This week I have been on retreat at Belmont Abbey and had the privilege of going to lunch with the editors at TAN Books which is located just a few minutes from the Abbey. The Abbey–by the way–is in the midst of what future church historians will name “the Southern Catholic Renaissance” or something like that or “The South did Rise Again, but Who Thought it Would be Catholic?”

Anyway, here in Charlotte is Belmont Abbey located on the campus of Belmont Abbey College–increasingly known as a vital center of Catholic renewal in the Southeast. A few miles away a new seminary for the Diocese of Charlotte is bursting at the seams with young seminarians. Across the state there is a magnificent new cathedral in the Diocese of Raleigh and parishes here and across the border in South Carolina are increasingly devoted to “dynamic orthodoxy” or what is sometimes called “Evangelical Catholicism”.

Patrick O’Hearn gave me a copy of one of TAN’s recent publications, The St Gallen Mafia by Julia Meloni. It’s a quick and riveting read. Ms Meloni has funneled an amazing amount of research into her exploration of the shadowy group of cardinals who, it is alleged, stage managed the election of Pope Francis. Meloni is obviously biased in her position, but that’s okay. It’s good to know where an author stands and I would rather have someone speak clearly about their position instead of the constant ambiguities, circumlocutions, half truths and propaganda we get from most people in leadership these days–not excluding the prelates of our own dear church.

Indeed, it is this shadow boxing that typifies the characters of the St Gallen Mafia. For those who are unaware of this group, it is made up of a small cadre of liberal cardinals who were disciples and friends of the liberal Cardinal Martini of Milan. Meloni provides ample evidence of their behind the scenes maneuvering in the latter years of John Paul’s pontificate–their disappointment in Benedict XVI’s election and their jubilation at his retirement which opened the way for their candidate–Jorge Bergoglio–to step into the white soutane.

It is a disagreeable tale and one of the most distasteful details is the role ex-cardinal McCarrick played in the drama. He comes through as a subordinate member of the old boys club, but one who pulled some important strings and managed some big financial muscle in the run up to the papal election of 2013.

What do I make of it all? It is pretty difficult to dismiss Meloni’s book as her claims are so well substantiated–not least from the writings and interviews with the main players themselves. Of course in a book like this–which is pushing a particular slant on the events–(like Sire’s book The Dictator Pope) there will inevitably be quotes taken out of context, selective editing and some colorful writing to create mood. e.g. “The cardinal was dressed in somber black robes trimmed in scarlet” Once you have cast a fellow as a villain your audience takes even his good points as signs of greater evil–so when Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor is described as “affable” or with a “disarming chuckle” you imagine the man is a totally sly fox–which is probably giving the poor man too much credit.

While the book has this definite bias it is still a good counterbalance to the fawning biographies of  Francis by people like Austen Ivereigh.

What it did for me was remind me of three things. First, that we should not be surprised by skulduggery and shadowy plays for power in the church. It has ever been so. Remember Jesus’ disciples jockeying for power or their mothers in the background pushing for positions for their boys? This is history. This is human nature. This is reality. This does not mean we condone it–just that we are not surprised by it.

The second thing was a reminder of my own human nature and sinfulness. Given power am I not tempted to seek more power? Do I not have strong opinions about how the church ought to be? If I had the power would I not use it to put in place what I think is best for the church no matter what others may think? Who knows what I would do given a red hat?

Thirdly, it reminded me of the need to give everyone a hearing and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I believe the men of the St Gallen Mafia and their sympathizers are wrong in their assessment of the church, but I also believe they are sincere followers of the Lord who really, honestly believe their agenda is the right way forward for the church and for the gospel. If they have stumbled and fallen even into disgrace–there but for the grace of God go all of us.

However, Meloni’s book is a reminder that these men gave in to operating in the church according to the ways of the world. Those ways are the ways that always seek to advance an ideology through the pursuit of power, prestige, pleasure and prosperity. These are the tools of Satan and this is the way of the flesh.

Lead us not into temptation.. but deliver us from  evil