I finished reading a review copy of The Rise of Benedict XVI by John L. Allen that I received. The subtitle is "The inside story of how the Pope was elected and where he will take the Catholic Church" and he pretty much delivers on this promise.
The opening chapter starts off with the context of the final months of the papacy of John Paul II. He looks as the health of John Paul II continues to decline and the reaction of those in the Vatican and others around him. Many with the ups and downs of the previous Pope’s health over the years were not quite ready when his final days actually arrived. As John Paul II once quipped when a reporter had asked about his health he said that he didn’t know since he had not yet read the papers. John L. Allen’s writing as always is very good and he really pulls you back into these events. The emotions of this time came flooding back in me as I read his narrative.
The second chapter "The Funeral Effect" describe both Pope John Paul II’s funeral and the overwhelming world reaction, but also how it attributed to the election of Pope Benedict XVI. He used this chapter and the following ones on the Interregnum and the Conclave to make the case for how Cardinal Ratzinger was elected. He makes the case using multiple factors of how this came about and I think the case he does make is pretty good. The Funeral Effect is a term used to describe how then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s handling of the funeral in his homily really helped the Cardinal electors to see him handling himself in such a large crowd and important occasion. Most of the Cardinals probably never bought into the created media persona of Cardinal Ratzinger a tough as nails and cold personality that was portrayed so often. Most would have come to know him better on Ad Limina visits where often they would meet with him besides meeting the Pope. Though there were probably real questions of how this academic who really only wanted to retire (had asked JPII three times to retire as head of the CDF) and go home to mainly read and to write would handle the responsibilities as Pope. The massive world reaction to the death of JPII also made the Cardinal-electors really focus on the papacy itself and its importance.
Cardinal Ratzinger was the Dean of the Cardinals since Cardinal Gantin the previous dean had resigned at the age of age (though this was not mandatory). John
Allen Jr. thinks this is perhaps the most important factor in his election since once again it put him in front of the other Cardinals during the Interregnum and the Conclave itself. No doubt this was an important factor since in many ways the world Cardinals really do not know all the other Cardinals very well. Gone are the day’s when Italians dominated and Cardinals are much more spread out geographically now. Myself I think the most important factor in his election is the man himself. A world class theologian who while being totally orthodox could truly listen to others and this would be something the Cardinal-electors would be well aware of. Though Cardinal Ratzinger being dean more than likely really helped to move his election along faster than it might have. John
Allen Jr. goes into many other factors that contributed to his election and I found most of them very interesting especially how a rule change for conclaves made by JPII likely contributed to Pope Benedict XVI being elected in just 4 ballots.
I really enjoyed these chapters on the Interregnum and Conclave and the number of valuable insights written in those pages. He never goes down to mere rumors and as he states any of the events in the Conclave himself he relied on at least two witnesses. Writing about conclaves is fairly difficult since the Cardinal-electors are sworn to secrecy and so much has to be patched together to give a picture of the events. When he writes about the election itself once again it really brought to mind that day to me.
As much as I truly loved John Paul II I was missing through most of his papacy.
The pope was not exactly on my radar for most of the time that JPII served. Later as I would hear other Catholics describe elections of a pope and when they would see the black smoke I do admit to a tinge of jealousy for not having my any such memories. Those that could describe multiple such events make me even more wish to experience them myself. So this book really brought to mind to me when I first saw the black smoke via television and the anticipation waiting for the announcement of who was the new pope. I can still remember jumping up and down and shouting with joy when I first heard the words Josef and realizing it was truly Cardinal Ratzinger who had been elected.
The book then goes on to give a short biography of Josef Ratzinger and his years from childhood through his time as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He covers the various controversies over his time as prefect and the run ins he had with various theologians. I do think that the most incredible part of his 24 years with the CDF is really the small number of cases with only a hand full actually resulting in excommunication. This is only a short chapter and is only meant to cover the basics of this time period. For a fuller account see Let God’s Light Shine Forth: The Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI Edited by Dr. Robert Moynihan which I reviewed before.
The rest of the book concentrates on where he predicts that the Pope will lead the Church. He uses previous indicators in Josef Ratzinger’s life along with current trends in society to predict where the Pope’s leadership will focus. I think most of his guesses are pretty good and some of them have been born out since the book was first written. There is one blind spot in his predictions in that as far as I can remember he never addresses liturgy itself as far as predictions go. This is rather surprising since Cardinal Ratzinger is quite well know for his book Spirit of the Liturgy and other writings and speeches on this subject. That he is rather a vocal critic of some of the changes that were since, though not mandated by, the Second Vatican Council. It also seems to me that John Allen Jr. largely views the Pope through the smaller but more energetic Church model. This is of course something that Cardinal Ratzinger has spoken of before, but in my opinion (as an armchair Vatican )I don’t think it dominates his thinking. Though that he will work to reduce the bureaucracy of the Curia itself is a prediction that is probably very good and there have been some signs of it.
