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Paul Collins, God’s New Man: The Election of Benedict XVI and the Legacy of John Paul II, Melbourne University Press, 2005.

Reviewed by David Brown.

Almost as quick as one can say “apostolic blessing”, Catholic historian and commentator Paul Collins has produced this eminently readable book. In three parts it deals with the legacy of Pope John Paul II, the papal interregnum following his death, and the election of Benedict XVI. The latter subject is in no way a comprehensive biography – more a monograph on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

As someone who suffered under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - which Ratzinger headed as Prefect - and as a Catholic historian of repute, Collins is uniquely placed to write with some authority on his subject. With this in mind, he considers that his evaluation of John Paul II’s legacy is vital to understanding what follows. This first part covers almost one hundred pages prior to reaching the chapter “The Empty Chair”. The book as a whole one may say is written for the catholic mass(es), and is none the worse for that.

As a non-Catholic, but one who has a fascination for history and the politics of the Church, I have approached this book with a strong degree of interest, but with a healthy dose of skepticism. Writers on contemporary history coupled with biography (however slight) tend to err either on the side of adulation, or emphasise the warts. Achieving a balance requires the skill of a tightrope walker, without the writer fielding an accusation of being an equivocator. Collins avoids many of the pitfalls, but does not always escape having two bob each way.

The author acknowledges that he has placed what some may regard as too much emphasis on the Wojtyla papacy. His rationale is that this is Benedict’s inheritance. Given that John Paul’s papacy and his struggle between life and eternity has been so well documented, one may question this emphasis in such detail.

Beginning with “Last Days in the Papal Appartamento”, and through five further chapters, Collins trails through the geography of the papal household and also its dramatis personnae. With the skill of a born story-teller, he leads us through the chapter, “A Crisis in Leadership”. He accuses John Paul of creating serious damage in the Church by making bad Episcopal appointments, and details them without balancing these with more meritorious ones. The increasing centralization of power in Rome, and the consequent impotence of local bishops, is also covered. The chapter also covers Ratzinger’s influence in shaping Vatican policy toward the bishops.

In eighteen detailed pages, Collins covers these appointments, and the effect they had on the Church and laity. I draw attention to the “scandal” in Vienna in particular. I am not suggesting that Collins is scandal-mongering, but merely emphasizing the importance that he (correctly) places on these episodes.

Covered in “Lines of Division” is Ratzinger’s “conversion” (my term) from “reform” to “orthodoxy”. Concluding Part One, Collins pulls no punches, damning John Paul for marginalizing and “driving two generations of Catholics out of the Church”. It is difficult to argue with this contention, but the faithful can and will.

The “Empty Chair” is the most important section of the book - based as it is on Collins’ (reasonable) assumptions and facts in the public domain. For the Vatican cognoscenti, much of this chapter traverses familiar ground. For outsiders, it provides a clear insight into the politics (base and otherwise) of the period separating the death of one pope and the election of another.

Included is John Paul’s funeral, presided over by the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, and culminating in the understated liturgical ceremonies – influenced as they were by the late Pope and his Papal Master of Ceremonies, Archbishop Marini. It was as if the late Pope’s hand was reaching out from the grave.

To the conclave itself: Collins makes it abundantly clear that his sympathies did not lie with the election of Ratzinger. His skill in describing the background, and the subsequent election process, is testament to his research and writing abilities.

Collins names a coalition of clerics (among whom was Cardinal George Pell of Sydney)  as the anti-progressive group. “Neo-Cons” in Collins’ terms: pro-Ratzinger, pro-George W. Bush. Get the picture? Collins relates how Opus Dei cardinals and sympathizers met as a block prior to John Paul’s death, and were already supportive of a Ratzinger papacy. This is the stuff of a modern day thriller, one may think.

The author is also extremely critical of the so-called moderate cardinals, including the splendidly named Cormac Murphy-O’Conner of Westminister, and others named for their want of political skills. The indication is that Ratzinger’s election was virtually a fait accompli, confounding not only Collins but other commentators as well, and pointing to suspicions that similar meetings are, or have already taken place post-election.

Collins goes into the fine detail of the conclave and the election itself, drawing the reader right into the Sistine Chapel. The reader in effect becomes witness to an historic event. I am critical of Collins here for using the amorphous terms, “a number of commentators” in the context of the election, and in support of his own views. He fails to name any of these - an overused journalistic ploy.

So we come to the final part of the trilogy, “Pope Benedict XVI”, which opens with some revealing and less flattering media reactions to Benedict’s election. Some examples: “God’s Rottweiler”; “From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi” – the latter from the English Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper. More in hope does Collins state the possibility that Benedict will break with his past as John Paul’s “doctrinal enforcer”. The origins of Benedict are amply covered including his Bavarian childhood, and the anti-semitism endemic in this part of Germany, which is almost wholly Catholic.

Here I must take strong issue with Collins. He perpetuates the myth that “religious anti-Judaism” (whatever that means) is not the same as racial anti-semitism. Rubbish - and dangerous rubbish at that. There is a deal of pious semantics here. Nonetheless, Collins’ appraisal of this period is honest if a tad disingenuous.

With almost perfect symmetry, we are brought to the concluding chapter, “First Days in the Papal Appartamento”. Collins, as he has done earlier, cleverly combines established facts with some soundly based assumptions, adopting the role of a latter-day male Cassandra - a perfectly legitimate device in a book of this nature. Perhaps stating the obvious, he makes the point that Benedict will be his own man and not a doppelganger of his predecessor - making the distinction that he will not be ‘Bishop of the World’ (a sly dig at John Paul) but ‘Bishop of Rome’.

Collins identifies what he regards as small but important pointers to indicate that changes are on the way. Starting with Benedict’s installation (note: not coronation) and to the type of music chosen for the occasion, leading to its future incorporation in Church liturgy – as though to emphasise that good music well performed elevates the human spirit. According to Collins, Benedict will be less of a media personality than John Paul, going about his business quietly, but with a steely determination. Collins glosses over what he expects from this Pope and his leadership viz-a-viz the world and its manifest problems.

Vatican watchers would know, as Collins himself observes, that Benedict’s papacy is but an interregnum; he is a transitional pope. It would be prudent however to recall the resilience of John Paul II, who obstinately refused to vacate Peter’s chair.

Collins concludes with what I regard as a benediction of Benedict as a man of culture and sensitivity. “Above all he loves Beethoven and especially Mozart. This is a big recommendation for me.” And for me too!

A word of caution as my final observation: the Italians have a saying: “Forte e l’aceto da vin dolce” – strong vinegar from sweet wine.

David Brown is a retired Sydney Arts and Music critic and a long time watcher of Vatican affairs.


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