Skip to content



Tom Davis Author of ConclaveWhen I started writing Conclave, my original thought had been merely to craft a story around the comment described in the “Origins of the Story” — that President Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had played some role in having Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla elected pope, breaking five centuries of precedent where only Italians had been named Supreme Pontiff.

But as I began writing the book, three other themes began to emerge. The first was driven by the continuing presence – indeed the resurgence — of “Great Power” rivalry and intrigue. In other words, the election of John Paul II occurred during a long, tense period historically known as the Cold War. That period seemed to have ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and its dissolution into several states including Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – the last three now members of NATO. But, with the rise to power in Russia of Vladimir Putin, some sort of Cold War has returned.

Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden has commented that after 1991 Europe expected a period of peace, but it now finds itself surrounded by an “arc of fire” and confronted by a Russia that is, “revisionist, reactionary, and perhaps reckless.” With its intervention in Ukraine in 2014, and its illegal seizure and incorporation of Crimea, Russia has signaled that if the Cold War has not fully returned the trends are headed in that direction, and we can expect this new confrontation to find expression in many ways including hacking efforts seemingly intended to influence American presidential elections. If the new Russia, led by a former KGB agent, is willing to take steps such as these in contemporary times, then past steps to influence something such as a papal election that could affect the Soviet Union’s western security zone, would be feasible.

In short, Conclave is, in part, a Cold War story, and we seem to be slowly slipping back into a Cold War environment where American interests in numerous dimensions may be subtly threatened. If Russia, and others aligned with it, feels it appropriate to attempt to influence something as complex and massive as an American presidential election, then past interest in something more compact, such as a papal election, would be probable. As the recent movie by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies, suggests, in the past this Cold War competition was played out in sometimes indirect and novel ways. The odds are that this will be the pattern again.

The second theme is an exploration of the roles played by church and state in the modern world. In the United States we have a tradition regarding the separation of church and state, a relationship Thomas Jefferson described as a “wall of separation.” We also have enshrined in our constitution the freedom of religious practice. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has usefully clarified, the intent of the constitutional commentary was to keep the state out of the church, not necessarily the church out of the state. But in recent times, religious leaders have become relatively aggressive in efforts to insert the church (religion) into the state, while legal and judicial efforts have become more aggressive in keeping the state out of the church. So where is the balance? And what are its useful criteria?

Conclave seeks to explore this in numerous subtle ways. It recognizes the extraterritorial significance and presence of religion – in this case the Catholic Church, but also recognizes that it comes with an inherent tension – in this case between the Catholic Church and the communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Conceivably, the efforts of Carter Caldwell in Rome could have been viewed as unconstitutional given the majority opinion offered by Associate Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in the landmark 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education, one of many cases coming to the court regarding the separation of church and state, where Black wrote in his sweeping opinion, “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.” But would any of this have applied to an election occurring outside the United States, where the election was not only of a spiritual leader, but also the semi-secular leader of the Holy See, the diplomatic identity of the Vatican city-state?

The third theme is fully spiritual. For those of great faith, can traditional beliefs of how certain events occur be consistent with more secular interpretations? Although I am not a Catholic, I have always had a deep interest in the Catholic Church, originating in my first trip to Vatican in 1957 while my family was passing through Rome on the way home from the Middle East. Furthermore, in 1960, I recall numerous informal discussions in my father’s Sunday school class at the Rosemont Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, about whether it would be appropriate to vote for a Catholic (Kennedy) for president. As we have seen since 1980, when Reverend Jerry Falwell founded the “Moral Majority” and supported Ronald Reagan for president, faith has played a role in politics. Might it also work in reverse; can politics in some ways play a role in faith? And if it does, could it not appear in the highly structured ritual of electing a pope?

Catholics believe that when the cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel and begin singing “Veni Creator Spiritus” (Come Creator Spirit), the Holy Spirit comes into their presence to guide their thoughts – and votes – on who should take the throne of St. Peter. This could be the reality, and one should respect – as I do – those who believe and accept this interpretation. But even if it is, the Holy Spirit evidently does not make an appearance that is uniform in time and method. If that were the case, then the election of the new pope would seemingly only require one scrutiny (vote).

I made a strong effort in the book to give expression to both views. Originally, Carter Caldwell – a non-Catholic — is thinking of the conclave in fully secular terms. When he meets with Cardinal William Baum, the Archbishop of Washington, in Chapter 6, Baum objects to Carter’s effort citing the traditional Catholic view. But in Chapter 7, when Carter and Katherine meet with Cardinal Krol, he listens to their suggestion and when it ends, while acknowledging the comment of Cardinal Carberry about having seen an invisible light shining on Cardinal Luciani in August, he considers the possibility that God might be suggesting a solution to him in another way.

There is also the history of the conclaves, including the three-year conclave between 1268 and 1271, mentioned in Chapter 20, and the well documented intercession of Austria-Hungary in 1903 opposing the election of Cardinal Rampolla, leading to the election of Cardinal Sarto, who would become Saint Pius X. Secular governments have attempted throughout history to influence popes, and the selection of popes, to their advantage, sometimes without success. During World War I, out of frustrations on both sides, Pope Benedict XV was called the “German Pope” by the French, and the “French Pope” by the Germans.

Faith is, by definition, as it applies to religion, believing in something that cannot be proven – or, by extension, disproven. For those who believe that the election of a pope is an exercise in spirituality that is devoid of worldly influence, as Pope Francis recently commented in another context, “Who am I to judge?” For those who are more completely secular, and believe the selection of a pope is the culmination of a political process being practiced by a small, select electorate, there is certainly logic and reason to believe this is true. But, as in many things, there is another possibility that I raise throughout the book, one reflected in the old phrase, “God works in strange ways.” Regarding the fictionalized activities of Cardinal Krol in Conclave, would it not be feasible that the conclusions he reached were stimulated by those sent to him, maybe as heavenly agents. And, by the same logic, would it not be feasible that the guidance detected by Cardinal Carberry indeed came from an invisible light? And perhaps Cardinal Siri was motivated to give his interview to Gianni Licheri because the Almighty understood that the interview would cause others to look elsewhere – be it for messengers or a light.

As described in Chapter 1, when Bob Bishop is desperately trying to find Americans to interview for CNN, there is a line of demarcation in St. Peter’s Square that divides the Vatican city-state from Italy, “demarcating the chaos of Rome from the highly organized, scripted life inside the epicenter of Catholicism.”

Perhaps such lines exist elsewhere, demarcating the chaos of life as we know it, from the calm spirituality of some place we aspire to.



Convlave by Tom Davis

Order Conclave on Amazon!Tom Davis Conlave