2016-06-30
This book review was originally published in early 2001.

Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith
By John L. Allen, Jr.
Continuum, $25


According to biographer John L. Allen Jr., Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a rigid totalitarian who "sold his soul for power." Allen portrays Pope John Paul II's right-hand man as committed to a rule-bound, abstract notion of Christianity who has spent 20 years in Rome providing theological cover for capitalists who exploit the poor, bigots who oppress women and gays, and zealots who make war in the name of God.

As the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, which styles itself the voice of "progressive" Catholicism in this country, Allen's reporting is usually competent and fair-minded. But this book is neither. Allen comes not to understand and explain Ratzinger but to indict him.

It's too bad, because Ratzinger's story is in many ways the story of the Second Vatican Council and its tumultuous aftermath. It's a story filled with complicated issues, colorful players, and high stakes: Against the backdrop of seismic upheavals in the church and the world, a brilliant youngish academic (Ratzinger was one of Europe's top theologians and an influential insider at the council), is brought to Rome by an equally brilliant and youngish pope. He finds himself locked in one theological and cultural mudfight after another, loses friends, and incurs the scorn of secular elites, while all around him his co-religionists take up sides and cudgels--some hailing him as the faith's great defender, others crowning him prince of a new Dark Ages.

But instead of letting this tale unfold in all its ambiguity and complexity, Allen burdens himself with prosecuting the case for Catholic "progressives" who feel they've been victimized under Ratzinger's tenure. And in his zeal for conviction, Allen loses the trust of the undecided reader early on. You get the feeling as you read this book that you've wandered onto the field of some bloody intramural church score-settling--as Allen does unto Ratzinger what he claims Ratzinger has done unto Allen's progressive friends.

Most of the book reads like yesterday's left-wing Catholic news, as Allen spends long chapters rehashing Ratzinger's pivotal role in debates dating back to the 1970s over liberation theology, women's ordination, homosexuality, and religious pluralism. Allen wants us to believe that the German-born Ratzinger came to his current job carrying psycho-biographical baggage from his childhood under the Nazi regime (the cardinal was born in 1927, six years before Hitler took power). "Having seen fascism in action, Ratzinger today believes the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesiastical totalitarianism," Allen writes.

In a frustratingly contentious chapter on Ratzinger's youth, Allen tries hard to make the evidence stick. Digging for bad roots in the Ratzinger family tree, Allen unearths a priest-uncle who was an anti-Semite. Then he notes that Ratzinger failed to denounce his uncle's Jew-hating in his four-sentence reply to an interview question about him. For Allen, this was a telltale omission: "Ratzinger cannot be ignorant of his uncle's anti-Judaism.... There is no basis for suspecting that Joseph Ratzinger harbors any of his great uncle's sentiments about the Jews--indeed his public record is full of denunciations of anti-Semitism--but Jews might be saddened at his silence here nevertheless."

Never mind that the uncle died nearly 30 years before Ratzinger was born, nor does Allen present any evidence to suggest that the cardinal was even aware of his relative's vile views. But for Allen, this "silence" is good enough to cast reasonable doubt on the sincerity of Ratzinger's lifelong defense of Jews and Judaism.

Allen similarly inflates the evidence to try to establish that Ratzinger was somewhere between indifferent to and morally complicit in the Holocaust. That's a hard case to make, especially since by Allen's own admission, Ratzinger was only 6 years old when Hitler came to power, never attended the Hitler Youth meetings required of all German adolescents, and was an unwilling conscript in the Nazi army at the age of 16. (He deserted two years later, at the end of World War II, having never fired a shot in defense of the Reich.)

Nonetheless, Allen rebukes the schoolboy Ratzinger for not protesting the deportation of Jews from his hometown and for not taking part "in any kind of resistance" against the Nazis.

By the time Allen moves to Ratzinger's career at the Vatican, starting in the 1980s, the reader has discovered that fact, innuendo, circumstantial evidence, and insult from interested parties are all of equal evidentiary value for Allen.

We hear about rumors that Ratzinger ordered the books of a liberal nun to be burned, and that in a suicide note a gay man blamed Ratzinger's Vatican for his anguish. It doesn't matter that the rumors were false. Allen enters them into the record anyway.

Allen also quotes copiously and uncritically from Ratzinger's opponents, who never fail to get the last word in every argument. Liberal theologian Hans Kung, censured for denying papal infallibility, compares Ratzinger to a KGB torturer. Another disciplined cleric, the New Age priest (and lately, Episcopalian convert) Matthew Fox, describes Ratzinger as "clearly ill, violent, sexually obsessed."

The reader might overlook such sallies as clumsy efforts to build drama into a flat-lining narrative if it weren't for Allen's hectoring and his claims at clairvoyance about his quarry's motives and intentions. Allen knows how events "must seem" to Ratzinger, and he can tell us in any given situation "ultimately what is at stake for Ratzinger."

Allen also claims to have an authoritative finger on the pulse of such disparate groups as "most homosexuals," "most Catholic theologians," "most women," and an apparent subset of the last category, "educated and self-aware women." He informs us that all these groups are aggrieved victims of Ratzinger's policies at the Vatican, but he doesn't cite any polls or other evidence to support his sweeping generalizations.

Doubts about Allen's reliability as a reporter turn to outright skepticism when at one point he starts swinging madly, blaming the church for the roving gangs in Brazil that beat up gays and for being "a carrier" of "patriarchal values." Such little ecstasies of indignation are arguably entertaining. However, Allen doesn't seem to know that there's a difference between bad protest poetry and responsible journalism. It may be that Catholic beliefs really do lead to violence against gays and women. But although he shouts himself hoarse on these issues, Allen doesn't bring any proof to the table.

Ratzinger's fatal flaw, according to Allen, is that he lacks sufficient reverence for "the historical Jesus." This is Allen's theological trump. Allen never cites a line of scripture to support his theory, but he does assure us repeatedly that he knows the historical Jesus, and the historical Jesus wouldn't like the way Ratzinger does his job.

Allen may be correct in his assertion that Ratzinger, in silencing certain dissident Catholics, is not acting as Jesus would. However, the reader of a purportedly serious book expects Allen to defend, or at least to explain, his understanding. Especially when he calls the historical Jesus as his star witness against the accused.

But throughout this humorless and naively triumphalist history, Allen never questions his own assumptions or those of his fellow progressives. And he never really gets close to what his subject is like or what motivates him. Instead of a biography of Ratzinger, Allen has produced a rap sheet, a book-length inquisition against the man he dubs the Grand Inquisitor.


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