hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live." (John 5:25).

Yet there is no sense of mercy here – only a continuation of the Christian message for the living.  Both living and dead can only aspire to salvation if they listen to the Gospel.

Greene’s ‘Catholic’ novels – Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and A Burnt Out Case – are all filled with contradictions, moral and philosophical conundrums.  What makes his stories so compelling is his understanding of human behavior.  Even those who want to be good rarely are; and one’s attempts to solve the insoluble dilemma of human imperfectability vs the desire for perfection are the perfect ingredients for the thoughtful novel.

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