Every Good Story is a Ghost Story

Despite its charming flaws, Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal poses compelling questions for our own time.

An assistant holds a new cardinal’s red biretta on Nov. 19, 2016, during a consistory at Peter's basilica.
An assistant holds a new cardinal’s red biretta on Nov. 19, 2016, during a consistory at Peter's basilica. (photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images )

It is a phenomenon often observed by the avid reader that no good book is an island. Rather, by piquing the reader’s interest they point in other directions, leading to a long chain where connected reading experiences add to the understanding and further enjoyment of each individual link.

That this is the case in nonfiction is without dispute; one well-crafted book on a current political topic or social issue may fuel interest in diving deeper for added perspective. This also can be the case for fiction, and not simply in the case of trilogies or book series that involve the same characters. One cannot truly grasp a writer like Graham Greene, for example, without reading several works from his opus; they paint a more complete portrait that helps the reader better understand each work and the complicated author behind them.

The religion columnist Terry Mattingly often points out how many journalists in the mainstream news media, in their ignorance and lack of experience in areas of religion, miss details that would only add to the depth and impact of their reportage. Mattingly refers to these details as ghosts that lurk in the stories, visible only to those who, as he puts it, “get religion.” An intelligent consumer of news is often frustrated when a news story raises more questions than it answers.

In a sense similar to this—and certainly one more positive than negative—every good story, even novels, could be considered a ghost story, always leading to a deeper wisdom that drives the reader’s interest beyond the words on the page. Because of the breadth of Tolkien’s subject-matter expertise and the depth of his moral imagination, we can easily conclude The Lord of the Rings is superior to the Harry Potter books, and will outlast them as a classic.

And so it was that a recent re-reading of the 1950 novel The Cardinal, by Henry Morton Robinson, had me not so much interested in other books by him, but other reading to understand better the eras in which he wrote, and in which the book takes place. The Catholicism that permeates the book, as stereotyped as it may be, is of a bygone era, but one that still appeals.

The Cardinal tells the story of Stephen Fermoyle, a Catholic priest from Boston, between the years 1915 and 1939, when he, as a new cardinal, voted in the election of Pius XII. An immediate best-seller, the novel was translated into more than a dozen languages and turned into an award-winning 1963 film by Otto Preminger. Were it to be offered publishers today, I doubt the book would find a buyer in the secular press. It’s just too Catholic.

Reading The Cardinal in a thick paperback on the verge of disintegration, one published more than a half-century ago in conjunction with the movie, I was struck not so much by the great degree to which the world has changed, but the Catholic Church itself. The clarity of traditional liturgy and moral theology permeate the pages.

Looming large in the book, for example, is the unseen presence of Pope Leo XIII, who died a dozen years before the novel’s opening scene. Leo’s social teachings against opportunistic capitalism are discussed broadly in the course of the novel. Fermoyle rightly understands, in one scene, the threat of too much dependence on playing the stock market with diocesan funds. As a new bishop in 1927, he directs his staff to sell the diocese’s blue chip stock and put the money into more conservative trusts. One member of his curia takes this hard as he watches the stock keep rising—“until a certain unforgettable day in October, 1929” that proved the bishop right.

Catholics don’t talk about Leo XIII much anymore, and he seems sometimes to have disappeared in the haze of history, with newer pontiffs being beatified or canonized seemingly every year. On my shelf is a sturdy little paperback from 1954, only a few years after The Cardinal came out, titled The Church Speaks to the Modern World. It’s a collection of Leo’s social teachings, edited by the French Thomistic academic and philosopher Etienne Gilson.

One example of Leo’s overall impact is the importance of his 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum, which was followed by celebratory “sequels” from Pius XI (Quadragesimo anno, 1931), Paul VI (Octogesima adveniens, 1971), and John Paul II (Centesimus Annus, 1991). These are just the anniversary documents; many other references abound.

Gilson’s paperback, which I bought for a dollar at a book fair, is itself a symbol of the Church’s influence in mid-century America, when the publishing giant Doubleday started an imprint called Image, with the goal of, as its marketers put it, “making the world’s finest Catholic literature available to all.” One list tallies 350 volumes in the Doubleday Image series, a list that traces the trajectory of Catholic thought in America: The first volume was William Thomas Walsh’s book on Our Lady of Fatima, an important work which introduced the world to that apparition; the final was Fr. Andrew M. Greeley’s The Sinai Myth, where the controversial writer takes a modern, sociological approach to the Ten Commandments.

The postwar period in which Robinson was writing his novel was a time when the Catholic Church was seeing great growth, and here I found myself reaching not for another book, but an essay by the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. This work, titled “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church” was published in Life magazine in September 1949. At the same time Robinson was crafting The Cardinal, Waugh was traveling around our country, talking to people and writing this report where he recognized, as did Robinson throughout the novel, that America was seen as a beacon of hope for the future of the Church.

In Robinson’s book, Pope Pius XI points out to then-Msgr. Fermoyle that the Catholic feast of the Chair of St. Peter coincides with our secular birthday celebration of George Washington. Often discussed at a time when the Church was losing temporal power in Italy was the value of separation of church and state in the predominantly Protestant United States, as a model that ironically provided more religious freedom to Catholics here, and allowed them to succeed and have greater influence as their presence grew.

In his Life magazine essay, Waugh expresses this sort of optimism in a more complete way, setting a theme that one could say helps define Robinson’s novel. As Waugh put it, many of his contemporary Catholics are “turning their regard with hope and curiosity to the New World, where, it seems, Providence is schooling and strengthening a people for the historic destiny long borne by Europe.”

When I read of the latest scandal the Church is facing in the United States, it is hard not to recall that, as bad as we Catholics in America think we may have it, the Church is suffering much worse elsewhere—not just wholesale persecution in far-flung lands like China, but the decimation of the faith in Europe, once hailed as the true seat of Christendom.

Nearly seven decades after its publication, newly published copies of The Cardinal can still be found. Despite its charming flaws and obvious triumphalism, it sketches a captivating portrait of a particular point in time and—more importantly—poses compelling questions. The ghosts that lurk behind the scenes, no doubt, shake their heads at what this world has become, and point to the enduring lesson that, sometimes, the old ways of thinking may prove superior.