There's this thing called the "historian's fallacy," wherein anything that happens can be seen, retrospectively, as having been inevitable. And on one reading of John L. Allen's "The Rise of Benedict XVI," you'd be able to make a case that the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to the papacy was pretty much inevitable. But it's to Allen's credit as a journalist that he doesn't succumb to the "historian's fallacy." In fact, I think he makes a good case that Ratzinger's election was not only not inevitable, but in some ways even more revolutionary than the election of Karol Wojtyla in 1978.
Prior to the 2005 conclave, conventional wisdom made Ratzinger's election look pretty unlikely. One "what's going to happen at the next conclave" book by a well-known writer on Catholic topics even said flat out, "Although Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ... is a highly regarded theologian and intellectual, he is one of the least likely to be elected pope."
What made Ratzinger's election happen -- and the discussion of which makes this such an interesting book -- is what Allen calls "the funeral effect." Although leaders of the Roman Catholic Church knew Pope John Paul II was popular, it wasn't until they saw first-hand the world's response to his death that they realized the transforming effect he had on the Church's position in the world. Conventional wisdom said that the College of Cardinals would probably select a quiet, pastoral type with solid administrative skills to allow the Church some "breathing room" to process and assess the legacy of John Paul. But "the funeral effect" made it clear that the Church -- and the pope in particular -- now had a spot on the world stage that could not be filled by a largely unknown "smiling pope" like John Paul I. Only one man seemed to have the stature, the intellect, and the personality to fill, not only the shoes of the fisherman, but also the shoes of John Paul the Great: Joseph Ratzinger.
All this is fascinating enough. But Allen's journalistic narrative-cum-biography does something very important -- something that I think makes this book itself very important. Joseph Ratzinger's reputation prior to his elevation wasn't the most positive in the American church. Nicknames like "God's rottweiler" were common. And although he barely mentions it in this book, Allen himself may bear some of the responsibility for this because of his scathing 1999 biography "Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith" (a book from which Allen himself has since backed away).
Allen here does an important service in showing that Benedict XVI is not in the least like his "enforcer" reputation -- a fact recognized by his brother cardinals when they elected him. According to cardinals Allen interviewed both before and after the conclave, Ratzinger is in fact a kind, thoughtful, even playful man who has a reputation for listening closely to those with whom he disagrees and conceding their arguments when he finds them to have merit. He is unwavering in his commitment to the truth, and believes there is no kindness or love in trimming or moderating the truth for those who may not want to hear it. But the image of him as a Vatican mafioso out to crack kneecaps just doesn't stand up to the testimony of those who know him.
This is not a perfect book. For one thing, I hate hate hate that it doesn't have an index, nor any footnotes or other citations to differentiate his own interviews from information from other sources. And while Allen's portrait of the pope does include some of his warts, the tone of this book is so different from that of the author's earlier look at the man, I wish he would have included more discussion about why his opinion changed. I'm afraid Ratzinger's persistent critics will find it too easy to accuse Allen of "sucking up" to power. (I would find that accusation nonsense, myself, but I can imagine it being made.)
On the whole, Allen paints a positive portrait of the new pontiff, and gives people inclined to like the man and willing to give him a chance many hopes for a great and important pontificate. Indeed, as Allen writes on pp. 179-180, "The great contribution of John Paul II, some confidants of Benedict XVI believe, was that he created such enormous interest in the papacy that the world will now be paying attention when Pope Benedict speaks. As one Belgian monsignor recently put the point, 'John Paul invited everyone to the feast, and now it's up to Benedict to cook the meal.'"
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About the reviewer
Andrew S. Rogers (Cascadian)
Mostly, I'm a moderately prolific Amazon.com reviewer who's giving Lunch a try as another venue for my reviews.
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