washingtonpost.com
Father Figure
How the new pontiff got the job, and how he might differ from his charismatic predecessor.

Reviewed by Eamon Duffy
Sunday, August 28, 2005

THE RISE OF BENEDICT XVI

The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church

By John L. Allen Jr.

Doubleday. 249 pp. $19.95

POPE BENEDICT XVI

A Personal Portrait

By Heinz-Joachim Fischer

Translated from the German by Brian McNeil

Crossroad. 213 pp. $19.95

LET GOD'S LIGHT SHINE FORTH

The Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI

Edited by Robert Moynihan

Doubleday. 215 pp. $17.95

After a quarter-century in which the world's largest religious organization was governed by one of the world's most magnetic leaders, the Roman Catholic Church now has an elderly, fastidious and traditionalist scholar at its head. Friends and close collaborators though they were, John Paul II and Benedict XVI are radically different sorts of men. Joseph Ratzinger is more theologically sophisticated than his predecessor and a good deal less religiously adventurous. His traditionalism, though as strong as the late Karol Wojtyla's, is altogether more considered, bookish and conceptual. These instinctual differences between them were evident in Ratzinger's notable lack of enthusiasm for the millennium celebrations that meant so much to the Polish pope, and they appeared again when, on John Paul's authority, the so-called Third Secret of Fatima was published. Ratzinger's official theological commentary on it was perceptibly lukewarm and generalizing, a damage-limitation exercise designed to empty the "secret" of its apocalyptic menace and to demonstrate that, as the cardinal observed dryly to one journalist before its publication, "nowhere does it say anything more than what the Christian message already says." Thus, while Benedict's papacy is unlikely to produce any dramatic theological discontinuities with that of John Paul, it will not be a simple rerun. Every new pope is a new beginning.

The rapid election of one of the key figures of John Paul's pontificate to succeed him took most commentators by surprise. Pundits had confidently predicted that after 26 years of strong and distinctively flavored medicine, the cardinals would opt for something decidedly more bland. It is unusual after a long papacy for a conclave to elect someone close to the heart of the previous regime. For a quarter of a century, Ratzinger headed the Vatican's doctrinal-watchdog agency, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he was responsible for some of the most controversial policies of the Wojtyla era -- the attack on liberation theology; the disciplining of moral theologians who were off-message on key issues such as the permissibility of artificial birth control; and, latterly, what was perceived as a significant retreat from the opening toward other churches and other faiths inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council. As author and enforcer of these policies, the "Panzer cardinal" was widely perceived by Catholics as God's and the papacy's chief policeman; John L. Allen Jr.'s biography Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith , published in 2000 and recently reissued, devoted a chapter to explaining why he was unlikely ever to be pope.

Allen's latest book, The Rise of Benedict XVI , produced at astonishing speed, sets out to explain why Ratzinger did become pope after all. Markedly less acerbic than the earlier biography, it is based in part on conversations with eight of the 115 cardinals involved in the election (while in Rome to cover the papal inauguration for the BBC, I stumbled into one of these confidential interviews). None of his informants, he assures us, violated his vow of secrecy about the details of the election, but Allen has managed to elicit enough from them to make this little book, judiciously padded and packaged, a worthwhile contribution to understanding why Rome has its first German pope in 800 years.

Much of Allen's book is informed speculation about what Ratzinger's policies and preoccupations are likely to be. Right or wrong, a good deal of it will be redundant within a year. Of more abiding value is Allen's thoughtful analysis of the factors (he counts 10 in all) that contributed to the conclave's outcome. According to Allen, Ratzinger was simply the outstanding figure in the college of cardinals. He is a learned theologian and thinker, a man of weight, gravity and experience, a linguist and a listener respected even by those who do not love him, and there was no one else of comparable stature and in a reasonable state of health in the conclave. Allen also thinks Ratzinger ran a good campaign, presiding as cardinal dean over the interregnum, including the papal funeral, with a dignity and an inclusive spirit that impressed (and in some cases surprised) his fellow cardinals. He also had the best campaign "staff," a group of determined conservatives within the college who pushed his candidacy. Then there was "the funeral factor" -- the death of John Paul dominated the world media for weeks and drew millions of pilgrims to Rome, revealing how large his papacy had loomed in world awareness. After him, it would be simply impossible to elect a holy nonentity as a stop-gap. What was needed was a figure of John Paul's caliber, and Ratzinger, Allen argues, came closer than anyone else to meeting that requirement.

At least they knew who he was. As head of the most important Vatican department, he had gotten to know the world's bishops on their regular visits to Rome, and most of them liked what they saw. To many cardinals, Ratzinger's Rottweiler reputation seemed undeserved. Finding him personally charming, courteous and accommodating, they hoped he would be a listening pope. Moreover, his intellectual preoccupations included a determined resistance to the spread of secularism. Since most cardinals still come from Western countries where Christian practice and faith are eroding, they looked to him for a lead that might halt the slide. Even those seeking reform hoped, perhaps optimistically, that "only Nixon could go to China": Ratzinger's long and faithful Vatican service and his impeccable theological conservatism uniquely equipped him to institute badly needed reforms at the Church's center, the Curia.

Another factor was a new rule that John Paul had approved for the conclave, permitting election by a simple majority, instead of the traditional two-thirds, after a period of deadlock. The knowledge that his supporters had only to keep their nerve and keep voting till the simple majority rule came into effect, Allen speculates, may have deterred any search for an alternative candidate. And finally, there was in fact no alternative. The only serious rival was the brilliant and imposing Jesuit Cardinal Martini. But he was retired and said to be suffering from Parkinson's disease. (Allen firmly rejects the rumor that Martini publicly declared he would refuse the papacy during the conclave.)

Allen's book is one of a flood of slim, semi-biographical studies, most recycling the same meager material on Ratzinger's uneventful career. "Odd," a non-Catholic colleague remarked to me. "So many lives of a man who's never really had one!" Heinz-Joachim Fischer's Pope Benedict XVI is better than most, informed as it is by a longstanding friendship with its subject and enlivened by sympathetic but not uncritical appraisal. Fischer's chief hope for Benedict's papacy is that he might infuse a little joy into a Church grown sternly introspective. But joy doesn't strike one immediately as Benedict's strong suit: "We are living in alienation," he declared at his inauguration, "in the salt waters of suffering and death, in a sea of darkness without light." It is a daunting appraisal of the human condition, characteristic of a theological mindset informed by the thought of Ratzinger's "great Master," Saint Augustine.

Maybe in the end the best books on Ratzinger are his own, for he is an eloquent and forceful writer; more than 40 of his works are currently available in English. In Let God's Light Shine Forth , Robert Moynihan has made an intelligent selection from these. His introduction is laudatory and uncritical, but the extracts themselves provide a useful window into the characteristic preoccupations of a thinker now uniquely positioned to translate thought into policies that will affect the lives of hundreds of millions. ยท

Eamon Duffy is professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, president of Magdalene College and the author of "Saints and Sinners," a history of the papacy.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company