70 Years Later: THE CARDINAL by Henry Morton Robinson

A look back at a Catholic classic

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by Kevin Di Camillo

In 1950, Henry Morton Robinson, who had up to that point in his life only written a few slim volume of poetry, two politely-ignored novels, and, along with Joseph “The Power of Myth” Campbell, A Skeleton’s Key To Finnegans Wake, produced what turned out to be a multi-million-copy New York Times best-selling novel simply entitled The Cardinal.

Time Magazine praised it as “The year’s most popular book, fiction or non-fiction”, which is surprising because the book is (a) very long (nearly seven hundred pages), and (b) not at all an “easy-read”, filled as it is with ecclesiastical terminology and at times difficult themes of theology.

Still, this book not only sold, but was read, translated into various languages, released as a trade-paperback, then a mass-market paperback, a Book-Of-The-Month Club Selection, and, in 1963, turned into a blockbuster movie of the same title, starring such luminaries as John Huston, Burgess Meredith, Ossie Davis, Romy Schnieder, and Tom Tryon in the title role as “The Cardinal”.

Why was the book such a hit? And what does it have to say to us today?

As for the first question, we need to look at the timing: by 1950, Thomas Merton (in his own best-selling 1947 autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain had convinced a generation of young American men that becoming a Catholic Monk was a completely reasonable thing to do and given the fact that so many young, Catholic men had fought in the horrors of World War II, the concept of “flying the world” (to use the words of Thomas a Kempis) looked appealing.

But not everyone is called to be a monk, let alone a hermit, like Merton was. Thus The Cardinal tells the tale of a diocesan priest—and I suppose here I am obliged to use the term “spoiler-alert”—of the young Fr. Stephen Fermoyle: a newly-minted priest of a large, lower-class Boston-Catholic family, who has been studying (and ordained) in Rome and is ready for his first assignment back in America circa 1910.

One of the things that makes the book so remarkable is the diction—the word-choice—the author invokes. Having studying James Joyce’s magnum opus Finnegans Wake for a decade, Robinson seems to have decided not to invent neologisms (as Joyce did), but to use a time-machine and use archaic, almost unused English (and Latin!) in spinning his tale. It is difficult to go three pages without having to consult a dictionary!

The other item that The Cardinal excels at is its blend of the real and the fictional: in it we find the very real personages of Pope Pius XI (who has a special affection for Fr. Stephen), Alfred E. “The Brown Derby” Smith (the four-time governor of New York and the first and at that time only, Catholic candidate for President), Cardinal Terrance Cooke of New York is present, as is a delightful rendering of the composer of “The Litany of Humility”, Cardinal Mery del Val, along with the somber Secretariat of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII. But it’s not just churchmen and Catholics who show up in The Cardinal: Benito “Il Duce” Mussolini struts across the stage of the Palazzo Venezia in the manner we are accustomed to seeing him in all those old black-and-white propaganda films.

In short: The Cardinal feels like history, not as it necessarily was, but as it absolutely can be read and enjoyed.

Another part of the staying-power of The Cardinal is that it takes on—head on—almost every possible social justice issue of its (and our) day. For example: Fr. Stephen’s sister, a lost soul named Mona, becomes pregnant out of wedlock, runs away, and will die in pregnancy—unless she has an abortion. Fr. Stephen cannot, of course, assent to this, and so must see his sister off to Heaven while welcoming her little child, Regina, into the world.

Amazingly—especially for 1950!—ecumenism and interreligious dialogue play a big part in the book, culminating in a “Prayer Convention” in New York, to which Stephen is sent by the Apostolic Nuncio. Stephen winds up sitting next to the lone rabbi, whom he seems to have more in common with than the Oxford-educated Episcopalian bishops or hell-fire-and-brimstone Baptists. The convention winds up with this “conclusion”, which is a cautionary tale about how much faith, pun intended, we should put into these things:

“The formal resolutions of the Inter-Faith Convocation, published some months later, were unanimous only in agreeing that bigotry and intolerance, like the grade-crossing and the man-eating shark, must be eliminated.”

As an Archbishop, Stephen writes a letter to his flock admonishing them against the use of artificial contraception—and is immediately lambasted for it by the precursor of “Planned Parenthood.” St. Paul VI would be proud.

Stephen is also sent on a kind of “fact-finding” mission to the Deep South where he finds – as one would find now—Catholics in abundance (one need only think of the great Catholic writers that the South produced in the 20th century: Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy), but they are constantly under the oppression of the virulent Ku Klux Klan—an organization which hated (and still hates) Catholics at least as much as it hates African-Americans and Jews. In one of the most dramatic scenes, he receives a tied-to-the-whipping-post scouring.

It would be impossible to write a book or live a life devoid of sexuality and Fr. Stephen struggles, as we all do, with his station in life—as a celibate priest, who seems to run up against the femme fatale of the novel again and again. However, he makes a retreat to a Benedictine monastery near the island of Stromboli and the Abbot/Confessor strengthens the young priest’s resolve.

The issue of homosexuality in the priesthood, so much in the media today, is alluded to in the character of Fr. “Milky” Lyons, one of the three priests Stephen lives with at his first assignment, who is always portrayed as not only effeminate, but almost in a state of arrested adolescence. Later—make that hundreds of pages later—in the novel, when a group of Americans (prelates, priests, religious, and laity) make a pilgrimage to Rome (and to see their beloved Fr. Stephen), Stephen asks his former pastor:

“And whatever became of Milky Lyons?’ Stephen wanted to know. “Ah, poor Milky”, said (Father) Monaghan, “He went melancholy on us.” [The author then adds:] In strength they stood who stood. In weakness they fell who fell.”

Another cleric who “falls” in the book is Lew Day. Lew is an fey and effiminate failed Trappist monk, who ensconces himself at St. Margaret’s parish, Fr. Stephen’s first assignment. There Lew works with monk-like silence and assiduity on keeping the parish sparkling clean and in restoring old vestments, monstrances, statuary, candelabra, and all of the accoutrements that a Church contains. However, once a parish school opens and a cadre of nuns move in, Lew Day is out of a job. And in despair, like Judas, he hangs himself.

Despite these moments of misery—including the death by blood-poisioning of one of Fr. Stephen’s best-friends in Rome (and a man surely en route to the Episcopate), and a priest who makes a disaster of a Young Boy’s Farm and then aimlessly wanders away, never to be seen again—The Cardinal is at its best when describing the one job Cardinals are created to do: Elect a pope.

Three times in the book a pope is elected and the scrutiny is so well-recorded that one thinks that the author must have had a hidden camera in the Sistine Chapel to have gotten all the details down so perfectly, from the folding of the ballots to the tradition that, on the first round of voting, a ceremonial sop is thrown to a cardinal who has no possible chance at winning. In truth, Robinson seems to have gotten a lot of his research from Fr. Corvo’s 1904 novel Hadrian The Seventh, but as the old saying goes, “Good writers borrow—but great writers steal”.

The Cardinal is not “great literature”, nor is it “spiritual reading”—however, it is a very good novel, and for that reason I read it again and again: because it is a consistent bringer of literary pleasure.

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