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Allen on Benedict

By Diogenes ( 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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