In 1979, almost a year into the papacy of John Paul II, a novel called The Vicar of Christ spent 13 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The work of a Princeton legal scholar, Walter F. Murphy, it featured an unlikely papal candidate named Declan Walsh—first a war hero, then a United States Supreme Court justice, and then (after an affair and his wife’s untimely death) a monk—who is summoned to the throne of Saint Peter by a deadlocked, desperate conclave.
Once elevated, Walsh takes the name Francesco—that is, Francis—and sets about using the office in extraordinary ways. He launches a global crusade against hunger, staffed by Catholic youth and funded by the sale of Vatican treasures. He intervenes repeatedly in world conflicts, at one point flying into Tel Aviv during an Arab bombing campaign. He lays plans to gradually reverse the Church’s teachings on contraception and clerical celibacy, and banishes conservative cardinals to monastic life when they plot against him. He flirts with the Arian heresy, which doubted Jesus’s full divinity, and he embraces Quaker-style religious pacifism, arguing that just-war theory is out of date in an age of nuclear arms and total war. (This last move eventually gets him assassinated, probably by one of the governments threatened by his quest for peace.)