Dante reserved for the traitors the lowest circle of hell, the frozen river of Cocytus, where the divine justice submerges forever those who betrayed the people who trusted and loved them. As Dante tells us in the Epistle to Cangrande, however, the subject of his poem is not just the fate of the soul after death but, when “taken allegorically, the poem’s subject is man, either gaining or losing merit through his freedom of will.”
Dante also wants to tell us, therefore, about the effect of betrayal on the soul of the betrayer in this life. In approaching that question, Dante says something astounding: “The moment a soul betrays, its body is taken by a devil, who has it then in his control until the time allotted it has run,” while the betrayer’s soul “falls headlong into this cesspool” in hell. Probably based on John 13:27 (immediately after Jesus identified Judas as his betrayer, “Satan entered his heart”), the allegorical meaning seems to be that the psychology of the betrayer is that of a literal devil—a will confirmed in evil, a will that strikes at the good out of pure hatred for the good.
The Society of Judas (a new novel by first-time author C. Theodore Murr) takes up a related question—the psychological effect of betrayal not on the betrayer but on the betrayed. What is it like for a fundamentally good man to be betrayed by someone he trusts implicitly? Worse, by a group of his former friends working together? “God help you when a friend sets out to betray you,” a mentor tells Charlie Maurer at the beginning of The Society of Judas. “Your enemies can’t betray you, Charlie, only a friend can betray—but when friends collaborate for a betrayal . . . who could emerge victorious against . . . a whole ‘Society of Judas’?”
The answer to that question, perhaps, is the protagonist, Charlie Maurer. A thinly disguised version of the author, Charlie Maurer is a young American studying in Rome in the mid-1970s when he meets Msgr. Marco Marconi, a powerful official in the Roman Curia. Marconi makes a cult of friendship, even inducing Maurer to write his thesis on Cicero’s De Amicitia. Under Marconi’s influence, Maurer ends a relationship with a woman he loves and enters the priesthood. Because of some obscure matters in ecclesiastical politics, however, it soon suits Marconi to have Maurer as far from Rome as possible, and so Marconi secretly arranges for Maurer to be banished to Tepatilan, a backwater outside Guadalajara.
Unaware of the betrayal, Maurer expects to stay in Mexico for just a year. Longing to return to Rome and the promised career under Marconi in the curia, he is repulsed by rural Mexico. Entering his parish church for the first time, “Charlie was aghast at the tackiness. It was soulless, like a whitewashed bull ring with a depressing terrazzo-work altar, missing many tessere,” and “instead of statues there were shop mannequins” that “wore dusty, lopsided wigs, and were clothed in green and purple velvet. Mary was cross-eyed.” Such episodes provide some much-needed comic relief in what is otherwise a very dark book.
Maurer learns quickly, however, that there is more to Mexican Catholicism than ugly churches. Called to give last rites, he meets a large peasant family, each member of which thought another was watching the infant daughter in their rat-infested hovel. In fact, the baby had been left alone: “Rats had eaten their way through the infant’s skull and cleaned out the cranium, the eyes were gone, and the fingers and toes had been nibbled off.” Quite unnecessarily, the author tells us that “nothing he had learned in his theology classes in Rome had prepared him for this.” In that hideously gaudy church, Maurer discovers, people intimately familiar with horror and privation managed to sustain “a more fervent faith than his.” The American priest with a Roman education falls in love with Mexico.
Maurer goes on to spend fourteen years in Tepatilan. He begins taking in street children and orphans, founding and building an orphanage, and raising money for the project in Europe and the United States. (The real Fr. Charles Murr received international recognition for his work with the hundreds of children he invariably calls his hijos e hijas, his sons and daughters, and was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans by the Jaycees in 1986). There is a glorious scene in which Maurer says mass for the first time in the gorgeously-decorated chapel of the new orphanage. Surrounded by children and benefactors, the Mozart Coronation Mass being sung by a choir of orphans backed up by the Guadalajara Symphony Orchestra, Maurer dangerously declares, “The rest of my life, the rest of my priesthood, will always find its culmination in this very moment.”
