Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Catholic Church Reform: The Novel

I'm reading an interesting new book, Cardinal Mahony: A Novel, by Robert Blair Kaiser, a Catholic journalist who has covered the Church's affairs for several decades with particular expertise in the Second Vatican Council. Kaiser is also a co-founder of TakeBackOurChurch.org.

The premise of the novel is that Cardinal Mahony is kidnapped by a group of liberation theologians and made to answer for his administrative failures, particularly the mishandling of the priest sexual abuse crisis. He falls in love with his kidnappers and converts to their perspective and returns to the United States a different man, determined to refashion the Church along progressive, autochthonous lines. Don't ask me how it ends becuse I haven't got there yet (and I wouldn't tell you anyway!). But the journey itself is worthwhile, taking the reader through detailed, if fictional, musings on all the major theological issues in the 21st century Catholic Church in America. Those who enjoy "romans à clef" might want to try to figure out who some of the major fictional characters are modeled after. I would personally like to know which Latina theologian became the fictitious "Juana Magarita Obregón"...Another review from the National Catholic Reporter appears below.

By Robert Blair Kaiser
Humble-bee Press, 257 pages, $19.95

A fantasy novel for liberal Catholics
Reviewed By Dennis Coday

Robert Blair Kaiser’s Cardinal Mahony: A Novel is more a polemic wrapped in a tale of intrigue than it is a novel. Surprisingly, the book works pretty well as fiction and as argument.

The book is set in the near future. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles is kidnapped by a clandestine revolutionary group inspired by liberation theologians and taken to Mexico. The group, calling itself Para los Otros, puts the cardinal on trial and broadcasts the proceedings live to the whole world.

The group charges Mahony with “misfeasance and malfeasance,” saying he has “forgotten the sacred duties of his episcopal office,” “let the unwritten rules of his clerical club undermine the rule of the Gospel,” and “robbed the patrimony of Christ’s poor to enrich crafty lawyers -- and keep sodomizing priests out of prison.” Mahony is judged by a jury of his peers: six retired Latin American bishops.

I won’t give anything away by saying that the cardinal is found guilty. With the verdict read, the judge hands down the sentence announcing to “everyone in the court and 590 million television viewers, ‘We sentence Cardinal Mahony to become a Christian!’ ” Hokey as this sounds, in the context of the novel, it works.

Mahony returns to Los Angeles a changed man. He moves out of his palatial residence, turning it over to the Los Angeles Catholic Worker for a homeless shelter, and moves into a room on the AIDS ward of Queen of Angels Hospital and serves the patients there as a chaplain.

He also puts together a kitchen cabinet comprising a layman who helped found Para los Otros, an Australian Jesuit theologian, a Latina lawyer and a Jewish labor organizer. Together they develop a plan to establish a church more open to American-style democracy and reforms in the church such as elected bishops, married priests and women priests.

This sets off a series of machinations from the Vatican in league with conservative elements of the U.S. church to stop the movement. In response, Mahony’s crew dips into its own bag of dirty tricks, which brings the novel to a cliff-hanger ending and sets the reader up for a sequel.

A few implausibilities detract from the novel. The testimony brought against Cardinal Mahony in his trial -- testimony about the child sex abuse scandal, about million-dollar cost overruns to build a new cathedral and such -- is readily available. I wasn’t convinced that being confronted with it in a jungle courtroom would somehow convert Mahony, let alone hold a worldwide television audience mesmerized.

Mr. Kaiser knows his subject. From 1999 to 2005, he was a contributing editor in Rome for Newsweek magazine. His coverage of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) for Time magazine earned him an Overseas Press Club Award. He also knows the players in the American Catholic church today and gives them convincing voices in his novel, making the story a sounding board for American Catholics who dream of the kind of reforms Mahony’s kitchen cabinet seeks.

NCR senior correspondent John L. Allen Jr. met the real Cardinal Roger Mahony at the Vatican in late November when the cardinal was attending the consistory that installed 28 new cardinals. Cardinal Mahony told Mr. Allen that he had read Mr. Kaiser’s book on the plane trip from Los Angeles. Asked for a reaction, Mr. Allen says, Cardinal Mahony “simply laughed.”

Mr. Kaiser’s ambition for the novel is revealed just inside the front cover. The book is dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe, whom Mr. Kaiser calls a “Conneticut schoolteacher who had the grit and gumption to write her message novel.”

The author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin rode the winds of a changing zeitgeist. Clearly, Mr. Kaiser hopes similar breezes are blowing.

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