Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Priest

I just finished reading THE PRIEST by Ralph McInerny. Although this novel is 37 years old (being published in 1973) and is set 41 years ago (in 1968), the book was new to me and I enjoyed it immensely.

Ralph McInerny was for many years the professor of Medieval Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Over the years, he has also written many novels the most famous of which are the Father Dowling mysteries. Early in his career as a novelist, McInerny set out to write "serious" fiction. THE PRIEST is one of his efforts at a "serious" novel. This book was also a best seller when it was first published in the early seventies.

THE PRIEST is set in 1968 in the fictional diocese of Fort Elbow, Ohio. The priest of the title is Father Frank Ascue, an up and coming young priest and scholar who, after being the best and brightest at the local seminary, has just completed his Doctorate of Sacred Theology in Rome. Father Ascue returns to Fort Elbow expecting to be appointed to the seminary faculty. Instead he is assigned by the Bishop to be the second assistant at an inner city parish. THE PRIEST is full of plots and subplots. McInerny writes from multiple points of view and introduces us to many characters all of whom have some connection with Father Ascue.

The novel concerns the crises and turmoil in the church and in American society at large in the late 1960s. As George Orwell famously said of Graham Greene, "there is a tendency for people to go to bed together almost at sight and with no apparent pleasure to either party." Sex is uppermost in everyone's mind, as it seems that it still is in real life. A large subplot involves Father Frank's sister Charlotte, who is organizing protests against Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church's traditional stand against birth control. Despite the teachings of the Church, which everyone expects to be changed, Charlotte has started using the pill. Now Charlotte and her husband, Howard, can make love every night without worrying about pregnancy. Sex has been totally divorced from reproduction. Remember the old saying "familarity breeds contempt." Howard becomes bored with Charlotte and begins having an affair with a young client who is not much older than Charlotte and Howard's 19 year old daughter.

Clerical celibacy is very much an issue in this book. A hippie priest, Phil Bullard, seduces and then marries a nun, Sister Eloise. All this after Father Phil has already had an affair with another woman and asked to be laicized. Father Phil is depicted as the crusading liberal who blocks the entrance to the draft board, a la Daniel Berrigan. Phil and Eloise are married by another radical left wing priest who teaches at the seminary and after being suspended from the priesthood, hooks up with the flaming homosexual philosophy professor from the local college. In the meantime, Father Frank's niece, Barbara, has gotten herself pregnant by a seminarian from the local seminary who is struggling with his vocation. Frank and Charlotte decide that the best thing to do is to procure their daughter an abortion. When Father Frank fails to oppose his sister and brother in law's plans to abort their grandchild, Frank has a crisis of faith.

There are other subplots. There is an entire subplot involving the auxilary Bishop of the Diocese who is a political opportunist and will be a radical liberal when it gets him power and will become a total conformist when that advances his career.

In other words, THE PRIEST, although it is about serious issues, is a giant soap opera. I had great fun reading it. This book has been out of print for years, however, a search on the internet looks like copies are readily available.


  1. "Sex is uppermost in everyone's mind, as it seems that it still is in real life."

    Cheryl Ladd just called and said you're thinking about her too much. Cease and desist.

  2. Great review of this book. I just picked it up at a library book sale. Thanks to your review, I'll look forward to tackling the 563 pages. The author just passed away in January of this year.