Book Review: The Death of a Pope

Book Review: The Death of a Pope

Not really a review, just my thoughts after finishing this book more than a week ago and not being able to get it together.

In a nutshell: Juan Uriarte is a former Jesuit priest, currently working for a Catholic aid agency in Africa, who is on trial in Britian for trying to buy Sarin gas from a former member of the IRA. (He claims he was never going to use it against humans but was going to kill some camels with the gas as a negotiating tactic.) Kate Ramsey is a British journalist assigned to the trial, who becomes a little too involved in the story she’s covering. David Kotovski is a British intelligence agent who poses as a journalist covering the trial and develops a fondness for Kate. He follows his nose, suspecting there is more to the story, even after Uriarte is found not guilty.

This was one of those books that I enjoyed reading but wasn’t entirely sure I liked until I got to the end and then the end was just so perfect that it blew away all my doubts. It was just so right.

The main problem I had while reading is perhaps a silly quibble. I almost hate to mention it, but if I don’t then I run out of things to write. Really, I don’t think was so much a problem with the book itself as with me and my expectations. There were several characters who were very good at articulating a heterodox point of view on controversial issues, especially on the Church’s stance against contraception (the primary issue in the plot being the policy against distributing condoms to AIDS victims in Africa). I had no problem with that, it was an important part of the characterization.

What kept frustrating me was that the orthodox position, the reasons behind the Church’s teaching, was never articulated as clearly or as convincingly. There were two priests who were orthodox Catholics and yet the one in whose mouth the author puts the defense of the Church’s position is older and ineffectual and easily dismissed by the heroine. I know that was another important plot point, she had to be able to dismiss him because that was a part of her story arc. But he is never a strong character, always comes across as being unsure if his own views aren’t a little outdated and the other priest, the Cardinal’s secretary also comes across as a little Quixotic and living in a romance rather out of touch with reality. The book felt unbalanced and in a sense untrue because it didn’t portray the world as it really is. In the world of the novel there were no young, orthodox people who joyfully embrace the Church’s hard teachings. And that just doesn’t match up to my experience as a Catholic. I don’t find the hard teaching embarrassing or irrelevant.

But, like I said, the ending did somehow make up for this perceived deficiency. It didn’t present an argument so much as show the action of grace in the world. And that, after all, is really the point. These teachings are true because God is real. He does act in the world and in the hearts of man. The Church is not a human institution and these are not human rules. Rather all was written by the one Creator whose creating work continues in all the mundane details of life and who uses even the most flawed human beings to accomplish his will.

A much better review at Darwin Catholic. I especially liked this insight:

One of the things I found both interesting and realistic about the book is that while the thriller plot itself is brought to a close, and disaster averted, none of the characters actually have a fully accurate understanding of what’s going on. They successfully uncover and thwart the plot despite some basic misunderstandings in their theories.

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