Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Book Review: "The Death of a Pope"

Ecclesiastical thrillers are few and far between. Too often, they take the form of Dan Brown's work: popular, perhaps, controversial certainly, and of little if any value in terms of their actual content. Such works tend to be completely detrimental to those who read them, with banal dialogues, shoddy morals, and themes which tend at best to push readers into distrusting religions in general and the Church in particular--and at worst to view the Church as a lying, evil, and secretive organization whose sole concern is its own wealth, power, and influence.

Thus, Piers Paul Read's "The Death of a Pope" comes as a breath of fresh air within the genre. Read masterfully brings together an eclectic blend of characters, mostly Catholics and ex-Catholics. Within their interactions can be found many of the major themes of tension between traditionalists and progressives, as well as faithful and "cultural" (or lapsed) Catholics. These interaction play out between three of the main characters: Kate Ramsey, a reporter with a theology degree who represents the lapsed Catholics; her uncle, Fr Luke ("Lolo") Scott, a traditionalist; and the laicized former Jesuit priest, Juan Uriarte, a progressive Catholic.

The central tension between these groups is the differing views concerning sexual morality. The views of Fr Luke and Kate are constantly clashing over this topic. For example, a discussion of how to aid the plight of the folks in Africa quickly devolves into an argument about condoms:
'And AIDS,' said Kate. 'All those people dying of AIDS and...' She stops.
Luke knows why she has stopped. 'And the Church's ban on the use of condoms?'
She hesitates, as if she had wanted to avoid the subject. but now that it has been raised, must go on. 'It really is difficult for someone of my generation to understand it. Even Catholics.'
This leads to a brief discussion of Thomas Aquinas' natural law regarding sex. At the climax of this dialogue, Kate lay the complaint: "Secondary ends. Primary ends. These theological niceties don't mean much when it comes to love." Here Read puts forth one of the primary challenges of the Church today. Modernity does not need to answer the argument put forth by the Church in matters of morality (and particularly sexual morality), because although the Church's argument is correct, it is not presented in a manner which can compete with the temptations of a moment.

The dispassionate arguments of the Church fathers and doctors have much to say to the people of today--but they often don't meet modern man where he is. The Church certainly needs her philosophers to interpret and apply the gospels, but she also needs her popularizers to spread it amongst the people in a dynamic way which engages and inspires. One thinks, for example, of the relationship between Pope John Paul the Great and Christopher West. The former presented his Theology of the Body as a positive answer from the Church to the turmoil of the sexual revolution, the latter has made it more readily palatable to the average teenager or young adult--the ages at which the temptations of the sexual revolution are often the strongest.

The logical conclusion of the sexual revolution is revealed by the character of Juan Uriarte. While Fr Scott views sex as a means to unification with both the spouse and God whose primary end is procreation and whose secondary end is pleasure, and Kate sees it as a means to unification to ones lover alone with the sole end of pleasure and with the side-effect of procreation, Uriarte has a different view of sex.
'Sex is a human need,' [Uriarte] says. 'Man has need of a woman, and a woman of a man. To fulfill that need cannot be sinful....It is no good telling people that they cannot be gay or divorced or remarried or living with a partner. They are what they are. And there are particular situations in which everything must be provisional. For example, the guerilla army in El Salvador, the FMLN, no one knew if they would live beyond the next day, but the men had their needs, and those needs were met.'
Sex is reduced from a union to a mere pleasure, a need which must be fulfilled. Further, it becomes a right to have that need fulfilled, one which implies duties for another to fulfill it. When Kate asked Uriarte if that need was met willingly by the women, Uiarte responds
'You know, they had been indoctrinated by the Church and by their mothers to see sex not as a need....But when the situation was explained to them, they understood.'
The parallel with modern attitudes towards sex could not be much more obvious. The logical conclusion to he sexual revolution is not that sex is good, but that it is an object, a desire which needs satisfaction. Men and especially women become objects to fulfill each others desires, and not other persons. And as for love as being justification for sex--the battle cry often repeated today--this is seldom actually believed or practiced. After Uriarte admits that he was amongst those men in the FMLN, Kate asks him if he ever fell in love. Uriarte replies, 'The conditions were not suited to Hollywood romances.'

Kate, meanwhile, begins to fall in love with Uriarte, and he seems to reciprocate this love. Kate thus falls into one of the unfortunate though common fallacies of post-sexual-revolution thought: that Uriarte, a man who has used countless women in his past to satisfy a desire, an urge, somehow sees her differently. This mistake is not rectified when she meets Uriarte's former (and, indeed, current) mistress and his bastard son. When questioned about the mistress (Lucia), Uriarte simply replies, '[Lucia and their son] are in the present only because of the past whereas you ... you are the present.'

