A liberal Catholic polemic disguised as a life of Good Pope John.
Bestselling religious historian Cahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization, 1995, etc.) has a familiar story to tell. The Catholic Church has been mostly off the rails since the rise to power of the Roman popes; the revolution of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council briefly returned it to fidelity to the Gospel, but it was derailed again by the Thermidor of vacillating Paul VI and the reactionary restoration of John Paul II. This is the orthodoxy of the Catholic left, and Cahill drearily rehashes all its rhetoric, political and sexual. A full third of the text is given over to a sour, highly colored survey of papal history, with heroes (Gregory the Great, Luther, Voltaire, Benedict XIV, Leo XIII despite his “excesses”) and villains (just about anyone named Pius, with the partial exception of Pius XI) and nary a nuance to be found. When Cahill finally settles down to an actual biography of Angelo Roncalli/John XXIII, it’s marred by a failure to appreciate the foundations of his solid and quite traditional spirituality. Instead, we are given authorial smirking over the sexuality of seminarians and groundless speculations on Roncalli's experiences during WWI: Could the Vatican have suppressed portions of his wartime diaries because it is “scared to death of any whiff of homosexuality in its ranks”? Cahill provides none of the background necessary to appreciate the roots of John's social teachings in the work of his predecessors, including Pius XII, and its problematic development by Paul VI. He is equally weak on the theological background of the Council. His discussion of John Paul II shows little understanding of the subtlety of the pope's philosophy and ignores completely the complexity of his social doctrine. Throughout, the writing is no better that pedestrian, and occasionally crude.
A major disappointment on all levels, and an unfortunate stumble for the generally distinguished Penguin Lives series.