B&W photo of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Laetitia
Photograph by Charles Lucke

Dogma Meets Fiction

Background Notes on Magnificat

by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

In a way, it all started with my maternal great-grandfather, who died long before I was born. In the late 1800s he published a broadsheet in Venice accusing the Catholic Church of playing politics and the Pope of being corrupt. For this, he and his family were excommunicated, and after three years of literally living in a tent, his brothers secretly paid him to take his family out of Italy and go to America. My grandmother was about seven when they left, and she never went back. She also had a life-long loathing of the Roman Catholic Church. Being a curious child, I wondered why, and eventually uncovered this story. I also researched the Roman Catholic Church, trying to find out what made it so particularly heinous in my grandmother's view, for she otherwise considered herself a good Christian, and was somewhat Puritanical of temperament.

Out of this came an interest in as well as an aversion to organized religion. The idea of orthodoxy of all kinds strikes me as dangerous, because it tends to rule out assessing events and behavior in an unbiased fashion. Heterodoxy seems to be a much more useful point of view, but most institutions—religious and otherwise—would not agree: orthodoxy is so much neater than heterodoxy. The Roman Catholic Church does not have a corner on that market, of course: just watch the reaction in the scientific community when one of the sacred cows is questioned, or cultural responses when diversity comes too close to home.

Over the years in my various researches I have come across a great deal of material on the Roman Catholic Church, and on other religions as well; I have read (in English or Italian) the writings of some of the most influential Catholics in history, and some of the Church's severest critics. And over time I have juxtaposed various aspects of the theology and doctrine with others of the same that seem to play off each other in interesting ways.

In the case of this book, I began by thinking about the implications of these two pieces of Catholic dogma: 1) that the election of the Pope is a manifestation of the will of the Holy Spirit, and 2) that all humans on earth are children of God. I was also familiar with the theological concept of baptism by intent or martyrdom, which a Jesuit friend explained to me almost four decades ago, a concept that teaches that if you live a Godly life, or die for your (Christian) convictions, you are, by such acts, said to have gained salvation without the necessity of formal conversion and baptism. Incorporating all three doctrinal points, it follows that a person who is not Catholic can be elected Pope, and serve legitimately in that office; furthermore, assuming that the Holy Spirit selects the Pope, one must suppose the chrism is bestowed with the election, and that, given these theological parameters, anyone on earth might be elevated to the position.

I wanted to see how far—assuming the Church would abide by its own rules—I could take the possibilities, supposing the elected Pope would be capable of appreciating and understanding at least some of the job, and have an inclination to accept such a challenge: this novel was the result of following the potentials to a conclusion that is consistent with Catholic dogma. I have said this would be a science fiction story—if science fiction were about religion and not science. Clearly it is an alternate world, but one quite similar to ours, where Catholic doctrine is the same as it is in this world, and the politics of religion still shapes most of the policy decisions of religious institutions.

It's said that for non-Catholics, the Church is a great mystery, and I suppose, to the extent that any practice of faith is puzzling to those who don't share it, it's true. In terms of western civilization, the Church is a formidable historical presence for at least the last fifteen hundred years, and in that context deserving of respect—if perhaps not admiration—for its role in Europe and the Mediterranean region, as well as its impact on the New World. As a social organization, the Church has left a lasting mark on all European and European-derivative cultures, and has wielded much influence in the rest of the world. With such redoubtable cultural credentials, the Roman Catholic Church is certainly a force to be reckoned with—in the case of this story, on its own terms.

Copyright ©2000 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

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Magnificat Dogma Meets Fiction page updated 4 February 2003