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Intrigues and Machinations: Conclave by Robert Harris

Review by Jon Elsby

Assessing Robert Harris’s1 Conclave is not only a question of style. Also singled out are the quality of the dialogue, the architecture of the narrative, the balance between different sections, the sharpness of the characterization, the economy and precision of the descriptive writing, the ability unerringly to choose the telling concrete detail, and the sheer readability of Harris’s prose – the sense that the narrative practically reads itself without requiring any indulgence from the reader.

Conclave concerns a convocation of cardinals to elect a new pope on the death of an incumbent who clearly resembles Pope Francis.2 Historical persons – Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI – are interwoven into a narrative whose fictional characters, in the words of the now customary (and legally obligatory, even if disingenuous) disclaimer, bear no intentional resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead. The central characters are the papabili: namely, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, an urbane papal diplomat and canon lawyer; the Secretary of State, Cardinal Aldo Bellini, an aloof, austere intellectual and liberal theologian; the Nigerian Cardinal Major Penitentiary, Joshua Adeyemi, whose robust views on homosexuality appall the liberals but delight his fellow Africans; the suavely photogenic French Canadian Cardinal Joseph Tremblay, the Camerlengo or Chamberlain; the ultra-traditionalist Cardinal Goffredo Tedesco,3 a wily ecclesiastical politician and a perpetual thorn in the side of the late Holy Father; and Cardinal Vincent Benítez, the Filipino Archbishop of Baghdad, whom the late Pope had elevated to the cardinalate in pectore.

Lomeli himself has no ambition to be Pope, but one by one the other candidates fall by the wayside. Bellini shows himself to be lacking in moral courage. It transpires that Adeyemi as a young man had fathered a child out of wedlock by a girl who was probably underage at the time. Tremblay is exposed as a blackmailer whom the late Pope, in one of his last acts, had dismissed from all his offices for gross misconduct. Tedesco overplays his hand and alienates the moderates whose support he needed to secure the necessary number of votes. Lomeli’s election seems inevitable. But, in another twist, it is Benítez who is elected, to Lomeli’s mingled relief and disappointment. His election is succeeded by a final revelation which it would spoil the reader’s enjoyment of the novel to disclose.

The plot is, of course, implausible, as the somewhat contrived and convoluted plots of thrillers are apt to be. Conclave was published to mixed reviews, and several reviewers criticized the less credible aspects of the story. But they missed the point, which is not that such a concatenation of events is at all probable, but that it is (just about) possible. They also missed the skill with which Harris recreates the atmosphere of the Vatican, with its characteristic juxtaposition of splendid opulence and spartan austerity, and the distinctive tone of communications between senior clergy, which is compounded in equal parts of urbanity, indirectness, candour, self-restraint, articulacy, courtesy, precision, and intellectual clarity. It is a tone perhaps best summed up in the Greek word, parrhesia – a term derived from classical philosophy, but hardly heard outside the Church nowadays. It means to speak frankly, but to ask forgiveness for so speaking.

Harris perfectly captures the pervasive climate of secrecy and intrigue which many Vatican observers have noted. Scandal is to be avoided at all costs. In some ways, this is laudable, especially in an age of such vulgarity as ours, with its insatiable appetite for the lurid details of any salacious goings-on. But it also causes as many problems as it solves or avoids. The scandal of clerical sex abuse, which has done such serious reputational damage to the Church since it first broke in 2002, would have been far less traumatic had it not been for the misguided attempts to cover it up, shield the perpetrators, silence the victims, preserve the appearance of decorum, and protect the Church’s good name. Even today, after almost two decades of appalling revelations, there is scant evidence of the kind of rigorous self-examination and profound cultural change in the Church that are needed in order (1) to address the fallout from the scandal, and (2) to ensure that it never happens again.

Harris also conveys the sheer impossibility of the papacy’s demands – the scale of the job; the weight of responsibility; the unreasonable expectations placed upon the incumbent; the relentless scrutiny, the investigative endeavours, and (often) malicious intentions of the media; the physical and mental stamina required; the intellectual qualities; the extensive knowledge of history, theology, philosophy, canon law, politics, current affairs, and diplomacy; the personal holiness, and the other pastoral and spiritual attributes…and the list could go on. The Pope is expected to be without sin, no matter how often popes reiterate that no one is sinless. Moreover, that expectation is by no means confined to Catholics, for many non-Catholics would also condemn a pope whose sins had been uncovered. Most of the popes have been old men, some very old. None has been young. For how much longer can we expect septuagenarians and octogenarians to shoulder the insupportable burdens and impossible demands of this job?4 Surely, ordinary human decency necessitates a more collegial approach to the governance of the Church of the future – this fast-expanding, global Church with around 1.3 billion members worldwide. The burdens and responsibilities of the papal office will have to be dispersed and shared, and Church governance will have to be more transparent. The Church will also have to find meaningful roles – i.e. roles which involve the bearing of administrative responsibility and the exercise of executive power – for the laity, especially for women. It is no longer acceptable for all the power to be concentrated in the hands of the clergy, let alone in the hands of one man. The popes of the future will probably be more like prime ministers – primus inter pares – than absolute monarchs.

