.- A new novel by British author Piers Paul Read crafts a thriller story around terrorism, the 2005 papal election and the present-day conflicts within the Catholic Church. In an interview with CNA, Read explained how he drew on his experiences with liberation theology and âsocial Catholicismâ to write his book, âThe Death of a Pope.â
In his latest fictional work, published by Ignatius Press, Read depicts the mysterious behavior of ex-priest Juan Uriarte, a former liberationist who is put on trial for possessing sarin nerve gas. As Uriarteâs murky intentions are gradually revealed, the plot follows multiple characters in venues ranging from London and the Vatican to an African hospital for AIDS patients. Read is also the bestselling author of âAlive: The Story of the Andes Survivorsâ about the horrific plane crash of the Uruguayan rugby team.
He spoke with CNA by phone in a Monday interview, explaining that several different experiences helped inspire âThe Death of a Pope.â
The novelâs opening trial scene, for example, resulted from his witnessing a trial at England's Central Criminal Court, commonly called the Old Bailey.
Read explained he was also very struck by the âhatredâ that some people have for the Catholic Church and the rise of the âsecular spiritâ particularly evident in Britain and Europe.
Some people use advocacy for condoms in the African AIDS crisis as a âstick with which to beat the Church,â he added, noting that he noticed progressive Catholics thought the Church would change with a new Pope.
These elements combined to form his story about the ex-Jesuit, ex-liberation theologian on trial in London. Read told CNA he wanted to write a novel that was a good story about terrorism, but in a way that served to highlight the phenomenon of liberation theology and its contrast with what he called âthe more supernatural and sacramental appreciation of what the Catholic Church is about.â
CNA, noting that Readâs book derives dramatic energy from factionalism in the Catholic Church, asked what his novel says about the present state of the Church.
âThe Catholic Church is divided. Iâm not one to cast aspersions on other peopleâs good will, but I do think that after Vatican II a large number of Catholics sort of took a few phrases from âGaudium et Spesâ and elevated them into a kind of social ideology.â
He said this was particularly true in South America and El Salvador, and among some Jesuits in North America.
Read explained that he had once written about El Salvador on the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. In his interviews for the story, he found that âprogressive, revolutionary, Marxist Catholicsâ had taken control and enacted what was âalmost a persecutionâ of traditionalist Catholics.
By that time, Read said, he had forsworn his âyouthful enthusiasmâ for liberationism and rejected its depiction of Jesus as a social revolutionary. He had come to believe the Church was âmuch more about spiritual, otherworldly values.â
The experience made him aware of the âpolarizationâ within the Church between the âliberal or progressive or social Catholic viewâ and the âtraditionalist, spiritual, sacramental view.â
Discussing the Churchâs interaction with the secular world, Read noted the religious differences between the United States and Europe.
While Americans are âmuch more open to talking about God, talking about Jesus, and Christian life,â his native England has lost its formerly âwidespreadâ Christian consensus after the âextraordinary changesâ of recent decades, he said.
Christians and Catholics in particular have been âmarginalized,â Read said, and many Catholics âkeep their heads down.â
âThere are many Catholics in quite prominent positions in Britain, but youâd never know they were Catholics.â
Turning to the controversy over the Catholic prohibition on condoms and AIDS prevention efforts, Read told CNA he gives âa fair crack of the whipâ to both sides of the âcomplexâ argument.
Once someone ceases to believe in the supernatural aspect of Catholicism and âthe sacred nature of the human body,â he said, this lack of belief combines with the denigration of chastity and opens people to making arguments that Church teaching on condoms is âwicked.â
âThe Death of a Popeâ itself begins with a quotation from Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who in 2002 said the Pope âkills millions through his reckless spreading of AIDS.â
Read also addressed the charge that his explanations of Catholic beliefs are imposed on the reader. The author countered that the discussions were not âCatholic propaganda,â explaining that a non-Catholic could read his novel and not feel like the beliefs are being imposed on him.
He added that a cardinal and two priests who are characters in the book offer âdifferent takes on what you might find among Catholic priests today, but theyâre not just mouthpieces of their particular points of view.â
âThey are, I hope, grounded psychological characters who have a life of their own,â he remarked.
Asked to discuss the development of his own faith and its relation to his work, Read told CNA:
âWe all go through different ups and downs of faith and God sometimes feels closer and more absentâ¦ Iâve always believed and Iâve always gone to Mass on Sunday, but there were certain times when it meant more to me than at other times.â
Some novels have Catholic characters and necessarily deal with Catholic themes, he explained, adding that his Catholic values often also enter into his non-fiction, such as âAlive.â
âIn the 1950s you could write novels about religious belief that would be intelligible to a wide readership. Whereas now, this novel isnât published in Britain because of its too overtly religious themes.â
He concluded the interview by saying he hoped readers would enjoy its âcertain moral beauty.â
Read is now touring the United States to lecture and to promote âThe Death of a Pope.â He has planned appearances in several California cities, New York City, Washington, D.C., and other locales.
The bookâs website is http://deathofapope.com/