e-mail us

NCR Books

Farrell’s Hugo would be a papal Gorbachev

By Michael J. Farrell
Crossroad, 226 pages, $14.95


A communist agent who becomes a priest and then a cardinal and is papabile, molto papabile? Sound like another endless and dreary diatribe from Malachi Martin? Forget about it!

Michael Farrell, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, is a natural seanachie, a story-teller who tells a fast-paced story that impels the reader to turn the pages rapidly and race toward the end. So quickly does the reader want to know what happens (and I won’t reveal the end. That would be telling, now, wouldn’t it?) that the subtext might be missed completely.

Hugo Ovath is a dedicated young communist in a Hungary-like country after the end of the war. His masters select him to infilitrate the Catholic church. He is told that he must become “the best priest in the world” if he is to succeed in his mission. He goes to a seminary, is ordained, becomes a resistance hero, a seminary professor, a world famous theologian, a bishop and finally a cardinal.

At no point in this pilgrimage does he believe in God or go to confession. Yet -- and here is the ironic subtext -- he becomes a skilled and wise churchman. Could one become a cardinal, even perhaps a pope, and not believe in anything at all? Is faith required to be a good churchman? Or can it easily be replaced by dedication to one’s career and to the institutional church?

Farrell, much to his credit, never asks these questions explicitly. He leaves it to the reader to ask them and ponder the answers. Certainly there have been cardinals in recent memory whose conventional faith and piety never interfered with the promotion of their careers. In the long history of the church there have been many cardinals and doubtless some popes for whom the spiritual was a vague and irrelevant issue.

However, I would argue that an ecclesiastic who had no faith at all would have some advantages in the career race over those with minimal faith. In any bureaucracy one cannot beat the infinite flexibility that comes from utter innocence of principle and conviction. Borderline personalities (sociopaths, psychopaths if you will) always get ahead. Have there been such in the recent history of Catholicism? You gotta be kidding!

Hugo Ovath, however, is not a borderline. He is a man with a vocation driven by his faith -- a vocation to subvert the church driven by his communist faith. He tries to protect people and he regrets his betrayals. He realizes at the end that he is a fraud, no longer a convinced communist but not a believing Catholic either. He is tragically marginal to both faiths. Will he make a good pope (and mind you I’m not saying whether he is elected or not!)?

What is more important in a pope, piety or ability? Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, is rated by historians as an able papal administrator, though he continued to sire children (perhaps incestuously) while he was pope. Would you, pace St. Teresa, rather have a wise confessor or a holy one? Would Hugo Ovath become the Gorbachev of the papacy, the one who finally creates meaningful reform by ending oppression and revealing the truth? Sure he would.

He would know that such reforms would be good for the institution and he would have no principles that might make him agonize over change. If I’m a cardinal and I know all that is to be known about Hugo, he gets my vote.

Fr. Andrew Greeley is a sociologist and novelist. One of his many novels is White Smoke: A Novel About the Next Papal Conclave.

National Catholic Reporter, May 22, 1998