In The Path Of The Pope
I’m not a Catholic, but I am fascinated by the Roman Catholic Church. So much history. Such an enigmatic power structure. So much clout – it’s estimated that almost 1.3 billion of the world’s 7.4 billion inhabitants are Catholics. It’s no wonder that Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code was so popular – he took the secretive nature of its inner workings and transformed it into a heart-pounding thriller.
I’m not going to recommend the Da Vinci Code – is there anyone left who hasn’t read it? My task is easy, because there are many books that will feed the curiosity of students of Roman Catholicism:
The first book I read about Pope Francis, the Argentine formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was by American scholar, journalist and practicing Catholic Garry Wills. The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis is grounded in Wills’ deep knowledge of Catholic history, and one of his thrusts is that the Catholic Church hierarchy has done many things in the name of preserving its autonomy/hierarchy that have nothing to do with Jesus’ direct teachings. Jesus didn’t say anything about abortion. Jesus didn’t say anything about whether women should be priests – there weren’t any priests. Jesus certainly never suggested that his teachings should be used as a rationale for war, which has happened over and over in the history of Catholicism, starting with the Crusades and moving forward in time.
When I interviewed Wills in 2015, he was hopeful that Francis could help reform a church, rocked by sex scandals, riven by disagreements over things like the ordination of women and the issue of whether priests could marry. Wills said that Francis is “a uniter, not a divider,” and that he is widely respected for his exemplary work with the poor, with Jews, with Muslims. Wills’ hope for Pope Francis was that he would live long enough to see some of his desired reforms through – he took the job when he was 78! I suspect that it’s an unimaginably stressful job, with different camps in Catholicism vastly at odds over how to address some of the church’s biggest challenges.
The best book about Francis I have read (I’m still reading it) is one recommended by our guest, Mark Shriver: The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by Austen Ivereigh. This is an in-depth biography by a British writer, journalist and former advisor to an English cardinal.
I had read the headlines about Francis’ devotion to the poor and the dispossessed, but I didn’t realize its extent until I got into this book. The pope was born into an Italian family that immigrated to Argentina; his heart has always been with the homeless.
He has spent much of his life trying to shake the world out of its complacency or indifference – he has been a major influence in how Europe has handled its refugee crisis. With the world’s population exploding and political unrest on every continent, I suspect this will become an ever-larger issue for the church – just reading Francis words on this subject will make you think hard about your own persona stance on these issues.
Now I’m going to go wide and recommend a book on Christianity itself – Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Oxford professor Diarmaid McCullough.
This book, which is more than 1,100 pages long (!), is the best survey I have encountered of Christianity, its beginnings, and how it spread throughout the world. There are so many might-have-beens in this book – sects that flourished and then disappeared; parts of the world that saw a flowering of Christianity and then saw it brutally snuffed out, places where Christianity took hold and became the dominant religion and places where it didn’t, such as India. McCullough shows how various powerful men, beginning with the Roman emperors, used it for their own ends. He reveals that the creation of doctrine was often a messy business – including, of course, many of the doctrines of the Catholic Church. I had to lay this book aside after 300 pages, but you can bet I’m going to finish this during retirement. McCullough calls himself a “candid friend” of Christianity – he’s not a believer – but he’s the product of three generations of Anglican ministers, and he has made studying the faith his life’s work.
One of the more moving books I’ve encountered about Catholicism is James Carroll’s memoir American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us.
Carroll’s father had an amazing career – at different times he was an FBI agent, an Air Force general and a founder of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was always a devout follower of Catholic doctrine. James Carroll felt destined to follow his father’s faith – he became a Catholic priest. Then the Vietnam War intervened, and the political and religious turmoil of those years tore the family apart. Carroll eventually left the priesthood, married and had a family, but the rift between him and his father was never repaired. This is a poignant and sad book about faith, family and its limitations. It got mixed reviews when it came out, but it won the National Book Award for nonfiction.
Finally – a book I am busy devouring at the moment is Robert Harris’ latest thriller, Conclave. I am a big fan of Harris – he writes intelligent thrillers based on historical events, from the rise and fall of the Roman empire to the present day. Some of his notable books include Enigma, about the breaking of Germany’s secret code in World War II, and Fatherland, a scary and suspenseful alternate history of what might have happened if the Nazis had won World War II.
Conclave opens when a Pope who bears a marked resemblance to Pope Francis has died. The cardinals are called to select a successor; but from the very first, it’s very clear that all is not well in the Vatican.
One leading contender may have been stripped of his offices by the Pope right before he died. There’s a distraught nun with a secret, and a mysterious cardinal that no one has heard of who suddenly shows up. This might be the ultimate-locked room mystery; the cardinals are sequestered and can’t emerge until they elect a successor. What happens? You better read it and find out.