ROME – How do you measure the cost of a scandal?
One way is by dollar amounts. The current estimate is that the Catholic Church in the United States now has paid $3.2 billion to settle clerical sexual abuse lawsuits, which is $3.2 billion it couldn’t spend on charity or evangelization or any other desirable purpose.
Another index is lost human potential. Think about the contributions that Enzo Bianchi, founder of the famed ecumenical monastic community of Bose, could still be making to the cause of Christian unity, if his alleged abuses of authority had not compelled the Vatican recently to send him into exile like Napoleon on Elba.
Yet perhaps the steepest price to be paid is the loss of moral authority, a cost that’s correspondingly higher when the institution hit by scandal purports to represent moral virtue like the Catholic Church.
The latest proof of the point comes in a new novel by Pietro Caliceti, a writer known as the Italian John Grisham, titled L’Opzione di Dio (“The Option of God”). Caliceti is a Milan-based former corporate lawyer, and the Vatican he describes in his novel is every bit as corrupt and vengeful as the legal outfit memorably presented by Grisham in his 1991 thriller The Firm.
(Also like The Firm, the consensus among many Italian critics is that L’Opzione di Dio is destined to become a major commercial movie.)
Italians are especially sensitive to the impact of ecclesiastical scandals, having lived cheek by jowl – often enough, under the thumb – of clerical culture for centuries. Caliceti’s novel is a perfect representation of what many educated Italian professionals today think of the Catholic Church, and I’ve heard some form of its perspective hundreds of times over the years from my Italian friends.
Here’s how one of the heroes of Caliceti’s novel, a young lawyer attempting to get to the truth, describes his outlook to his brother, who’s a priest.
“Well, I’d say that God has nothing to do with this. There’s only the Church, and there’s a big difference. If we were talking about God, maybe I could follow you. The idea of a wager [on God], or an ‘option,’ as you call it, makes sense, even if you know what I think. But with the Church, there’s no wager. The idea of a bet is based on the fact that we don’t know what there is after death. It’s the unknown that makes a wager logical. But there’s nothing unknown about the Church. It’s here on earth, made up of men, and it has nothing to do with God.”
If that’s your worldview, who in their right mind would give their life to such an institution?
L’Opzione di Dio opens in the wake of a major Islamic terrorist attack on St. Peter’s Basilica. At the same time, the Vatican is grappling with even more unsettling news – the pope is dying, and an all-out internal war is erupting between two contending factions to control the succession.
The progressives are led by Cardinal William Hamilton, a South African and former rugby player known for having settled scores of sex abuse cases before they want to trial, thereby saving the Church a lot of money. (Caliceti clearly based much of the Hamilton character on Australian Cardinal George Pell, a former Australian Rules Football player who instituted the world’s first set of abuse protocols with his “Melbourne Response” in 1996, setting up an independent panel to investigate abuse claims and capping payouts to victims. The fact that Caliceti made Hamilton a progressive, however, confirms that novelists are free to tweak reality when it suits their purposes.)
On the other side is Italian Cardinal Angelo Vignale, leader of the traditionalist camp. The two men launch scorched earth campaigns to dig up dirt on the other, and seemingly will stop at nothing to attain power. Their subterfuge unfolds in parallel to an unfolding police and security services probe of the terrorist attack. Without giving too much away, in the end it turns out that the various threads of the novel are all connected.
Though there are plenty of plot twists in L’Opzione di Dio, the novel is mostly dialogic, featuring lengthy conversations among the various characters that expose their values systems and outlooks. Caliceti described the novel as his effort to write The Brothers Karamazov 2.0, though in this case he places his version of the Grand Inquisitor’s speech on the lips of an imam.
The difference between Dostoevsky’s era and today, Caliceti says, is that while there were power struggles and scandals in the Church then too, they were little known, while today “they’re talked about in every bar, whether financial or sexual.” Anyone familiar with Vatican meltdowns over the past decade will recognize elements of many of them in the book, lending the narrative a “ripped from the headlines” feel.
L’Opzione di Dio is, of course, a terribly misleading representation of the Catholic Church. For every Machiavellian prelate willing to stop at nothing to attain power – and, make no mistake, such figures aren’t entirely fictional – there’s probably a hundred quietly heroic missionaries, and pastors, and nuns, and lay activists, all pouring out their lives to serve the vulnerable and forgotten people of the world.
Nevertheless, that’s the consequence of scandal: It turns images of the Church into a funhouse mirror exercise, in which distorted perceptions are the inevitable result.
In that sense, L’Opzione di Dio probably ought to be required reading at the most senior levels of ecclesiastical authority – not so much to get across what the Church really is, but how it’s come to be seen by a vast swath of well-intentioned and idealistic people.
If that doesn’t make the case for reform, it’s hard to know what might.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.