When the Australian novelist, Morris West, wrote the stories which established his reputation — The Shoes of the Fisherman and The Devil's Advocate — the Catholic Church was still in a relatively healthy state compared to what it is today. Participation rates, while a long way below the levels that were recorded at the beginning of the twentieth century, were still healthy enough in the fifty to sixty percent range. There was certainly no crisis in vocations. That lay in the future.
Skip ahead a half century and we have recently been considering the very sober views of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson. His book, as most readers here will know, is entitled "Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church". It is a documentary about the abuse of power in the upper echelons of the institution as much as it is about sexual abuse by priests at the parish level. More to the point though, the real focus of Bishop Robinson's book is taking us back to the true spirit of what Jesus Christ was on about.
Yesterday saw the initial release of a first novel by the esteemed American Catholic journalist and writer, Robert Blair Kaiser. The Good Lord works in mysterious ways and my reaction to reading Kaiser's book is that all of these things are connected. Was it not Morris West, through the power of the novel, who perhaps first started to take our blinkers off to some serious shortcomings in the Church? He might not have even fully appreciated what he was doing at the time but we might speculate today how much his novels might have contributed to the sense of disenchantment, and dawning of a new spiritual reality, that has become so patently obvious in more recent times — and particularly since the breaking of the abuse scandal and cover up in the United States, and other countries in the Western world, less than five years ago.
Robert Blair Kaiser has turned to the novel form to advance his prosecution of the case that the Catholic Church is in serious difficulties — and the responsibility for the crisis largely rests with the men at the top who have had responsibility for leading the institution. This is his first novel and while, in some respects, I think that does show, this is a rollicking good tale. It's a sort of cross between a Morris West novel — with its superb understanding of Catholic Church culture and politics — and a Tom Clancy action thriller.
There's an agenda here though — as there was with Morris West, or as there is with Bishop Geoffrey Robinson. Robert Blair Kaiser wants to bring the Catholic Church back to the ultimate quest for truth, and the true spirit of what Jesus Christ was really on about. He wants to drag it kicking and screaming away from these games of clerical politics and this soporific theology and spirituality that has driven so many running for the exits in total disillusion and frustration.
"Cardinal Mahony — a novel" is a different genre to the sort of writing Morris West engaged in. It's "reality fiction". West went to some trouble to disguise the identities of the people his characters were based on. Kaiser does not need to do that. The main characters are based on real people many of whom we can identify with even far away here in Australia as key players in contemporary ecclesial politics. Anybody with reasonably general knowledge about the Catholic Church will recognise many of the names in it. The central character, Cardinal Roger Mahony is in fact the present Archbishop of Los Angeles — and a guy not enjoying exactly the best press at the moment in the world's media. He's also a man most readers will not warm to in the opening chapters of Kaiser's novel. By the end of the book though most readers — and certainly those who are sympathetic to the basic thrust of the argument Kaiser is putting forward will warm to him considerably. Mahony, in a sense ends up as an Oscar Romero-type hero. (Let's hope, for Cardinal Mahony's sake that Kaiser doesn't have quite the same gifts of prophecy that Morris West had.)
In this review I will not give the game away. That would be like telling the story of a Tom Clancy novel in a review and spoiling the fun for the readers. What I will say is that like a Tom Clancy novel this is a rollicking good story, excellently paced. You won't want to put it down. The more familiar you are with contemporary Church politics the more interesting it will be but even for the uninformed reader it still reads as excellent fiction. The book does have some limitations. My wife and I have both read the book and agree that at times the characters land in the thick of the action a little too quickly and further character development would not have gone astray before their central role in the plot is played out. That's a relatively minor complaint though. If he continues with this genre, Kaiser will hone his skills in that department. On the positive side this novel has pace, it has action and above all, it has a point — it isn't entirely fiction and entertainment.
As I wrote the other day on Catholica, I suspect this novel — perhaps like the novels of Morris West — might achieve more than a thousand homilies, papal encyclicals and serious commentaries that are endlessly dissecting the problems the Catholic Church is facing. My own father's greatest ambition for me was for me to have become a bishop. One of his school mates was James Knox, the only Western Australian who ever made it to the rank of Cardinal. I thank God that the Spirit seems to have led my life in a different direction. I would sure hate to be standing in the shoes of some of these guys who think they know it all, and have all the answers, when they finally front up for the final evaluation of their stewardship of the institution. What Kaiser paints with this novel is a picture of a completely different kind of leadership — a leadership that will have no fear in facing their final judgment. This is a leadership the great masses of ordinary people might be able to identify with again. This is a leadership that both tells the truth and is not afraid to face the truth. This is not a leadership constantly running around trying to appease the feelings of the emotionally insecure sectors of the congregation and attempting to use anyone for their own gratification and sense of importance. This is another story about "Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus" — the subtitle to Bishop Robinson's book which could have just as easily been the main title.
The other good thing about this book is that it is going to annoy the hell out of those who think the Church is presently "headed in the right direction" as it sinks towards Remnant status. Let us hope it does finally annoy "the Hell" out of them to the extent that they come to realise that the present direction is in fact a one way ticket to oblivion … or to Hell!
Kaiser is presently seeking a distributor in Australia but meanwhile you can order "Cardinal Mahony — a novel" online through amazon.com and other online retailers. Kaiser's book is published by Humble-bee Press, Phoenix. You can find out more information about the author at www.robertblairkaiser.com.
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