Patrick Skene Catling details how the late English writer questioned his faith in his latter years
Some people in old age become superstitiously afraid of offending God, even — or perhaps especially — if in their earlier years they were proud to proclaim their disbelief.
Graham Greene remained sceptical, his speculative vision unblurred by sentimentality, until he was very old. Of course, I have no idea what his last thoughts were as he was dying in Switzerland at 86.
He was extraordinarily accessible and generous to younger writers. Unlike some senior men of letters, he did not hoard his thoughts to sell them to publishers.
I met him only once, by accosting him in the foyer of the Ritz, where he stayed when in London, and suggesting we have a drink. He did not know me, and I did not immediately identify myself, but he agreed with alacrity and led the way down St James’s Street to his favourite hidden pub.
Over large pink gins (Angostura bitters may have contributed to the mellow geniality of his temperament, the smooth functioning of his digestive system), we discussed such matters as the deadly parsnip wine of Chipping Campden, where we had both lived at different times, the perfidy of a certain publisher (‘a crook and a fool — a dangerous combination’), and the difficulties of religious belief.
Quite a long time afterwards, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter in his tiny handwriting, from La Residence des Fleurs, his home in Antibes. Recalling our conversation in the pub, he told of his feelings about his religion, to which he adhered, though sometimes only just.
‘I have always had reservations as a Catholic,’ he wrote, ‘even when I became one in 1927, especially as regards contraception. I find myself more and more opposed to the present Pope, the most political Pope the world has suffered for nearly 100 years. In age too I find myself more and more agnostic — I cling to the idea that I am wrong.
‘I accepted Catholicism in 1927 as intellectually the most probable — or rather the faith probably nearest to an unknown truth. I discerned an emotional allegiance during the persecution in Mexico. In John XXIII, I felt reinforced. Today I pray without much hope to find again the intellectual conviction that the likelihood of the Christian faith is more reasonable than the denial.’
Remembering the theology that influenced him, he went on: ‘I have to go back nearly 50 years. I was impressed in those first years by Karl Adams’s The Spirit of Catholicism (Sheed & Ward, 1934) — but I haven’t read it since and I mightn’t be impressed today. Of late years, The Agony of Christianity by Unamuno (a doubter too — doubt seems to be an essential shadow cast by faith), published by Fontana in paperback if it is still in print, The Phenomenon of Man, Pierre de Chardin (Collins), Newman’s A Grammar of Assent (difficult reading to me now).
‘My own experience,’ he concluded, ‘is that now I wouldn’t perhaps have become a Catholic. I began the road too intellectually, and I am trying to find the road back — to a faith full of doubts. I would advise what I never practised — the leap — and not be too much concerned about doubts. A faith without doubts seems inhuman. There must be doubts about a mystery.’
He had uttered those last two sentences in the pub. They epitomize his determination to overcome rational scepticism. The prevalence of doctrinaire faith over doubtful reason is the theme of many of his novels, notably his relatively recent Monsignor Quixote (Bodley Head, 1982).
The last time Graham Greene wrote to me, the year before his death, he gave me some literary advice. Every writer should have it framed on the wall by his desk:
‘I suggest you are more honest than you dare to be!’
I wish I could always abide by it.