Robert Harris’s new thriller is set in a conclave. He talks about his love for the Vatican, his respect for the Pope, and how the Gospels left him ‘stunned’

As unseasonable October sunshine streams through a window high in Covent Garden, Robert Harris, the genial and welcoming author of Conclave, has every reason to be happy.

His new book is a thriller set in the enclosed world of a fictional conclave. All the action takes place in the Sistine Chapel and the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the cardinals’ residence, or between the two. There are none of the usual set pieces common to thrillers, such as chases or discoveries of mangled corpses, though there is some broken crockery and, at one crucial point, some noises off. Yet the tension of the story, delivered through the unities of time and place, keeps the pages turning briskly. Who will be elected? Which candidate will break from the pack and make it past the two thirds needed? There’s nothing to see, except a group of old men voting, but it’s the greatest show on earth.

How political is the Catholic Church, I ask Harris? Is the Catholic Church pretty much like New Labour, which he knew well as a prominent early supporter of Tony Blair? He replies that the whole point of the novel is that there is a difference between the Church and the secular world. A conclave is not to be confused with what might go on in a secular organisation. There are, of course, rules to a conclave, but they govern a spiritual reality. To see the workings of the conclave from the outside would be a terrible mistake, but fiction allows you to get an inside view.

“I approached the book with a certain trepidation,” he says, “because I recognised that if you didn’t – and I am speaking as an outsider obviously – that if you treated the Vatican simply as if it were ICI or a secular organisation, you would miss the point.”

The inside view is provided by his leading character – and, in many senses, his hero – Cardinal Lomeli, the dean of the Sacred College. The reader sees the workings of the conclave from his perspective: that of a tired old man trying to keep the show on the road, and, at the same time, a man of faith and prayer, though constantly plagued by doubts. It’s a religious perspective, not, as Harris puts it, the Dawkins view, which would be worthless.

At the mention of the celebrity atheist, I ask the inevitable question. Does Harris believe in God? I get the impression that this is a question that does not often come up. “I dislike easy atheism,” he says. “I think atheism is an easy route, a boring route, to take. I am rather drawn to people who take the more difficult route and try to engage with a greater thing. I have empathy with that.

“I was never baptised. I have always mildly resented this, as I have felt one should be plugged in from birth, just like one is given inoculations.”

He adds: “I don’t think this book could have been written by a complete atheist.”

The book is well researched and there are none of the glaring errors that disfigure so much writing about Catholicism. The Vatican was welcoming and did everything it could to accommodate him. “The Vatican were extremely helpful and kind to me,” he says. “I did detect in the help I was given a new atmosphere of openness.”

He had first registered the conclave as a subject for fiction during the last two conclaves, struck by the variety of cardinalatial faces and expressions that were seen at the windows of St Peter’s flanking the new pope. “When I saw those faces clustered at the windows, when the Pope goes on the balcony – worldly, cunning, benign – I thought I was looking at the Roman senate from Cicero’s days,” he says.

Making an approach via his Italian publisher, he was given a tour of the Vatican, and ably guided by one of the Pope’s masters of ceremonies, Mgr Guillermo Karcher, an Argentine. At the end of the tour he was asked if there was anything else he would like to see, and he asked to see the offices of the secretary of state. He was surprised to find himself in the stunning corridor decorated by Raphael, which is rarely open to the public.

He clearly loved the Vatican, the history and the look of it. And it has to be said, the Vatican liked him, clearly realising (which is good news for all of us) that Robert Harris was no David Yallop, author of the conspiratorial account of John Paul I’s death, In God’s Name. Rather, Harris is the sort of writer whose book would do the Vatican a huge favour.

As a friend of Harris’s has remarked, Conclave is a kind book. Cardinal Lomeli, the protagonist, is a good man, and Harris clearly admires the real-life cardinals too. They strike him as intelligent and cultured, speaking a wide range of languages, with a wealth of experience. On aggregate, as he puts it, each represents 50 million people. The conclave is the oldest election on earth and the most secretive, but it certainly works. Compared with some elections (he cites America) it produces better results.

