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"Working out his salvation with fear and trembling in Mexico": an interview with C.T. Murr

In his August 2009 First Things review of C. Theodore Murr's The Society of Judas (2008), Robert T. Miller summed up the novel in this way:

On the whole, The Society of Judas is difficult to categorize. As the story of a good but flawed man in the priesthood working out his salvation with fear and trembling in Mexico, the book is reminiscent of The Power and the Glory. In its assemblage of utterly bizarre characters and insane plot twists, it is reminiscent of The Confederacy of Dunces. It is also a score-settling, tell-all exposé of human iniquity that is clearly meant to name names. Above all, however, it is the story of one man's life, told in the form of a novel but lacking the artificial unity a fictional account can achieve, and so it partakes of the strangeness and inscrutability that every human life displays.

The Society of Judas is indeed difficult to categorize. It is sometimes raw and shocking, but is written with an obvious elegance. It is often disturbing, often edifying, and always readable. Ignatius Insight recently interviewed the author about the novel.


Ignatius Insight: To what degree is The Society of Judas autobiographical? What are some ways in which you drew upon your own experiences in Mexico?


C. Theodore Murr: Though I do not readily admit it, in fact, The Society Of Judas is autobiographical. From the novel's inception--as was the case in real life, I might add--the dilemma was my priesthood. That is to say, I tried my heroic best to remain silent about any number of things (I figured) that were no one else's business. (Besides the Silent Lamb Himself, I held Thomas More near and dear, remembering that only at his trial, pushed beyond the limits, did he finally speak his mind and defend himself properly.) For years after what is described in the novel, I remained silent about what actually happened. Only when my now-adult children (from the orphanage) began asking me what really occurred, and why I left them to be orphaned a second time, did I decide they had a right to know. I began to see that my silence was being taken as tacit guilt.


Now, how do you say something without saying it? Brilliantly, Christ said it in parables; rather poorly, I tried saying it in fiction. Was it Moliere who said the difference between truth and fiction is that, unlike truth, fiction must make sense?


Notwithstanding, more than score settlingThe Society of Judas is meant to present things through a different pair of eyes: those of an idealistic fool. That said, I prefer to say that the story is very autobiographical, not completely.


Ignatius Insight: Robert T. Miller, in a review of The Society of Judas for First Things, wrote that your novel, among other things, is "a score-settling, tell-all exposéof human iniquity that is clearly meant to name names." Is that a fair description? What compelled you to write the novel?


Murr: Meant to name names, as Miller claims? In some cases. I didn't really care if the reader put two and two together. The nuncio to Mexico (real name Prigione; The Society of Judas name: Pichione) is hard to miss--nor should it be missed. The Archbishop of Guadalajara, Juan Jesus Posadas is impossible to miss, since, in fact, he was assassinated on May 23, 1993, at the airport, asThe Society of Judas begins. And who could miss Charlie Mauer as the author himself, (Charles) Theodore Murr?


Ignatius Insight: What is the basic outline of the novel and who are some of the main characters?


Murr: The main characters are the American priest, Charlie Mauer, and his three Judases: the cunning Vatican powerhouse, Msgr. Marco Marconi; a "pious" Italian nun, Sor Gianluca; and a Mexican physician, Dr. Jorge Mencia. (I would much have preferred to present them better as a modern rendition of Dante's three talking-heads in the mouth of the satanic dragon frozen in hell--but, alas...)


Ignatius Insight: Your novel addresses directly the tension, even unease, felt by many Catholics who believe the Catholic Church is the one, true Church founded by Christ and protected from the gates of hell, and yet who witness, or indirectly hear about, the power struggles, the politics, and the personal agendas and vendettas of people, including bishops and cardinals, who they think should be above and beyond such things. How is Fr. Mauer introduced to the world of Vatican politics, and how does he come to grips with the betrayals he suffers at the hands of his superiors?


Murr: Catholics who feel a tension or unease between the Church's being one, holy, catholic and apostolic, on the one hand, and the manifest sins of individual Catholic, even popes and prelates, on the other, are generally rather misguided.