And then it all comes crashing down. The Italian nuns who staff the orphanage, including Maurer's closest collaborator, the oily Sister Gianluca, want to wrest control of the venture from Maurer, mostly because of unrelated squabbles within their own religious order. Maurer’s friend Dr. Jorge Mencia, suffering an irrational homosexual attraction for Maurer and harboring some more rational suspicions about the relationship between Maurer and his own wife, decides in a jealous rage to destroy Maurer. Maurer’s own bishop, conspiring with the papal nuncio to Mexico, finds it expedient to be rid of a very prominent American priest for reasons of ecclesiastical politics. There is formed a society of Judas, and suddenly Maurer finds himself accused of sexually abusing children in his care, of having a homosexual relationship with Mencia, of having an adulterous relationship with Mencia’s wife, of stealing money from donors and orphans alike, and of breaking the seal of the confessional. None of it is true, but much of it is believed. As Maurer’s confessor tells him, “One thing to remember about people in general: They’re disposed to believe the most outrageous.” Overnight, Maurer stands on the edge of losing his orphanage, his children, his reputation, and his priesthood.
Civil and ecclesiastical investigations follow. Hoping to obtain false evidence against Maurer, Dr. Mencia and some corrupt federales torture a young man who as a child was one of the first orphans Maurer took in, but the young man refuses to denounce Maurer. The author juxtaposes the gruesome torture scene with a scene of Maurer, alone, saying mass, praying for the safe return of his hijo. We see evil and good, face-to-face.
Finally, with the help of Cardinal Pozos of Guadalajara (clearly Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo) and Cardinal Edouard Gagné of the Roman Curia (clearly Cardinal Edouard Gagnon), Maurer stands on the verge of complete vindication. But then Cardinal Pozos is assassinated (the real Cardinal Ocampo was assassinated in Guadalajara on May 24, 1993—a crime that remains unsolved), and within days Maurer is arrested by Mexican officials, forcibly placed on a plane to the United States, and deported—apparently because the papal nuncio personally asked the president of Mexico to arrange it.
The psychological heart of the book concerns Maurer’s responses to betrayal—his response to learning that Marconi was behind his banishment to Mexico, that Sister Gianluca was trying to oust him from the orphanage, that his friend Mencia was accusing him of unspeakable crimes. After a heart attack and a nervous breakdown, Maurer spends years “frightened by the lava flow of hatred which had erupted inside him, seemingly more intense than any love he had ever felt.” He revels in guilty revenge fantasies that are “his only relief from ever more frequent slides into depression.” Eventually welcomed into the Archdiocese of New York by Cardinal John O’Connell (obviously Cardinal John O’Connor), Maurer tells his new bishop that “I started off wanting justice, but now all I want is revenge. I’m a failure as a priest.” But of course the story does not end there. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more, and Charlie Maurer learns to forgive and finally finds peace.
There is much more to the byzantine plot of this book that I have not given away here, and there is even a great deal of humor (one particularly feckless bishop, for example, is “that nothing, made flesh,” and a daffy nun who fancies herself the recipient of divine revelations “not only speaks in tongues” but “obviously thinks in tongues as well”). On the whole, The Society of Judas is difficult to categorize. As the story of a good but flawed man in the priesthood working out his salvation with fear and trembling in Mexico, the book is reminiscent of The Power and the Glory. In its assemblage of utterly bizarre characters and insane plot twists, it is reminiscent of The Confederacy of Dunces. It is also a score-settling, tell-all exposé of human iniquity that is clearly meant to name names. Above all, however, it is the story of one man’s life, told in the form of a novel but lacking the artificial unity a fictional account can achieve, and so it partakes of the strangeness and inscrutability that every human life displays. Charlie Maurer, along with the reader, wonders why God in his providence allowed such terrible and wonderful things to happen to him.
In this last aspect the Society of Judas recalls another episode from the Divine Comedy. In the heaven of Saturn, St. Peter Damian comes forward to greet the pilgrim Dante, and Dante asks him why God chose him, among all the saints in that heaven, to act as spokesman. The saint replies that “the most enlightened soul in heaven, the seraph who fixes most his eye on God, could not produce an answer to your question.” Rather, the answer to such questions “is hidden in the depths of the abyss of God’s eternal law, so that the sight of any creature He created is cut off from it.”
If such things are unknowable for the blessed in heaven, Peter Damian says, how much more will they elude those of us still down in the mortal world. In The Society of Judas one man asks such questions about his own life, and in finally accepting that no answers are forthcoming from God, he finds an answer all the same.
Robert T. Miller is an associate professor of law at Villanova University School of Law.