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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

The Rise of Benedict XVI by John L. Allen

Already the shops are starting to display books on B16, as some Australians call our new pope - a jocular reference to B1 and B2 of the ABC's Bananas in Pyjamas. Next month they will be joined by a new work on Pope Benedict by Paul Collins, published here by Melbourne University Press and elsewhere by Continuum. In the meantime, the best read is John L Allen Jr's updated biography of Cardinal Ratzinger, published originally in 2000, a necessary text for every wannabe commentator since it first appeared. Allen followed it, in 2002, with a useful little book, Conclave, which told you how a conclave works and who the candidates might be and what the issues were. As I say, a useful book. I seem to remember a later quickie on the curia; but I gave that a miss. A young man (born l965), Allen has been Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter for six or seven years, who speaks in the preface to Cardinal Ratzinger of the steep learning curve he hit when he was posted to Rome. He is a Vatican II Catholic - look at his birth date, the year the Council ended - who is untuned to much of the culture of oldstyle Catholicism. I smiled at his admission that he has to stay silent when some of the good old boys from the office break into Panis Angelicus and other Latin hymns late at night (as I believe sometimes happens among Australian Catholic men of a certain age). Quick intelligence and assiduity have made his name at the NCR, reminding oldtimers of Henri Fesquet of Le Monde or Alan McElwain of The Sunday Times. So when I lucked upon John Allen's The Rise of Benedict XVI (Penguin $24.95) in a bookshop the other day, I snapped it up and hurried home with it. The book is subtitled The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected and What it Means for the World; and Allen certainly delivers on the promise of the first part of this subtitle. Here is a workmanlike account of how it happened, and why. But wait... were not the cardinals under a solemn oath of secrecy not to reveal anything about the conclave etc. etc.? Too right, they were. So how did Allen do it? 'Deep background', that's how: convince some cardinals that it is better to get an accurate account on record rather than submit to a swirl of rumours, gossip, guesswork or fiction about what went on. Allen persuaded eight cardinals to brief him in this way, although none would give him actual voting figures. (There is a precedent: during the first Vatican Council Pope Pius IX had released Cardinal Manning from his conciliar oath of secrecy so that he could background the correspondent for The Times, as counterweight to the journalistic activities of Lord Acton.) Allen worked to a rule that he would only write what had been verified by three cardinal-electors. So this is honest journalism.

The cardinals who came to Rome earlier this year had many things on their minds but one concern predominated, they would have to select a pope. What did they hope a new pope might achieve? Some of them worried about the growing gap between rich and poor nations, the north-south divide as it is called, and they hoped that a new pope would energise some action of Catholics about this. Others thought that Europe (that is, including North America and Australasia) was being lost to secularism; a dynamic pope might win back some ground. Still others wanted a pope who could speak to the challenge of Islam: the 19th century had been a British century; the 20th century an American one; would the coming century be the century of Islam? As well, there were those who wanted to see the new pope rein in Vatican bureaucrats, whose power had enlarged dangerously under a roadshow pope more interested in pastoring the world than in invigilating Roman dicasteries.

Then came the funeral. Allen is good on how the scale of John Paul's funeral impacted on the cardinals, forcing them to see that they would be electing not just a head man for the RC church but a moral voice of international dimensions. All those world leaders, all those mourners who queued for up to l8 hours to pay their respects to the dead pope, the monumental presence of the global press, the surges of enthusiasm for the memory of John Paul - together these taught the cardinals to think big. This part of Allen's book makes memorable reading, it shows what a good journalist can do. I wish he had done a bit more, telling us for instance who was behind those mass-produced SANTO SUBITO banners or who stage-managed the rolling cries of santo santo santo. No matter: the cardinals were different men after that experience.

So who? There was really only one man. Joseph Ratzinger organized the funeral, he preached the sermons, he chaired the committees, he ran the conclave. On display was a powerful array of talents, at their service if they so decided. Those who knew him well could testify to his personal attractions, so different from the bogeyman of some commentators. Others who knew him less well came to appreciate him better once they got up close and personal: he remembered their names (something not universal with the dead pope), spoke to them in their first language, listened to what they were saying. As for their individual concerns, might he not be the man to address them too? The Vatican bureaucracy? True, he had worked there for a quarter of a century, but he was never an insider; but he knew where the problems were and might give some of the mafiosi their marching orders; he might even restart Vatican II's idea of collegiality and decentralize somewhat the institutional church. Secularism? Ratzinger was an athletic intellectual who might know how to meet the challenge. Islam? Same thing; with this to add - Islam is a faith, you must speak to it from a faith base. Also, Ratzinger seemed alert to the north-south divide. So it was Ratzinger, Benedict XVI.

At this point I lost interest in the book. The trouble was, that Allen then stopped reporting and turned to guesswork. He has trawled through Dr Ratzinger's writings (they are copious, to say the least) to sort out what the man might do as pope. This seemed to me interesting as a library exercise but futile otherwise. If you want a better take on the new pope's intellectual shape and climate, see the latest (25 July) New Yorker for a powerful article on his theology by Professor Anthony Grafton of Princeton. Not that there isn't some good stuff in the second half of Allen's book, but you have to watch for it. I was happy to learn, for instance, that a few years ago Ratzinger made public the fact that he carries everywhere a card saying that he belongs to an organ donor association and authorizing the use of his organs after his death. Overall, however, I had a desolate feeling that for this futurist section of the book the author had been duchessed by his contacts in the Vatican. In everyday journalism police roundsmen don't break many stories that upset the coppers; if they do, their sources dry up. Same here, I guess. I laughed out loud when I came to pages dealing with two disaster areas in church life, the treatment of theologians and women. Allen suggests that Pope Benedict will be able to start making things better by giving audiences to leaders of women and theologians and dazzling them. You wish. John Allen should take a sabbatical.

The Work:

  • Rise of Benedict XVI The Inside Story of How the Pope was Elected and What It Means for the World (PENGUIN BOOKS, 2005, $24.95)

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