Review: The Vatican Diaries

Posted 13 March, 2013 by Lianne in Books / 2 Comments

The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church
By: John Thavis
Source: e-galley, courtesy of the publisher from NetGalley

For more than twenty-five years John Thavis held one of the most fascinating journalistic jobs in the world: reporting on the inner workings of the Vatican. His daily exposure to the power, politics, and personalities in the seat of Roman Catholicism gave him a unique, behind-the-scenes perspective on an institution that is far less monolithic and unified than it first appears. Thavis reveals Vatican City as a place where Curia cardinals fight private wars, scandals threaten to undermine papal authority, and reverence for the past is continually upended by the practical considerations of modern life.

Thavis takes readers from a bell tower high above St. Peter’s to the depths of the basilica and the saint’s burial place, from the politicking surrounding the election of a new pope and the ever-growing sexual abuse scandals around the world to controversies about the Vatican’s stand on contraception, and more.

Perceptive, sharply written, and witty, The Vatican Diaries will appeal not only to Catholics (lapsed as well as devout) but to any readers interested in international diplomacy and the role of religion in an increasingly secularized world.

Given the recent events with the Conclave and the election of Pope Francis I, it was rather timely that I was approved to read this book through NetGalley. I’ve always been curious about how the Curia operated, not just as a matter of my faith but also because the Vatican is a unique state. The premise of this book sounded both fascinating and promising so I was really looking forward to digging into this book.

The Vatican Diaries is a very informative read, accessible and easy to follow. Mr. Thavis guides the reader through some of the formalities involved in certain events and provides background material to explain some of the practices and happenings in and around the Vatican. There are some amusing accounts not mentioned in the news, gaffs that happen time and again despite of careful planning, personal experiences and observations as well as intriguing characters that work in the Curia and that promote particular causes.

The author touches on issues that are very much present in the Catholic Church at the moment: problems of administration, differences amongst the College of Cardinals, social issues, the sex abuse scandals, etc. I found the issues concerning the internal administration of Vatican City and its international diplomacy as well as the College of Cardinals especially fascinating to read in part because it shows how much of the everyday governance of the Vatican is more or less like any other political institution and is not shrouded in mystery. Of course, the Catholic Church adheres to a specific code of conduct and behaviour–especially apparent with the College of Cardinals–but there’s nothing mysterious about it a la The Da Vinci Code. I thought the segments about the cardinals was also interesting because it likely played a role in the days leading up to the Conclave.

Mr. Thavis provided a balanced presentation of the issues that the Church is currently facing, presenting both sides of the debate, whether it be about the matter concerning Pius XII’s beatification or what has been doing concerning the sex abuse scandals. His accounts show that there is a lot more going on behind the Vatican walls than what is often printed in the news and featured in media outlets and that there are many angles to the issues that they must also consider when addressing/taking steps to resolve these matters, obstacles and criticisms along the way. While Vatican City has many of the facets shared by modern-day politics (as I mentioned about the everyday governance and maintenance of the state), it has a theological/spiritual element that it is also responsible for and that serves as the basis for many of its decisions (mostly in the social issues such as contraceptives), a reminder that the Vatican is still a unique institution in that regard. There are no easy answers to some of these issues–some of Mr. Thavis’ chapters end with issues unresolved/still ongoing–and will continue into the next pontificate.

Curiously, this book also serves as a good recap of Pope Benedict XVI’s time as head of the Catholic Church; while the book also includes memories from Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, much of the events covered occurred during Benedict XVI’s time and indeed ends with a chapter on who he is as a person and as a pontiff.

Overall The Vatican Diaries is an informative and important read for those interested in learning more about the Vatican, whether you’re a Catholic or not. Mr. Thavis does not shy away from or tone down the realities of problems that the Vatican faces but he also shows how the Vatican has operated in the midst of its problems, the steps it has taken, the other issues associated to the problems before them. This review has been pretty generic in explaining the details of some of the issues mentioned in the book but it’s worth checking out to read and determine for yourself. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re into non-fiction overviews of institutions or if you’re interested in how the Vatican operates or if you’re a Catholic.

Rating: ★★★★★

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