Father Dowling's creator (On This Rockne, 1997, etc.) takes aim at the highest echelons of the modern church in this ambitious, plumply plotted tale of Vatican-American politics. For as long as he can remember, Thomas Lannan has dreamed of wearing a cardinal's red hat. Now that he's Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), the prize seems unbearably close-- especially once Lannan, urged on by his old friend Maureen Kilmartin, engineers the appointment of one of his boyhood pals, Notre Dame history professor James Morrow, to the ornamental but highly visible post as American ambassador to the Vatican. The debates that Morrow's magisterial history, The Decline and Fall of the American Catholic Church, kicks up about the fortunes of the church in the 30 years since the Second Vatican Council supply a foundation for the positions of dozens of fictional Catholic commentators of every stripe, from archconservative Monsignor Rodney Leach, the sardonic Savonarola of Toledo, to Maureen's brother Frank Bailey, dean of dissident American theologians. But as deeply as McInerny obviously cares about these debates and the anguish they cause his cast, he has to rush past them to the next complication in his byzantine plot. A prostitute comes to Rome with a prophetic vision reserved for the Pope. Lannan's call to Rome to receive his red hat is thwarted when the Pope dies before conferring it. The convocation of cardinals that names the new Pope comes under attack for excluding Lannan and his fellow cardinals-designate. The new Pope dies, provoking still deeper schism. Lannan is kidnapped and held captive. An outlaw conclave spearheaded by the NCCB anoints an Anti-pope. Lannan survives every challenge to his integrity only to be threatened with the revelation of an unacknowledged child. Whew. An impassioned guided tour of postVatican II theological politics wrapped in a story as shapeless as Dumas.