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The Priestly Comedy of J. F. Powers

Prince of Darkness and Other Stories

by J.F. Powers
Vintage, 193 pp., $3.75 (paper)

Morte d’Urban

by J.F. Powers
Vintage, 309 pp., $2.95 (paper)

The recent scandal of Chicago’s late Cardinal Cody was of the innocent, old-fashioned, irresistible kind. Money, power, sex—the ingredients of first-rate scandal all were there, but the tone remained provincial. We felt, in our interest, at once familiar and ashamed, as if we were, eye at the motel room key-hole, watching a small-town pharmacist sweating over his girlfriend. It called up all the Eastern clichés of the Middle West. Cody was accused of diverting diocesan funds to Helen Dolan Wilson, his step-cousin. It was rumored that they had a romantic liaison for many years and that he had bought her an expensive house in Florida.

To an outsider it was rather touching: the old-fashioned, Irish name, the distant kin relationship, the real estate. A modern priest would have done it better, had more fun, not have got caught. And the money would have been placed, somehow, in money market funds, or a tax-free shelter with an untraceable corporate name.

The whole business cannot be taken fully seriously by an Easterner, but one can feel the energy of local obsession in the outrage of the natives, who hear America singing in the stockyards and the railroads and proclaim that theirs is the real America. The Cody case underscores the difference between the New York and Chicago churches. Chicago is a thousand miles west of New York, a thousand miles further from Rome. It opens out onto those large, incomprehensible prairies settled by people without much Irish or Italian blood. Much earlier than Easterners, Midwesterners believed they could be Catholics and real Americans at the same time. Even now, Eastern Catholics have a sense of themselves as part of an immigrant Church—even the Kennedys, with their good teeth and their Harvard degrees, changed things only slightly; people are still surprised when Catholic boys get their own offices in Washington.

The Midwestern Church early on lost its Mediterranean tone. The Irish were in charge, particularly in Chicago—there was Daly in City Hall and Cody in the Chancery—but moving further west the Germans grew in power and the comfort of the ghetto as an imaginative construct was a quickly forgotten temptation. In the middle of the continent, these farmers, businessmen, and their sons held to the faith, but the stuff of their dreams was manufactured in the New World. The self-made man, hearty, well-heeled, at home in first-class trains, in suites at the Palmer House, was the man they wanted their sons to be. They did not dream of these boys taking New York or Washington—to say nothing of Paris or Rome. Chicago was the focus of ambition and mythology. In Chicago, these Catholics could be at the center of the things the Protestants felt too high-minded to want, but moving west they could never have access to real power.

They never believed it, though; they never accepted their differentness. For, dress as they might, play golf, vote Republican, send their children to college, they were still led by men who wore black dresses, stayed unmarried, listened to their secrets in dark boxes, owed allegiance to a foreign power to whom they wrote in a foreign power to whom they wrote in a foreign tongue. The success of Catholics at assimilating was undeniably connected to the ability of their priests to pass, to seem only slightly and interestingly different from Protestant ministers, to be as welcome as they at the annual Jaycees lunch, while secretly praying for the conversion of the Chamber of Commerce and dreaming of Bishop Sheen as a White House adviser.

Vatican II was supposed to have changed all that, but the Cody case revealed only partially buried deep structures. Consider the odd role of Andrew Greeley in the Cody affair. Greeley is a Catholic priest in his fifties whose credentials make him respectable in the secular academy. He has a post at the University of Arizona and runs a research institute in Chicago. He has a syndicated column. He has published over eighty books. Attractive, presentable, intelligent, he has devoted a large amount of energy to proving that Catholics are not the isolated bigots that people imagine them to be. That they’re no different from other people. Jews, say.

How the existence of Cody must have galled him. Authoritarian, hierarchical, rigid—Cody created genuine misery for the liberal elements in his diocese. But he also served as a live, powerful suggestion that Catholics are not like everyone else, never have been, never can be. Greeley is the author of a best-selling novel, The Cardinal Sins. Some see it as a roman à clef. The cardinal keeps a woman, is kept by a homosexual member of the Italian curia, is in the grips of the Mafia and the neofascists. Another character, a priest, a social scientist, a liberal, saves the day, the diocese, the cardinal. Greeley’s second novel, Thy Brother’s Wife, just out, has another liberal priest-hero, who has always been in love with his sister-in-law. Despite his outspoken attacks on everyone from Pope Paul VI to the right-wing leader of a Spanish cult, this lovable guy is elected cardinal of Chicago. Unlikely are the heads that wear Greeley’s hats.

