High political melodrama: the Vatican as International Crisis Center, with the Pope and a corps of clerical diplomats manning the telex machines, dashing around the globe on emergency missions, trying to bring peace to belligerent states and order to a centrifugal Church. Thomas and Morgan-Witts are old Vatican hands (since '63). Their most recent collaboration, Pontiff (1983), dealt mainly with the epochal transition from Paul VI to John Paul I to John Paul II. They now turn to hotter stories--Mehmet Ali Agca and the Bulgarian Connection, Papa Wojtyla's duels with the Jaruzelski government and Moscow, the strong CIA presence in Rome, efforts at intervention in Lebanon and Guatemala, etc.--all presented in a nervous, portentous, staccato style, with Dragnet-like datelines, ""Rebibbia Prison, Rome/Wednesday: Midmorning."" As in Pontiff, the authors provide a modest amount of inside information (e.g., the Pope's night line is extension 3102) garnered from people like the head of Vatican security, Camillo Cibin. The trouble is, they uncritically swallow the Vatican's Hub of the Universe notion of itself. When Israeli gunboats were firing on trapped PLO fighters in Tripoli and threatening to abduct Yassir Arafat, Cardinal Casaroli contacted Apostolic Delegate Plo Laghi in Washington, who informed the State Department, who told Reagan. Then ""Israel withdrew its gunboats. It was a textbook example of papal diplomacy being asserted through a secular source."" Give that textbook an F. When Monsignor Emery Kabongo, one of the Pope's private secretaries, told Thomas and Morgan-Witts that John Paul II ""is like a spiritual Hercules trying to keep the superpowers apart, trying to avert nuclear Armageddon,"" they snapped up the image but missed its nearly ludicrous pathos. Still, their report is crammed with detailed little items of some interest (the Pope's interview with Agca, CIA persecution of left-leaning Radio Vatican newswoman Clarissa McNair) and at least one large question mark (secret agent Frank Terpil's part in the assassination plot).