Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger by John L Allen, Continuum £12.99 Until the election of Pope Benedict in April this book was entitled Cardinal Ratzinger: the Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith. Perhaps the word “enforcer” gives the game away. Orthodox Catholics might prefer the word “guardian”, but as the author has been Vatican correspondent of the American weekly National Catholic Reporter for some years, an alternative diction is inevitable. If I were to persuade Allen to give me £5 for every usage of the words “liberal” and “conservative” in his book, I would be rich enough to go on a long, luxury cruise.
Why do I highlight these words? Because they set the whole tone of this biography. What we are reading is a wholly politicised analysis of the Church and of one of her chief interpreters, the man who is now Pontiff.
Allen is honest and he is not malicious. He lacks the clever, ironic subtext of the late Peter Hebblethwaite and does not indulge in unpleasant innuendo like John Cornwell, to name two other “Vaticanologists”. He frankly admits in his preface that there is a huge gap between what he was taught of the Faith in his American Catholic childhood – very little apparently, apart from “caring about the world and about other people” – and the language and vision articulated by Pope Benedict. He is humble enough to believe it necessary to study the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s viewpoint. “There is a deep logical consistency to Ratzinger’s vision,” he admits.
His book begins by assessing Pope Benedict’s memoir, Milestones, in particular his view of the German Catholic Church during a childhood and youth under the Nazis. Allen believes there is some selectivity in Ratzinger’s account but this allegation has been dealt with effectively in recent articles in this newspaper, so I will not rehearse them. Suffice to say that there were “many human failings” among the Catholic population of Germany between 1933 and 1945, including antiSemitism; there was also much individual heroism, particularly among priests (more than 1,000 died in Dachau); and Ratzinger was just 18 when the war ended.
After summarising the four principal writers who influenced Ratzinger during his early academic work – St Augustine, St Bonaventure, Romano Guardini and Hans Urs von Balthasar – Allen moves to a central motif in his book: his subject’s “liberal” outlook at the Second Vatican Council, and his switch to “conservatism” thereafter.
Is this thesis tenable? Ratzinger, a young and respected theologian in 1962, was the peritus to Cardinal Frings of Cologne, and in this capacity attended all four sessions of Vatican II. He would maintain that he remained true to the documents of the Council and that those who invented the protean and pernicious phrase “spirit of Vatican II” were the ones who changed, ignored or misinterpreted them.
Readers will have their own opinions on this. My own view, after reading Ratzinger’s documented writings before and at the Council, and Allen’s critique of them in these pages, is that Allen is still struggling manfully across a chasm: his incomprehension of the language of Faith. When, for example, Ratzinger uses the word “collegiality”, he has a deep, spiritual, even mystical sense of its ecclesial meaning; for Allen, “collegiality” simply means an enthusiasm for bishops’ conferences and an end to “hierarchy”.
It is also worth noting that in 1966, only a year after the Council ended, Ratzinger had published a critique of Gaudium et Spes (in the formulation of which he had played no part), believing it to be too optimistic and lacking the dimension of the Cross. This is an early, thoughtful theological reflection and response – hardly “change”.
Allen recognises that the Pope has a formidable intellect and that his writings – especially Introduction to Christianity (1968) and Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (1977), as well as his magisterial pronouncements when in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – have been highly influential. But does he have a feel for the inner spiritual life of the man who wrote them? No. Unlike George Weigel, whose weighty, though not definitive, biography of the late Pope John Paul II brought his subject to life, this book about a complex and attractive personality is curiously lifeless. This is perhaps because it is impossible to write a good biography if you do not love your subject. Allen admires and respects the Pope; he is in awe of him; but he does not love him. After all, Ratzinger was clearly a gifted teacher and mentor to such influential figures as Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, founder of Ignatius Press, and Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, who assembled the Catechism of the Catholic Church. One of Ratzinger’s pupils remarked: “After every lecture you wanted to go into a church and pray.” None of these aspects of Ratzinger’s personality emerges from this book. In reading his recent homilies, both in the interregnum period and as Pope, it is clear that charity and humility, the foundations of a true prayer life, as well as a love of symbolism, are fundamental to Ratzinger’s discourse. In Allen we are shown more often the Panzer-Kardinal of the newspapers.
More startling is Allen’s brief lurch into a John Lennon-type pop scenario. “Imagine the social import of church weddings for gay couples,” he says, lamenting that Ratzinger did not seize an opportunity here. A papal conclave is described as “that rare moment of democracy in the Catholic Church”. Exit the Holy Spirit, then?
In fairness to Allen, I should add that in his conclusion he states: “Truth, tradition, communion, the Cross – these are the values Joseph Ratzinger has defended in an era when they are often ignored and, for just that reason, are desperately needed.” What is sad is that Allen does not understand what the Church (as opposed to her vociferous western dissenters) means when she, in the person of Pope Benedict XVI, speaks of these things. “Truth,” Ratzinger has stated, “is not decided by a majority vote.” This book should be read as a salutary reminder of the ocean dividing faithful Catholics – Pope Benedict refers to them as the “mustard seeds” of the future – and journalists like Allen, whose Catholic roots (he remembers his mother occasionally saying the rosary with him) are firmly planted in the soil of the prevailing secular culture.