A tale of two popes.
Novelist, screenwriter, and playwright McCarten (Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought England Back from the Brink, 2017, etc.) provides a sensationalized examination of the Catholic Church’s two most recent leaders. The groundbreaking decision by Pope Benedict XVI to resign the papacy in 2013 led to widespread speculation and gossip about his motives, and the author digs into many of those theories. Describing Benedict at one point as “a frail and confused old man drowning in shallow waters while those closest to him watched,” McCarten is largely dismissive of Benedict as anything aside from an academic. Though he occasionally takes pity on the former pontiff—e.g., noting that his desires to go into seclusion went unheeded by his predecessor, John Paul II—the author mainly describes him as lacking any interpersonal skills and being utterly disconnected from the real world or the church he was called to lead. Benedict was a strong defender of orthodoxy, so his resignation came as a surprise; indeed, “the most conventional man in the Catholic Church [did] the most unconventional thing in its modern history.” McCarten sees in that decision a mixture of guilt over failures to stem the church’s sex abuse scandal and overwhelming inability to lead in the light of his own shortcomings and the Vatican’s continued scandals. Though the author is obviously more aligned with Pope Francis’ progressiveness, he does not spare the newest pope from scrutiny. He provides a disconcerting report of Francis’ career in Argentina, strongly suggesting that he was complicit, even if only through silence, with the brutality his nation faced in the late 20th century. Ultimately, though intermittently intriguing, this book is just another average addition to the well-saturated genre of Vatican intrigue works. Since the author fails to provide much new information or analysis, serious readers will want to look elsewhere.
Only slightly better than a tabloid look at papal controversies.