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Book review: “The Cardinal” by Henry Morton Robinson

Henry Morton Robinson’s novel The Cardinal, originally published in 1950, was reissued in January, 1963, in anticipation of the upcoming release of the Otto Preminger movie of the same name.

As best I can remember, I read the book sometime that year. 

I was a 13-year-old eighth grader who, in September, started as a freshman at St. Jude Seminary. This was a high school for future priests run by the Claretian Fathers outside the town of Momence, Illinois, about 50 miles straight south from my family’s home on the West Side of Chicago.  I’m sure I saw the movie over Christmas, 1963, vacation when it was released nationally.

I know that I read the book.  At least, I’ve always been sure of that.  But, then, when I re-read Robinson’s novel recently, I found that there was much that I didn’t remember.  There was also much that seemed only vaguely familiar to me.

My suspicion is that I did read the book, but the movie was such a strong, sweeping, visual feast of priestly Catholicism, pre-Vatican II, that it drove out of my head all the details of the novel that were different — and there was a lot in the movie that was different from the book.

Since Christmas of 1963, I’ve seen the three-hour movie maybe six times, to the point that I have a lot of it memorized. It is a striking film, even if you’re not a 13-year-old mid-20th century Catholic boy planning on the priesthood. 

It won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama, a rarity for a film that wasn’t also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Even so, it garnered Oscar nominations for Preminger for Best Director and John Huston for Best Supporting Actor as well as for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Film Editing.  As I say, it’s a striking film.


A footing in the intellectual world.

Re-reading The Cardinal in 2022 was a visit to my 13-year-old self.  This book and the movie were important pieces in my decision to focus my future on the priesthood.  As it happened, I was a seminary student for nine years before deciding in 1972, still four years short of ordination, that a celibate existence wasn’t for me.

In 1963, I had no way of guessing at the joys, confusions, loneliness and enrichment that awaited me as a seminarian.  What I did know was that there was much about the priestly vocation that attracted me.

For one thing, priests were educated.  I was a bright kid in a working-class Irish-American neighborhood.  My father was a Chicago cop.  None of the lay people I knew as neighbors or friends of my parents had gone to college, except for one lawyer who’d attended St. Louis University (where I would eventually go as a seminarian) on a football scholarship.

The priests and the nuns in our parish all were college-educated, so the religious vocation was, in this way, a calling to be schooled — to learn, to find a footing in the intellectual world.

In a community of cops, firemen and other laborers and small business workers, the priest — as someone who wore vestments and cassocks and was devoted to religion rather than family — was someone set apart.  That isolation didn’t bother me as a 13-year-old.  I was the oldest of what eventually totaled 14 kids.  Out of that crowd, I liked the idea of being an individual.

Pecking order

Officially, priests had high status in our neighborhood.  I say “officially” because I realize now, after a lifetime of hearing lay men talk about priests, that their status was somewhat ambiguous — as guys who, in some way, might not be seen as fully masculine, as guys who might be perceived as naïve about the real world, as guys who were asking for money that working stiffs brought home from their jobs.

Those nuances weren’t very apparent to me back in 1963.  I was much more aware of a suggestion that the nuns and priests put out there.

Officially — again there’s that word — the priests and nuns honored those who chose the married life and even those who remained single.  Staying single and getting married were viewed by the church as legitimate honorable vocations.

However, it was clear in what was said and what was not said that there was a pecking order to vocations.  The message that I got as a 13-year-old — that all Catholic kids got in those years — was that those in religious life were somehow holier than lay people.  After all, priests and nuns were devoting their lives and their energies and their hopes and dreams to God.

As Stephen Fermoyle, the hero of The Cardinal, says emphatically at one point:

“Only poets can write poetry; only women can bear children.  Only a priest can remind men that God forever was, is now, and — come hell, high water, or technology — always will be.”

I now realize — and the church after Vatican II has made clear — that it’s everyone’s job to bring God to the world.  Not just preach about God with words, but even more with actions.  To live a good and moral life within the teaching of Jesus.

At 13, though, I heard the message about how those in religious life were holier.  And I bought it, hook, line and sinker.

A special club

I was doing a lot of reading in those years, much of it hero stories about presidents and other figures in American history and about baseball players, particularly the tragic New York Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig.

