‘Advocatus Diaboli’ and giving the devil his due
In the summer of 1989, while interning in Washington, D.C., I occasionally attended lectures at the Heritage Foundation. After one, I was speaking with a Capitol Hill staffer in his mid-20s. The young man hadn’t cared for the talk by Christopher Manion (son of the famed dean of Notre Dame Law, Clarence Manion) because Chris had urged all in attendance who had moved to Washington, D.C., during the Reagan years to do the most conservative thing they could do: return home. (That talk would become one of the turning points of my life, but that’s a different story for another day.)
As we quaffed our cans of Coors, our discussion turned to what we were reading. He couldn’t get enough of the latest tomes by Irving Kristol, Michael Novak, James Q. Wilson; but when I asked him what fiction he had read recently, he looked at me incredulously. “I don’t waste my time with fiction,” he scoffed. “I read books that are important.” I excused myself to grab another beer and a few more blocks of pasteurized process cheese.
Pace my erstwhile interlocutor, I understood that fiction, like poetry, is the most important thing one can read outside of Scripture. Good fiction feeds and shapes the moral imagination, helping us to explore what it means to be human without reenacting in our own lives every mistake mankind has ever made. Take away everything else (save the Bible), and leave me a few dozen books by Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, John Mortimer and Anthony Bukoski, and I’ll be fine.
Yet I read very little Catholic fiction and almost none written during my lifetime (the later works of Walker Percy and the short stories of Anthony Bukoski being notable exceptions), because most modern Catholic fiction fails a basic test: It doesn’t reflect reality. Catholic authors too often mistake didacticism for their craft, creating protagonists who are either unnaturally flawless or, worse yet, make moral mistakes designed only to teach the reader a lesson.
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I cracked open “Advocatus Diaboli,” a novel whose cover proclaims it to be “Book One” of “The Catholic Themes.” The author, William Baer, is the founding editor of The Formalist, a journal of poetry, and an accomplished poet in his own right, whose verse I ran a number of times in the pages of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. In the second half of his career, Bill has turned to fiction, mostly in the form of short stories with a detective or noir theme.
There was no need to fear. I devoured “Advocatus Diaboli” in the course of a day and wished the 212-page book were longer (though it was just the right length for the story that Baer had to tell). His protagonist, Robert (“Robbie”) Burns Rankin, a 34-year-old professor of canon law at Georgetown University who is, by his own admission, a “lukewarm” Catholic, is named the “devil’s advocate” in the cause for canonization of a nun who died in 1972 at the age of 27. In December 2019, an alleged miracle occurred at a hospital in Georgetown, and Sister Adelaide Bruckner, declared “venerable” in 2017 by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, is credited with interceding to save the life of a newborn who was not expected to survive the night.
Written as a diary of Robbie’s activities during his investigation in the spring and early summer of 2020, with occasional entries by Erin Montgomery, a former crime reporter for the Washington Post who believes that her grandfather, a U.S. senator from Virginia, may have been murdered in 1964 by his 19-year-old intern — one Adelaide Bruckner — “Advocatus Diaboli” is a near-perfect gem of a book that reminded me at points of Walker Percy’s two Tom More novels, “Love in the Ruins” and “The Thanatos Syndrome.” One error in the final pages of the book (regarding a miracle performed while Adelaide was alive) and a few other details may temporarily break the spell for the attentive reader, but in the end, they do not detract from the power of this story of Rankin’s spiritual reawakening.
Set for release on June 9, “Advocatus Diaboli” is available for pre-order on Amazon and at manywords.com.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.