Popular Literature of a High order

Piers Paul Read, using his eyes as an artist and a Catholic, delivers an engrossing thriller.

The reports of the death of the Catholic novel have been greatly exaggerated. Referring to his 1982 study of the Catholic novel, Albert Sonnenfeld called it “an elegy for an apparently dying form.” A couple of years later Richard Gilman wrote that “the religious spiritual novel is in some sense only a memory.” The list of such statements goes on and on. One senses from reading the analysis of critics such as these, however, that they are not exactly reporting news, but their own wishes. After all, at the time Sonnenfeld and Gilman were writing, Walker Percy was finishing The Thanatos Syndrome, his disturbing but absolutely Catholic take on the rising Culture of Death in America.

Yet the critics were perhaps right in a way. Catholic novelists who could write, as Flannery O’Connor put it, with two sets of eyes—those of the Church and the artist—were few and far between. J.F. Powers, whose 1963 novel Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award for its depictions of the temptations of a priest in the relatively stable Catholic world of the fifties, could not adjust to the strange post-conciliar landscape and his 1988 novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, was a critical failure in part because he seemed to be writing about a diff erent era. Powers still had the eyes of the Church, but it wasn’t clear that his artistic vision could take in the world around him.

On the other side, the English Catholic novelist David Lodge’s 1980 novel, How Far Can You?, showed the rich artistic possibilities for a treatment of contemporary Catholic life and thought, but signally failed to show any sense of looking with the Church’s eyes. If, as critic Marian Crowe has noted, the Church is the main character in the book, she is in the dock the entire time for her sexual teaching—and Lodge is the prosecution. Is it any wonder that Lodge once described himself as “a rather secular kind of liberal” for whom “Catholicism happens to be the ideological milieu I grew up in, that I know and write out of”?

But a number of writers have managed to see with both sets of eyes. Writers as diverse as Alice Thomas Ellis, Ron Hansen, Dean Koontz , and Anne Rice have produced numerous examples of the Catholic novel over the last 30 years. Piers Paul Read, who claimed in a 1996 lecture that the big question for the Catholic novelist is whether he will “dissociate his faith from his work” or “combine his faith with his talent,” fits in this category as well. The Death of a Pope, his new thriller centered around a terrorist plot at the conclave following John Paul II’s funeral, shows that Read has continued to use both sets of eyes to great advantage. And though it isn’t beating out Dan Brown’s anti-Catholic Angels and Demons, in late April it broke into Amazon’s top 1000 and Barnes and Noble’s top 500. Not bad for a novel released from a press (Ignatius, publisher of CWR) which is not known for fi ction but for theological books that see through the eyes of the Church.

It is no wonder that the book is doing well. Read, most famous for Alive, the real-life adventure story of a Chilean soccer team stranded in the Andes, knows how to pace a thriller. The story begins with the trial of three men in London. One of them, Juan Uriarte, a laicized ex-Jesuit priest whose liberation theology led him to fight as a Marxist guerrilla in El Salvador before going to work for a Catholic aid agency (the fictional Misericordia), has been accused of attempting to purchase Sarin, a lethal chemical agent, ostensibly for terrorist use by Basque separatists. Though Uriarte is acquitted by the jury, David Kotovsky, a young MI5 (British Security Service) agent, is convinced that Uriarte was up to something more than killing camels to intimidate Sudanese Muslims.

Kate Ramsay, a somewhat-lapsed Catholic journalist whom Kotovsky has befriended and started to fall in love with at the trial, is intrigued by Uriarte in a different way. After pursuing Uriarte to write about his work with Misericordia, Ramsay becomes involved with the charismatic figure both professionally and intimately. The plot hinges on whether Kotovsky can figure out what Uriarte is up to in time to stop him—and whether he can help save the girl who’s involved with him. The resolution to the drama, not without some blood, happens in Rome just as the bells are ringing to announce the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope.