To prepare himself to write the book, he read the Gospels. The character of Christ amazed him. “I read the Gospels sequentially and quickly to prepare for the book, and I was stunned by the power of the personality of Christ that rose out of the pages,” he says. “As a novelist I could appreciate the contradictions, the way he constantly catches his followers off guard. You could never be quite sure what he was saying. I was left with no doubt that he was like a smouldering crater where some asteroid had hit … For decades afterwards people were still talking about him.”

He remarks on the contrast between the Church and its founder – the institution and the charism, as a theologian would put it. There are lots of women in the Gospels, and yet they play little part in the Church. (The book, however, provides us with one powerful and very believable nun.)

Harris is a big admirer of Pope Francis, and sees him as embodying in himself the contradictions inside the Church. There’s faith, but also the doubt that is central to faith. He is clearly won over by his warm personality and sees him as a huge gift to the Church.

“I think Pope Francis is brilliant. He is an argument for the process of the conclave. He embodies in himself the contradictions and the difficulties – and that is one of the things I like about the Catholic Church, that it carries its contradictions and its fights within itself. When he makes his homilies and speeches, I really believe with him that doubt is central to faith … His face is so smiling and open and warm.”

Harris says that the Pope has set himself up as an outsider in the Church, and when Harris was in Rome, he heard from one well-placed source of how the Pope chose to spend the evening with a group of relations of Vatican workers, some of whom were ill with cancer. This association with ordinary people he found touching and moving. It strikes me that Harris, a man of great perception, has perhaps understood Pope Francis better than most Catholics.

“The nuns who serve there, some of them had brought their mothers, a couple of whom were having chemotherapy – the sick, the desperate and the poor and obscure – and he was choosing to spend his evenings with them,” Harris recalls. “How could one withhold respect from someone who does that? I am full of admiration for him.”

What, I ask, does the future hold for the Church? He thinks that one challenge that lies ahead is the way the information age will uncover tensions that have remained hidden until now. In an age of instant communication, cultural differences will come to the fore. Pope Francis in himself bridges cultures, but how this will develop remains to be seen.

One of the characters in the book, Cardinal Tedesco, the Patriarch of Venice, is a fat, peasant-like but intelligent, conservative Italian who almost steals the show. (At this point, I confess that I was rather taken with Tedesco myself.) The cardinal points out that there is a war against Christians in the world today. Harris is astonished that this gets such little media coverage. He mentions the decimation of the Iraqi Christian community. His book was finished before the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel, but he is still shocked by the naïvety of the world’s reaction to the religious war.

There is a surprising level of vituperation in the Church, which springs, he thinks, from “the narcissism of small differences” (a phrase of Freud’s). In every institution there will always be two sides.

But this is an author who is clearly an admirer of the Church. Not only does he love the history and the art, the display and the ritual, from which politicians have learned so much, he also immersed himself in St John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul to prepare for this novel. He is a profound admirer of three Catholic novelists, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and the lesser known but underrated Brian Moore. These authors catch the spiritual dimension to life, the neglect of which was the great mistake of George Orwell’s, as Waugh was the first to point out.

Power fascinates Harris, and he is to a large extent a political novelist. At several points he refers to CP Snow’s The Masters, a novel published in 1951 and still well regarded in literary circles, that deals with the election of the head of a Cambridge college.

The exercise of power is his subject in Conclave as in other books. But not power alone: it needs to be leavened by conscience and faith. One has to touch the inner life, as he puts it. He sees the cardinals as conflicted men with regard to the papal role, frightened by the terrible loneliness that awaits the man who is elected.

Conclave is more than an intelligent thriller: it reveals the dilemmas we all face, caught as we are between aspiration and reality, between the sacred and the profane. Its author clearly has engaged with the Church, and his work represents, from the Church’s point of view, a heartening product of this nexus between faith and art.