Since the 1980’s Catholic News Service reporter John Thavis has been covering all of it and more—not from a post in Las Vegas or the nation’s Capitol but from (of all places) the Vatican.
Which may explain why Thavis prefaces his New York Times bestseller The Vatican Diaries (Penguin) with this epigram from St. Augustine: “This is the very perfection of man, to find out his own imperfections.”
And, if Thavis’ goal is to introduce the reader to the Vatican warts and all, he achieves it— but with a balanced and almost empathetic tone in places, for which I was grateful. I, after all, had my own initial prejudices to dispel at the outset, being tempted to dismiss Thavis as yet another journalist with an aggressively secular axe to grind thanks to (maybe) a year too many in Catholic school with stern, wrist-slapping nuns; and here I was glad to be proven wrong. Thavis writes his book with a view to contextualizing and better understanding how horrors like the sex abuse scandal and embarrassments like “Vatileaks” could happen. As Thavis puts it, “The Vatican Diaries was written precisely…to pull back the curtain on an institution that is largely misunderstood.” What emerges is, by Thavis’ own telling, a very “human” portrait, one that unveils and explores the various personalities, motivations, tensions and limitations that operate within the extensive bureaucratic sprawl of the Vatican.
Thavis’ chapter on the disgraced founder of the religious order, Legion of Christ, is especially effective at bringing into sharper relief these often hidden contours. The implicit questions at play within these pages are: how could a priest, in this case the charismatic Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, be virtually worshiped for decades by so many admirers (including the late Pope John Paul II) as a paragon of spiritual and moral virtue—this, while all the while leading a dark, sordid personal life that included the sexual abuse of hundreds of boys and the siring of children with a number of mistresses?; what systemic sins and oversights can conspire to allow for and even propagate this sort of outlandish dissonance at the expense of so many innocent children? While Thavis never directly answers these questions, he painstakingly weaves a story that just as painfully lays out the circumstances for how a monster like Father Maciel could come to thrive under a veil of secrecy, living and dying in ignominy without truly being brought to justice for his crimes.
The problem of Father Maciel is one lens among many through which Thavis offers fascinating close-up views of the often bumbling, contentious, eccentric, misunderstood, well-meaning, inspired, and, misguided human beings at the helm of the world’s largest church as they navigate various crises and controversies; and there are plenty of saints and sinners to be found. While most of the book is pre-Pope Francis, devoting itself to developments during the time of Pope Benedict and, to a certain degree, his predecessor John Paul, Thavis helps to contextualize the import and promise of the current pope. Pope Francis’ installation represents a radical break with the recent past, even as it belongs to the swing of a pendulum that will no doubt come around again some day. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants a fair, balanced and captivating insider’s look at the Vatican and who seeks to understand both the beauty and frailty of one of the world’s oldest institutions.