At the height of the agitation over Cody’s alleged financial irregularities, a newspaper, the Chicago Lawyer, published what it said were transcripts of tapes made by Greeley, which portrayed him as contemplating a scheme to oust Cody and to replace him with the more moderate Joseph Bernardin of Cincinnati. According to the transcript, as long as four years ago Greeley talked about subjecting Cody to “the worst kind of public scandal by turning an investigative reporter loose on the archdiocese, and tell[ing] him to blow the Chicago thing wide open.” Greeley claims that the transcript represents only idle, late-night ramblings of the novelists imagination. (You know how novelists are.) But the story gave weight to Cody’s claim that he was being hounded by malcontents. Until he died, Cody reportedly continued to ignore federal grand jury subpoenas for his financial records; he refused to be questioned by either prosecutors or the press. Even Richard Nixon was more accessible.

There is only one American writer whose work could give the Cody affair quarter: J.F. Powers. Powers is a comic writer of genius, and there is no one like him. In vain one looks for precedents—English scenes of comical clerical life in Sterne or Trollope or Goldsmith do not do; the English tone is sweeter, for those clergymen never have to worry if the community wants someone like them around. In those novels, if the clerics themselves do not represent personal power, they represent an institution whose power is unquestioned. The furtive, hot desire for assimilation is impossible to imagine in the rural towns where those parsons christen, marry, bury. And the high drama circling round the priests of Bernanos or Graham Greene flies nowhere near the carefully barbered, untonsured heads of the Powers clergy. It is America that Powers writes about, and the peculiar situation of its Catholic priests illumines the larger world that they inhabit as the lives of outsiders who remain outside by the fixed nature of their identities must always do.

The isolated world—the pilgrimage, the madhouse, the country house, the colonial outpost—is a natural setting for the kind of comedy whose implications are at once moral and social. Life is denser in such places; personalities conform to types and types to personality; objects tell as they do not where the press of things and people is less close. It is in the close, packed atmosphere of parishes and monasteries that the comedy of Powers grows and flourishes: an odd, rare bloom: satiric, harsh, and yet not condemning, falling with an undisguisable relish upon the clergy’s faults yet based upon a tough and weary faith in what these clergymen so ineptly represent. Powers’s voice is dry, supremely ironic; it is a difficult one for Americans, who like their comedy, it seems, with fewer modulations, and do not read him.

Despite winning the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte d’Urban, Powers has never had the audience he deserves. His output has been small, one novel and three collections of stories, Prince of Darkness (1947), The Presence of Grace (1956), Look How the Fish Live (1975). And he has one subject: priests; his stories on other topics are far less memorable. His great and unique talent lies in his ability to record the daily lives of priests; he does this with sympathy, yet with close, hilarious attention to the errors of their lives spelled out by their possessions and their diction.

He writes without romance and without rancor, perhaps because he sees the priests he likes as largely powerless. He never expects heroics from them; the irony of their lives that he so clearly sees is that the expectation of heroics is implicit in their vocation. Yet they inhabit the actual world, west of Chicago, and they are unexceptional, average Americans, who must live out the history of apostolic succession in a mode particularly American. Truly American, they cannot really comprehend the European ideal of the Roman Church. Like the millionaire who builds himself a villa in Michigan—installing copies of the Venus de Milo in each of his ten bathrooms—they both misunderstand the ideal and rudely try to force domestication on it. In addition, being priests, they are necessarily alone—unsure tenants, poor relations, dependent upon the charity of strangers whom they must, if they are true to their vows, serve, impress, and keep as strangers.

The story “The Forks” concerns a pastor and a curate; it is a story about power and authority, youth and age, idealism and Realpolitik as well as about the uneasy cohabitation of God and Mammon. The pastor, known only as Monsignor, has taken Christ’s counsel to the unjust steward: he has made friends for himself with the Mammon of wickedness, so well that he is far more at ease with local businessmen than he is with the Roman Church. Speaking of his bishop, Monsignor says:

He reminds me of that bishop a few years back—at least he called himself a bishop, a Protestant—that was advocating companionate marriages. It’s not that bad, maybe, but if you listened to some of them, you’d think that Catholicity and capitalism were incompatible!”

The Holy Father—“ [the curate replies].

The Holy Father is in Europe, Father. Mr. Memmers lives in this parish. I’m his priest. What can I tell him?”

Is it Mr. Memmers of the First National, Monsignor?”

It is, Father. And there’s damned little cheer I can give a man like Memmers. Catholics, priests, and laity alike—yes, and princes of the Church, all talking atheistic communism!”

Monsignor imagines himself a man of culture and his curate a boor. But his notion of European culture is entirely Midwestern; in an outburst of outraged sensibility, he complains that his housekeeper has included green olives in the “tutti-frutti” salad he has asked for; he plans a lady garden in the back of the rectory, calling for a fleur-de-lis, a sundial, a cloister walk “running from the rectory to the garage.” Father Eudex, the curate, who tries to help the janitor with the job of digging, sees the project as expensive, and, in this country, “Presbyterian.”

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