I read with interest last month Richard Mammana’s feature article in The Living Church on Paris Leary’s 1963 novel, The Innocent Curate (see “Stigmata at Schinderhook“). Mammana did an excellent job of giving a summary of the characters and plot, a brief review of its mostly negative critical reception, and a short synopsis of the author’s life. It turns out this was Leary’s first and only novel. From Mammana’s presentation it seems like a novel that should be widely read and revered, but I’ll admit I had never heard of Leary or The Innocent Curate until TLC’s review. After reading some wickedly funny passages from the novel — speaking of an older matron of the church who left a bequest to build a lady chapel “to her glory, in memory of God” and of the rector of St. Clement’s Church who preached “in the Fulton Sheen style, but with less content and more taste” — I had to get my hands on this brief little satire.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find used copies online, and as of my writing this post, there were no copies for sale that I could find. Fortunately, I have a friend who is a doctoral student at a major university who borrowed it for me from the school’s holdings. I don’t intend to retread the same ground as Mammana, but would like to add a few thoughts.
For those who are familiar with 20th-century English literature, it might be best to think of Leary’s voice in The Innocent Curate as a combination of the uneasy Catholicism of Graham Greene and the biting satire of Evelyn Waugh. Greene even gets a shout-out when one of the central characters is said to be a “post Graham Greene Christian.” In Greene’s great religious novels, the supernatural intersects with the drama of ordinary human life. The novels are replete with characters who have an unsettled disposition toward the things of faith.
Similarly, in The Innocent Curate, the new young curate at the parish in upstate New York develops the stigmata, much to his own chagrin. All of the other major characters have reactions to this occurrence that fit their respective characters but are portrayed as wrongheaded: The ambitious rector is dismayed because he does not like anything that gives even the appearance of religious enthusiasm. The hyper-devout church lady wishes to use the curate to promote the monastery that is one of her main religious “projects.” The curate’s fiancée, who is a graduate of Oberlin College and a thorough skeptic, wants to rationalize the stigmata and give a natural explanation for its occurrence. Also like a Graham Greene novel, there is an inextricable movement toward grace working within the unsettled and uneasy religious convictions of the characters. At the end of the novel, we see the redemptive possibilities of grace working in the lives of sinners.
The novel also bears resemblance to the work of Evelyn Waugh: The satirizing of the ambitious rector, the devout church lady, and the religious fraud is biting and arguably merciless. It is this satire that perhaps doomed the novel’s critical reception. It was widely seen as a roman à clef of Leary’s time as curate at St. George’s Schenectady. I can appreciate that the novel must have caused considerable pain for those who felt they had been the object of Leary’s satiric wit — there are stories of St. George’s members hoarding copies of the novel, presumably to limit the potential dishonor the novel would cast on living souls. While I can appreciate this pain, I would also plead for the novel’s renewed reading, not as a salvo directed at particular people and institutions, but as a general portrait of an Episcopal Church in the heyday of its mid-20th-century revival.
This is perhaps where the novel is most valuable today. Traditionalists in the Episcopal Church are sometimes accused of wanting to return to an idealized time of the Episcopal Church in the booming 1950s and ’60s, supposedly before the onslaught of the progressive developments in the ’70s and beyond. What The Innocent Curate demonstrates is that any illusions about returning to this ideal are misguided and misleading. The church may have been booming, Sunday school full, and buildings expanding rapidly, but it is evident in retrospect that, like the preaching of Leary’s rector of St. Clement’s, the boom was lacking in content and overly concerned with good taste. This is not to say that God’s grace was not still active in this less-than-ideal ecclesiastical situation. Even the novel’s denouement concedes that grace can and does work in the lives of sinners, but arguably this is true in every epoch of Church history. The word and grace of God always wins out over the vain ambition of clerics and the hyper-religiosity of lay popes. In other words, the gospel advances despite ourselves. This is comforting in an age and church of uncertainty and discord, with grace sometimes so little in evidence, but it is also a stern warning not to seek to reconstitute the church today according to a vision of a golden age.