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Issue Date:  August 12, 2005

By John L. Allen Jr.
Doubleday, 249 pages, $19.95
Edited by Robert Moynihan
Doubleday, 215 pages, $17.95
By H.J. Fischer
Crossroad, 213 pages, $19.95
New pope, new books


As white smoke rose from the chimney on the Sistine Chapel, I sat in my office without a television or radio. Wondering how I would find out who was elected, suddenly, from the corridor outside my door, I heard one of my fellow theologians yell “Ratzinger!” Suspense ended. No one would be asking, “Who’s Cardinal Ratzinger and what does he think?” As the best known of the papabili, everyone seemed to have an opinion of Cardinal Ratzinger, but few were bold enough to predict with any certainty how he would be as Pope Benedict XVI. However, it has not taken long for publishers to fill that void.

Journalists John Allen (National Catholic Reporter), Heinz-Joachim Fischer (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) and Robert Moynihan (Inside the Vatican) have, almost simultaneously with the election of Benedict XVI, produced books that situate this papacy for contemporary Catholics. All three, or their publishers, have also exaggerated a bit. Mr. Allen’s book is subtitled, in part, “The Inside Story”; Mr. Fischer’s book jacket proclaims his work as the “definitive biography”; and Mr. Moynihan claims his book to be “The Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI” (italics are mine). Journalists are neither slow to produce books nor modest about their work. The analyses by historians and theologians will come later. These forthcoming assessments may be carefully footnoted, but it will be difficult to make them as readable as the journalists’ contributions.

Mr. Allen succinctly chronicles the final days of John Paul II. A print reporter and a CNN consultant who was one of the most knowledgeable TV commentators covering John Paul’s death and Benedict’s election, Mr. Allen did not think that Joseph Ratzinger could prevail over the Italian or Third-World candidates for the papacy. However, he now believes that the funeral of John Paul II and the meetings of the General Congregation, over which Cardinal Ratzinger, as dean of the cardinals, presided, turned the tide in his favor. The overwhelming and unexpected outpouring of affection for John Paul in Rome and around the world convinced the cardinal-electors that his legacy must be solidified and extended. While Cardinal Ratzinger had considerable support from cardinals who knew him because of their dealings with the Vatican and with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his performance at the funeral and his skillful guidance as the leader of the discussions during the interregnum convinced a majority that the church would be in good hands under his papacy. His advanced age made him even more attractive, virtually assuring a relatively short reign, a desire on the part of many electors.

Using his Vatican connections, Mr. Allen pieces together a credible scenario of the conclave, though no one knows for certain the details of what transpired during the voting. The most insightful part of the book is the least speculative. Mr. Allen’s portrait of Cardinal Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict is crisp, telling us who Ratzinger has been and who Benedict is likely to be, what he will face and how he will deal with challenges. Having written a widely read book on Ratzinger, he knows his man well, and his tone now is much more deferential.

Mr. Fischer’s tone is more than respectful -- it is admiring. He cites conflicts in which Ratzinger has been embroiled but excuses the cardinal from any fault in his dealings and decisions. Thus, that which is “not popular” is nevertheless “worthwhile”; “bitter medicines” are often “helpful”; what some may interpret as “intellectual arrogance” can be explained by “extenuating circumstances”; and the cardinal is a “scapegoat” for someone else’s failures. If “definitive biography” means one without pointed criticism, then this qualifies. At the end of the book, however, Mr. Fischer does briefly rehearse some of the difficulties that Benedict will face (priestly celibacy, AIDS and condoms, sexual morality, homosexuality, intercommunion, women’s ordination, and so on). He conjectures that Benedict will, in large part, uphold tradition, though he suggests that some issues (for example, celibacy) may be fruitfully revisited.

Mr. Allen’s and Mr. Fischer’s books suffer from repetition, which is not true of Mr. Moynihan’s book. Part One, in which he seamlessly interweaves Benedict’s own words into the text, offers the most unobstructed view of Benedict. It is as good an intellectual biography as I have read. Part Two collects writings from Ratzinger on a wide range of topics under the rubric of his “spiritual vision.” However, the reader is left to connect the selected writings, to make a whole of what are discrete and somewhat unrelated parts.

For readers who might be unfamiliar with Joseph Ratzinger, these books offer insight and assessment. For those who wonder what the character and tone of Benedict’s papacy may be and how it may differ from or mirror that of John Paul II, these books provide a good place to start their inquiry.

Chester Gillis is chairman of the department of theology at Georgetown University.

National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005

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