2016-06-30
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, collegiality But 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.

Will this impact regular churchgoers at the parish level? I don't know if it will very much. If you're in a very progressive parish and your pastor gets called to task because the bishop has got a complaint from Rome, then I suppose it will reach down into your life. For average Sunday Mass-going Catholic, it won't.

I think Benedict will call the church to a full-throated witness against this dictatorship of relativism, which means a strong emphasis on Catholic identity. What are the markers of our identity? Part of it is liturgical practice: Eucharistic adoration, better preaching, better music, sticking closer to the rules.

In what way?

Well, for example, praying the Eucharistic prayers as they are given, not making them up as you go along. He wants people to fall in love with the liturgy. And all the 'politics of identity' things that embattled minorities do to preserve their identity.

You think Benedict perceives the orthodox Catholic Church as an 'embattled minority'? Oh sure. His view would be that in terms of the agenda-setting level of Western developed culture, orthodox Christianity represents a minority presence. He's talked about the church as a creative minority, which is a phrase that comes out of British historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee-the idea that cultures are regenerated by their creative minorities.

Toynbee was Protestant, right? Yes. Ratzinger reads widely, not just Catholic historians. His criticism of the encyclical Gaudium et Spes was that it didn't draw heavily enough on Luther. He cites Toynbee all the time. He wants more mission and less bureaucracy. He'd like to trim the Vatican, to trim Bishops' conferences. Even at the parish level, fewer boards and committees, more focus on getting outside the church and transforming the secular world from within.

Will laypeople see this as him taking away decision-making power? Some will. It's perfectly legitimate to debate that. But I think the goal is to help Catholics understand that being Catholic doesn't mean holding some office in the church. It means taking the word of God to the outside world, redeeming the secular world from within.

You don't see wide-scale disbanding of parish councils, for example? No. I do think the tone will be: we don't need new structures, we need a new spirit. Finally, I think he is going to be a determined, dogged, ecumenical pope, especially in relationships with the Orthodox. I believe Benedict will be able to do what John Paul never could, which is go to Moscow-because he's not Polish. Doctrinally, I think Pope Benedict believes the Orthodox are closer to orthodox Catholicism than the mainstream churches of the reformed West-Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, which have certainly become much more liberal. The other option in the West are the evangelicals. The problem with the evangelicals is that many of them are explicitly anti-ecumenical . It's difficult to dialogue with them-the so-called sects are very diffuse, so even if you wanted to have dialogue, it's not clear who the partner would be. The ones expanding in Latin America and Africa and other places tend to be fairly hostile to the Catholic Church in some ways. All of that explains why there's this preferential option for the Orthodox. The level at which that will filter down is that there will be a strong push for sister parish relationships with Eastern churches. For trying to promote an awareness of Eastern liturgical, spiritual traditions. You'll see more icons showing up in Catholic churches. You might see exchanges-Orthodox clergy and Catholic clergy.

So an Orthodox priest would come and say Mass at a Catholic Church?

He couldn't say Mass, but he could come and preach, or give a talk, or lead a retreat

With regard to Islam, will we see Benedict going to a mosque as John Paul II did? In trying to balance priorities, the ecumenical issues will be more important to him. I don't think he's not going to reach out to Muslims. It's not that he's going to support restrictive immigration policies. I just don't see interreligious dialogue as one of the towering priorities of this pontificate. He'll want to have good relations. But the core concern of this pontificate is truth, the reassertion of truth, and the reassertion of Catholic identity as a way of preserving that truth. In the context of that, I don't think outreach to Islam or anybody else will be a front-burner concern. What would you ask him now that he's pope? I would ask him to comment on what Cardinal Francis George said the morning after his election, which is that the defining issue for the pontificate of John Paul II was the struggle against the Soviet dictatorship, and the means was teaching about human dignity and supporting solidarity. The defining issue for Benedict's papacy is the struggle against the dictatorship of relativism. I'd ask him if that's true, and how does he intend to prosecute that battle? How does he intend to turn around four centuries of intellectual development in the West towards subjectivity and towards relativism? I'd ask, "How do you do it when there are a lot of people within the Catholic Church who, when you start talking about 'truth,' what they hear is 'authority'?"

It's about how to put the genie back in the bottle. Exactly. This is a pope of epic ambition. This is no small task.

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