Wednesday, April 20, 2005

In Defense of John Allen

The New York Times (Wed. April 20, 2005, A11) quotes John Allen: "Having seen fascism in action, Ratzinger today believes that the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesiastical totalitarianism," he wrote. "In other words, he believes the Catholic Church serves the causes of human freedom by restricting freedom in its internal life, thereby remaining clear about what it teaches and believes."

Daniel J. Wakin and The Times editorial staff would better serve their reading public if they presented the real depth and character of Allen when he made a public retraction and self-indictment at the "Catholic Common Ground Lecture," June 25, 2004 @ Catholic University of America. He said the following:

"As a journalist, it's my job to ask difficult questions, so let me now ask one aloud, prompted by this last point about the absence of spaces for dialogue: 'Why didn't Common Ground work?' Please don't misunderstand; I know the Common Ground initiative does very important things. Gathering us here this evening is a splendid case in point. At the same time, however, most observers would probably agree that measured against the aspirations of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, which were to transform the public conversation in the American Church, the Common Ground initiative has not had the desired impact. If anything, we are more polarized, more strangers to one another, today than when the project began. So, the tough question: Why?

I have a hunch. I think the proper analogy may be to substance abuse - people can't be helped if they don't want help. Similarly, a dialogue program is of no use to people convinced they have nothing to learn from one another. Perhaps, therefore, American Catholics haven't yet "bottomed out." They have not had the kind of illumination, the "ah-hah" moment, in which they grasped the sterility of ideological warfare.

I wish I had a formula for manufacturing such illumination on a mass scale. Instead, all I can offer is my personal story, in the hope that it might be indicative of something. My "conversion" to dialogue originated in a sort of "bottoming out." It came with the publication of my biography of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued by Continuum in 2000 and titled The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith. The first major review appeared in Commonweal, authored by another of my distinguished predecessors in this lecture series, Fr. Joseph Komonchak. It was not, let me be candid, a positive review. Fr. Komonchak pointed out a number of shortcomings and a few errors, but the line that truly stung came when he accused me of "Manichean journalism." He meant that I was locked in a dualistic mentality in which Ratzinger was consistently wrong and his critics consistently right. I was initially crushed, then furious. I re-read the book with Fr. Komonchak's criticism in mind, however, and reached the sobering conclusion that he was correct. The book, which I modestly believe is not without its merits, is nevertheless too often written in a "good guys and bad guys" style that vilifies the cardinal. It took Fr. Komonchak pointing this out, publicly and bluntly, for me to ask myself, "Is this the kind of journalist I want to be?" My answer was no, and I hope that in the years since I have come to appreciate more of those shades of gray that Fr. Komonchak rightly insists are always part of the story. (I will not embarrass Fr. Komonchak by asking for his evaluation of my performance!)

My point is that it is unpredictable what will produce change in the human heart. I would tongue-in-cheek suggest that perhaps the editors of Commonweal could arrange for more negative reviews of books by Catholic authors, but I actually doubt that's the solution. In some fashion, however, Catholics need to be brought to see how their blinders and prejudices, far from safeguarding the faith, actually impede full Catholicity. Again, I say: I do not know how to engineer this, but if I were a pastor or spiritual director or bishop these days, I would be spending a great deal of time pondering the outlines of a "spirituality of dialogue." We must have a spirituality before a program for dialogue can realize its potential."

There is a greatness to this honesty, love for truth and self-deprecation that has already shown itself in Allen as the go-to "Wunderkind" (as Paul Elie refers to him) of Vatican reporting for both press and TV. The Times would better serve itself and us by undergoing a similar "ah-hah" moment.


Christopher Byrnes said...

Dear Father Bob,

Good take on Mr. Allen's comments. I personally am a big fan of John Allen, in spite of his articles being printed in Commonweal. I have always found him to be both one of the most accurate and interesting reporters in the Vatican. You are, however, definitely right about this comment of his.

By the way, this is a very good blog. I'll have to bookmark it.

All the best!

Chris Byrnes

P.S. Are there going to be any events at Southmont in the upcoming weeks and months? I'm going to be home from Villanova in Mid-May.

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