For example, such people are themselves Catholics, members of the church, members of the mystical body of Christ. Do they perceive themselves to be sinless? I mean it. Without grave sin, perhaps? Assuming such people are honest with themselves, very few of them would answer these questions affirmatively. But if they can be sinful and still be members of the Church, why not other people? In my experience, the people who are most discommoded by the sins of prominent churchmen are people who, consciously or unconsciously, have turned the Church into something akin to a political party. In party politics, it's my guy, right or wrong (think of how the Democrats defended Bill Clinton).


There's a good reason for this, viz., being honest and admitting that your guy did bad stuff makes it likely you'll lose the next election and that your party--and the causes it stands for--will suffer. But the church is not a political party. Its prelates do not stand for election. Its popularity is essentially irrelevant; indeed, it is often strongest when most despised by the world. It does not have a "cause" in the world that it hopes to accomplish, or, rather, in a certain sense I suppose it does, but that cause is God's cause, and there's not the slightest chance of it not prevailing. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.


Incidentally, genuinely saintly people are virtually never scandalized by the sins of others. Can you imagine Mother Theresa being shocked to learn about the sins of some priest or bishop? I can't. As was said about Brother Lawrence: "He was never perturbed to hear of the sins of others. On the contrary, pondering the depths of original sin, he was generally surprised that people's sins were not worse than they actually are, and he gave the credit to the grace of God."


Among other things, man is a political animal, that is, it is in his very nature to be political, principally because he is a social being, and politics is a more sophisticated part of his social DNA. Now, as it would be absurd to assume that priests, bishops, cardinals and popes--to say nothing of ultra-pious nuns--have no need of bathrooms from time to time, so it is to assume that they stop being social and political beings upon entry to religious vocation. Central to priesthood is governing and government. Have you ever heard of one without the other?


Of course, most people say they know this. Do they really, I ask? My point is, they forever overlook it, or just put it out of mind, believing, perhaps, that such is simply too base for the pious. Besides, God made us this way for a purpose.


What's more, clerics have their own set of demons to confront and do battle with, just as the layman has his. Our demons are not necessarily as easily detected as the hot blonde next door, or the waitress at Starbucks, or cheating in business, or conniving, or lying on tax returns. Since we are "suppose" to be closer to God, our demons are more sophisticated and trained in the art of preventing that to happen (i.e., divine intimacy). Take for example: having to obey a bishop who you know is mentally ill (i.e., Lorenzo-Cuadrado in The Society of Judas), or a nuncio who may represent the pope in Church/State (politics) matters, (but who also had a hand in murdering your friend), or loving people who use that love for their own ends and sacrifice you so as to achieve them. These are our demons. They differ greatly from those of the common man. I envy the common man's demonic lot in that sense.


I note in this regard that The Society of Judas is characteristic of Catholic literature in depicting the moral faults of Catholics in a straightforward way. For example: Dante putting so many popes in hell; the alcoholic priest who fathered a child in The Power And The Glory, and so forth.


As to how Fr. Mauer was introduced into the world of Vatican politics, this is rather outside the scope of the book--i.e., it happened before the real action of the book. As to "how he comes to grips with the betrayal he suffers at the hands of his superiors," there is no answer to that shorter than the book itself; that's what the whole book is about.


Ignatius Insight: Some Catholic fiction suffers from heavy doses of hyper-piety and rose-colored perspectives. The Society of Judas, on the other hand, is quite raw, even shocking in places. How does a novelist, especially a Catholic priest, gauge what is necessary and appropriate when it comes to language and descriptions that will likely offend or shock some readers? Is it a concern? Put another way, how does a novelist discern the line between pious prudery and titillating gratuitousness?


