THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is newly translated from Book 2 of the Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz; it describes his crisis of conscience, so to speak, when he finds himself made coadjutor archbishop of Paris. A standard translation exists in English and can be found at Project Gutenberg; but that translation is so freely paraphrastic, and so readily drops entire phrases of considerable importance to the Cardinal’s meaning, that it gives but a poor impression of the original, which in fact is one of the most extraordinary passages in all literature. And if you ask why Dr. Boli should present this quotation now, the answer is that it has some bearing on a very interesting five-volume novel due to be published in the next year.
As I was obliged to take orders, I made a retreat at Saint-Lazare, where externally I put on all the usual appearances. My internal occupation was a great and profound reflection on the manner in which I should conduct myself. It was very difficult. I found the archbishopric of Paris degraded in the eyes of the world by the basenesses of my uncle, and in the eyes of God by his negligence and incapacity. I foresaw infinite obstacles to its reestablishment; and I was not so blind as not to understand that the greatest and most insurmountable obstacle was within myself. It did not escape me how necessary regular morals are to a bishop. I felt that the scandalous disorder of those of my uncle made the necessity even stricter and more indispensable for me than for others; and I felt, at the same time, that I was not capable of it, and that all the obstacles of both conscience and honor that I could oppose to my failings would be only very shaky barriers.
After six days of reflection, I decided to do evil by design—which is without comparison the more criminal course before God, but which is without doubt the wiser before the world: both because in doing so one always puts precautions in place to cover part of it, and because by this means one avoids the most dangerous ridicule that can be encountered in our profession, which is that of mixing sin with devotion at just the wrong time.
This is the holy disposition with which I left Saint-Lazare.