On a recent visit to a local bookstore, I picked up a copy of Conclave, by British novelist Robert Harris, noted for his fictionalized accounts of power and its corruptions. Since the book was about ecclesiastical politics and was on sale at 50% off, I bought it - and quickly read it. It is the sort of book that someone interested in both religion and politics and their intersection might be easily attracted to and would find interesting reading. For 280 pages, the novel takes us through the events following the death of a pope and the contentious and religiously, politically, and personally polarized conclave that follows.
The conflicts and divisions (seen mainly through the perspective of the Cardinal Dean, Cardinal Lomelli) are what we might expect. They present a plausible portrayal of the conflicts and divisions in the contemporary Church, filtered in the novel through the personal ambitions and rivalries of different cardinals participating in the conclave. The unexpected arrival of a hitherto unknown cardinal (named by the deceased pope in pectore) predictably at first gives the novel a kind of vaguely Shoes of the Fisherman feel, which creates a certain expectation of how it will end, an expectation that persisted in my mind throughout, despite all the twists and turns and personal ups and downs of the plot And, as different papabili rise and fall in the balloting and are eventually eliminated by a cleverly constructed series of personal scandals and various political machinations that punctuate the otherwise routine sequence of rituals and ballots, the book does indeed seem to set us up for a predictable outcome. Then comes a shocking and radically challenging six-page finale which no one, no matter how attentive to contemporary ecclesiastical conflicts, would likely have expected (and which I will not reveal lest I spoil the book for anyone).
So unexpected was the ending that I almost think of the novel as two separate stories. The first is a well-crafted, entertaining, and at times insightful, but altogether conventional account of the explosive mix of spirituality, religion, ideology, and personal and national ambitions, in spite of which the Holy Spirit may yet providentially produce an inspired outcome The second suggests a scenario so implausible and so spiritually and religiously problematic that (at least for the reader who retains a spiritual and religious perspective on the subject) completely cancels the conveniently providential interpretation of the first story, submerging it in moral ambiguity anticipated by - but now far exceeding - the moral ambiguities that characterized the first story. The joy of a stereotypical happy ending gives way to unexpected and highly problematic irony, reflected in the (literally ironic) statement: "The Holy Spirit had done its work. They had picked the right man."