In his novel, The Plague, Albert Camus allows the characters to illustrate the revolt motif he has in mind. We have already considered the townspeople as a whole, Cottard and Joseph Grand. Now let’s look at Father Paneloux.
Father Paneloux is a north-African priest, and as such, is a modern reflection or clone of the other north-African theologian whom we know as the bishop of Hippo, Augustine. As the sack of Rome was to Augustine, the plague is to Paneloux.
Pere Paneloux meets the issue of the plague head-on in a widely publicized sermon. In true Augustinian fashion, he thunders from the cathedra in the basilica at Oran, “Calamity has come upon you, my brethren and sisters, and my brothers and sisters, you deserved it.”
Paneloux understands that his function as the plague rages is not to revolt and resist, but to explain and defend. He explains the purpose of the plague and he defends God from all responsibility. His role is to provide a theodicy that will hold up. “And thus … at last it is revealed to you. … Wearied of waiting for you to come to God, He has loosed on you this visitation. Now you are learning your lesson.”
Paneloux is more concerned about justifying the ways of God to mortals that he is about speaking to God about the souls entrusted to his care, and those he is called to serve.
Paneloux is at the bedside of Jacques Othon when the lad’s suffering is prolonged by the anti-plague serum. Although moved by the sight of the boy’s writhing and convulsions and tortuous pain, he believes he is finally led to understand the nature of grace. He cannot understand the suffering of this innocent child before him, so Paneloux instead sees the experience as a test of his faith: Either he must abandon God completely or acknowledge his total sovereignty. As Camus’ contemporary C.S. Lewis might have put it: “God is either lunatic or Lord.” Grace, then, is that which gives one the ability to submit to a God who acts like an arbitrary tyrant.
In his second sermon, however, Pere Paneloux softens. The “you” of the first sermon becomes the “we” of the second. But the theodicy remains unchanged. Such a radical posture — placing one’s head into the mouth and teeth of the plague — calls for radical behaviour. He rejects a doctor when he himself contracts the plague, and he dies believing he has somehow illuminated the content of his message.
To understand Father Paneloux, one must remember that Camus makes no claim to being a “Christian.” In fact, he has serious misgivings about Christianity’s role in the struggle for meaningfulness. Thomas Merton once said that in Camus’ view, “Christians have abdicated their mission of opposing the plague and have instead devoted their talents to excusing it and justifying it in terms ambiguous theology.”
Camus has a point. Too often Christians have lagged behind a very small and progressive contingent of Christianity, and those working with this minority — a larger cohort of secular-humanists or those of other belief systems. Together, the Christian progressives, humanists and non-Christians were able to arrive earlier — and independently of each other — at similar conclusions: that slavery, apartheid, women’s suffrage, racial equality under the law, women’s rights, gay rights and so forth, than were those in the mainstream. The plague for Camus was a metaphor for the pestilence of absolutism, abuse of power, despotism — viruses that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries alone.
In a series of essays entitled Resistance, Rebellion and Death, Camus makes an impassioned plea for Christians to stop making excuses for God and to take up the struggle against evil. He writes, “What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt could rise in the heart of the simplest person. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. … We need … people resolved to speak clearly and to pay up personally. When a Spanish bishop blesses political executions, he ceases to be a bishop, or a Christian, or even a man; he is a dog just like the one who, backed by an ideology, orders that execution without doing the dirty work himself. We are still waiting for … those who refuse to be dogs and are resolved to pay the price that must be paid so that human beings can be something more than dogs.”
Camus’ comments here are so on point, that I want to cite RRd two more times. Reminding us that we (Christians especially) must take the side of the victims and not the pestilence, he writes, “I feel rather as Augustine did before becoming a Christian when he said, ‘I tried to find the source of evil and I got nowhere.’ But I … know what must be done, if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you [Christians] don’t help us, who else in the world can help us to do this?”
Camus is convinced that Christianity needs to recapture the original flavour of the movement, a movement which began with revolt and indignation at the plight of the marginalized and poor. Pere Paneloux is his foil, because, he argues, “I know that if Christians made up their minds, millions of voices — millions, I say — throughout the world would be added to the appeal of a handful of isolated individuals who … today intercede almost everywhere and ceaselessly for children and for humanity.”
Paneloux regarded the plague as a challenge to his theology. For Rieux and Tarrou, as we shall see next, fighting the plague was a matter of simple decency. It had nothing to do with either heroism or theology. Father’s Paneloux crisis was simply that he had not had too much experience in matters such as death and dying.
He was after all, a scholar — a man of learning. This is why, Dr. Rieux says, “he can speak with such assurance of the truth with a capital T. But every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his death bed thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence.”
Up next: Part 5: Dr. Rieux and Jean Tarrou