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Winter Books

A perceptive look at Ratzinger’s life

By John L. Allen Jr.
Continuum, 352 pages, $24.95


Without doubt one of the major public figures in recent decades of Roman Catholic history has been Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and many images of him have emerged in the media over the years. In this book, John L. Allen Jr., the Rome bureau chief for the National Catholic Reporter, offers the rader a view of some of these images. The images revolve around two poles: Ratzinger as the reformer in the context of Vatican II, and Razinger as the enforcer of the faith in the post-Vatican II experience of Roman Catholicism.

Allen gives a detailed and perceptive account of Ratzinger’s life and career. The presentation opens with an important chapter on that tumultuous historical-political situation in Germany into which Ratzinger was born. The young Joseph was just 6 years old when Hitler moved into power. This meant that the whole of Ratzinger’s youth was deeply influenced by the ideology of the Third Reich as it swept over Germany. This has left its impact on important dimensions of his theology and the policies he has followed as a leader of the church. Allen’s argument throughout the book is a clarification of this claim.

The book is based on extensive research including the study of Ratzinger’s major writings as well as his memoirs. Allen’s preparation for writing the book has led him also to consult people who studied with Ratzinger both in his early years at Bonn, Münster and Tübingen, and in his leter years at Regensburg. I was among those who heard the outstanding lectures of the young Ratzinger at Bonn in the early 1960s and I am deeply grateful for that experience. Most who heard him in those early years, including myself, remember him as a warm, gentle, soft-spoken, intelligent, and humane person. For many like me, he was a man who opened a theological vision that was much wider thatn the world of neo-scholasticism which dominated Catholic theology during the first half of the 20th century until the time of Vatican Council II.

Ratzinger brought a theological richness drawn largely form his own study of the tradition in figures such as St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure. From these came insights into the understanding of revelation and the mystery of the church that would play a significant role in his personal theological style. According to Allen, doctoral students who worked under Ratzinger in the early years of his teaching career tended to be interested in expanding the boundaries of theological inquiry. Those who worked with him during the years at Regensburg tended to be more concerned with issues of orthodoxy, obedience and control of the borders between church and world. The views of five former doctoral students of Ratzinger are discussed to illustrate this point.

As Allen sees it, the year 1968 -- with uprisings on both sides of the Iron Curtain and, in particular, growing leftist student movements in Western Europe -- marked a major turning point for Ratzinger. This hinges largely on what appeared to the Tübingen professor to be a politicization of the gospel. It is understandable that any one who grew up resisting the rhetoric of the Third Reich would be suspicious of any proclamation of the Kingdom of God that seemed too closely aligned with the formulation of political programs. This problem had been addressed already in Ratzinger’s youth doctoral study of St. Augustine’s City of God. It appears again in his later critique of liberation theology and the political theology of theologicans such as J.B. Metz and J. Moltmann. This together with any serious challenges to the authority of the hierarchical teaching office would be critical factors in the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during Ratzinger’s tenure.

The chapter on “Authentic Liberation” discusses the first issue. The chapter on “The Enforcer” discusses the best-known cases in whith the Roman office has taken direct action with theologians who gave public expression to their problems with official magisterial teaching. The presentation becomes quite detailed but is fair in its judgements of the controversies that have come to polarize the Roman Catholic church in recent decades.

Allen has covered a wide range of material and has been judicious in assessing the implications of the evidence. Without using highly technical language, he discusses theological matters with genuine insight, and he opens up some of the bigger questions about the implications of the life and work of Ratzinger. Generally he has not presumed to offer final answers. Throughout he weaves an unfailingly perceptive story of the career of a brilliant theologian whose policies have become highly controversial in contemporary Roman Catholic experience.

The book closes with a thought-provoking chapter looking forward to the work of a hypothetical, future conclave. As Allen sees things, this work would revolve almost entirely around issues of ecclesiology and authority. What is the relation between the local church and the church universal? How is authority to be distributed, and what is the range of infallibility? What is the relation between the Roman Catholic church and the other religions of the world? And, finally, how would the authoritarian practice of the Roman ecclesial organization relate to the understanding of Jesus Christ?

All of these areas, in Allen’s analysis, are being shaped in a distinctive way by the policies enacted in the tenure of Ratzinger and will offer a serious challenge to the church of the future. For anyone interested in the issues that polarize the life of the Roman CAtholic church today, this is an important, sensitive and well-written book. No matter where one stands personally within the range of positions that characteriza Catholicism today, this book that can shed helpful light in coming to a better understanding of the dynamic that has brought us to this point.

Franciscan Fr. Zachary Hayes is professor of doctrinal theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000