cover image COUNCIL


, . . Forge, $25.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-312-87353-0

Tobin's latest novel about Catholic church hierarchy is a well-intentioned but unfocused, cluttered affair in which an American pope initiates a massive effort to take the church into the 21st century with a new ecumenical council. Timothy Mulrennan is the New Jersey archbishop who suddenly ascends to the papacy after a controversial election that takes places shortly after the assassination of Mulrennan's Filipino predecessor. The earnest, compassionate American quickly throws his energy into the massive task of assembling a council (a gathering of all the bishops around the world) for the first time since Vatican II in 1960, reasoning that the lightning pace of life in the electronic age warrants a reconsideration of theological principles. He faces formidable opposition from the conservative wing of the Vatican, but an even more formidable enemy surfaces when doctors detect a spinal tumor during a routine medical exam. Tobin writes with conviction about the issues facing the Catholic church, such as the role of the laity in church affairs, but the endless political wrangling over the formation of the council itself is unlikely to interest any but the most die-hard pope watchers—especially since these obscure questions seem dated vis-à-vis the current sordid scandals. Moreover, the romantic subplot involving a priest and a journalist is mawkish and hackneyed, and a political conspiracy led by a prominent conservative cardinal is pure melodrama. Tobin has forged a solid career by writing with elegance and grace about contemporary religious questions, but this is a subpar effort. (Aug.)

Forecast:The child abuse scandals may win the book some extra attention, but they only underscore that Council's belabored procedural detail is beside the point.