Perhaps it is ironic that this call to be countercultural should come from the Vatican . . . but in his insistence that Christian spirituality must not skip the Incarnation to Resurrection without passing through the Passion, that Christians must sometimes invite scorn and embrace sacrifice in order to be faithful, Ratzinger is striking exactly the note his church needs to hear.

Truth, tradition, communion, the cross -- these are values Joseph Ratzinger has defended in an era when they are often ignored and, for just that reason, desperately needed. Catholicism, and broader culture, should be grateful.

John L. Allen, Jr.

Cardinal Ratzinger : The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith, by John L. Allen, Jr.

Review by Christopher Blosser.

John L. Allen has put a considerable amount of effort into researching the life and thought of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Unlike the author, I cannot lay claim to having read 'almost everything Ratzinger has ever written' (much less to have 'dusted off his rudimentary German' so as not be restricted only to those texts published in English), or the many profiles of the cardinal published in the last 20 years. In the course of his research he has spoken to Ratzinger's colleagues, aides, students, those who have taken positions for and against him in the public life of the Church. Regretfully he was unable to score a personal interview, but managed to speak to the cardinal personally during a visit to California and has met him on two other occasions.

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.

However, Allen's prevalently liberal audience will be reassured by the fact that his praises for Ratzinger as a person fail to carry over to Ratzinger's role as doctrinal prefect. One doesn't have to read far to note that on every issue from contraception to women's ordination to liberation theology he comes down squarely opposed, and remains just as steadfast in his convictions as the cardinal is in his. Unfortunately, there are points in the book where Allen seems so intent on defending his own positions against the cardinal that he loses focus on his topic -- to the effect that some chapters seem more like an apologetic for Call to Action than a biographical account.

In the first chapter,"Under Hitler's Shadow", Allen criticizes of the role of the Catholic Church under the Nazis (those who resisted as well as capitulated), delves into the controversial life of Ratzinger's great uncle Georg, covers Ratzinger's own stint in the German military, life as a graduate student in Munich, and ordination into the priesthood.

The second chapter, 'An Erstwhile Liberal', focuses on Ratzinger's role as theological advisor to Cardinal Frings at Vatican II. Here Allen introduces his comparison and contrast between Ratzinger the 'conciliar theologian' and Ratzinger the 'doctrinal prefect'; 'cautious reformer' and 'sharp conservative' (a model which he will continue to employ in later chapters). He demonstrates Ratzinger's shift in position on issues including collegiality, the role of the holy office; the development of tradition; the reform of the liturgy and ecumenism. Allen does an adequate job of documenting Ratzinger's development in thought in his own action and writing, although those more familiar with the full body of Ratzinger's work might question the full extent of Ratzinger's changes.

Chapter 3, 'All Roads Lead to Rome', addresses Ratzinger's role as theologian, teacher, and cardinal, and features interviews with his former students and colleagues on the faculty. I found this chapter the most captivating and personally would have preferred that Allen devoted more time to covering this period of Ratzinger's life and theology -- and less to the controversies which would envelop him in the years ahead.

Allen points to a number of factors which may have influenced Ratzinger's development of thought, among them his growing disillusionment with the reforms of Vatican II, the reaction of many Catholics to Humanae Vitae. A significant factor is Ratzinger's experience of the politicization of Christianity as exemplified by his clashes with Marxist students & faculty at Tubingen in 1968. According to Allen, it is at this point that Ratzinger understood the danger of a Christianity rendered subservient to a violent ideological agenda, and the standard of truth reduced to effectiveness in accomplishing political ends. This is a lesson which would come to influence his judgement of (and subsequent struggle against) liberation theology during his years as doctrinal prefect.

Chapter 4, "Authentic Liberation", is a year-by-year chronicle of Ratzinger's war against liberation theology and its proponents; chapter 5, "Cultural Warrior", his struggle against the liberal Catholic agenda, and chapter 6 ("Holy Wars") the excesses of Christian ecumenism and theology of religious pluralism. Needless to say Allen does not agree with Ratzinger on any of these issues. However to his credit he clearly articulates Ratzinger's reasoning behind his decisions and occassionaly points to circumstances which would justify his strict disciplinary measures.