Even this is not enough for Kate to see the light: Uriarte is indeed using her. While she is knowingly sent to carrying out his plot, praying that she will be given the strength to remain faithful to his trust, Uriarte is already having other thoughts.
Thinking of Kate as he sits o the sofa, Uriarte smiles. How pleasing it had been to discover that the proud young woman--so earnest, so professional, so reserved--should so wholly abandon herself, heart and soul....He could not now remember whether or not he had said he loved her....a pressing affair with a British journalist could never be of any consequence--or could be of consequence only if it formed part of his plan.
As for the traditionalists, those faithful to the Tradition and Teaching of the CHurch, Read illustrates concisely the great temptation which faces them. It is often hard to speak the Truth, because the Truth often holds unpleasant consequences for those who reject it. Father Luke Scott's muses about how his own style of preaching has changed in response to the lifestyles of his beloved niece (Kate) and her brother (Charlie).
During her adolescence, Kate had lost her faith. Was it because of sex? The Church taught that outside of marriage, it was a mortal sin and those who died unrepentant in a state of mortal sin went to Hell. No one believed that any more--neither the sinfulness of consensual sex nor the existence of Hell....When Kate had told him about her love life, 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.
Hell--and therefore also sin--is a difficult subject to broach, because everybody sins and many people sin constantly and unrepentantly. That some people are destined for Hell is a fact, though by hiding that fact from the world, it is possible that even more people may be doomed. This can be compared with Read's thoughts about Hell, from the title essay of his collection "Hell and Other Destinations":
'What are the four last things to be ever remembered?' asked Question 332 [of the Penny Catechism]. 'The four last things to be ever remembered are Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.' What was Hell? Eternal Punishment. What would lead to eternal punishment? Dying unrepentant in a state of mortal sin. What sins were mortal? Murder, adultery--and choosing not to go to Mass on Sunday....These 'four last things ever to be remembered' appear to have been forgotten in today's Catholic Church. Why in particular are we so rarely warned that we run a real risk of spending eternity in torment?...There has never been, to my knowledge, any clear [and authoritative] and unambiguous statement...that the Church has changed its mind on the question of Hell; yet...it would seem to a dispassionate observer that there is no longer any real belief among contemporary Catholics in the last item of the Nicean Creed, 'life everlasting.'
Throughout the book, a number of other themes are touched upon, from the War on Terror[ism] to the ordination of women, and from conscience to the radical ideology (and revolutions) of liberation theology. Most of those modern topics of tension between the orthodox and the progressive (or lapsed) Catholics are touched upon at least briefly. All of this is set against a plot against the papacy. The plot's suspense made this book a page-turner, a delightfully fun Read. I could not put this one down.

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If you like this post and want to read more, here are some related posts:
A Short Review of The Third Testament
Review of By What Authority?
A Sort of Review of Chesterton's Heretics
A Review of Walter M Miller's "A Canticle for Leibowitz" (Nicene Guys)
The Gargoyle Code:  A Short Review
The Gargoyle Code: A More Substantive Review
The Wizard Knight:  A Sort of Review
Disorientation: A Review in Four Parts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
My review of Three to Get Married (Nicene Guys)
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2 comments:

  1. I asked for this book as a Christmas gift and was sorely disappointed. It does NOT address the issues presented with the clear teaching of the Catholic church, rather anything that is actual church teaching seems to be wimpy and although stated, is then given as an aside that no one really believes that anymore. The discussions revolving around sexual conduct, ordination of women etc are much more persuasive. Anyone who does not know what the Catholic church teaches will see this book as a validation of "all that is wrong with the church today". I've heard all this before, I would really have liked to have seen strong likeable characters addressing these issues head on in a manner that would help us all to understand better - yes maybe like Christopher West.

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  2. As Professor Peter Kreeft notes, there is more than one approach to getting a message across. For starters, there is the direct method (best used in lectures and essays) and the indirect method (best used in fiction). Contrast C.S. Lewis' "Abolition of Man"--a direct approach delivered as a set of lectures to a "sympathetic" audience--with his novel "That Hideous Strength"--a fictional account written for a much wider audience. Both have the same message, but it's much more strongly put (and much more obvious) in the former than the latter. Similarly so for Mr Read's "Hell and Other Essays" as opposed to his "Death of a Pope."

    If he put forth the strong and direct message to the wide audience, many of the members whom he most needed to reach would put down the book and walk away in disgust. He would, in essence, be preaching to the choir.

    Hence, he uses the indirect method: the position he wants is stated, but weakly. Thus, it is in the back of the reader's mind, but the reader thinks he can "safely" ignore it. He then shows the beauty of the orthodox position by rather showing the ugliness of heresy, both in the plot and in the thoughts we see when reading from Uriarte's perspective. Thus, we see that the orthodox view is the best--the truest perspective--but that at the same time it can also be the most difficult. Alternatively, just because one finds it "hard" to live by or that it has become less "popular" does not make the orthodox position untrue; conversely, just because "everyone's doing it" and "it's easier that way" does not make the heretical (or secular) worldview the best or truest.

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