Secret Agent Pope: An idea for a novel

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about the scandals and controversies in the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve never been a Roman Catholic myself; I was an agnostic from childhood until a few years ago, and am now a moderately progressive Anglican.

Not being Roman Catholic, it doesn’t matter to me who the pope is, who his friends are, or what policies they favor, not any more that it would matter to a Roman Catholic who is elected to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church or what measures that Convention adopts. I’m against popes as such, even as Roman Catholics are unimpressed by the General Convention as such, and so no particular pope is going to change my position on the basic issue that divides us. Now, there are other concerns that justify paying attention to these matters. The Roman Catholic Church does command the allegiance of half the world’s Christians, and so all of the rest of us do have to take note of what happens to that institution. And I am a Latin teacher by occupation, so I hope that whoever comes out on top will revive the Vatican’s efforts to keep up interest in that language.  Also, in the 1980s I used to watch Insight, a TV show produced by the Paulist Fathers; I wish they’d make that show more widely available, maybe posting all of the episodes in some streaming format. It’s uneven in quality and very much a product of its time, but the best episodes hold up really well. I would also point out that a lot of popes give themselves funny names, and whenever they elect a new pope I hope he’ll hang a moniker on himself that will give the world a much needed belly laugh.

The most serious reason for a non-Roman Catholic to care what happens in the Vatican is that the four distinct but closely interrelated scandals now coming to light involve great evils that everyone should oppose. We are learning more about the the already long familiar epidemic of sexual abuse of children by priests. We have been introduced to the topic of sexual harassment of young clergymen by their superiors, initially in connection with ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who apparently treated the seminarians and young priests under his authority the way Harvey Weinstein treated actresses whose careers he could make or break. We’ve also started to hear solid information about blackmail as a means of advancement within the hierarchy.  Perhaps most serious of all these scandals is to be found in the concerted efforts by church authorities to conceal those misdeeds and to shield their perpetrators from punishment. So I want those four things to be stopped.

Not that scandal is unique to the Roman Catholics. We have our share of scandals in Anglicanism too; the Anglican Church of Canada had to declare bankruptcy in 2000 because so many survivors of sex abuse by priests had already proven their cases against it in court. I’ve mentioned that bankruptcy several times in discussions of what’s happening with the Roman Catholics. In 2000, the Anglican Church of Canada had never had a celibate clergy, it had been ordaining women for decades, and was notably friendly to sexual minority groups. So when my liberal Roman Catholic friends say that letting priests marry, ordaining women, and dropping the official anti-gay line will be sure to solve the problem, I have to caution that, while those actions may have good effects and they may be desirable in themselves, they may not accomplish what you think they will accomplish. Still, the sheer size of the Roman Catholic Church, its power and wealth, may have something to do with the scale to which these abuses have grown. It is natural to want to sweep problems under the rug, and when you have the world’s biggest rug whatever you sweep under there can grow to massive proportions.

One of the main things I’ve been looking at for news about the scandals has been Rod Dreher’s blog. He has something about it almost every day. His biases are very clear, but he is a professional journalist and does retract stories that have been proven false, which puts him in the top .0001% of people* who write about this topic on a regular basis. Yesterday I wrote a comment there which, as I think about it, includes the kernel for a novel someone might write. The novelist should be Roman Catholic, well-connected in the Vatican, an experienced journalist, and with some expertise regarding international espionage.  I am none of those things, so I shouldn’t write it myself. But here is the comment, for what it’s worth:

@Siarlys Jenkins: “I don’t include Argentina, because no American intervention was needed, and I’m not sure the CIA knew who they really wanted to support there.”

I often think of something by a CIA veteran (Philip Giraldi?) I read some years ago in the pages of the magazine that maintains this website. Reviewing the CIA’s policy of paying bonuses to officers who recruit local informants, the author argued that the policy produced a large number of agents whose main qualification was that they were easy to recruit. He summed his point up by saying, not only that there ought not be the same bonus paid for recruiting an African police chief as for recruiting an agent who is placed in a genuinely sensitive post, but that there ought to be no bonus paid for recruiting an African police chief.

What brings this to mind is that what is true of African police chiefs might very well be true of Latin American bishops. They are generally pretty cozy with the same elements of the local elites who are most comfortable with overt US intervention, most of them are hated by the same people who most worry the CIA, and, as we’ve seen from all these scandals, bishops are not, as a group, entirely averse to associating with people who are in a position to provide them with a pleasant life.