Chapter 7, "The Vatican's Enforcer", is a study of the actual workings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The last, "Ratzinger and the Next Conclave" addresses Ratzinger's chances of papal election and the author's musings on what form a church and papacy under Ratzinger might actually take. In his concluding reflections on what Catholics might learn from Ratzinger the author manages (in his own way) to agree on four key points:

  1. Ratzinger is right about the importance of submission to truth -- "Ratzinger is right that a culture of lies reaches its apogee at Auschwitz, because when truth no longer puts limits on power, everyone is at risk. We need to recover faith in a standard beyond ourselves, in a truth that exists beyond the reach of our own subjectivity." (Whether or not Allen would agree that submission to the Magisterium is included is disputable -- but it's a start).

  2. Ratzinger's is right about "the diachronic nature of the sense of the faithful" -- Criticizing activists' use of poll numbers, petition drives and Mass attendance statistics to justify whatever it is they advocate, Allen notes: "From a Catholic point of view, the data is incomplete. We are linked to a sacramental bond with generations that have gone before, and their voices must be heard. Thus Ratzinger is correct that a cavalier disregard of tradition, or movements that pay lip service to tradition but in truth care only about interest group politics of the moment, are missing an essential element of Catholicity."

  3. Ratzinger is right that "we can't shape the church in our image." -- When it comes to the advancement of a liberal position and preserving the community, being Catholic sometimes means picking the latter. "If some believes wish to strive towards [conservative or liberal] goals, the Catholic instinct is to do so from within the kononia, the community. While one should not apply the point uncritically, there is a need for Catholics to practice 'religious submission' that trusts in the Church, in its future if not always its present. Inculturation is not merely a one-way street, as if it is exclusively the Church's task to adjust itself to me. I, too, must acculturate to the Church." Consequently, open defiance and secession such as the liberal 'Spiritus Christi' faith community in Rochester, NY, or the conservative Lefevrite Pius X movement, or even less noticeable schisms such as women's eucharistic communities "may satisfy aggrieved parties on a short-term basis, [but] in the end can signal a loss of faith in the church."

  4. Ratzinger is right in warning about the dangers of being mesmerized by culture. We live in a world of perpetual advertising and commercialization, corporate manipulation of the media, saturated by an ideology that encourages consumption and frivolity and ignorance to the thousands of children who die daily of hunger and preventable disease. "We complain when gas prices rise to $1.25 a gallon, while more than 500,000 Iraqi children have died under the impact of sanctions whose stated purpose is to promote political and military stability, [but] whose obvious and unstated aim is to ensure a steady flow of oil to the world market. Closer to home, we live in a world in which it is possible to be beaten to death simply for being gay, or black, or homeless, or a woman, or simply for being." Here I was disappointed that Allen neglected to mention abortion among the evils of our society. Nevertheless, these are all valid points, and Allen is right in noting that as Christians we have -- with few exceptions -- become far too comfortable with our culture.

Finally, I would like to point out several worthy observations by Allen which really hit home. The first was directed toward critics (as well as admirers) of Ratzinger, the second toward Catholics in general:

Reaction to Ratzinger is often uncritical, driven more by emotion and instinct than sober reflection. Progressives do not read his books, they disregard his public statements, and they assume every position he takes is based on power politics. Conservatives revere most of what he says as holy writ, often spouting mindlessly without penetrating to the principle or value he seeks at stake. Neither response takes Ratzinger seriously.

The problem with political arguments in contemporary Catholicism is that too often the disagreeing parties talk past one another, having very little intellectual common ground upon which to base the discussion. . . . Neither is willing to spend the intellectual effort to understand the concerns that drive their thoughts, the arguments that have led them to the conclusions they hold, the alternatives they have considered and rejected.

This is certainly advice which any Catholic, regardless of his personal and ideological convictions, can take to heart and follow.

Given the scathing reviews Allen's book has recieved by vehement conservative critics, one would get the impression that he has nothing at all positive to say about Ratzinger. While this book is not as "cautious, objective, and fair" as Father Greeley endorses it to be; it is neither a "hatchet job" nor "partisan indictment masquerading as a biography" (to quote a few angry reviews on

Of course there are many aspects about John Allen's book which I find disagreeable (and which other critics have already taken issue with). Granted, we could expect something possessing a much different tone had this been written by one of Ratzinger's ardent supporters (Father Joseph Fessio or Cardinal Schonborn). Nevertheless, I believe we should respect Allen's account for what it is: an honest (and so far as I have noticed, unparalleled among the Catholic left) attempt by a liberal Catholic to appreciate the person and thought of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Would that we all do the same.