Comes a Churchman


by John L. Allen Jr.

Doubleday, 2005

256 pages, $19.95

Available in bookstores

The day after Pope Benedict XVI's inaugural Mass, John L. Allen Jr. bumped into Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City in the Rome airport. The journalist told the cardinal he was working on a book that would look back on the conclave just past and ahead to the pontificate to come.

“Your book will be balanced, I hope,” said Cardinal Carrera.

“I hope so, too,” Allen replied.

As it turns out, balance seems to have been one of the lead priorities Allen set for himself before banging out this probing, fair — and, in the end, brightly hopeful — book, whose contents are precisely synopsized by its subtitle, The Inside Story of How the Pope was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church.

To some, this may come as a surprise. After all, this is the same John L. Allen who serves as Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, the weekly newspaper based in Kansas City that has editorialized in favor of women's ordination, homosexual “marriage” and a married priesthood.

Don't judge a book by its author's employer.

What, precisely, is balance, journalistically speaking? In a story that divides people along pro vs. con lines, or supportive vs. antagonistic — or “progressive” vs. “traditional” — it's accounting for both sides’ points of view. It's getting the story straight and letting it speak for itself.

Allen has met those criteria. In the process, he's uncovered a promising papacy only the most sour and jaded could disparage at such an early date.

As the airport anecdote hints, Allen's greatest strengths are his easy access to the Church's top leaders and his ready reporting. Add to this his notable gift for sharp analysis, and the work has the makings of an unlikely page-turner.

It's clear Allen has used his years in Rome cultivating working relationships with cardinals and bishops, jotting down notes wherever he goes. A journalism professor might say he comes across as a little too chummy with some of his sources here, or that a few too many are allowed to weigh in anonymously. But Allen is not just a gadfly; he's also done his homework. For example, a chapter titled “Who Is Joseph Ratzinger?” evidences a careful reading of the former doctrinal prefect's prodigious writings. Elsewhere are summaries of colloquia, biographies and articles. Together, the pieces add up to the trail of a reporter with a healthy journalistic obsession over his subject.

Intriguingly, the more he has studied the man, the more John Allen has grown in his respect for, and understanding of, Joseph Ratzinger. Allen authored a 1999 biography of then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Its subtitle tells you all you need to know about its angle: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith.

Of that earlier book, shortly after Benedict's election as pope, Allen wrote in his weekly online column: “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.”

With The Rise of Benedict XVI, John Allen shows how far he's come these past six years as a journalist — and as a Catholic practicing the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

“Benedict could succeed in his teaching mission to stir anew in Europe and beyond a love affair with Truth, leading to a cultural Renaissance on a grand scale,” he writes. “With a gentle touch and one of his generation's best minds, he could inspire a reawakening of the Catholic intellectual and artistic tradition.”

Cardinal Carrera, you can exhale now.

David Pearson is the Register's features editor.