The year was 1979. There was a new pope in Rome, Pope John Paul II from Poland. He had been elected following the sudden death of Pope John Paul, who had died in 1978 after serving in the Vatican for just over a month.

But there was another pope people could not stop talking about in 1979. He was a fictional pope. But that didn’t make him any less popular.

He was an Irish American pope and he was the creation of an Irish American writer and professor. And in the minds of some pundits, the fictional Francis is comparable to the current pope, also named Francis.

And that, they say, is not a good thing.

The fictional Pope Francis was found in a best-selling novel entitled "The Vicar of Christ" by Walter Francis Murphy. The book spent over three months on The New York Times best-seller list.

Murphy’s protagonist is an Irish American war hero named Declan Walsh. To some, Murphy created a kind of super pope who focused on all of the positive social justice messages of Catholic teaching while also working diligently to solve the problems that plague mankind both in 1979 as well as today.

Interest in "The Vicar of Christ" has been renewed because New York Times columnist (and well-known conservative Catholic) Ross Douthat recently used Murphy’s novel to analyze the leadership of Pope Francis in a long essay for The Atlantic Monthly. Douthat sought to answer the ominous question: “Will Pope Francis break the church?”

Douthat begins his argument by playfully noting that Walter Murphy’s Irish American hero in "The Vicar of Christ" is kind of a fantasy pope for reformist or liberal Catholics, who are calling for radical change in the church.

The fictional Pope Francis, Douthat writes, “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.”

Douthat adds that Declan Walsh also “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which doubted Jesus’s full divinity, and he embraces Quaker-style religious pacifism, arguing that just-war theory is out of date in an age of nuclear arms and total war.”

Spoiler alert! “This last move eventually gets him assassinated, probably by one of the governments threatened by his quest for peace.”

Douthat argues that those calling for the real Pope Francis to be more like the fictional Pope Francis might want to be careful what they wish for. (Or pray for.) Douthat argues that if the church changes too much too soon, there could be a schism, which could lead to a profound identity crisis among the world’s Catholics.

Whether you agree with him or not, it is interesting that Douthat managed to bring Walter Murphy’s heroic pope back into the spotlight. The popularity of "The Vicar of Christ" shows that there has always been a hunger for a radically reformist pope. (Not to mention an Irish American one.)

Walter Francis Murphy, meanwhile, was a highly unlikely writer of religious best-sellers.

He was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1929. His father was a pharmacist while his mother was a teacher. Murphy attended Notre Dame and, like the heroic Declan Walsh, also served in the Marines, earning a Purple Heart as well as a Distinguished Service Cross.

He went on to become one of the nation’s top constitutional scholars, teaching at Princeton for nearly four decades. (One of his students was current Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito.)

His best-known scholarly work was "Constitutional Democracy: Creating and Maintaining a Just Political Order." But thanks to Pope Francis (as well as those many Catholics desperate for reform), Murphy, who died in 2010, may best be remembered as a kind of papal prophet.

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