Might as well say it right up front: THE PRIEST (Knopf, $24) is a merciless satire on what Thomas M. Disch (The M.D., The Businessman: A Tale of Terror) clearly perceives as the institutional hypocrisies of the Catholic Church, though nowhere, honest to God, does it ever mock the faith. Nor does the novel take itself all that seriously. This is a ''gothic romance,'' an over-the-top melodrama replete with dungeons, madmen, and pregnant damsels in distress.
Father Patrick Bryce, pastor of a small Minneapolis parish, is an alcoholic priest with a bad conscience and a black soul. He has preyed sexually on altar boys for decades, and now his sins have caught up with him: ''Father Pat'' is being blackmailed, from several different quarters. His bishop has coerced him, as penance, to take charge of the local pro-life campaign. Its strategy involves spiriting ''reluctantly expectant mothers'' away from abortion clinics and imprisoning them in a concrete shrine until they give birth.
Meanwhile, one of Bryce's violated altar boys (now a flamboyant drag queen) has returned to the Twin Cities threatening to ''go all the way to Geraldo'' with Bryce's history unless his demands are met. As Bryce tries to decide what to do, still another blackmailer closes in.
Clay (just Clay, no last name) purports to be an agent of a New Age cult called the Receptivists. He insists that Father Bryce submit to a macabre ritual and be indelibly branded with an image of the devil. And it's while the priest is spread-eagled on the table in a sleazy tattoo parlor having his torso inked that Disch's novel turns positively gaudy.
Father Bryce's personality is suddenly ''transmentated'' (don't bother looking; it's not in the dictionary) back to the Dark Ages and into the flesh of one Silvanus de Roquefort, a French bishop and heretic hunter. At the same time, the bloodthirsty Silvanus finds himself inhabiting Bryce's body. He takes one look around late-20th-century America and figures that he must have died and gone straight to Hell. He assumes that everyone he meets is officially damned -- and fair game for his sadistic appetites.
Minneapolis, ''hometown of Betty Crocker and Mary Tyler Moore'' is now the stamping ground of a thrill-killer from the 13th century.
Any gothic novel, even a send-up like this one, demands a few heroes and heroines, and Disch gives us some real stalwarts, including a homosexual priest and a handful of teenage girls -- all big with child but ever so plucky -- locked away in that prenatal shrine. (Does Silvanus come calling on them? Is the Pope Catholic?) The Priest is, by turns, creepy and darkly funny, and as brazenly irreverent as Sinead O'Connor. B+