Partly because of my theological background, I was asked by the publishers to provide an honest review of The Franciscan, a religious suspense thriller by WR. Park. Written some fourteen years ago, the plot revolves around a fictional Pope Francis (from the Franciscan order) who attempts to introduce revolutionary reforms into the Catholic Church and who faces numerous death threats and assassination attempts as a result. Of course, the coincidence of naming his protagonist Pope Francis some ten years before the present Pope Francis' election is striking and noteworthy, especially since the present Pope, an amiable and charismatic man on the surface, raised many expectations of genuine reform at the beginning of his tenure. Sadly, those expectations have failed to be realized by now, as Francis has sought the support of billionaire oligarchs (particularly those circling round Jeb Bush for the upcoming US presidential race), continues to oppose any meaningful discussion of lifting the ban on birth control, continues to firmly oppose any discussion of women being admitted to priestly orders, continues to oppose any meaningful inclusion of gay people into the church or to prohibit the Church's attacks on civil liberties for LGBT persons, and most importantly continues to protect his bishops from any meaningful accountability for the sex abuse scandal, even to the extent of appointing a notorious priest/pedophile protector, Juan Barros, as Bishop of Osnoro Chile. Any hopes of good Pope Francis introducing genuine reforms into the Catholic church have been pretty much shattered by now. But that is another story.
WR. Park's book was written with the best of intentions and a kind of boyish enthusiasm and naivete, and I respect his intentions and found many of his proposals for reforms and the effective means of carrying them out to be quite refreshing and original. Unfortunately, he has incorporated his ideas into the format of a suspense thriller and as a thriller it doesn't really succeed. We know right from the beginning pages who the villain is (a dastardly, evil conservative Cardinal), his motives and several of his assassination plots. The only suspense in the novel is whether the villain will succeed in his attempts to do the Pope in, and I'm afraid that's not really very suspenseful at all. I found the numerous sub plots revolving around this theme to be amateurish and unconvincing and quite tedious to read. This part of the plot rushes at breakneck speed in an attempt to mimic an action thriller, but it doesn't convince. However, what tickled me no end was the sight of prelates and cardinals engaged in feats of 'daring-do' and even engaging in fisticuffs with one another. Even the Pope storms into a room and slaps his opponent in the face and breaks his jaw! That got a guffaw out of me. It was a very refreshing, iconoclastic picture of Catholic prelates at variance with the controlled gravitas so many of them exhibit. But the suspense thriller? Not suspenseful at all, I'm sorry to say.
The best parts of the book, in my opinion, were the brief forays into past history, displaying many highly fallible (and quite monstrous) decisions made by these supposedly 'infallible' Popes. Park does a good job summarizing them, so that reading them provides the most effective wallop when dismantling the myth of papal infallibility. Also, his proposals for reform of the Church are intelligent and thoughtful and the means by which they might be carried out, especially the democratizing of the church's governing structures, are refreshingly original and breathtaking. This is indeed how it should be done, I thought, if there were a Pope with the courage to undertake it. Some of the proposals were naive, particularly regarding the speed with which they were announced and carried out (the Pope simply announces from the balcony of St. Peter's that he is not infallible), but I found this aspect acceptable in a work of fiction, unlike the sorry lack of suspense in the thriller dimension of the novel. The proposals for democratizing the church's governing structures - really interesting, thoughtful, and provocative. Park shows a commendable balance between respect for the sacredness and need for the "Petrine office" and the pressing need to 'put the Pope in his place," because of the false idolization of the papacy. All well and good.
In the end, however, this is still a man's novel with a bunch of men running around saving the world and the church, and a charismatic male hero at the helm, good Pope Francis. Park is highly selective in the reforms he wishes to focus upon, mainly papal infallibility, Vatican finances, church governance. Sexual issues are pretty much ignored, particularly the sex abuse scandal which gets nary a mention, birth control, LGBT people in the Church, and women's ordination and sharing in governance. There is one mention at the beginning that women should be accepted for priestly ordination, and then it is pretty much forgotten. Even worse, there is no single outstanding woman leader/fictional character helping the pope and all of his male accomplices in saving the church. It's all men engaged in acts of spying, espionage, plotting, saving the world. The only significant female character in the whole book is a vicious female assassin towards the end. Ouch! I thought. Not a good way to go about fictionalizing the issue of reform of the Catholic Church - by mirroring the Church's own male misogyny and distrust of women and gays.
Gays? One reference to 'homosexuals,' spoken by our evil cardinal when slandering Pope Francis behind his back by suggesting he and his co-friars engaged in disgusting, immoral 'homosexual orgies' when they were together in a remote Franciscan monastery. That's it? That's the only mention of the issue of gay people in the Church and the clergy? Of course, we all know that when gay people gather together, they turn into 'homosexuals' engaged in "disgusting orgies". What else are they to do?
Coupled with this are a number of references to the robust heterosexual lustiness of a number of the hero cardinals and prelates assisting the pope, including one triumphant bello from a sexy femme fatale about an aging Cardinal. " He's straight," she announces with evident glee after succeeding in arousing him. Gee, really? How weird. I let the first one slide and the second, but after the third reference to an elderly prelate getting turned on by a sexy female, I thought - Hmmm, seems to be a bit of defensiveness here about the image of male clericals. 'We need to counteract the gay image that has so tarnished the church,' the author seems to be saying. Not a good way to deal with the issue of gay people in the clergy, whom reliable estimates put at 20 to 25%. The systematic attack by the church on the civil rights of gay people in civil society is one of the most egregious practices now underway in the Catholic Church, completely at variance with the gospel message of Jesus the Nazarene, and any book dealing with reform must face it head on and honestly. This is a defensive reaction on the part of a profoundly homophobic church. "Please don't think we're gay, see how much we hate gay people." This Park does not do, quite the contrary. Coupled with the absence of any significant, empowered female character, and the inclusion of a vicious female assassin, one can only conclude that the author himself has some serious 'issues' of his own to deal with regarding women and gays. Best to clear those up before engaging in a work of fiction.
In the end, I was rather disappointed with the book, after starting with high expectations. I appreciated the author's sincere suggestions about reforms, as far as they went, I chuckled at the image of elderly cardinals running about engaging in feats of daring do, I thought some of his suggestions about practical means of effecting reforms to be breathtakingly original. But the tone of misogyny regarding women and gays was quite disturbing. However, I would have been willing to overlook these faults (somewhat) if the darn suspense thriller part of the book, had been, well....suspenseful. Unfortunately, I wasn't gripped by the story nor particularly worried for the characters. Suspense and tension seemed to be missing, and that is a serious flaw in a 'suspense thriller.' Park is proposing this book as part of a three part series. Let us hope that in subsequent volumes, he conceals the villain's identity until the very end. And please - throw in some truly empowered women leaders and a decent gay character or two.
★ ★ ★ for good intentions