Even if we look only at the fact that his most significant dramatic work is about a man’s vicissitudes on the way to the Catholic priesthood,1 it might be reasonable to conclude that the question of the place of Catholicism in Henry James’s work has been too little discussed. I do not mean James’s personal relationship to the Faith, as though it were a question of some crypto-Catholicism. James was Protestant, not of course in the virulent anti-Whore of Babylon sense, but in that loose and liberal fashion, typical of the upper crust New Yorkers or Bostonians of his time, who looked at Catholicism as something historically passé and impossible to return to, something quaint but undoubtedly a strong part of the fabric of what made continental Europe deep and interesting.2
We can see the point of Hilaire Belloc’s claim that Europe is the Church, at least in the sense in which someone might say Notre Dame is football. You would think anyone could see this, and James certainly did. James’s characters need the mystery of old Europe as the stage of their drama, certainly,3 but it is possible to go further and say that this structural necessity implicates the Catholic Church in definite ways. In the late novels the Church becomes a player in its own right, intrinsic to moral and spiritual resolutions. [End Page 56]
Catholicism in the Novels
There is, however, a problem in discussing how his novels treat and use Catholicism if all we can do is cite instances of the general attitude expressed in his major characters, reverent toward, even reliant upon, the Church’s deep continuity and tradition and moral firmness as they are. So, for instance, when the protagonist of The Aspern Papers learns that the sisters are Catholic, he and the readers are struck with how much more he is up against than he or we had thought. Aha, we think, that somehow accounts for their no-nonsense firmness. And we are not surprised when in What Masie Knew the care of Masie falls to Mrs. Wix; she is one strange lady, but that she contemplates becoming a Catholic and can relate to the town of Boulogne in terms of its Marian mystery somehow testify to her stability and moral seriousness. It is possible to catalogue these references and draw sober conclusions about the acute awareness of a good artist who is favorable to the Catholic Church at a distance and aware in a balanced way of its lingering moral authority. Edwin Fussell has done this.4
We begin to go beyond Fussell when we note that the famous late trio of novels takes this benign stance a turn of the screw further, so to speak: the Church becomes subtly central. When Strether in The Ambassadors, on one of his frequent visits to the sacred center of Paris, identifies the returning bowed figure in the recesses of Notre Dame as Madame de Vionnet, it is an eye-opener. He grasps how the European cultural-religious matrix is large enough to hold even the relational vagaries of this sophisticated set: how, we might say, Mme. de Vionnet can be in a sense profoundly Catholic though on the sacramental periphery. This is more than a positive evaluation; it is crucial to what induces Strether finally to lay off trying to save anyone from this milieu. The depth of Europe is a Catholic depth. Whether Strether gets all this consciously or not, we get it, or if we do not, we simply do not have any idea what this scene is all about.
The Catholic moment in The Ambassadors glows gently in the middle of the novel and subsides into the background, helping to [End Page 57] set an atmosphere, richer, deeper, and more subtle than the narrow moralism and questionable righteousness of Woolett, Massachusetts. In The Wings of the Dove the Old Faith plays a more serious role. Here it is not a matter of the diffused Catholic atmosphere of Paris but of the Church as moral and spiritual Trojan horse in the middle...