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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

Ecclesial fiction

Robert Kaiser’s novel joins a genre of what might be called “wishful ecclesial fiction,” in which authors shake up the structures of the Catholic church. Most well known are Morris West’s works The Shoes of the Fisherman, published in 1963, and Clowns of God, published in 1981, but he is far from alone.

In The Red Hat, published in 1998, Ralph M. McInerny, a Notre Dame philosophy professor and author of the Father Dowling mystery series, tried his hand in wondering “what if ...” about churchmen in the highest levels of the hierarchy. Also in 1998 came Papabile: The Man Who Would Be Pope by then-NCR editor Michael J. Farrell.

In his 1996 novel White Smoke, Fr. Andrew Greely’s Auxiliary Bishop John Blackwood (Blackie) Ryan uses Chicago street smarts to help his cardinal archbishop “elect a pope who will not stand in the way of either the Holy Spirit or Jesus’ message of love.”

One of the earliest, perhaps the first, novel in this genre was Hadrian the Seventh, written in 1904 by Frederick William Rolfe, better known as Baron Corvo. The book is a fantasy autobiography of an Englishman, George Arthur Rose, who is elected pope and upsets the Roman curia with an ambitious program of reform. The book was made into a play in 1968 and republished by The New York Review of Books in 2001.

The oddest contribution is Project Pope by Clifford D. Simak. This book, published in 1981, is set 3,000 years in the future. A group of super-intelligent robots are denied membership in the Catholic church because they are told they have no souls.

They retreat to the far reaches of the galaxy and set about building a truly infallible pope: a computer so complex it can process gazillions of gigabytes of data and provide the final, true, answers to the questions of life. In pursuit of such perfection, the robots and agents from the earthly pope must confront unsought questions about life, death and meaning.

-- Dennis Coday

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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