Warburg in Rome, by James Carroll

by Robert A. Parker

This is a religious thriller, and a good one, from one of my favorite authors, James Carroll. But this 2014 novel is not the literary work that I had hoped to read. What happened? My theory stems from the fact that of Carroll’s recent works, only one was a novel, and, indeed, a literary one. Whereas, the others were works of history—with the emphasis on Church history and power, the Church’s relations with the Jews, and American military might.

This novel represents a blend of those issues, and I sense that Carroll either thought his subject here did not reach the scale of his previous non-fiction works, or thought it would reach a broader audience as a novel. And he did want/need a broad public to be aware of this slice of Vatican history.

The story he tells is ironic, that the Vatican, with the collaboration of the American army, established a pipeline to help Nazi military officers and government leaders escape to Argentina. They worked together, in history, because both groups feared that Soviet military power would establish atheistic Communism in Europe; and had determined that these escaping Nazis could become a bulwark to help prevent this from happening. While the irony is that the same U.S. government that is allowing the Germans to escape is, in Carroll’s fiction, also helping to fit into the post-war world the Jewish people whom those Nazi leaders persecuted.

And so, in addition to its exposure of Church duplicity at the highest level, this work also raises both refugee issues and moral issues. These include the violent acts of terrorists, by both Germans and Zionist Jews; the guilt of the fictional characters who become involved in the intrigue among the Germans, the Jews, and the Vatican; and the commitment of these various characters to their ideals, in the wake of these revelations.

The basic story of the Vatican pipeline is true, says Carroll. His fictional story to complement it involves five main characters. These are an American government official, David Warburg, a Jew; an ambitious priest, Kevin Deane; a Red Cross worker, Marguerite d’Erasmo; an American military officer, Peter Mates; and an English nun, sister Thomas Aquinas. Some of these collaborate with each other, some work at cross-purposes. Two couples emerge from this intrigue, but they reach different resolutions.

Warburg has been sent by the U.S. government to Rome to aid Jews who have escaped German and Italian internment, and to help them settle in the U.S., Palestine, or other countries. He meets Marguerite, who is helping all refuges in Rome, especially Jews, and Father Deane, who serves Cardinal Spellman, and is as ambitious as Spellman, but who also expresses sympathy for the plight of the Jewish refugees.

The novel’s fictional story concerns the discovery by this idealistic trio of the reality of the pipeline, the involvement of the Vatican in providing the Nazis with the papers to emigrate, and the Americans, such as Mates, looking the other way for their own purposes. Whereupon, complications ensue, for violence intrudes on this “discreet” Vatican scheme, first when retreating German forces murder Jews and then when vengeful Jews seek to advance their cause through terrorist bombings in both Rome and Jerusalem.

It is this violence that challenges the idealistic beliefs of our trio. For one the challenge is to a belief in a vague Jewish faith; for another it is one’s conviction to remain in service to the Church; for another it is the ability to remain an idealist in the face of corruption everywhere; and for another the challenge is to retain one’s vocation in the face of failure and betrayal. And it is here that the novel reaches for the level of literature. If it does not succeed in doing so, it does lend more depth to all of its characters.

As a former priest, Carroll is adept at capturing both the emotions and the consciences of both good priests, like Father Deane, and bad priests. Among the latter is Father Roberto Lehmann, a Franciscan who is the key Vatican contact for the pipeline. Carroll establishes the mood and the thoughts of Deane, both when he is saying mass and when his conscience grasps his involvement at the fringes of the Nazi pipeline. Meanwhile, Carroll explores the rationalizing conscience of Father Lehmann, even as he comes to understand he has been sexually seduced to betray his pipeline friends.

At times, the political maneuvering among the Vatican officials, the Nazi sympathizers, the Jews, and the Americans can become complex and confusing. Indeed, I find such maneuvering often to be confusing in a thriller like this. Which only re-enforces for me that this is a thriller, that the emphasis is not on the characters themselves, as well delineated as they may be. No, it is story that matters here—the maneuvers themselves, and the message that the story carries. Namely, that the Vatican was more than complicit, was deeply involved at the highest level, in a pipeline designed to help Nazi officials escape Allied justice after World War II—the purpose being to use these officials later to combat the advance of Communist Russia.

In passing, I would note that despite the complexity of the plot, each time I picked up this novel I needed little help in recalling the overall situation. This is testimony to Carroll’s skill as a novelist and to the tightness of his structure. But more significant are the moral issues that the novel raises. Is it right to bomb a building, even without killing people? Is it right to assassinate one evil person rather than kill scores of innocent people? Is one culpable when betraying a person in order to reveal evil? Or in betraying one person in order to save another? And how much should one accept/believe in an institution or a vocation which contradicts one’s own beliefs?

Another theme of this novel is love. Both the love of mankind and love among individuals. Both spiritual love and sexual love. Both idealistic love and practical love. Both love of self and love of others. And the diverse resolutions of the human loves here bring home the complexity of love itself.

I do not expect more literary fiction from Carroll, but I will welcome any works that offer further insight into the Church and its spiritual mission in a world of pragmatic human beings. (March, 2015)

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