It’s a great plot, about whose details I will say no more. But what’s striking about it is how well Read depicts the legal and political culture of the post- 9/11 world, the squalid world of African poverty, and the cultural and theological world of the Catholic Church 40 years after the close of Vatican II. Many writers can get the first two tasks down, but few are remotely successful at the third. Anyone who reads this novel will not be surprised that, one month before John Paul’s death, Read published an article in England’s Spectator astutely assessing the papabile and correctly predicting Cardinal Ratzinger’s election. Read knows the different theological and political factions in the Church and presents them with astonishing facility and fairness.

What is more, though Read himself has been an outspoken advocate of orthodox theology—including papal decisions against the ordination of women and contraception—he never loads the dice. Father Luke Scott, a “traditionalist” priest and Kate Ramsay’s uncle, is clearly the character with whom Read sympathizes most. Yet the narrator tells us that he is a “spoiled” priest who watches too much television, “particularly films noirs or Westerns where there are clear heroes and villains and good always triumphs over evil. He accepts that if he were to spend as much time in prayer as he does watching television he would be a better priest, but he knows his own limits and assumes that God knew them, too.” The irony here is that the orthodox priest who looks on the modern world with the most suspicious eye is just as much caught up in its temptations to sloth as anyone else. That they come wrapped in television morality plays is of no consequence. Similarly with regard to the modern penchant for choosing to please people rather than appear judgmental: when it comes to speaking to his niece, “Luke found that he could not bring himself to talk of damnation. He dropped the role of the strict priest for that of the worldly-wise uncle.”

Contrast Luke Scott with his old seminary friend, the Dutch Cardinal Doornik. The essence of the “moderate” liberal, Doornik never states outright his views about Catholic sexual teaching or women’s ordination, but always signals them in coded language when speaking to sympathetic Catholic groups, talking about “a too exclusive emphasis on tradition” and asking, “Are we afraid of dialogue within the Church?” Yet Cardinal Doornik, we are told, without a trace of irony, “is a man of prayer.” Even Uriarte has real, visible virtues and a sense of compassion that command a certain sort of admiration.

One might question whether such details are simply Catholic windowdressing on what is otherwise an ordinary thriller. But Read’s attention to his characters’ theology and prayer lives is not just an adjunct to the real drama. As he has written elsewhere, “Catholic writers see a drama of good and evil that others do not see.” While the romantic young MI5 agent David Kotovsky might be the clear hero and center of a standard thriller, he is himself somewhat off-center in this novel. The drama of good and evil that interests Read is the one that is playing out in the macrocosm of the Church’s politics and in the microcosm of individuals like Father Scott, Cardinal Doornik, and Uriarte. Will the Church be able to combine the orthodox theology of the first, the prayer of the second, and the compassion of the third to bring the truth of Christ to a world beset by violence and nihilism? Kate Ramsay and David Kotovsky, representative of young Catholics, are simply too callow and unformed to be the real heroes.

This depiction of the young as spiritually passive may seem a bit much to readers in the US, where young Catholics are quite often as likely—or even more likely—than 60-somethings to be at the center of the fight for the identity of the Catholic Church. But Read’s book is set in England, where much of Catholic culture and the hierarchy are still mired in the secularizing “Spirit of Vatican II” mode the American Catholic Church was in 30 years ago. Read’s depiction of 20- and 30-somethings as the Catholic Church’s lost children, with little catechesis and an inability to swim against the tide of a culture of casual sex and anti-Catholicism, is simply the result of seeing with the eyes of the artist.

The Death of a Pope is certainly popular literature, but popular literature of a high order. Perhaps if more Catholics who see with the Church’s eyes were to begin to attempt to see with the eyes of an artist, Dan Brown might get some competition. And critics might be forced to stop proclaiming the death of the Catholic novel.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About David Paul Deavel 27 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. His book Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, co-edited and introduced with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available from Notre Dame Press.