Murr: As much as I hate--and truly I do--vulgarity, it surrounds us today. Somewhere along the line, people stopped looking upward and started looking downward. Most likely, this is due to evil being easier to grab hold of, and virtue being harder. Along with vulgar and crass, go laziness and uncritical thinking. That a Masonic general, a devout atheist, priest-devourer and special agent murderer of Christians, says: "f--- your mother, you son-of-a---" when he sees a priest at the foot of his deathbed, should surprise no one. That men, to show their egalitarian friendship and/or admiration of a priest, speak openly to him and speak naturally to show their true esteem, should not be lost. It is the common man's sign of esteem and trust for another. That the priest sometimes speaks this way? Well, I suppose it is like the princeling the archbishop of Guadalajara sent to study in Rome. When he returned (to Mexico) years later, to knock him down a few pegs, the archbishop sent him to a dusty little rancheria. Ten years had past, and frankly, the archbishop had forgotten about the Padrecito. When finally he saw him, on a visit, eating with his hands (without fork and knife), cursing and spitting into a cooper spittoon, he transferred him back to the city. The archbishop also apologized to him.


Moreover, swearing (for men--not women) is much a part of Latin culture. It is even more a part of Mexican culture. It is an important part. When the Franciscan missionaries arrived and began teaching the Indians (besides the truths of the Faith) Spanish, they, the missionaries, taught the Indians to swear. Why? Because of the Spaniards themselves. Americans might be scandalized at the swear words, but these are all musical pleasantries to the ear compared to how Spaniards speak. They do not really swear, as in my novel the Mexicans do; they blaspheme. And their blasphemies are the most putrid, repugnant, vile expression against Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and (God forgive them) the Blessed Sacrament, you have ever heard. The Franciscans, knowing the nature of men--and macho men at that--invented a new kind of swearing for the Indians to learn, rather than have them adopt the blasphemies of the Spaniards--to say nothing of the Italians and the French (and, God help us, the Germans).


How does a Catholic priest gauge what is necessary and appropriate when it comes to language and descriptions likely to offend? I would note first that I wrote this book in my capacity as a novelist, not my capacity as a priest. Just as a priest playing tennis aspires to the standards of excellence in the autonomous discipline of tennis, so too does a priest writing a novel aspire to the standards of excellence in the autonomous discipline of literature. That is, he judges what is necessary and appropriate in the novel in the same way that other novelists do; by determining what material is necessary to make the philosophical, psychological, or moral point the novel is making in a way that is aesthetically excellent. Pious prudery and titillating gratuitousness are two vices at the extremes beyond the virtuous middle described in the preceding sentence. Knowing how far to go is not easy; there is no formula, just as there is no formula to know what courage requires in battle or what temperance requires in terms of taking food and drink, and so forth.


Ignatius Insight: Fr. Mauer is betrayed by cardinals and nuns, is accused of sexual sins, and much more. Near the end he says, "I started off wanting justice, but now all I want is revenge. I'm a failure as a priest." Is it fair to ask if it is only bad priests who think they aren't failures? Isn't a sense of failure and the presence of suffering a real part of what it means to be persona Christi?


Murr: Do only bad priests think they're not failures? If I follow the logic of this question, it's equivalent to this: "All priests who think they're not failures are bad priests." Did St. Paul think he was a failure? He said, rather, "I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7). This expresses the priestly ideal. It is, to be sure, a difficult one to attain, but God supplies every priest with enough grace to obtain it. As to the second part of the questions, I don't see why a "sense of failure" is being identified with the "presence of suffering." Indeed, if we are suffering when we do not deserve it, if we are suffering for what is right, we should feel triumphant, not like failures. Thus, "Blessed are you when men reproach you and persecute you and, speaking falsely, say all manner of evil against you for my sake. Rejoice and exalt, because your reward is great in heaven" (Matt. 5:11-12; see also Rom. 8:35-39 and 2 Cor. 12:10). Or to put it another way, Christ never thought of Himself as a failure. If you doubt it, see Hebrews 12:2, where it is written that we should keep our eyes fixed on "Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured a cross, despising the shame." People who think our Blessed Lord ever thought of Himself as a failure forget that He is God.


