Book ReviewsNovelist’s Catholic thriller explores Church division in face of ‘secular spirit’

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 “social Catholicism” to write his book, “The Death of a Pope.”

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 Uriarte’s 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 “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors” 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 “The Death of a Pope.”

The novel’s 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 “hatred” that some people have for the Catholic Church and the rise of the “secular spirit” particularly evident in Britain and Europe.

Some people use advocacy for condoms in the African AIDS crisis as a “stick with which to beat the Church,” 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 “the more supernatural and sacramental appreciation of what the Catholic Church is about.”

CNA, noting that Read’s book derives dramatic energy from factionalism in the Catholic Church, asked what his novel says about the present state of the Church.

“The Catholic Church is divided. I’m not one to cast aspersions on other people’s good will, but I do think that after Vatican II a large number of Catholics sort of took a few phrases from ‘Gaudium et Spes’ and elevated them into a kind of social ideology.”

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 “progressive, revolutionary, Marxist Catholics” had taken control and enacted what was “almost a persecution” of traditionalist Catholics.

By that time, Read said, he had forsworn his “youthful enthusiasm” for liberationism and rejected its depiction of Jesus as a social revolutionary. He had come to believe the Church was “much more about spiritual, otherworldly values.”

The experience made him aware of the “polarization” within the Church between the “liberal or progressive or social Catholic view” and the “traditionalist, spiritual, sacramental view.”

Discussing the Church’s interaction with the secular world, Read noted the religious differences between the United States and Europe.

While Americans are “much more open to talking about God, talking about Jesus, and Christian life,” his native England has lost its formerly “widespread” Christian consensus after the “extraordinary changes” of recent decades, he said.

Christians and Catholics in particular have been “marginalized,” Read said, and many Catholics “keep their heads down.”

“There are many Catholics in quite prominent positions in Britain, but you’d never know they were Catholics.”

Turning to the controversy over the Catholic prohibition on condoms and AIDS prevention efforts, Read told CNA he gives “a fair crack of the whip” to both sides of the “complex” argument.

More in Book Reviews

Once someone ceases to believe in the supernatural aspect of Catholicism and “the sacred nature of the human body,” he said, this lack of belief combines with the denigration of chastity and opens people to making arguments that Church teaching on condoms is “wicked.”

“The Death of a Pope” itself begins with a quotation from Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who in 2002 said the Pope “kills millions through his reckless spreading of AIDS.”

Read also addressed the charge that his explanations of Catholic beliefs are imposed on the reader. The author countered that the discussions were not “Catholic propaganda,” 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 “different takes on what you might find among Catholic priests today, but they’re not just mouthpieces of their particular points of view.”

“They are, I hope, grounded psychological characters who have a life of their own,” he remarked.

Asked to discuss the development of his own faith and its relation to his work, Read told CNA:

“We all go through different ups and downs of faith and God sometimes feels closer and more absent… I’ve always believed and I’ve always gone to Mass on Sunday, but there were certain times when it meant more to me than at other times.”

(Column continues below)

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 “Alive.”

“In the 1950s you could write novels about religious belief that would be intelligible to a wide readership. Whereas now, this novel isn’t published in Britain because of its too overtly religious themes.”

He concluded the interview by saying he hoped readers would enjoy its “certain moral beauty.”

Read is now touring the United States to lecture and to promote “The Death of a Pope.” He has planned appearances in several California cities, New York City, Washington, D.C., and other locales.

The book’s website is

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.