By Mike Mastromatteo, OSV
“The Lost Pope,” by Glenn Cooper
Grand Central Publishing (New York, 2023)
384 pages, $18.99
Imagine if an ancient, long-hidden foundational document clarifying eligibility for church leadership comes to light in contemporary times. When interpreted and set in proper context, the document obviates the concept of an all-male priesthood and in turn spreads turmoil throughout the universal church.
That scenario plays out in author Glenn Cooper’s latest release, “The Lost Pope.” Cooper is a Harvard-educated archeologist and medical doctor whose string of best sellers follow the exploits of protagonist Cal Donovan, a theology professor whom Vatican leaders often call on to troubleshoot various crises. Donovan, we learn, is a brilliant but troubled academic with a passion for boxing and a tendency to drink away his melancholy.
“The Lost Pope” takes the reader from first-century Palestine to the present times. It opens with the discovery of an ancient papyrus declaring that Mary Magdalene not only was married to the Apostle Peter after the crucifixion, but also was destined to become the second bishop of Rome and pontifex maximus — pope of the universal church.
Much of this imagining is dredged from the “Gospel of Mary,” one of the nonfictional but also non-canonical texts bedeviling generations of biblical researchers (which was, in reality, discovered in the late 1800s).
Meanwhile, in our book a newly elected American pope, Cardinal Rodrigo Da Silva, takes on the name John XXIV and appoints a one-time papal secretary, Sister Elisabetta, as the Vatican’s first female Secretary of State. The bold appointment sets off a firestorm among conservative Catholics, who see the move as a prelude to the permitting females to take Holy Orders and opening up the possibility of female bishops and cardinals. Might there even be an embrace of feminist spirituality — the Holy “Mother”?
‘The novel’s good guys, not surprisingly, are open-minded progressives while antagonists are obnoxious and corrupted hypocrites who see an existential threat in every church reform.’
The elevation of a woman as Secretary of State, coupled with the emergence of the Gospel of Mary papyrus, is just too much for U.S. billionaire Tommy Cunliffe, a rigid traditional Catholic who will suffer no departures from the way things have always been done. In response to the appointment of Sister Elisabetta, Cunliffe — with subtle support from conniving curial officials — schemes to hide away the Mary papyrus and enlists corrupted journalists to publish vicious lies about the new secretary of state.
Against this backdrop, Pope John XXIV summons Cal Donovan to recover the artifact and determine if it is authentic or a mere forgery.
Although the story is compelling and well structured, it comes across as something of a screed against very conservative, or reactionary, Catholics who, in the author’s opinion, lack sufficient progressivism (and thus, it may be inferred, are insufficient in faith). The author permits his characters to speak for progressive Catholics as they assail the church for its centuries-long practice of keeping women away from what is considered the real power and influence within the church.
Part way through the story, the new pope tells Donovan, “I want my legacy to be this: ‘Pope John XXIV did more to elevate the role of Catholic women than any pope in history.’ The church has weaponized ordination and used it as a shield to keep women from positions of authority.”
The novel’s good guys, not surprisingly, are open-minded progressives while antagonists are obnoxious and corrupted hypocrites who see an existential threat in every church reform. The only restraint the author imposes on his tale (I almost wrote “wish list”) is when Pope John XXIV, early on, tells Donovan, “Women priests would fundamentally change the nature of Catholicism and would drive a wedge through the church, perhaps leading to a schism. However, we can begin to refocus the role of female Catholics by elevating a nun — an eminently qualified nun — to the Vatican’s most important administrative position.”
Some readers, particularly those who yet respect the curia and its ways of doing business, might balk at the chapter-by-chapter drumbeat that 21st-century progressives have all the right answers while traditional Catholics — including old-school cardinals — would countenance character assassination and even murder to protect their idea of the church. For readers who can put aside their own leanings for the sake of a pulpy thriller, however, “The Lost Pope” is a highly readable and entertaining piece of fiction.
Mike Mastromatteo is a writer, editor and book reviewer from Toronto.
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