There is a sort of "spiritual catch 22" in the attempt to answer your query. Should I agree that a sense of personal failure plus tremendous sufferings plus having Christ as one's perfect and constant model and goal equals the makings of a good priest, I would be lacking the true humility a good priest should also have to make him good (Christlike) indeed. Notwithstanding, you made me stop and think. I know truly evil men in the ranks of the clergy, high and low. (You might recall the words of Marco Marconi as we walked the Lungotevere and I remarked at the scandalous prostitutes negotiating in the shadow of St. Peter's dome.) Going over the list in my head, I can see each of them smiling and trying to fake humility as he is called a saint by others. Actually, I have been in the company of some when this has happened. And in all honestly, I remember more than a few occasions over the past thirty-three years of priesthood when I was called a saint. My reaction? Some of the deepest belly laughs I have ever able to produce. My hope? That God's measuring stick and holy expectations be as low as theirs; that way, we might all make it to heaven.


Ignatius Insight: Whether is it the Vatican, rural Mexico, or New York City, what are some of the common virtues and vices of Catholics that have either surprised you or you think are overlooked or ignored by most people?


Murr: As a man who has lived his priesthood for thirty-three years in Italy, France, Mexico, United States, Austria, and Spain, I would say the sin that surprises me most is the sin of complacency; complacency of people who live comfortable and generally upright lives, performing well at work, paying their mortgage and taxes, loving their (1.6) children and sending them to the best schools money can buy, but never once giving a serious thought to questions like where the universe came from, what makes actions right or wrong, what is the purpose of human life, what happens after death.


I think all human beings, or at least those with the wealth and leisure to have good education and comfortable lives, have a responsibility to have answers to these questions. I don't mean that they have to think out answers for themselves (there is no moral requirement to be a philosopher); it's perfectly alright if someone merely repeats (because he sincerely believes them) the answers he learned in religion class, or CCD, or at his mother's knee. That is, people don't have a responsibility to have "reasoned" answers to these questions, but they do have a responsibility to have "answers"--any answers (even a "considered", "I don't know" would be fine)--and many people seem to live their entire lives systematically avoiding these questions. This, I believe, is a serious sin.


In the Summa (1a-IIse.89.6), Aquinas says that, when a child "begins to have the use of reason ... the first thing that occurs to him to think about is to deliberate about himself, and if he then directs himself to the due end, he will, by means of grace, receive the remission of original sin, whereas if he does not then direct himself to the due end, and as far as he is capable of discretion at that particular age, he will sin mortally through not doing that which is in his power to do." As I read this, the point is that every course of life implies an account of the final end for man; from the course of a man's life, you can infer what it is that he thinks is good and worth pursuing, what he thinks is bad and ought to be avoided.


Even people who attempt to avoid the fundamental questions about human life, however, necessarily choose how to live, and in so doing they implicitly adopt answers to fundamental questions like what is the due end for human beings. It strikes me as preposterous--an offence against reason and blatantly immoral--that a man might spend, say, four years studying electrical engineering or three years studying law (or whatever) and never give ten minutes serious consideration to much more important issues. That so many people do in fact live like that truly surprises me. It surprises me not because it is iniquitous (though I think it is) but because it is so obviously in their own interest to figure out, even if only tentatively, answers to these questions, and yet they do not do so. They're content to live like their neighbors live, without ever wondering if that's really a good thing for them. A person's regard for his own self-interest would lead him to consider the fundamental questions of human existence. That so few do surprises the hell out of me.



C. Theodore Murr was born in 1950 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He served in the Vatican Information Office (Vatican City: 1974-1979); he is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, ordained in Rome (1977). He has postgraduate degrees in theology, philosophical anthropology (U Gregoriana), psychology (NYU), and Romance languages (UW). He is the founder of Villa Francisco Javier (Jalisco, Mexico); president of C. Murr Orphanage, Inc. (New York, NY); vice-president (Development) of The Veracruz Fund (San Francisco). He resides in Salzburg, Austria, and San Francisco. He has had more than his share of both magnificent and devastating life-altering experiences, many of which he brings to The Society of Judas, his first novel.

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