Beliefnet
John L. Allen, Jr. is the Vatican correspondent for National Catholic Reporter and one of America's leading authorities on Josef Ratzinger, who was elected pope in April 2005. Allen spoke to Beliefnet recently about his new book, "The Rise of Benedict XVI."

Several years ago, you wrote perhaps the first English-language biography of Cardinal Ratzinger. Are there parts of the book you would change now?

That was my first book, written before I arrived in Rome and before I really knew a lot about the universal church. The facts and figures are right, but the overall presentation is unbalanced. It gives prominent voice to criticisms of Ratzinger; it does not give equally prominent voice to how he himself would see some of these issues.

It wasn't because of ill will. It's like anyone's first work: You get a better sense of the complexity of things as you move along. In that sense, it's a flawed book; it just isn't a complete picture.

You're referring to issues important to North American Catholics-what are some of these issues and how would he see them?


You take almost any of the hot button issues: homosexuality, women's ordination, birth control, whatever. Obviously, Benedict would take a somewhat restrictive stance. There's no mystery about that.What's missing in the [earlier] book is that from his point of view, it's not restriction for its own sake. He's not saying no to women's ordination because he takes pleasure in frustrating the aspirations of women. It's part of a deeper concern for objective truth. It's what he called, the morning the [2005] conclave opened, the struggle against this 'dictatorship of relativism.' The notion is that there are truths out there that place limits on our behavior. It's a question of defending the whole notion of objective truth. This isn't a reaction against feminism or a fear-based defensiveness, but a much deeper passion about truth.

What should liberal Catholics know about Benedict XVI? The basic thing is, Ratzinger has a new job now. For 24 years, he was the church's top cop-it was his job to draw lines in the sand.

Was it a job he enjoyed? Certainly he enjoyed the intellectual challenge of it.

But when he was writing a letter silencing theologian Charles Curran, was he.Taking pleasure in the disciplinary dimension? No, I don't think so. I don't think that was his profile. On the other hand, he didn't shrink from it, either.The nature of that job imposes a certain profile on somebody. To use a banal example, the least popular member of the faculty in high school is the one who enforces the dress code and punishes. But take them out of that job and put them back in the classroom, and the kids discover a whole different person. To some extent, the same phenomenon applies here. Pope Benedict is in a spot where other aspects of his personality that are a lot more engaging and user-friendly can surface. For example, his genuine humility and commitment to being collegial and listening and acting on the advice of others.He understands people are not persuaded by doctrinal debates-they're persuaded by seeing models of Christian living.

There are concerns that he's a bit abstract, that he hasn't been in the trenches enough. What would his response to this be?His response is going to be to do what he can to reassure on those concerns. He's been talking about the developing world, ecumenism, collegialityBut at the end of the day, people are who they are. He is an intellectual, professorial. He's most comfortable in his study surrounded by books unlike John Paul, who was most comfortable on the stage. John Paul II had a streak of ham in him.This is going to be a dramatic papacy, but it's not going to be a drama of the stage. It's going to be a drama of ideas. The Achilles' heel is that it will shade off into an abstract thought world, losing contact with the reality in the trenches. There, the one thing that will save him is that he really does have this strong humble streak. He does want to allow people around him to emerge. If he picks those people well, they keep him grounded.

Conservative Catholics have hailed the election. What do they need to know? Pope Benedict is quite clear that he's not the leader of one faction of the church. He's not going to usher in this "night of the long knives" that some conservative Catholics have been dreaming of, where all the dissidents and cafeteria Catholics will get flushed out of the system.

There's this idea among conservatives of the "smaller, better church." His program is not to downsize the Catholic church. If he has to choose between quality and quantity, I'm sure his choice would be quality. If it's a question of 10 fully orthodox Catholics, fully committed to the wide range of church teaching, and 15 who are kind of lukewarm, I'm sure he'll choose the ten. In that sense, there clearly will be a call to discipline in this pontificate.

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