Awhile back, I was looking for something different to read and I came across The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal by Hubert Wolf. The title makes it sound like and description of the book make it sound like the sordid tale of a sex scandal in a convent, but it goes beyond that. It goes beyond the scandal to explore how it could happen and delves into the mechanics of the Vatican, Church politics, and theological conflicts. If you’re interested in the history of the Catholic Church or of religion in general, you’ll want to consider this book.
“The opening of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s archives by John Paul II in 1998 made the Holy Roman Inquisition’s files accessible to researchers for the first time. The files from the Sant’Ambrogio trial, which had been hidden for a century and a half in the most secret of all Church archives, finally saw the light of day. At last, the secret could be revealed – and what had sounded like an outrageous fantasy turned out to be a true story of a convent in scandal.”
I won’t give away the story, but mixing sex, deceit, religion, and politics, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio is a history that reads like a thriller novel. It’s easy to see why author Hubert Wolf selected this scandal as a topic to write on. For the first almost 2/3 of the book, it reads like a salacious novel as Wolf describes what happened inside Sant’Ambrogio and the beginnings of the Vatican investigation and trial. There are more than enough twists and turns there to keep the reader interested. Then comes one of the biggest turns of the story; the reader learns that it’s not just about the scandal within the convent but also about the struggle between schools of theology within the Catholic Church. It’s about Church politics and a battle for influence within the Vatican and with the Pope himself.
It would be very easy for the last 1/3 of this book to become dry and uninteresting and I’m sure that some readers (those who read it just for the juicy scandal) to find it so, but Wolf has done a great job at making the trial and politics keep the reader’s attention. Sure, there are parts of it that explain why and how the Vatican works, bits on European History in the early to mid 1800s, and there are explanations of schools of thought within the Church but these are necessary to help the reader understand what’s going on and place things within context. If you hang on to the end (and you should), you’ll understand more about how some of Catholic theology got where it is today and about how the Vatican got to where it is today (and to be honest, understand why Pope Francis has such a huge job ahead of him now…)
The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio was a fascinating read. As someone who doesn’t know much about the Catholic Church, I came away with some more understanding on the Church and the Vatican. As someone who grew up within the Southern Baptist Church and came to detest church politics, this book reinforced my opinions on church politics and my wariness of the motives of church leadership (regardless of faith or denomination). Don’t let the tawdry details of the scandal make you think this is just a book and about sex and lies. It isn’t. This is a well researched and well documented that is ultimately about Vatican politics and the fight for theological supremacy within the Catholic Church. After some thought, I’m willing to give it a 5 star review; it was not only an interesting read but an informative one as well, on a subject that many are not familiar with. If you are interested in the history of the Catholic Church, I think this is a must read.