If you want to know what a culture is like, it helps to look not only at the masterpieces but at the best of the “popular.”  That will include many a fine work whose appeal is not in the same category as the appeal of Goethe or Milton.  You sing the hymns of John Newton and William Cowper.  You recite the poetry of Longfellow.  You watch the films of Frank Capra.

What was liberal Catholicism like before the second Vatican Council?  The question is too broad to admit of one answer, but I think that some of its features appear in The Keys of the Kingdom by the Catholic novelist and physician A.J. Cronin.  It’s not a great novel.  It’s a very good novel of the kind I am talking about.  It is solidly of its provenance; like a well-wrought Victorian armoire.

Those who remember the book or the film made from it will recall the principal figure: Father Chisholm (played by Gregory Peck), an un-clerical Scottish priest who is placed in charge of a mission in the interior of China.  He had been expecting a thriving church and school, according to the statistics sent home by the previous pastor.  Instead there is mud, a stable hardly fit for horses, and a pair of avaricious “rice Christians,” eager to assist the new Shang-Fu for money and influence.

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