OK, so this weekend my wife and I indulged a guilty pleasure and rented The Shoes of the Fisherman to watch. You remember the 1968 film? The indefatigable Anthony Quinn¯Hollywood’s favorite generic ethnic actor in those days¯plays an Eastern European priest elected pope. Laurence Olivier plays a Russian. David Janssen plays a troubled American journalist. And all in the service of a gimcrack story by Morris West, the most popular Catholic writer of the twentieth century, selling more than 60 million copies of books like The Shoes of the Fisherman and The Clowns of God .
Back when he died in 1999 at age 83, I reread a swath of those books, trying to understand the phenomenon of Morris West. Here was a bestselling author writing on things specifically Catholic¯not the lives of Catholic people, not the real moral implications of Catholic theology, but the sheer technicalities of the Catholic Church: the process of canonization, the ordination of priests, the internal bureaucracy of the Vatican.
Indeed, that, more than anything else, was the territory he carved out for himself, tapping a surprising hunger to learn about the way things work behind the high walls of Rome. Even non-Catholics found it fascinating, and Catholics bought his books by the bushel. American Catholics have never been readers, at least not in the way that American Jews and certain strata of American mainline Protestants were readers. But there was a point in the 1960s when every middle-class Catholic household in the nation had a copy or two of a Morris West novel.
Perhaps that explains the condescension with which West’s death was noticed. The 78-year-old Mario Puzo died that year as well, at the end of June, and his death made the front page of such newspapers as the New York Post and was the occasion for an entirely laudatory¯indeed, fawning¯obituary in the New York Times . But West was treated far less kindly. Some of the New York Times ’ take on the author derived from mere ignorance. "Toward the end of his life, Mr. West acknowledged his unhappiness with his religion," the Times observed. There was a certain truth to that. But the paper went on to offer as evidence the fact that Morris West once said, toward the end of his life, that "Christian belief is not always a comfort but a bleak acceptance of a dark mystery"¯which sounds more like proof that West was hanging on to his faith, a little grimly, perhaps, but nonetheless firmly.
And the Times couldn’t stop itself from repeating the best swipes its book reviewers had made at West over the years. "When The Shoes of the Fisherman came out in 1963 and began selling what would eventually amount to 12 million copies, Orville Prescott writing for the New York Times called the book ‘clumsy and dull,’ with shortcomings that ranged from poor characterization to an overabundance of ponderous theological exposition. Reviewing The Tower of Babel (1968) for the Times , Charles Poore was caustic, writing, ‘Having read the book, I can wait indefinitely for the picture.’"
Born on April 26, 1916, in St. Kilda, Melbourne, Morris West was the eldest of six children. At the age of fourteen, he left home to study with the Christian Brothers in Sydney (who noted his death with the somewhat laconic official statement "The Brothers mourn Morris West’s passing and recognize his talents as a writer"), but he left in 1939 before taking his final vows. After getting his degree from the University of Melbourne, he taught modern languages and mathematics in New South Wales and Tasmania.
After four years in the Australian Imperial Forces during World War II, he settled down to become a writer¯quickly establishing himself as the "boy wonder" whose radio plays were enormously popular in Australia. A pair of novels, Gallows on the Sand and Kunda , somewhat uneasily combined artsy pretensions with potboiler structure, but they were successful enough to finance his long-desired excursion to Rome. And it was there that he met Father Mario Borelli, an Italian priest working with street urchins¯the subject of his 1957 The Children of the Sun , his first international success.
In 1959, after six months as the Vatican correspondent for the Daily Mail , he produced The Devil’s Advocate , far and away his best book¯the tale of a dying English priest named Blaise Meredith sent from Rome to southern Italy to investigate the case for canonization of a mysterious man passing under the name of "Giacomo Nerone," martyred by the Communists. The book stands up surprisingly well even today. It contains no insights that weren’t done at a higher literary level by such Italian authors as Carlo Levi in his 1945 Christ Stopped at Eboli or Ignazio Silone in his magnificent 1937 Bread and Wine . But West told his story well, kept it moving at a potboiling pace, and sold it to a wide popular audience.
The peak of that popularity came three novels later, in 1963, with The Shoes of the Fisherman , a more-than-bestselling tale of a Ukrainian priest named Kiril Lakota, who is elected Pope Kiril I. West’s obituaries all noted the success of the novel and its awkward transformation into an almost unwatchable disaster of a movie, starring Anthony Quinn. But what almost no one observed was West’s real intelligence about the Cold War¯and his novel’s implicit prediction of what would, in fact, come true with John Paul II: The resolution of the struggle between East and West and the end of the Communist terror could come about only with a strong pope from Eastern Europe.
A certain type of Catholic liberal in the late 1950s and early 1960s would call constantly for reform of the Church but, in a curious way, nonetheless needed the continuing existence of the old churchly structures¯if only to have something to fight against. And as the reforms of Vatican II swept through the Church, those liberals’ reasons for writing seemed to slip away. West’s marital problems always interfered with his relation to Catholicism: He married his second wife in 1952 and, in 1970, published Scandal in the Assembly , an attack on the refusal of the Church to recognize divorce. But in the years after Vatican II, he could find no compelling setting for his tales, and he was reduced to writing such pure thrillers as 1974’s Harlequin (not by any means a bad book) and such apocalyptic dyspepsia as 1981’s The Clowns of God (a very bad book) and 1990’s Lazarus (a very, very bad book).
At his death, he was a few weeks away from finishing The Last Confession , a novel based on the life of Giordano Bruno¯the sixteenth-century mystic burned at the stake for heresy with whom West strongly identified. There’s something irresistibly mockable in this picture: A millionaire author, surrounded by his loving family and friends in distant Australia, believing himself an embattled seeker of truth, about to be put to the stake.
And yet¯well, and yet, Morris West doesn’t deserve all the mocking and condescension he’s received. The Devil’s Advocate , The Shoes of the Fisherman , even Harlequin : They were good books, of their popular, potboiling kind, and it wasn’t really all that bad a kind to be.
In addition to which :
In “Dechristianizing America,” Richard John Neuhaus examines the curious and complex ways in which analysts of American life—mainly, but not only Jewish analysts—seem determined to ignore the confusedly Christian character of this society. This reflection in the June/July issue of First Things touches on subjects of long-standing controversy that cannot be ignored in trying to understand how our public discourse contributes to our misunderstanding of who we are. Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?