There were books and stories about heroic priests, such as Isaac Jogues, the Jesuit missionary to America who was tomahawked to death by a Mohawk in 1646, and Father Damien De Veuster who was a missionary among the lepers on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai and eventually died of leprosy. Both men were canonized as Catholic saints. 

They were also martyrs, and, in a real way, there was the sense that all priests and nuns were martyrs to the extent that they were giving up the pleasures of sex and family and of independence. Martyrs and saints — a higher, holier caste.

I recognize now that the uniform of priests was also attractive.  My father loved his policeman’s uniform.  And I think I saw the priest’s cassock and Roman collar and altar vestments as a uniform that I could make my own. 

My father’s cop uniform said that he was part of a special club of members with special powers, including the right to carry a gun.  I think that, as a 13-year-old, I saw the priest’s uniform as a similar emblem of membership in a special club with special powers.

Atop the pyramid

What was also very attractive to me was that there was a clear-cut hierarchy among the members of that club of priests.

The grunts — to use a word that didn’t come into common language until a decade later — were the parish priests, the front-line troops.  They worked in each parish under a pastor.  Some pastors, though, including the one at our parish, St. Thomas Aquinas, had the higher status of being Monsignors.

Then, above the Monsignors, were the bishops who oversaw a Catholic diocese or assisted in an archdiocese.  Above them were the archbishops.  Above them, the Cardinals.  Atop the pyramid was the Pope.

This organization structure suggested to me as a 13-year-old that I could be ambitious for high office without being prideful — since the implication was that those men at each higher level were “holier” than those at the lower levels, with the Pope being the “holiest.”

Before reading The Cardinal

At 13, I knew that my dream of playing first base for the Yankees, as Lou Gehrig had done, was not going to come true.  I couldn’t hit the curve….or the fastball….or basically any pitch. 

But I was, if I say so myself, a very good altar boy, and even served as the head of the altar boys during my 8th grade year.  As an altar boy, I saw the vestments and holy vessels in the sacristy, and I prepared the altar for the Mass, and I served on the altar, moving the Mass book from one side to the other for the Gospel and ringing the bells (St. Thomas Aquinas had a small piano keyboard) for the Consecration and reciting (very imperfectly) the responses to the Latin prayers.

Being an altar boy was like trying on the idea of being a priest.  It was like the shadowing that my kids did at high schools they were thinking of attending. I could watch the priest go through the Mass or officiate at a wedding or a funeral and think:  I can do that!  And I did think that.

So, the attraction of being a priest had to do with obtaining higher education and gaining a foothold in the intellectual world; embracing a “holier” and more heroic vocation; rejoicing in a distinctive and, when it came to vestments, colorful uniform; and having a future path of advancement — all the way up to Pope! — set out before me.

These attractions were clear to me well before the paperback of The Cardinal was published and on view at virtually anywhere that books were sold in Chicago in 1963 and well before the release of the movie at the end of that year.

First American Pope

The Cardinal spans the life of Stephen Fermoyle from 1915 through 1939, from the age 24 to 49, from starting a newly ordained priest and rising to an experienced, somber Cardinal.  What this novel did for me at 13 was to reinforce all my hopes and dreams of becoming a priest. 

Here was Stephen, arising like an eagle out of a sparrow-like blue-collar Boston family, in love with scholarship and doing good, learning from his (relatively mild) mistakes, and having what it took to be recognized as someone special and finding himself promoted again and again and again. 

At the end of the novel, it is twice mentioned that the new Cardinal Fermoyle is being thought of as probably the first American who will become Pope.

Reading the book at 13, I felt a great many parallels with Stephen.  He was tall and played first base, so did I.  He was a lover of history and scholarship and was a good writer, as was I.  He was a self-contained personality who didn’t completely fit in because he was multi-faceted in a way that others weren’t.  That echoed with my own ideas about myself.

Then, in the movie, he’s played by this very handsome actor Tom Tryon who looked striking in the various cassocks and vestments as he rose up the church ladder.

Not so much holy

Reading the book at 72, I experience Stephen Fermoyle as something of a prig and something of a know-it-all and as a guy who isn’t so much holy as competent.

Even so, the novel never dragged for me.  I was fascinated by its glimpses of the boy I had been and its version of the priest I envisioned for myself.