So, it may not be unreasonable to wonder whether the situation at the top of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Latin America is altogether alien to the situation in the Russian Orthodox Church. If there is an analogy to be drawn there, even if Bergoglio was never a CIA agent himself, he would likely have been exposed to a great deal of information about his fellow bishops that he would find it more convenient to forget as completely as possible than to spend any time analyzing for its obvious implications.

Considering the ever-growing mountain of evidence that he and his henchmen have cultivated a habit of ignoring and forgetting information about the sexual proclivities of their fellow prelates, it would not be difficult to suppose that her and they have applied the same habit to other forms of compromising behavior they have reason to believe exists. Should it ever be proven that the CIA has deeply penetrated the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Latin America, it would raise a whole new dimension of doubt about Bergoglio’s motives.

This is an idea for a novel, not a proposal for an investigation, because I have no reason at all to suppose that it is true. As I put it in a follow-up comment, “there are these two secretive organizations that have, for their own reasons, created a vacuum of information that is big enough that a story like that could fit inside it without contradicting anything we do know.”

One sub-plot I would like to see in this novel would be a workplace sitcom set in the Oval Office of the President of the United States. The CIA is a headache for the president to deal with even when they are on a losing streak. One day in the early 2010’s he is informed that an asset of theirs has been elected pope. Ugh, thinks he. Now I’m in for it. And indeed the Director of Central Intelligence makes himself well-nigh intolerable around the uppermost echelons of the US national security state from that point on.

Perhaps the main character should be a liberal journalist who has been covering, let’s call him Cardinal Bocchini, for the several years he has been Archbishop of, let’s say Santiago de Chile. When Cardinal Bocchini is elected the first pope from the Western hemisphere (though his parents were born in Italy, and he has been an Italian citizen all his life, and he spoke Italian before he spoke Spanish, and his family has maintained such close connections to Italy that his sister settled there, his residence in Chile allows him to be presented to the press as a non-European pope,) she is apprehensive. He has made very harsh remarks about sexual minorities, leading a campaign identifying gender-neutral marriage with Satan. And he has made strongly nationalistic remarks supporting Chile’s territorial claims against its neighbors, remarks timed to heighten tensions between Chile and Peru and reflective of Bocchini’s connections with some rather dark elements of the Chilean military and security services. Bocchini also has a notably bad record on sex abuse; virtually alone among the world’s major archdioceses, Santiago has not publicized a single case of clerical sex abuse in the previous fifteen years. While some of Bocchini’s most fervent supporters say that this is because the Holy Spirit has protected Santiago to leave no doubt that Bocchini is the man to lead the Roman Catholic Church out of the era of scandal, the heroine’s investigations as a journalist reporting on the church have led her to believe that Bocchini is simply the most skilled of the hierarchy’s cover-up artists.

Bocchini is not only the first pope to have lived most of his life in the Western Hemisphere; he is also the first Jesuit pope. He takes the name Ignatius to honor both the founder of his order and Saint Ignatius of Antioch.  The heroine is assigned to Rome to cover Pope Ignatius.

At first, she is pleasantly surprised by his apparently relaxed attitude toward sexual minorities and relieved that, having become a world figure, he has backed off his Chilean irredentism. She is swept up in the new pope’s popularity, and emerges as a favorite of his, frequently among the first reporters recognized in the impromptu press conferences he gives aboard airplanes. She allows herself to be drawn in sufficiently that she cleans up some of the remarks he makes in these notoriously freewheeling sessions. With every favorable story she sends out, she gains more and more access to the pope and his inner circle.

As time goes on, she notices more and more things that don’t fit with the benevolent image she has been helping to project. Five years into his papacy, scandals begin breaking all around Pope Ignatius.  The pope’s inner circle turns to the heroine in the first rush of these scandals, hoping that she will spin them as effectively as she has spun so many of the pope’s indiscreet airborne comments. They are quickly disappointed in her, however. From her vantage point, she had seen all those scandals brewing, and had reached the conclusion that the pope was not committed to correcting the abuses at the heart of them. What’s more, her proximity to the pope and his top advisers has led her to suspect that he has a relationship with the CIA.

She presses her investigations as far as she can within the Vatican. She loses favor with the pope and his men, and finds herself called back to Santiago. Her paper assigns her to cover farm news. In between trips to chicken farms and agricultural board hearings, she continues to look into the pope’s past, and turns up information that is far more explosive than she had thought possible.

So, that might make a fat little paperback that will induce a lot of frequent flyers to part with their money in the bookstores at the airports.

*A rough estimate.

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