A thorough, perceptive, but almost terminally disorganized survey. Nichols is a long-time Rome correspondent for the London Times and deeply familiar with the intricacies of Vatican politics. He's followed the globetrotting John Paul II everywhere and has a sophisticated grasp of the many national varieties of Catholicism--American, Irish, Filipino, etc. An agnostic Anglican and a fair-minded liberal, he brings a nice blend of sympathy and critical detachment to his scrutiny of the institution that, as he stresses, binds together almost a fifth of the human race. So far, so good. But Nichols refuses to stick to the straightforward journalistic task he's so superbly equipped for. For one thing, he lets his (perfectly honorable) concern over various global crises--poverty, the arms race, runaway urbanization in the Third World--sidetrack him from the subject at hand. Granting the relevance of all this to a Church that claims to be universal, one gets the impression nonetheless that Nichols would rather discuss the gulf between the industrial North and the hungry South than, say, the humbler, day-to-day ""churchy"" realities of Catholic life. More serious than this imbalance, though, is Nichols' propensity for hopping all over the place. A chapter ostensibly about Fatima meanders through remarks on the origin of Pentecostalism, Bishop Hilarion Capucci and his undercover work for the PLO, quarrels between Armenians and Syrian Jacobites for ownership of the chapel of St. Nicodemus, etc. Still, despite the structural muddle, Nichols does have a clear thesis: while in some ways a reactionary anachronism (unrealistic sexual ethics, bureaucratic stiffening-of-the-joints), the Church could be, especially in Latin America, the cutting edge of a drive for justice and human dignity. And Nichols gives us a rich sampling of anecdotes, statistics, and shrewd observations that, if nothing else, cast some ironic light on Stalin's famous jibe. Flawed but intelligent.