None of this is explicitly stated in Conclave; but, first, there is little doubt that Harris’s sympathies in the theological and ecclesiological controversies currently raging between liberal-progressives and conservative-traditionalists in the Church lie with the former; and, second, the clear implication of his account of the tortuous process of electing a new pontiff (and the extremely slender – some would say, manifestly insufficient – grounds on which some candidates are eliminated from the election), is that what is now demanded of a papabile is unrealistic, and it can only be a matter of time before a pope is elected who is subsequently found to have a skeleton in his closet.

Harris hints that at the heart of the present dysfunction in the Church is the prevailing attitude among the clergy to women. He quotes as follows from Pope John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul:

‘As for women, and everything to do with them, never a word; never; it was as if there were no women in the world. This absolute silence, even between close friends, about everything to do with women was one of the most profound and lasting lessons of my early years in the priesthood.’

This [adds Harris] was the core of the hard mental discipline that had enabled Lomeli to remain celibate for more than sixty years. Don’t even think about them! The mere idea of going next door and talking man to man with Adeyemi about a woman was a concept that lay entirely outside the dean’s closed intellectual system.

Harris does not pose the obvious questions, but they insistently obtrude themselves nonetheless. Is this healthy? Is it normal? Is this how a priest should live – by forcing himself to ignore the existence of half the human race? Is this conducive to growth to sexual and psychological maturity? Does the discipline of celibacy result (in some cases) in a malformation of ordinary human sexuality, and, if so, does this explain why so many among the senior clergy were apparently less able to empathize with the victims of clerical sex abuse than with the perpetrators? And does it also explain why they display a certain tone-deafness to the needs of women in the Church?

Conclave shows that serious issues can still be raised in works of popular fiction. This would not have seemed an unfamiliar idea to the Victorians – or, for that matter, to the Edwardians and Georgians. If it has become strange to us, that is because of the comparatively recent emergence of new forms of popular literature – e.g. airport fiction, beach reading, ladlit, and chicklit – which combine poverty of language, triviality of subject, and vacuity of thought to a degree one hopes will be unsurpassable. It is good to be reminded that not all writers and publishers have given up even trying to produce intelligent popular fiction, and that the term is not yet an oxymoron.

Notes

1It is worth mentioning that Harris is not himself a Catholic. However, he writes with considerable insight about the Catholic Church and the clergy, and his tone is unfailingly respectful. It is sad that this is so uncommon today as to deserve special mention.

2In a prefatory note, Harris says that, ‘despite certain superficial resemblances’, the late Holy Father depicted in Conclave is not meant to be a portrait of the current pope. This should be taken with a pinch of salt. The resemblances are more than superficial, and are too numerous to be coincidental. For example, Harris’s late pope is a reformer who has alienated traditionalists in the Church and has aroused much determined opposition in the Curia and in the college of cardinals. He is dealing with scandals in the Church, but is handicapped by feeling surrounded by enemies with no one he can trust (cf. Pope Francis Among the Wolves by Marco Politi). And he lives in the simple Casa Santa Marta in preference to the luxurious papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.

3Is his name accidental (Tedesco = German) or is this meant to be a reference to Ratzinger/Benedict? However, while the fictional Tedesco shares some of Ratzinger/Benedict’s views, he does not appear to possess the Emeritus Pope’s formidable intellectual qualities, theological expertise, or gentlemanly manners.

4The demands of the papacy have been enormously magnified by the relentless, unceasing scrutiny of the modern mass media – not only their focus on what the Pope says and does in the present, but also their determination to ransack his past for any indiscretions, errors, or missteps. And the worse they are, the better, as far as the media are concerned.


Jon Elsby is the author of numerous books on aspects of Roman Catholicism, and is a specialist in opera, on which subject he has written a wide-ranging survey of operatic tenors, titled Heroes and Lovers.