Guest Blogger Justin Cahill shares his thoughts on John Thavis’ much talked about book The Vatican Diaries.
What is it about large, hierarchical institutions that attracts so much interest? Is it their enormous wealth and power? The eccentricities of their leaders? When that leader is, in name at least, Jesus Christ, and its power are said to include universal salvation, such questions assume vital interest. In his Vatican Diaries, John Thavis sets out to answer them. A ‘vaticanista’ (Vatican journalist) for 30 years, Thavis eagerly follows in the footsteps of Bill Shirer and Tim Crouse to give us some insight into how this two thousand year old behemoth works.
Yet Shirer, who charted the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, and Crouse, who followed George McGovern’s doomed 1972 Presidential campaign, arguably had it easier than Thavis. Their subjects were so unambiguous: Allies good, Nazis bad – McGovern nice, Nixon twisted. Things are not so clear-cut in the Vatican. Its quest to save souls is often interrupted by more temporal concerns. To avoid any unfortunate ‘misunderstandings’, the Pope’s public appearances are carefully controlled and his every word scrupulously edited. Ancient archaeological sites are wantonly destroyed to build offices and car parks. Embarrassing clerics, such as Degollado, who founded the powerful Legion of Christ only to leave a trail of sexual abuse and graft, are quietly packed off to obscurity.
Thavis, backed by an impressive list of contacts ranging from prominent cardinals to the bell-ringer at St Peters, deals with this tension between the holy and not-as-holy with great verve and balance. While critical of Pope Benedict XVI (who, coincidentally, abdicated just after this book was published – guaranteeing fantastic sales) Thavis shows it was he who quietly turned the spot light on the wave of sexual abuse that has bedevilled the Church.
In an age when social media threatens to emasculate news and current affairs, Thavis’ work is a refreshing sign that great journalism is not dead. Instead of the inane trivia that now passes for ‘news’ , Thavis provides us with an account of great depth carefully tempered with censure and sympathy.
Justin Cahill is an historian and solicitor, his university thesis being on the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. His current projects include completing the first history of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people. He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Heckler’ column.
About the Contributor
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
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