Some readers brought up the fact that John Allen Jr. works for the National Catholic Reporter when I reviewed his book All the Pope’s Men. Readers know that I am no fan of the NCReporter whose articles and editorials do not exactly fall in line with the magisterium and dissent is not exactly covered up. Guilty by association is an understandable reaction, though I have come to have quite a favorable opinion of his columns and the two books I have read of his. I think there is little doubt that he truly works to be balanced in his coverage and from what I have read over the years he has become better in his coverage. In the introduction to both of his books he brings up the subject that some conservative think him a flaming liberal and some liberal that he is a cold hearted conservative. That people parse his words for an indication as to where his true inclinations are.
I am guilty of doing exactly the same of looking for these indications. In the introduction to this book he mentions his previous book on Cardinal Ratzinger called "Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith" has a title that by many accounts is a unbalanced view of the Cardinal. He mentions that Stephen hand of TCR took him to task for this book in a review of his book. John Allen Jr. himself writes "wrote a blistering review, not entirely undeserved." You have to give a lot of credence to anybody who can take a critical review and to admit that it was not entirely undeserved and I think his current book on Ratzinger has pretty much achieved a much sounder view. I haven’t read the other book myself, but Christopher Blosser of the Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club had called it "a good read overall" and wrote
Allen’s prevalently liberal audience will be reassured by the fact that his praises for Ratzinger as a person fail to carry over to Ratzinger’s role as doctrinal prefect. One doesn’t have to read far to note that on every issue from contraception to women’s ordination to liberation theology he comes down squarely opposed, and remains just as steadfast in his convictions as the cardinal is in his.
Christopher view pretty much coincides with my own reading of John Allen Jr’s new book. That he has much personal respect for the Pope and his abilities himself, but that when it comes to doctrinal manners that respect does not follow through. The small chapter on his time as prefect of the CDF seemed to be balanced more towards defending the dissenters. He often used the term conservative to describe some of the people he quotes or refers to, yet liberal or progressive never seems to become a tag for those that could be clearly labled that way. One of the critiques of the book is that he brought up the case of Fr. Reese, former editor of American magazine, three times in the course of the book. Criticisms of this action were more heavily referenced and the defense for this was not given much room. Now I can understand how he might be a slightly touchy on this subject. The newspaper he works for makes America Magazine seem like Civiltà Cattolica by comparison. He could hardly agree with complaints about America Magazine articles which sometimes wants to present both sides of a settled question as if there can be balance between a magisterial teaching of the Church and other views. The contra to truth is not truth. I find it hard to understand how he could be willing to work for NCReporter if he actually felt that there heterodox doctrinal views were not credible. In the book he refers to Sister Joan Chittister a couple of times in reference to Pope Benedict without of course mentioning that she is a dissenter who works with his paper. Or that she has defied the Vatican by attending conferences on women’s ordination when she was specifically told not to. He also seemed to mention that Sr. Chisttister was a Benedictine almost as many times as Nancy Pelosi mentions she is a grandmother or that John Kerry mentioned he was a Vietnam veteran during the election – okay I am exaggerating here.
I also found it rather funny when he was talking about the Pope’s working towards bringing more Anglicans into the Church and that in a couple of places he referred to Anglican converts as dissenting Anglicans. I guess that is technically correct, but I can’t remember anybody ever referring to those who have now come home into the fullness of the faith as dissenters and at one point he included both Anglicans and Evangelicals who do this as dissenting.
He also refers to a Philip Jenkins as an American Catholic writer. Though the mistake is understandable since the professor has written books such as The New Anti-Catholism and this and other of his works is much used by Catholics, though he is in fact an Episcopalian.
One of my favorite quotes of then-Cardinal Ratzinger in the book is from 1997 where he said "This is His Church, and not a laboratory for theologians." John Allen in reference to the quote gave it as evidence for his being acerbic at times and that this particular quote "he snapped."
Regardless though of what might be the actual doctrinal views of John Allen Jr, I don’t think that the relatively minor instances I detailed mar this book to any great extent and of course I could be totally wrong in my interpretation of what he writes. I can easily recommend this book to anybody who wants to read on Pope Benedict’s election and what its aftermath will hold. He has a wealth of knowledge and had developed a wealth of contacts that make he writing very rich with information.