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Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger

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Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography

Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was an exceptionally divisive and controversial figure in the Catholic Church. As Pope Benedict XVI, he is supposed to be a living symbol of the unity of not just all Catholics, but all Christians in the world. Can he make a credible transition from defender of orthodoxy to pastor of the entire church? That will be perhaps the most serious challenge of Benedict’s papacy.


Title: Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger
Author: John L. Allen Jr.
Publisher: Continuum
ISBN: 0826417868

• Style is typical Allen: easy to read, engaging, and helpful
• Comprehensive introduction to his life — nothing else like it available

• Conservatives consider it highly unbalanced — Ratzinger usually appears as the “bad guy”

• Biography of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI
• Examines his life, his intellectual & family background, and his activities as cardinal
• Much of the book deals with his conflicts with more liberal Catholics


Book Review

In 2000, John L. Allen, Jr. wrote a critical biography of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger under the title Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith. It has now been rereleased as Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger. Since the original publication, Allen has come to feel that his work vilified Ratzinger, always portraying him as a “bad guy” and those who disagreed with him as the “good guys.” Even if true, however, it remains the most comprehensive and detailed biography of Joseph Ratzinger available.

Allen makes it very clear right at the beginning that he approaches his subject from a biased viewpoint. Allen has grown up following a brand of Catholicism that values dissent, discussion, and social engagement — but he sees the brand of Catholicism which people like Ratzinger have defended as rejecting those values. He thinks that he has made a sincere effort to understand that sort of Catholicism and is in many ways sympathetic to it, but he wishes that such Catholics would make more of an effort to understand and sympathize with his own approach.

Allen describes Joseph Ratzinger's experiences under the Nazis, explaining how he would have been aware of much more than he has revealed in his personal writings and why his statement that resistance against the Nazis was "impossible" simply isn't true. Resistance was difficult and dangerous, but not impossible — and Ratzinger’s public comments suggest that he hasn’t fully come to terms with his own (in)actions. Allen also compares the lessons drawn by some from the Nazi era (resistance to authoritarian institutions should be encouraged) to those drawn by Ratzinger (the best antidote to authoritarian governments is an even more authoritarian church).

Allen takes us through Ratzinger’s early clerical career, describing how he was more liberal early on and explaining how he changed so dramatically in the late 1960s, becoming the conservative we know today. More importantly, Allen documents in great detail exactly where Ratzinger changed and how. This should lay to rest any claims that he hasn’t truly changed his views (including denials from Ratzinger himself).

Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography

Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger

Allen explains how Ratzinger’s theology has developed over the years, but also that there is a consistent theme or principle that lies at the heart of this writing despite the changes: “a pessimistic view about the relationship between church and culture.” We can see this on full display every time Pope Benedict XVI complains about a “dictatorship of relativism” and the “anarchy” involved when governments allow for things like gay marriage.

Ratzinger is perhaps best known for his role as “Enforcer of the Faith,” the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (an office once named the Holy Inquisition) and Allen explains the details of some of the most famous cases that came before Ratzinger. It is probably these sections that give rise to most of the complaints about this biography because the people put on trial do consistently come off as more sympathetic and reasonable than Ratzinger.

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