Sunday, February 17, 2008

Kaiser and the Cardinal

Late last year former Jesuit Robert Blair Kaiser, who has been writing about the church since his days as a reporter at Vatican II, finished his first novel. The plot is that a prominent American cardinal is kidnapped by liberation theology-type guerrillas, put on trial in Mexico for the sins of his church, rescued through a commando raid that kills off all but one of his kidnappers, and through a stunning change of heart begins his own process of reforming American Catholicism. What makes the novel rather distinctive is that Kaiser uses the present Archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Cardinal Mahony, as his main character, and throughout the book he mixes in actual individuals with completely fictitious ones.

Granted, other writers--especially mystery novelists--have used deceased personalities in their novels, and sometimes, as has Dean Koontz in his "Odd" series, they have used their ghosts. Using a living person, though, can be problematic, which is the main reason a number of publishers turned down the novel before Kaiser arranged to bring it out on his own. The title, of course, is Cardinal Mahony and the cover depicts the Cardinal in a chasuble representing the American flag, which Kaiser explains as an effort to express his concept of an American Catholic Church that is, in his terminology, "autochthonous"--in communion with Rome but operating independently and democratically.

I have to enter a certain disclaimer here. I was one of the individuals who had a chance to read an early draft of the novel as well as the finished product before its release, and I helped Kaiser set up his website robertblairkaiser.com. Obviously I cannot claim to be a disinterested reviewer, and I certainly have my own motives for following the reaction the book might stir up. A review in the National Catholic Reporter and an article in a newspaper in Kaiser's hometown of Phoenix, Arizona were relatively bland, but, probably alerted by a Google alert for the term "Jesuit" that cited the article, a blog from someone at the highly conservative Saint Ignatius Press was anything but. Kaiser is "still lost in the Sixties" and his idea of what his fictional Mahony supports is an "Americanized Sixties-Flashback Church of Democratic WCC-Styled Anarchy."

Of course, my own question is just what part of the Sixties Kaiser is supposed to be lost in. If it is the Second Vatican Council, Kaiser probably could not object at all, since his theme over the years has been that it is the hierarchy which has blocked full implementation of the reforms accepted by the Council. But, assuming I understand what this is supposed to mean, "Democratic WCC-Styled Anarchy" is something of a stretch. What this may come down to is a debate on whether the Holy Spirit can guide local communities or whether such guidance is limited to a small area in Rome. Kaiser supports the notion that the top-down governance familiar to an older Catholicism is not an appropriate model everywhere, and certainly it is not appropriate to the United States.

Whether he is on solid ground or not is a theological issue that is not going to get much discussion among Catholic theologians who do not want their careers cut short. Perhaps it is the best case for why Kaiser has in fact done his church a service by posing the issue in a novel. It may lead ordinary American Catholics to ask some very reasonable questions.

1 comment:

Fr. Vince said...

These are strange kidnappers in Kaiser's novel: Kidnapping Roger Card. Mahony in order to preach Marxism to him seems like bringing coals to Newcastle.