Book Review: The Vatican Diaries – John Thavis

The Vatican DairiesTitle: The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church
Author: John Thavis
ISBN: 9780670026715
Pages: 336
Release Date: February 21, 2013
Publisher: Viking
Genre: Non-Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5


John Thavis has been a reporter covering the Vatican for almost three decades. In this enlightening book, he offers his insight into different aspects of the recent controversies the Vatican has faced, from the sex abuse scandal to the Vatican’s finances to the election of Pope Benedict XVI.


There are some people who don’t understand the world’s fascination with the Catholic Church, the fixation on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel during conclave, the questions about what’s really inside the Vatican Archives. And there’s nothing wrong with that; to many, the Vatican is an archaic institution that has committed a whole host of sins over the years and doesn’t deserve a single bit of attention. That’s fair. However, I am not one of these people. Growing up, I went to Catholic school, and as a result, I’ve harbored an intense fascination with the Catholic Church (from a secular point of view). I love the history and find information about the inner workings and politics fascinating, so it was with great interest that I picked up The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church.

There were so many interesting aspects to The Vatican Diaries, but one myth that Thavis dispels immediately is that the Vatican is some sort of monolithic institution that functions seamlessly in order to protect its own interests. In fact, that’s not the case at all, despite how popular culture often portrays it. There’s all kinds of internal disputes and backstabbing, and the way most reporters get their information is from people inside the Vatican who don’t hold their tongues. Thavis paints a picture for the reader, showing them how the Vatican really operates, and it’s very well done. As long as you’re interested in the subject matter, this book is incredibly well-written, engaging, and accessible.

The Vatican Diaries is structured as a series of essays, each about a different aspect of the Vatican or issue it’s facing. Some of these subjects I’ve heard a lot about (the sex abuse scandal), while others I know very little about (the strategy behind Benedict’s election, for one). Each subject was treated well by the author; while he does have his personal opinions and biases, he does a great job presenting the information and letting the reader make their own final judgment. What’s more, this book does not have the bad taste of a tell all. Thavis has respect for the church, but at the same time he’s more than willing to point out its errors and flaws. He portrays a church in transition, but one that is clinging fiercely to tradition. It’s so interesting to witness this dichotomy in action, as forces pull against one another.

If I had one complaint about The Vatican Diaries, it would be that I wanted more. While the subjects covered in it are excellent, this book was written before Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication. I’d absolutely love to hear Thavis’s views on the circumstances behind this move, as well as what the election of Frances I means for the Church’s future. All in all, though, this was an incredibly satisfying and eye-opening read that I recommend to anyone who has a similar interest about the inner workings of the Catholic Church.

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