Just Good Company
A Cyberjournal of Religion and Culture
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Papal Reich by Arun Pereira
(1st Books, 2002)

Reviewed by Doug McFerran

The cover suggests a Ludlum-like thriller with a new Pope who recognizes that global power has shifted from nations to religions.  The hook is that the new Pope was once a teenaged Nazi given a new identity through the Vatican.

How this all happens spans a period from 1945 to the present with a series of cardboard characters moving through implausible schemes that involve looted funds in a Swiss account, various murders staged to protect secrets that cannot be made known, and a young Jew’s search for truth and vengeance.   

Erich, the teenager who once used the cover of an altar boy to locate Jews hidden by sympathetic parishioners, turns up as a priest and then a bishop in California, and he is as ugly a character as they come—a murderer who uses an image of a concern for social justice to manipulate his way to celebrity and advancement in the church.   Yes, he will play the game well enough to become top dog in the church, but, wait, there is something about expensive pens rigged to deliver a lethal dose of Zyklon B and a predictable ending.

Corruption in high places has long been a staple of thriller fiction, and any group that is at all secretive—always the CIA, while in The DaVinci Code Opus Dei has come to replace the Jesuits as a source of clerical skullduggery—is fair game for a writer’s imagination. Pereira, however, seems to be ambitioning something more than a rather far-fetched plot allowing a one-time Nazi with a forged identity to become Pope. From the first presentation of Erich as the orphan befriended by a pedophile priest and then through him introduced to the Nazi elite, we are to see the church as interested only in power.   He pursues the theme relentlessly, especially in depicting how Erich, now Bishop Fitzgerald (!), whets the appetite of Vatican insiders with the concept of how the church could increase its secular power with a religious smart card that would become a new type of passport.  

There are numerous tangled subplots that aim at one surprise twist after another, but after a short while it is hard to care about any of the characters or about what happens to them.

Doug McFerran was a Jesuit from 1952-62. He taught philosophy in the Los Angeles Community College District until his retirement in 2003. He is the author of IRA Man: Talking with the Rebels and is currently the editor of ARCCLIGHT, the newsletter published by the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church.