Wednesday, April 27, 2005

John Allen Jr.'s Turnabout

A stirring edition of "Word from Rome" by the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen, Jr., contains his reflections on the election of Pope Benedict XVI, the funeral of Pope John Paul II, as well as the following personal confession:

Six years ago, I wrote a biography of the man who is now pope titled Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith. In the intervening period, I have learned a few things about the universal Catholic church and how things look from different perspectives. If I were to write the book again today, I'm sure it would be more balanced, better informed, and less prone to veer off into judgment ahead of sober analysis.

This, I want to stress, is not a Johnny-come-lately conclusion motivated by the fact that the subject of the book has now become the pope. In a lecture delivered at the Catholic University of America as part of the Common Ground series, on June 25, 2004, I said the following about the book:

    "My 'conversion' to dialogue originated in a sort of 'bottoming out.' It came with the publication of my biography of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued by Continuum in 2000 and titled The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith. The first major review appeared in Commonweal, authored by another of my distinguished predecessors in this lecture series, Fr. Joseph Komonchak. It was not, let me be candid, a positive review. Fr. Komonchak pointed out a number of shortcomings and a few errors, but the line that truly stung came when he accused me of "Manichean journalism." He meant that I was locked in a dualistic mentality in which Ratzinger was consistently wrong and his critics consistently right. I was initially crushed, then furious. I re-read the book with Fr. Komonchak's criticism in mind, however, and reached the sobering conclusion that he was correct. The book - which I modestly believe is not without its merits - is nevertheless too often written in a "good guys and bad guys" style that vilifies the cardinal. It took Fr. Komonchak pointing this out, publicly and bluntly, for me to ask myself, 'Is this the kind of journalist I want to be'? My answer was no, and I hope that in the years since I have come to appreciate more of those shades of gray that Fr. Komonchak rightly insists are always part of the story.

After Ratzinger's election as Benedict XVI was announced, I had hoped to have the opportunity to write a new preface for the book contextualizing some of the views it expresses. Unfortunately, the publisher in the United States, for reasons that I suppose are fairly obvious, had already begun reprinting the book without consulting me. Hence it is probably already appearing in bookstores, without any new material from me.

I can't do anything about that, although the British publishers were kind enough to ask me to write a new preface, which I have already done, so at least the damage will be limited in the U.K.

What is under my control, however, is a new book for Doubleday (a Random House imprint), which I hope will be a more balanced and mature account of both Ratzinger's views and the politics that made him pope. It has been in the works for some time and I hope it will be worthy of the enormity of the story, and the trust of those who elect to read it.

I was among those to recieve a copy of John Allen Jr.'s biography, in exchange for the opportunity to try my hand at writing a book review. Despite it's obvious liberal bias (which I took for granted, given his working for the National Catholic (Dis)torter), I was rather gentle in my response. In retrospect, I think the reason I didn't come down so hard was that, even in his introduction, I could detect a change of tone in the author, a softening towards the Cardinal that would take his more liberal readers by suprise:

Allen's judgements about Ratzinger's character are not what one would expect coming from a 'progressive' Catholic journalist for the National Catholic Reporter: Allen believes Ratzinger "is not the vengeful, power-obsessed old man who lurks like a bogyman in the imaginations of the Catholic left". On the several occasions Allen has met Ratzinger, he has found him to be "charming, with a shy personal style and an active wit", possessing "a calm, peaceful spirit and the remarkable ability to listen". With regard to Ratzinger's thought, Allen finds that his "arguments are more than ex post facto rationalizations for exercises of authority" and speaks of "a deep, logical consistency to [his] vision". Indeed, Allen is so impressed with Ratzinger that he exclaims "in the unlikely event I ever had access to Ratzinger as a personal confesser, I would not hesitate to open my heart to him, so convinced I am of the clarity of his insight, his integrity, and his commitment to the priesthood" -- sentiments which might be denounced as treasonous or dismissed as insane by some on the Catholic left. . . .

And so the man comes around.

I'm very pleased to hear this, as I am sure many of his readers. I look forward to reading his new book on our Holy Father.