Forty-five years ago, Robert Blair Kaiser was a young journalist covering the heady and historic Vatican Council II in Rome for Time magazine. Since then, the Phoenix journalist and Jesuit-educated Catholic has written 11 books, including four that deal with a call for church reform in the spirit of that council.
His latest, "Cardinal Mahony," Kaiser's first novel, takes the real-life 17-year Roman Catholic cardinal and archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, and sets him in November 2008 for a tale of ecclesiastical power turned to give wide authority to lay Catholics.
Mixing facts of the cardinal's troubled tenure over alleged cover-ups of priest sexual abuse cases, Kaiser has Mahony kidnapped from a California ski trail by three "liberation theologians," then transported in his own helicopter to a secret southern Mexican jungle compound. His captors are from a revolutionary group, Para los Otros (For the Others), which calls for sweeping changes in the church. In Mexico, Mahony is put on trial for his failings and sins as archbishop. It is broadcast live worldwide by satellite television, with Vatican officials especially glued to what is said. Six retired Latin American bishops serve as the jury.
Just after Mahony is convicted on all counts, 590 million global viewers hear his fate: "We sentence Cardinal Mahony to become a Christian." Then moments later, Mexican commandos storm the compound blowing everyone away except Mahony, who suffers a head-grazing injury and is left unconscious. He wakes up in a Los Angeles hospital where he recovers, then embarks on a massive humanitarian mission as a transformed man. He also sets out to bring "democracy" to the Catholic Church in America despite Vatican objections.
"I will encourage the four million Catholics in the Church of Los Angeles to elect my successor," he declares, noting that his reforms could bring Pope Benedict XVI to put his archdiocese under interdiction, barring sacraments, Masses, Catholic burial and more.
"Cardinal Mahony" (Humble-bee Press, $19.95, 256 pages) is filled with real people - 79 in all, people like filmmaker Michael Moore, news personalities Katie Couric, Bill O'Reilly and Matt Drudge, President Bush and influential Benedictine nun and author Sister Joan Chittister, a longtime critic of Vatican stands on social issues.
In one chapter, he has American bishops gathering at The Phoenician resort in Phoenix for four spring days. "The word 'retreat' was a cover," he writes. "At the Phoenician, the bishops did what they had been doing at some of America's finest resorts for decades: ... gossiping in the sun, eating well, drinking well and (many of them) playing 18 holes every day."
In his 2004 book, "A Church in Search of Itself," Kaiser first introduced the idea of an "autochthonous," or homegrown American church "still in communion with Rome but on a model with the Maronites and Melkites, which have their own priesthood (some married)," as well as their own liturgy, language and polity, or form of governance. "Rome has never tried to rein them in," he said.
They are "every bit as Catholic," he said. Before Mahony was named to lead the nation's largest archdiocese, he was the bishop of Stockton, Calif., where Kaiser said he got to know the cleric well and interviewed him a half-dozen times.
The writer chose Mahony for the main character of his book because of his high profile. "He is kind of a media maven," he said.
"There's a good Roger and a bad Roger," Kaiser said.
After publication of the book, Kaiser left a signed copy at the archbishop's residence in Los Angeles, and he learned from a National Catholic Reporter review of the book that Mahony read it on a flight to Rome.
Last July, under Mahony's direction, the Los Angeles Archdiocese approved legal settlements totalling $660 million to 508 victims of sexual abuse after four years of court battles. The payout was four times larger than in any previous U.S. diocese. It brought fierce calls for Mahony to resign or be removed. "Yes, we've made mistakes," he said at a press conference.
Kaiser, who studied 10 years to be a Jesuit priest but left three years short of ordination, argues that many Catholics are leaving the church or are weakly engaged because "they've lost their trust in the pope and their 'lord bishops.' " He says because the church is theirs, they don't have to leave. "They just have to take it back, insist their lord bishops become servant bishops and do what Jesus told his Apostles to do: Listen to the people and serve the people."
"Mainly this novel shows how we can get the change that everybody wants," Kaiser said in an interview.
He conceives of a kind of American church "constitutional convention," like the one in 1787 in Philadelphia, creating a "constitution to supplant Roman canon law" with three branches, including a legislative branch with a House of Bishops and House of Commons, both filled by the election by voting Catholics.
"Autochthony isn't a heresy. It is just a restructuring of power," Kaiser insists.
"I wrote this novel to help people imagine the possibilities of a listening, serving church," he said.
Kaiser, who was a contributing editor in Rome from 1999 to 2005 for Newsweek magazine earned a Overseas Press Club Award for his Time coverage of the Vatican Council (1962-65).
He calls the pope "the world's last great monarch" who "makes the laws, he interprets all the laws, he enforces all the laws and puts his blessing on a particularly narrow kind of 'Roman theology' and no other."