Sex and the Catholic Church 

New Vatican thriller probes papal secrets

New Vatican thriller probes papal secrets

In writing about a German successor to John Paul II, a record-short conclave of cardinals and a battle between reformists and traditionalists for control of the Roman Catholic Church, it may seem that Steve Berry was as prescient as any Old Testament prophet. But the similarities between recent events and the plot of The Third Secret (Ballantine Books) end there. Berry's fictional German pope, Clement XV, is a gentle reformer troubled by the revelations of the Marian apparition at Fatima in 1917. His secretary of state, Cardinal Valendrea, is a reactionary who will let nothing, least of all God's will, keep him from the Throne of Peter. Caught in the middle is Father Michener, Clement's best friend, a priest with his own trouble in the form of a fiery woman reporter who knows him too well. These and a cast of other memorable characters drive this twisting journey through Church politics and history to a satisfying, if somewhat predictable, conclusion.

But there is more here than a good yarn. In a recent interview, Berry said, "I'm certainly not trying to make any social or political statement." Anyone who believes that may want to look into buying a bridge. This novel is definitely political, and will be much more controversial—and, no doubt, profitable—as a result. Berry's heroes are theological liberals, his villains conservatives, and many American readers will want to stand up and cheer the Virgin's fictional revelations.

Berry also explores the origins of certain church doctrines, the possible corruption of God's word and, ultimately, the troubled relationship between faith and religion. In a spirited early passage, a priest is forced to defend his teachings. His interrogator says of Jesus' image, "It is as the Church says." The priest responds, "But is that not merely man molding the divine to suit his need?" This is the recurring theme of the book, that there is a disconnect between church dogma and what God intended. It is the essence of Berry's third secret of Fatima, which drives the plot, and it is the basis of every character's relationship to the church. The result is a successful political thriller—in both senses of the term.

Steve Berry will read from The Third Secret at Davis-Kidd on May 23 at 6 p.m.

—Chris Scott


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