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I never planned on writing a review of this book until I read an article on the web (1-2-05) indicating that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has once again emerged as a serious candidate to become the next Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

This isn’t a book that will appeal to the mainstream evangelical world. In fact, few evangelicals keep an eye on developments in the Catholic Church and even fewer read books written by or about Roman Catholics. But when I was preparing to teach a course at Wheaton College on Roman Catholic theology I devoured this insightful work by John Allen.

Most of you reading this review have never heard of Cardinal Ratzinger, but he has played a more decisive and influential role in the Catholic Church for the past twenty-five years than anyone aside from John Paul II himself. After first reading the book I was convinced that he stood no chance of becoming the next pope, so you can imagine my surprise when I read the news release of 1-3-05.

Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927, the youngest of three children in a lower middle class Bavarian household. Allen points out that “it is an often-overlooked fact of Ratzinger’s life that his formative years coincided almost precisely with the lifespan of the Third Reich” (10). Nothing should be made of the fact that he was briefly a member of the Hitler Youth, given the fact that membership at that time was compulsory. The relationship of the Catholic Church to the Nazi regime is a controversial issue even today, as countless books have been published in the attempt either to suggest collaboration on the part of the papacy or to vindicate Rome from any involvement in Hitler’s policies. Allen is probably correct in concluding that “Ratzinger is no more culpable than any other decent German citizen. The point is that many Germans failed to question, to dissent, and where necessary to fight back” (32). The bottom line is that there is no evidence to suggest that Ratzinger was (or is) anything other than adamantly opposed to the anti-Semitic policies of the Reich.

After the war, Ratzinger was ordained to the priesthood on June 29, 1951 and received his doctorate in theology from the University of Munich in July of 1953. He taught at Freising, the University of Bonn, the University of Munster, and finally, in 1966, arrived at the University of Tubingen. He was made a Cardinal in 1978 and was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981 (which basically serves as the theological watchdog of the Church, “sniffing” out heresy and exacting the appropriate punishment). As recently as 1996 he described himself as a “decided Augustinian.” He was one of the most influential theologians at Vatican II (1962-65) and displayed certain liberal tendencies at that time (arguing for collegiality over against papal centralization and supporting the freedom of theological inquiry without fear of papal condemnation, just to mention two). This makes for interesting speculation, as Ratzinger is today regarded as perhaps the most conservative voice in Rome. Hans Kung, once a friend of Ratzinger (but now one of his most vocal critics), who got him his job at the University of Tubingen, once suggested that “Ratzinger had sold his soul for power” (47). That’s a scathing, and probably unfair, indictment. But it does raise the question of what accounted for his theological transformation. Allen provides an interesting array of explanations and, without actually saying it, leaves the reader with the impression that he thinks Kung is more right than wrong.

Ratzinger himself insists that the political and social uprisings of 1968 both in the U.S. and Europe convinced him of the devastating consequences of a liberalizing tendency in the church. He was teaching at Tubingen when he observed the chaotic, rebellious, and often immoral behavior of students who he believed had been influenced by this liberal element in the academy and the church.

Allen wisely points out that much of Ratzinger’s change can be attributed to the nature of his job description:

“In the same way that doctors see health risks everywhere, lawyers see possible torts, and police officers see criminal activity, Ratzinger senses heresy lurking around every corner in part because it is what he is paid to do. Someone once expressed this by saying that the function of the Holy Office is to deal with the ‘pathology of faith,’ that is, the Catholic faith at its most distorted. Ratzinger will hear about the vast majority of Catholic parishes in the world only if there is a problem, will read the publications of most Catholic theologians only to probe their weakest or most confused points, will examine the files of most priests only when they have done or said something dubious. When this is all you see, you might justifiably conclude that this is all there is. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, sooner or later everything looks like a nail” (86).

In Chapter Three, titled “All Roads Lead to Rome,” Allen documents Ratzinger’s rise to power and his conflict with those theologians who always seemed to push the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy. In particular, he focuses on Hans Kung (b. 1928), who on several occasions and in a number of publications had challenged papal authority and infallibility. Although Kung was hardly the first to raise questions about this matter, his 1970 book, Infallible? An Inquiry, appeared to be a full frontal assault on the concept of papal infallibility which was declared official church dogma in 1870 at the First Vatican Council. Considerable debate ensued over the next few years, resulting in Ratzinger’s declaration on December 18, 1979, that Kung’s mission canonica (his official license to teach at pontifically recognized institutions) had been revoked.

Chapter Four is dedicated to the highly controversial and divisive dispute that erupted in the 1970’s and persisted into the 1980’s between Rome and certain advocates of Liberation Theology (primarily Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff). According to Allen, Ratzinger suggested that “liberation theology confronts the church with a new type of heresy that does not play by the rules. The movement ‘does not fit into accepted categories of heresy because it accepts all the existing language but gives it new meaning’” (154). If you are unfamiliar with the principles of Liberation Theology, I suggest you visit the Historical Theology folder on the website and read the lesson that explains it and provides a brief history of its development.

Ratzinger’s views on women’s ordination (which he staunchly opposes), birth control (again, he maintains the traditional Catholic opposition to artificial means of contraception), homosexuality, and other cultural items are addressed in Chapter Five, and his views on such issues as ecumenism and religious pluralism are taken up in Chapter Six. In Chapter Seven, interestingly (perhaps appropriately) titled “The Enforcer”, Allen describes the procedural steps undertaken by the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith in its investigation of suspected “heretics”. The cases of Charles Curran (who spoke out against the Catholic position on sexuality and birth control) and Matthew Fox (a popular author who espoused what came to be known as “creation spirituality,” an odd mix of Catholic and new age thinking, bordering on being pantheistic; Fox is now an Episcopalian) are addressed as examples of how the office operates.

In the book’s final chapter, Allen takes up the question of whether Ratzinger has much of a chance in being selected as the next Pope. He gives four reasons why he thinks it unlikely. Ratzinger will not be pope because (1) he has very little pastoral experience, (2) is a non-Italian European, (3) is too identified with the policies of the current papacy, and quite simply, (4) he cannot get the votes.

Allen may well be right. From what little I know of the Catholic Church, it is hard to believe that someone who has as many enemies as Ratzinger could muster sufficient support to win the vote. But then, Allen is himself no fan of Ratzinger and his assessment of this powerful figure is, in places, more than a little skewed. But don’t let this deter you from reading the book. It is an excellent and well-written piece, even if not entirely objective (but then, who is?), that will give you a good look at the beliefs and operations of the Roman Catholic Church, especially the power struggles that often dictate its course.