Looking for a change of pace from the books I usually review for the Catholic Company, I selected a novel this time around, The Death of a Pope, by Piers Paul Read. If you are looking for an well-written and enjoyable summer read with Catholic flavor, this is a good choice. I was sufficiently hooked by it that I started it one day and finished it the next. (Think: warm sunny day….hammock.)
It is hard to write a review of a novel without giving away too much of the plot line, thus interfering with a first-time reader’s enjoyment of it. So as to plot, I’ll simply say this thriller concerns the efforts of a former Jesuit – using more than questionable means – to affect the results of the election for a new pope that will take place following the death of Pope John Paul II. (The book begins during the last stages of the previous Pope’s life.) His efforts involve the manipulation of the affections and idealism of a young female reporter and a willingness to be the cause of the death of the entire council of cardinals.
The novel manages to present the clash between the “conservative” and “liberal” arms of the Catholic Church without turning either into a stereotype or a caricature. Whatever Read’s own leanings may be, neither side is presented as so clearly right as cause one to discount the other. He conveys the sense of how each side believes strongly in the wisdom of its positions and in their adherence to the Gospel. He also raises in a powerful way some of the controversial issues that divide the “conservative” and “liberal” arms of the Church, especially the use of contraceptives to prevent the spread of AIDs, but also issues such as the ordination of women.
Read tells a good story that reveals great insight into the workings of the Church, points out the dangers of thinking the ends justify the means and illustrates that good motives are not always enough. At the same time that it entertains, it also provokes some serious thought about what it means to do the will of God and what the role of the Church ought to be in bringing justice to the world.