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Monday, January 09, 2006

The Year’s Best Books on Benedict

National Catholic Register

Father Raymond J. de Souza recommends the best books on Pope Benedict XVI.

In choosing Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger last April, the College of Cardinals did something that made the work of journalists the world over much easier — they chose the best-known Catholic priest in the world, second only to the late Pope John Paul II himself in terms of what had been written about him, not to mention by him.

So within months of Benedict’s election, instead of a handful of long magazine profiles about the new man — with summaries of his biography and curriculum vitae — we got instead a parade of good-quality books. They were published quickly, but are by no means “quickie-books” in the manner of celebrity journalism. All four authors reviewed here have been thinking and writing about Joseph Ratzinger for many years. Indeed, the books all have something of a summary quality to them, drawing on material the authors have previously published.

(Disclosure: All four authors are colleagues and friends from my years in the Vatican press corps. All of us were on hand in Rome last April for the conclave, and given the small circle of papal commentators, our professional and social relationships could hardly be otherwise.)

With the arrival of George Weigel’s book last month, the initial spurt of Pope Benedict books is now complete. Along with John Allen’s book, published over the summer, they both present substantive analyses of the Holy Father’s election and situate it within the contemporary situation of the Catholic Church.

The other two books are more modest. Heinz-Joachim Fischer had written a new book on Joseph Ratzinger, drawing upon some 30 years of interviews and reporting, and subsequently recast it upon his election as Benedict XVI. Robert Moynihan has provided short biographical essay on Cardinal Ratzinger, which introduces his book, which is made up of quotations and excerpts from his (pre-papal) writings.

This last is useful, not for the biography (which, among other errors, gets Father Ratzinger’s ordination date wrong), but for the pages of quotations. Books of quotations became quite popular during the end of Pope John Paul II’s life, and given the breadth and depth of Ratzinger’s work, to have at hand a paragraph or two of what he thinks on a few dozen subjects may well serve those who do not have time to read his books.

Fischer gives particular insight into the man he says is the German who has had, second only to Martin Luther, the greatest impact on the modern history of the Catholic Church. Fischer is clearly an admirer and a friend of the Pope, and his account can be both defensive and saccharine, but he does open a window into the life of Joseph Ratzinger the professor of the 1960 and 1970s, and how his life in the German academic world shaped his view of the mission of the Church. It was the depth and creativity of the German theological schools that made the young Ratzinger — a “theological teenager” – into a major influence at the Second Vatican Council. It was his experience of the upheaval and even nihilism of the late 1960s on campus that made him into a staunch defender of the Catholic tradition.

It was that aspect of Cardinal Ratzinger that Allen focused on in his 1999 biography, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith. His treatment then was the standard caricature — Cardinal Ratzinger against scholars, Cardinal Ratzinger against women, Cardinal Ratzinger against scientists, Cardinal Ratzinger against advocates for the poor.

So one-sided was the treatment (there was no doubt whose side Allen was on) that the book neglected to deal with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Ratzinger’s crowning achievement at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Soon after publishing that book, Allen arrived in Rome to cover the Vatican full-time, and discovered that Cardinal Ratzinger in full was something rather more impressive.

He denounced his own book in 2004, which set the stage for this year’s much more sympathetic work, The Rise of Benedict XVI. (The publisher of the earlier book, against Allen’s wishes, reissued the flawed work under a new title, Pope Benedict XVI.)

Post-conclave books are supposed to get the goods on what happened in the Sistine Chapel, and Allen’s status as a leading Vatican reporter would have situated him well for that role. But given the swiftness of Benedict’s election, there is not much for him to say. There were no intrigues and no surprising twists. There wasn’t time. Benedict got some 40-odd votes on the first ballot, bumped up to more than 50 on the second, and easily passed the 58-vote mark on the third (a majority of the electors).

The outcome being clear, he achieved the necessary two-thirds (77) plus many more on the fourth and final ballot. Allen’s reporting here confirms most other reports, and is in substantial agreement with Weigel’s own account.

But if the how was straightforward, what about the why? When the cardinals arrived in Rome last April, reporters who spoke with them directly knew that Cardinal Ratzinger was a plausible, perhaps even likely, pope. The widespread media commentary dismissed him, and offered up multiple alternative storylines — all of which turned out to be false.

Both Allen and Weigel agree that Cardinal Ratzinger was eventually elected simply because his long experience and extraordinary gifts made him the obvious choice. All the chatter about what type of man should be elected faded away before the manifest superiority of the man who was, critically, front and center during the days after John Paul’s death. That was obvious to many post-conclave, and apparently obvious to the cardinal-electors before and during.

Allen offers the “best man” thesis as the most powerful explanation, and Weigel quotes one cardinal who said “he was the elder brother who was clearly head and shoulders above the rest.”

Readers of the Register will already be familiar with Weigel’s ability to weave together many elements of the story into a single narrative, and his book better than the others traces the arc of the story from the last days of John Paul to the first days of Benedict. Weigel draws the continuity even farther back, highlighting the importance of Benedict as the last living link to Vatican II. That can be read both ways of course — the Church returning for one last time to the great source of renewal in our time, or that the generation formed after the council has been found wanting.

Weigel, like Allen, concludes his book by suggesting what Benedict’s pontificate might look like. In the main, Weigel suggests that Benedict will do what he helped John Paul do for almost 25 years — deepen the authentic renewal called for by Vatican II in the face of an increasingly militant secularism that has become alternately bored and fearful in an age of relative prosperity and freedom.

Both books stress continuity, while suggesting the possibility that Benedict will surprise. And in that, they confirm what one cardinal elector told me a few days after John Paul’s funeral, commenting upon the immense crowds of young people who had come to Rome: “Whatever we do, we have to choose a man who they will recognize as confirming what John Paul did.”

Allen and Weigel admirably explain how the cardinals set out to do just that.

  • Father Raymond J. de Souza writes from Kingston, Ontario.

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