Some people think my book on Joseph Ratzinger, being launched this week, was quick off the draw—arriving in stores only four months after its subject surrendered the papacy. But The Trial of Pope Benedict has nothing on the “instant book” phenomenon surrounding his successor.
Within weeks of Jorge Bergoglio becoming Pope Francis, at least half a dozen books about and a few by the former archbishop of Buenos Aires had landed on the shelves or appeared online. With the exception of Pope Francis: From the End of the Earth to Rome, an investigative work by Wall Street Journal reporters, the rest of the former appeared to be standard papal hagiographies—well-written and researched enough, including one with a personal connection to Bergoglio, but generally produced by the devout with the intention of glorifying their subject.
I’m more interested in the meatier stuff surrounding popes: behind-the-scenes accounts of Vatican life, key issues facing Roman Catholicism, the origins of the sex abuse scandals–things like that. Three books in particular on these themes, all published this year, are worthy of note.
The ten chapters comprising John Thavis’s The Vatican Diaries offer a compelling mix of palace intrigues, church history, Vatican trivia, and scandal. There’s lots to chew on here, from the jet-setting correspondent’s life hobnobbing with the pope on “Vatican Air,” and a fascinating account of archeological excavation and the tomb of St. Peter, to a back room power struggle to beatify Pope Pius XII. “Nuestro Padre” examines the stomach-churning career of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, late Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ and notorious child rapist who had a more than staunch defender in Pope John Paul II (and whose case I mention in The Trial). And the book’s concluding chapter, “The Real Benedict,” presents a portrait of the pope emeritus that nicely captures Ratzinger’s intellectual aloofness and peculiar lack of interest in public relations. While I disagree with Thavis on a few things (I’m not as inclined to accept the official Vatican view of John Paul I’s cause of death, nor to conclude that Benedict was “mildly embarrassed” by a performance of semi-naked male trapeze artists), his observations as the former bureau chief of the Catholic News Service are generally trustworthy and, in many cases, fatally readable.
Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Michael D’Antonio, sets itself up as the priestly sex abuse equivalent of All the President’s Men, And the Band Played On, or The Informant. The whistleblower heroes in this case are a young monsignor assigned to the Vatican’s embassy in Washington and the Minnesota lawyer who takes on some of the earliest cases and eventually becomes the go-to counsel for court actions that end up costing the church hundreds of millions of dollars. D’Antonio’s account of the unfolding crisis in the U.S. church is certainly comprehensive. The author deserves kudos for his substantial investigative work in charting the origins of the scandal and identifying key players in the crimes and cover-up. Mortal Sins is weighed down, however, by an excess of mind-numbing detail. This is largely a result of the author’s decision to pitch his narrative as a chronological, blow-by-blow melodrama. With a bit more creative license, such an approach might have worked: D’Antonio could, for example, have elevated the alcoholic, crusading lawyer Jeffrey Anderson into the role of chief protagonist, his personal demons and complexity ironically mirroring those of the clerics he targets. Instead, the reader is subjected to an endless slog through the same types of predictable behaviour by abusers, their protectors, and the players trying to stop them—a tragedy that, after two decades of sensational media coverage, has lost its ability to shock.
On the meatier side of things is Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, by New York Review of Books essayist Garry Wills. Reading his incisive critiques of church doctrine and practice (Wills is best known for Papal Sin and Why I am a Catholic), it is easy to forget that the Northwestern University history prof is not an atheist but a devout Catholic, someone who knows his religion inside-out and simply envisions a more egalitarian approach to the faith. Why Priests? is a radical response to those who pray for the hierarchy’s approval of women, married men or openly gay men as priests. Wills’s solution is no priests at all: the priesthood itself did not exist when the Church was born, is superfluous to the practice of the faith, and was invented for no other purpose than to control the flock. Wills, who nearly became a priest himself, is not trying to slight the many good men of the cloth he has known. But the presence of so many damaged priests, who all too often succumb to the deluded sense of entitlement their power gives them, suggests he may be on to something. “Get bread and wine to him in a prison cell, and a priest can still make Jesus present there,” he says, commenting on the importance of the Eucharist to the priestly raison d’être. “That was why it was so hard to discipline pedophile priests. Church authorities can take away their ‘faculties’ (permission to act in certain dioceses) but not their priesthood.” Hmmm.