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Allen on Benedict

By Diogenes (bio - articles ) | Aug 03, 2005

I'm part way through John Allen's updated biography of Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. It includes an interesting autobiographical preface in which Allen candidly identifies himself as a "Vatican II Catholic" and suggests -- accurately, I think -- that this designation refers to no particular set of beliefs, but rather to a vague but potent expectation that Church teachings will eventually change with the times. Though not entirely free of a patronizing attitude in his treatment of Ratzinger (liberals are always shocked to learn that a conservative has finished high school), Allen is sincerely curious about what makes the orthodox tick, and, to his credit, is up front about the Lefty prejudices that greater acquaintance with his subject showed to be false.

At the end of that road [of inquiry] honesty compels me to admit that there is a deep logical consistency to Ratzinger's vision (as he formulates it today; his position on many issues inside the church have shifted from where they were at the start of his career). Moreover, Ratzinger is not the vengeful, power-obsessed old man who lurks like a bogeyman in the imaginations of many on the Catholic Left. On the occasions I have met Ratzinger, I found him charming, with a shy personal style and an active wit. ... I have spoken with dozens of people who know Ratzinger well, and to a person they speak of his calm, peaceful spirit and his remarkable ability to listen.

Allen records further testimony to Ratzinger's personal openness and goes on to say that he would trust him without hesitation as his own confessor. Then, to my dismay, he pulls a Chittister:

In the end, however, I also came away wishing that Joseph Ratzinger would make the same intellectual and existential effort to understand the Catholicism in which I grew up as I have made to understand the Catholicism he has spent the last twenty years defending. I am convinced Ratzinger is penetrating and sincere; and yet I cannot wish him success in curbing the evolving, socially engaged, compassionate Catholicism that was the incubator of my faith. I believe his is a voice that need to be respectfully heard, and respectfully challenged.

In the preface, Allen gives a brief conspectus of "the Catholicism in which [he] grew up" that will be recognizable to all of us: the standard-issue Bernardin Lite of the 1970s and 1980s. So what is there to understand? What artifact was created by this culture that requires -- or even permits -- an "intellectual and existential effort" to comprehend? Could Allen point to one symphony, one monastery, one saint, one school or journal of ideas that captured the imagination of enough people to influence the ambient American culture? Were a man to build a museum of "Vatican II Catholicism" (in Allen's sense of the term), what would he put on exhibit?

I don't think Pope Benedict will spend his evenings studying The Gospel According to Peanuts and he won't be looking to curb compassion; neither Allen's fears nor his hopes will be realized. But the future of John Allen's Catholicism is not the reason one reads John Allen. His great virtue as a journalist is the objectivity and even-handedness with which he lets all sides speak, and the effort he makes to convey fairly the thinking of the players, the ideas they want to be associated with. In brief, he succeeds as do few other journalists in not intruding himself between subject and reader -- and even where he fears he may not have succeeded in this task, he makes plain his own agenda so that the reader can correct for parallax. Let it be credited unto him as righteousness.

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Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Fr. William - Aug. 05, 2005 11:52 AM ET USA

    Good essay, Diogenes. One concern about Allen is that he proposes that one can challenge Church Teaching and still claim to be in Communion with Rome; e.g.: he states that the Holy Father's voice is "a voice that needs to be respectfully heard, and respectfully challenged." But, when Pope Benedict XVI speaks, Saint Peter is speaking. We listen. We obey. Allen, even with objective reporting, does not always make this so clear. Then again, neither do some traitorous bishops/priests/laypersons.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Aug. 04, 2005 4:20 PM ET USA

    ...wishing that Joseph Ratzinger would make the same intellectual and existential effort to understand the Catholicism in which I grew up as I have made to understand the Catholicism he has spent the last twenty years defending... TWO "Catholicism's...???" I was unaware...

  • Posted by: - Aug. 04, 2005 4:07 PM ET USA

    Venerable Aussie, You wrote: "Re the museum, isn't there a new one in Los Angeles dedicated to the Spirit of V2?" Do you mean the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels? It's odd-looking, but the acoustics are good. Also, it was built with high-quality materials. Wonder if it'll be still used as a Catholic cathedral in the year 2525 :-)

  • Posted by: Pseudodionysius - Aug. 04, 2005 3:01 PM ET USA

    I am saying prayers for John Allen and Christopher Hitchens -- 2 men who would make resplendent witnesses for the Magisterium.

  • Posted by: Fr. Zuhlsdorf o{]:¬) - Aug. 04, 2005 12:33 PM ET USA

    In my role in Rome as a correspondent for The Wanderer, I have come to know Mr. Allen well, and even socialize with him. The sight of the guy from The Wanderer and the guy from NCR enjoying a chat over plates of buccatini all'amatriciana might surprise not a few. Mr. Allen reports facts fairly and identifies his opinions as such. He is evolving as a Catholic also. Consider what his Catholic "culture" has been and then where he is today. He deserves a fair reading and prayers for his work.

  • Posted by: Venerable Aussie - Aug. 04, 2005 8:26 AM ET USA

    Diogenes is being charitable of this Chittisterelativism. But what should we make of Allen's "Hey, look at me, look at MY version of Catholicism"? Pope Benedict, despite Allen's slur, understands what a failed project quasi-"Catholic" Lite is. It's slowly getting buried (along with its proponents) and Allen's "if the Pope doesn't want to understand then he's a lazy intellectual" approach smacks of frustration. Re the museum, isn't there a new one in Los Angeles dedicated to the Spirit of V2?

  • Posted by: - Aug. 03, 2005 10:42 PM ET USA

    Allen, whatever his beliefs and notwithstanding his liberal leanings, is more objective that many orthodox journalists. A little charity covers a multitude of sins, and charity is what's lacking in the orthodox press. (Witness the recent savaging of Abp. Levada.) One does not have to forfeit one's obedience to the Magisterium to treat others with kindness.

  • Posted by: Meg Q - Aug. 03, 2005 9:59 PM ET USA

    "Were a man to build a museum of "Vatican II Catholicism" (in Allen's sense of the term), what would he put on exhibit?" Banners. Lots and lots of banners. And maybe an old photocopied "Glory & Praise" hymnal and a copy of "Christ Among Us." (I was born in 1971, this was my childhood . . . ) "But the future of John Allen's Catholicism is not the reason one reads John Allen. . . . Let [his even-handedness] be credited unto him as righteousness." I'm with you on all that, Uncle Di.

  • Posted by: Pseudodionysius - Aug. 03, 2005 5:38 PM ET USA

    D, James Schall reads The Gospel According to Peanuts, so tread lightly.

  • Posted by: patriot6908 - Aug. 03, 2005 5:28 PM ET USA

    Well now, let's not be too hard on Vatican II generation contributions. There are after all those fine commercial jingles by Haugen, Haas and Joncas, et al. As well as great "peace and justice" slogans to be used ad infinitum, liturgical dancers working on their diets, priests using props as homilies, the Roger (His Eminence) Mahony Show, and the National Catholic Enquirer. Not to mention self-ordination by select womyn on moving bodies (of water).

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Aug. 03, 2005 4:43 PM ET USA

    Agreed. If Allen is not unique among left-wing journalists, regardless of their beat, he is at least most unusual. When I became a reporter (many, MANY years ago) all of us wrote so that you couldn't tell what we personally believed. With Hunter Thompson and the '60's that went away. At first, editors kept the young reporters in check. But when the reporters became the editors, we got---what you can read in any paper (or hear on any TV network) today. Bless John Allen.

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