Cover image of "Conclave," a novel about Vatican politics

Over the course of my life six new Popes have been installed by the Catholic Church. Robert Harris’ new thriller, Conclave, is about the next election. Set a few years in the future, when a man closely resembling Pope Francis has either retired or died, the novel depicts in minute detail the process of electing his successor. It’s a picture of Vatican politics from the inside. And it’s all written from the perspective of the Dean of the College of Cardinals, the man who presides over the election.

I am not now and never have been a Catholic. Somehow, though, I found Harris’ reverential accounting of the liturgical and atmospheric details to be bearable. Yes, there’s a lot of praying, and considerable repetition when that’s called for in the process. Still, Conclave hums with the same tension and anticipation that I’ve come to expect from Robert Harris’ work. No doubt about it: this is a work of suspense.

Vatican politics is a microcosm of the forces dividing the Catholic Church

Harris highlights the powerful forces that divide today’s Catholic Church. He brings to life the ongoing battle between traditionalists and reformers. But he makes beautifully clear that the division is far more complex than is often represented in the news media. He also shows how other factors deepen the currents of jealousy that cleave the institution. These include the clannishness of the Roman Curia and of the many Italian Cardinals, the split between European and Third World loyalties, the venality of so many senior Cardinals, and the raw ambition that rises to the surface when 118 men enter a room and know that one of them will be elected the most powerful religious figure in the world.

Conclave by Robert Harris (2016) 304 pages ★★★★☆

About the author

A former journalist, Robert Harris has written a number of nonfiction books in addition to the eleven novels that have put his name on the map. Most are historical fiction. The best known of these are Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, and The Ghost, all of which have been adapted for film or television. He has also written a superb trilogy set in ancient Rome.

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