Life is kinda boring. That’s why thriller writers are required to amp things up. There are some vague parallels between Pope John in my novel Pontiff and Pope Francis in the real world. Both were elected to the papacy at least somewhat for geopolitical reasons–my Pope John because he was an African; Pope Francis because he’s from South America. In both cases the new papacy seems to some to be a breath of fresh air after the previous pope: liberals get their hopes up, conservatives start fretting.
But that’s about where the comparisons run out of steam. In real life, Pope Francis has said some things that have gotten liberal hearts a-flutter, but on closer inspection they don’t represent any kind of real change in policy or dogma, just a slight change in emphasis, maybe just a rhetorical device. His recent remarks on gays are an example. It’s nice that he doesn’t want to judge gays; on the other hand, his remarks didn’t hint at changing the Church’s stance on the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, as traditional Catholics (almost gleefully) point out. A change in rhetoric is interesting (and may conceivably affect someone’s life for the better), but it doesn’t make for a thriller.
Anyway, here’s the big speech I give to the new Pope John about change in the Church. He has been asking a bunch of cardinals what they think is the biggest challenge facing the Church–they mention obedience, money, the decline in vocations. Then his secretary of state, Cardinal Valli, asks him what he thinks. We see the scene through the eyes of Cardinal Riccielli, who is head of the Vatican Bank. (It was the scandal around the Vatican Bank that Pope Francis was addressing in his remarks on gays. The Vatican Bank is one area where life is as interesting as fiction.)
What would Valli say when his turn came? Riccielli expected that others were wondering the same thing. Many of them looked to Valli for guidance, for a sense of how to deal with their new leader. But Valli was saying nothing. Finally the pope asked him directly. “Cardinal Valli, surely you have some thoughts on the challenges facing the Church. Would you share them with us?”
And Valli slowly shook his head in response. “Holiness, what I think is of utterly no importance. All that matters is what you think. I ask you to share your thoughts with us.”
The room was silent. Would the pope think Valli was being impertinent? The pope continued to smile, staring at Valli with his large brown eyes, and finally he nodded, almost imperceptibly. “Of course, your Eminence,” he said, so softly this time that Riccielli had to lean forward to hear. “I am not a philosopher, though. I am not a theologian. Some would even say that I am not an especially worldly man. I have spent too much time fighting minor battles in a faraway land. So I am not prepared to make any grand pronouncements. I do want to listen, and learn.
“But I will say this. I believe that the Church’s problem is not that its members are insufficiently obedient to its teachings, but that the Church is insufficiently responsive to the needs of its members. We are in many respects a powerful and effective body, but too many people no longer listen to us; for too many people, we no longer matter. And if we do matter, it is because they believe we are an obstacle to the fulfillment of their humanity and the true expression of their faith.
“I believe this has happened because the Church has become too focused on matters that are not central to the truths we espouse: the reality of Our Lord’s death and resurrection, and our witness to it in this world.
“I have had to counsel a young priest in tears as he petitioned to be laicized. He loved the Church, loved his vocation, but the burden of celibacy was just too great. He was sinning, and he did not want to sin. We have seen far too much of this lately.
“I have talked to young mothers terrified that they would become pregnant again and be forced to bear children they could not afford to feed.
“I have visited AIDS clinics and listened as doctors told me how many of those ravaged people I saw would have remained healthy if the Church had eased its prohibition against the use of condoms.
“We cannot be blind to the very real consequences of our actions and pronouncements. And we must try to find a way back into the hearts of our people. That is what I think I must do as pope.”
Silence again. The uncomfortable silence, Riccielli realized, of people whose worst nightmares have just come true. Krajcek looked as if he were about to have a stroke. Valli stared at his hands and said nothing in response. Did he regret asking the question? No, they needed to hear this, even if most of them disagreed profoundly.
It was left to Rattner to break the silence—Rattner, the sallow, outspoken Austrian, whose resignation from his congregation had been tendered and accepted, and who therefore had nothing to lose. “The Church is not involved in a popularity contest, your Holiness,” he observed. “We have a sacred obligation to protect the Deposit of Faith, and not to bend with every wind that blows.”
Krajcek revived enough to add, “The Church’s positions on contraception, abortion, clerical celibacy—they are long settled. If they cause some people pain—well, perhaps that is because God’s law is not always easy, and people today are always looking for the easy way out.”
Pope John shrugged. “As I said, I am making no grand pronouncements. I wish only to share some of my thoughts. I don’t ask for your agreement, I ask only that you hear me out, and keep an open mind.”
Keep an open mind. Did the pope think this was merely an abstract theological discussion? Riccielli wondered. Didn’t he realize that his every utterance in this room would be dissected and interpreted like a passage from Revelation, that they would go flying to the far corners of Christendom, repeated and amplified and distorted? In his soft-spoken way he had all but declared war on most of these men, challenging their most basic beliefs, their views of themselves and their Church. They were not likely to keep an open mind.
No one seemed inclined to offer further challenges, however. Were they too shocked? Or too frightened of what he might say next? Rufio offered some pious babble in an attempt to improve the mood, but he didn’t get much response. Finally the pope thanked everyone profusely and brought the meeting to a close.
And this is the setup for the thrillery stuff that follows.