I was struck by how much of the theology that Stephen and other church guys preach is stuff that I don’t agree with today, particularly his pastoral letter on birth control and his triumphal sense that Catholicism is the only true faith.  (At one point, he does acknowledge that, according to Church teaching, believers in other faiths can get into heaven for all their misguidedness, but virtually everything else he says plays up the absolute truth of Catholicism.) 

Vatican II really and truly changed the Catholic faith.  And me.

So much of the novel is devoted to the particular rituals of the church and its bureaucracy and traditional processes, as if providing a blueprint for a teenager who wants to ascend the ladder.  It seems clear to me that The Cardinal was written as a book for Catholics and for non-Catholics who had some curiosity about the faith. 

Quaint curiosity

Today, for anyone under the age of 50, it would provide a window into the world of American Catholicism of the first half of the 20th century.  Beyond that, I’m not sure what sort of an audience it might find.

For nearly 60 years, I thought about re-reading The Cardinal.  I’ve owned a hardcover version of it for most of that time.  Whatever paperback copy I read is long gone.

Now that I have re-read the novel, I find that it seems to me something of a quaint curiosity piece from my past.  It, in my teens, embodied a version of who I was thinking I wanted to be.  But I now realize that, even if I had become a priest, I wouldn’t have been like Stephen Fermoyle. 

I know enough of the realities of the priesthood — as a former seminarian and as a lay person who has been involved in my parish and has written a lot about my faith — to know that the core of being a priest isn’t about gaining power but in finding ways to serve people.  At least, that’s the kind of priest I’d want to have been.

Daybreak – 2250 A.D.

What’s striking to me is that The Cardinal seems like a museum piece to me, somewhat cold and distant. By contrast, there is another book I read about the same time, a science fiction book, one of the first to imagine a post-nuclear world — Daybreak – 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton.

Daybreak — original title, Star Man’s Son — was published in 1952, just two years after The Cardinal.  I remember ordering it through a summer reading program at my grade school, probably in the spring of 1962, and I loved the book.  And still love the book.  And have re-read it several times over the past half century.

It tells the story of Fors, a mutant whose father was a Star Captain, one of the leaders of the Puma Clan in the mountains of what was once the western United States.  But, on a trip in search of a lost city in the wilderness beyond the clan’s territory, the father was killed. 

And the clan turns against Fors — “Mutant!” — because of his silver hair, night vision and ability to communicate with his large cat Lura through telepathy.  So he sneaks away from the village and goes off to retrace his father’s tracks.  He finds the city his father sought.  He makes friends.  And he faces the nightmare mutants called Beast Things. 

A search or dogma?

This was heady stuff for me, and it still is.  Like any 12- or 13-year-old, I felt like a mutant, uncomfortable and unsettled in a body that was changing in ways I couldn’t understand. 

I’ve written elsewhere that Daybreak isn’t great literature, but Norton does a great job at capturing the yearning of an outsider to find a home — to travel through mysteries and dangers and confusions to find a place to belong and people to belong with. 

Daybreak still resonates with me because I continue to be in touch with that yearning of an outsider.  I have found a home and people to belong to, but I also know that yearning and searching is part and parcel to being human.

Fors is a searcher.  By contrast, Stephen has a system of belief that, for him, holds all the answers.  His struggles have to do with living up to that system.  Fors gives up on the system he grew up with, the clan, and he goes out into the wide world to find himself.  Stephen opts for dogma.

I will read Daybreak again, maybe several more times.  I can’t see me reading The Cardinal ever again.

