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John Allen’s Take on the Catholic Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 03, 2014

Our readers have sometimes wondered why we make occasional references to the reports and insights of veteran Rome correspondent John Allen—considering that he was employed for so many years by that scurrilous rag, the National Catholic Reporter. Our excuse has always been the same: Allen is the most knowledgeable, and arguably the fairest, Vatican observer writing on the scene today.

He now serves as an Associate Editor for the Boston Globe, which is at least a step up the food chain, though perhaps nothing a committed Catholic would care to brag about. It has always been Allen himself, and not his employer, who earns respect. The same is true, with all the usual caveats, of the new edition of Allen’s guide to the Church, published this year by Oxford University Press: The Catholic Church: What Everyone Needs to Know.

The main caveat is that Allen remains, even in the book, his quintessential reportorial self. He is, as usual, a really good reporter. Since taking up his position in Rome, he has become unflinchingly fair in explaining both the Church’s doctrinal positions and the situations in which she finds herself today, responding both to internal scandals and external pressures. Moreover, he is not only fair but knowledgeable enough to correctly explain Catholic teachings and Catholic actions in both their details and their proper contexts.

At the same time, however, Allen wants to write a book that will appeal as much to the Church’s enemies as to her friends. Therefore, he also reports what critics say about the Church, and he always covers the full range of opinions among the Church’s diverse and often divided membership. What readers will not get (and thus far have never gotten) from John Allen is a sense that, at least when it comes to the Church’s official teachings and constitutional elements, her internal critics need to grow considerably in what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The Catholic Church is concise and readable, covering in about 300 pages everything from the Church’s basic structure and her historical ups and downs to the main features of Catholic worship and theology. Some chapters deal with more specialized topics, such as “Faith and Politics”, “Catholicism and Sex”, “Catholicism and Money”, and “Crisis and Scandal”—and one certainly understands why. The last chapters deal with “Rome and America” and the “New Frontiers” of Catholicism in Africa, India, China and Latin America. Most of the book was written during the pontificate of Benedict XVI (it was originally published early in 2013), but the 2014 edition is updated and includes a final chapter on Pope Francis. The book also includes an index and a useful bibliography organized by chapter.

As you might expect, the book is weakest (though rarely bad) in dealing with doctrinal issues. For example, using the question of limbo (of which there has never been a magisterial confirmation) as an example of the development of doctrine rather misses the point of how such development really works. In contrast, the book is at its best in dealing with contemporary issues which require, first and foremost, an accurate appraisal of the facts. For example, the chapter on the financial state of the Church (“Catholicism and Money”), which answers the inevitable question of whether the Church is filthy rich, is extraordinarily well done.

This should not, I think, be the first book someone reads who is interested in converting to Catholicism, but it is an excellent resource for others who want to better understand the Catholic Church, including critics who are often as ignorant as they are angry. It would seem that this is Allen’s purpose. “My hope,” he writes in the Introduction, “is that the book is respectful of faithful Catholics, but also accessible to non-Catholics looking for an education rather than a sermon.”

There is a place for such a hope—though it falls well short of the theological virtue of hope which we prize here at CatholicCulture.org. What can be said, therefore, in favor of The Catholic Church: What Everyone Needs to Know is simply that John Allen fulfills this modest worldly hope. In fact, with very few exceptions, he fulfills it remarkably well.

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