’ve just finished reading Robert Harris’ very stylish, sophisticated thriller, Conclave, the story of the struggle to elect the next pope in the post-Francis era. The time period is 2018. I have to say I was quite impressed on many levels. The author exhibits a superb understanding of internal Church politics, no simple matter, and the difficulty of juggling so many conflicting factions in the RMC. He actually succeeds in making this strange, secret world comprehensible. I’ve read quite a few of this author’s previous works and didn’t expect this level of expertise and insight. Nor did I expect such spiritual insight, though given the maturity of his work in such novels as The Ghost Writer, perhaps I shouldn’t have been completely surprised. Is Harris himself a Catholic, albeit a postmodern one?
All the major issues are handled adroitly through carefully drawn characters (change versus tradition, gays, women, divorced, the preferential option for the poor), from the brilliant, liberal ‘periti’ Cardinal Berlini to the fiercely homophobic African Cardinal, Adeyemi, who believes that all ‘homosexuals should be in jail on this earth and rot in hell for eternity.’ Adeyemi is a major player in the politicking for the papacy, but he has a dark secret to hide. So do several other leading contenders for the papal throne and therein lies the suspense in this very balanced and mature thriller. There is none of the silliness and sensationalism of a Dan Brown here (think Angels and Demons – which also deals with a papal conclave). The story is balanced, complex, and gripping and makes an arcane, peculiar, highly secretive world humanly comprehensible. Because looked at from the outside, the college of Cardinals – processing into the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel to engage in a centuries old ritual of election – is bizarre in the extreme to any ordinary post-modern Christian.

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