Patrick T. Reardon

3.15.22

4 Comments

  • Gina Logan Posted April 17, 2022 10:05 pm

    What an interesting review! I have a few thoughts to add, if I may.
    I too first read the book at around age 12. As a Catholic girl, in Catholic school (this was in 1962) I found the portrayal of Stephen Fermoyle and his earthly and spiritual journeys inspiring. We were taught to revere priests back then (and nuns, though “Father” definitely trumped “Sister” or even “Mother Superior” in the reverence department). Vatican II had not had much impact on American Catholicism yet, and the traditionalist views of the protagonist (and his creator) were simply what I was used to. The human dimension of the story, particularly Stephen’s blue-collar family and roots, also resonated with me, as my family is blue-collar too, though not Irish-American. I found all of the characters wonderfully alive, and if you’d asked me back then, I would have said that I loved the book without reservation.
    Some years later, I read it again, not just post Vatican II but as an 18 year old, one who had left the Church out of sadness and dismay at what I saw as sexist teachings that discounted women and indeed sought to keep women in a subordinate position; I also disagreed with the Church’s teachings on sex and sexuality, birth control, and LGBTQ people and their lives.
    Now, I found Stephen Fermoyle and his story still compelling, but a bit on the goody-two-shoes side; his struggles regarding his attraction to women, particularly Lalage Menton and later his unattainable “Beatrice,” Ghislana Falerni, seemed priggish. His steady rise through the hierarchy? Ho-hum. His decision to allow his beloved sister to die rather than her baby? Heartless—though Robinson clearly intended us to find it redemptive, since the baby who lives while Mona dies grows up to become a lovely and gifted young woman. Yay.
    However—all that aside: one thing that I didn’t notice until I read the book AGAIN around age fifty is the depth and breadth of scholarship and world view that Robinson exhibits through his characters. From Orselli to Quarenghi to, yes, Lawrence Cardinal Glennon himself, we get a vision of the life of the mind and an experience of art and politics and history that few novels of the period can match. The scene toward the end of the book, with dueling prelates spouting Dante and multiple translations flying about the room, is, I believe, a key to the book’s deeper theme, about humanity’s journey through that dark wood with its dangers, and then the voyage homeward, with icebergs threatening, cements the theme: we don’t know, at the end, if the ship comes safely into harbor, any more than we know if the souls of the characters come safely into G-d’s loving embrace, in life or in death. All must be taken on faith. Faith is the fabric that knits all of the book’s characters and events together: faith, and its complement, doubt. I think Henry Morton Robinson was a deeper writer than we have credited him with being; I suspect that another reading of the novel will reveal additional aspects of his talent. (BTW: he was a collaborator with the philosopher Joseph Campbell—you can’t get much deeper than that!) So, thanks for your piece, and for allowing me to comment.

    • Patrick T Reardon Posted April 20, 2022 5:20 pm

      Thanks, Gina, for such a thoughtful comment. You’re right about the emphasis that Robinson gives to the deep history of the church in terms of art, philosophy and politics. When I read the book initially as a teen who was going into the seminary, that stuff resonated to my core. I love the arc of history that the church has — I also love the arc of its goodness and badness, its compassion and its failures, its triumphs and its cluelessness. The Reformation is one of my favorite times in that history since the church was failing so abysmally but it resurrected itself through Luther and all those who stepped outside to broaden Christianity. The church leaders and, for that matter, all Christians have been and always will be flawed people who are capable of great spirituality and of horrible greed and cruelty. That’s what got me about “The Cardinal” this time around. Fermoyle HAS ALL THE ANSWERS. There is no room in his mind for doubt. The church is the be-all and end-all for him. I might have wanted a church like that in my teens, but now I opt for the church of people like Therese of Lisieux and Dorothy Day who know their own sinfulness even as they try mightily to love all people, even and especially those who fail greatly. Thanks again for your comment. Pat

  • Jos Speybrouck Posted May 4, 2022 6:35 pm

    Thanks for this book review. I’ve found this book in an antiquarian bookseller in Bruges (Belgium) and I’ve just started reading it. I loved your honest and introspective remarks about the book and I enjoy reading the book itself. For me, it is like entering a language game, -a language palace-, of forlorn words, rituals, obsessions, and meanings. Beautifully crafted. A kind of ‘A Rebours’ by Karl Huysmans, but back in the opposite direction. I used the term ‘language game’ in reference to Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein once said that if we would be able to translate the expressions of cats we would never understand them because they are living in another world, another paradigm, without any possibility to shift into it. This clerical world, which lies only 70 years away from our world, looks nearly like an outer world to me. Thanks to the abilities of the author, I’m nevertheless able to shift into this world. A marvelous world with dialogues so eloquently written that they can never be spoken today. Thanks and with sympathy from Bruges.

    • Patrick T Reardon Posted May 4, 2022 6:41 pm

      Thanks. I like your idea of a language game. The language of the church then did create a world that doesn’t exist any more. Even the people who try to replicate it through the Latin Mass and try to subvert the Vatican Council changes can’t make it again, only maybe make it anew in a 21st century version. For me back in 1962, that was perhaps the allure of it — its self-contained, complete, hermetic world of absolute confidence in its rightness. I’m glad you’re enjoying the book.

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