Busted: John Allen, Jr.

CNN's Vatican analyst and National Catholic Reporter correspondent sits down with BustedHalo to talk about the death of John Paul II, the election of Pope Benedict and where the Catholic Church is headed

If you happened to be anywhere near a television set during the extensive media coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict, chances are you are familiar with John Allen Jr. Allen, who serves as a Vatican analyst for CNN and NPR in additon to his role as correspondent for National Catholic Reporter seemed omnipresent during those weeks as he
helped interpret the breaking news at the Vatican for American viewers. Just seven weeks after the installation of Pope Benedict, his new book The Rise of Benedict XVI: The inside story of how the pope was elected and where he will take the Catholic Church, has hit the shelves. On the eve of its June 7th release, Allen, 40, stopped by BustedHalo’s offices to talk about his new book. What follows here is the first part of a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion about the Catholic Church from a journalist who has gotten as close to the action as any American has.

BustedHalo: I remember watching CNN when they announced the election of Pope Benedict and you looked, frankly, stunned. I think your reaction was something along the lines of…

John Allen, Jr.: Astounded. Well it so defied all the things that a careful study of history will tell you on the way these things are supposed to work and of course the lesson there is never be to dogmatic because you never know what’s going to happen. I had been one of those who had all along said Ratzinger was a serious candidate and you have to take this seriously but at the same time I was doubtful that he would get two-thirds of the vote in the College of Cardinals. It took those lengthy conservations after the [funeral] for the cardinals to understand the psychological climate in which they were operating. My point was that John Paul II raised the bar. He set a higher standard for the kind of person who has to be elected pope. Now it’s an open question for how long that will last or will that be true for the conclave that elects the successor to Benedict the XVI? I think it’s open question but certainly in this case it was a different standard.

BH: You talked a lot about the conclave in the book. In many ways it felt like the conclave was a lot like American politics. The conservatives love their guy put him up and the progressives seemed to lack any kind of organization. Is that fair and why do you think that happens?

JA: Oh I think part of that is fair. Look, the old Thomistic principle that grace builds upon nature doesn’t cancel it outright which means that we believe as Catholics that the Holy Spirit is somehow involved in this process doesn’t make it any less a human and, therefore, any less a political exercise. So of course there is political organizing, there is bargaining, there is horse trading, all of that is part of it and I think it is a fair characterization to say that Cardinal Ratzinger came into the conclave with a determined base of support–a minority but a strong base of support–and no one else had that kind of organizational muscle. There was certainly an opposition. Clearly there were people who would respect Ratzinger personally but felt that he wasn’t the right choice for the church at this time who essentially lacked a candidate. It was a constituency without a candidate and, for a lot of different reasons, it never got its act together organizationally. And that was part of the reason it was over very quickly.

Now that of course isn’t the whole story. There are other factors to explain Ratzinger’s election. Again, prescinding from the question of the role of the Holy Spirit, let’s assume that is there but at the kind of human level what else was going on? I think the important thing to understand about this election is that it shattered every bit of conventional wisdom that there is about what kind of guy becomes pope. I mean the conventional wisdom is that you don’t want someone this old, you’re not going to elect a northern European you’re not elect someone out of the Roman curia, you’re not going to elect someone who so closely identified with the previous pontificate, you’re not going to elect somebody who has so much baggage. The danger is that because Ratzinger was so close to the pope and he is such a public figure we think this was an obvious choice, well it wasn’t. It was not obvious at all, in fact it undercut everything that historical patterns tell us about who gets elected pope. So obviously when you have a result that comes out of the blue and it happens so quickly and so overwhelmingly, you have to ask the question: what changed? What made this time different?

Yes its true Ratzinger was in some ways an obvious choice. He’s got the intellectual heft, he’s got the background and so forth. It’s true he represents a constituency that’s strongly represented in the college but those things have always been true too. But something was obviously different this time and my thesis based on my interviews with eight cardinals after the fact and just talking to a lot of people informally is that what changed this time is what I call in the book the funeral effect . They were not electing a successor to Paul VI whose last several years were in some ways sleepy, withdrawn, defensive, insular. They were electing a successor to probably the most visible pope in the history of the Catholic Church. You have to go back to Innocent III in the 13th century to find a pope that had the same kind of impact and broader role in the broader culture.

Cognitively the cardinals all knew that, but during the two weeks from the death of the pope to the beginning of the conclave there was an eruption of spontaneous popular grassroots sentiment, a kind of vox populi. Depending on how you count there were like 2 and half to 3 million people who lined up to spend 16-18 hours waiting to have a fleeting ten seconds in front of the body of the pope and it’s not just the numbers it was the raw emotions of all of that. It was the demography of all of that. These weren’t just pious, faithful, Mass every Sunday kind of Catholics. Some of them were people who haven’t darkened the door of a church in 20-30 years and yet somehow this man in this moment meant something to them. It was the overwhelmingly positive media coverage. I was part of this, and those two weeks were the longest running infomercial for the Catholic Church in primetime in the history of the planet. It was the political and diplomatic presence. Fifty seven heads of states at the funeral Mass–­the largest gathering of heads of states outside the United Nations in the history of the planet. A hundred countries sent official delegations.

And the cardinals, you have to remember, weren’t just sitting home reading the 700 words in the Times about this everyday. They were living it. They were going to the general congregation meetings everyday, which meant they had to pick their way through these crowds and pick their way back. They were talking to these people, they were experiencing this. I frankly believe that what that created was on one level a sense of awe and on another level a sense of panic. The panic was ‘we have got to find someone who is not going to be crushed by the comparison to the man that he is succeeding.’ So the idea of the quiet, pastoral, smiling Italian–which was the hypothesis that some people had brought into this–just got chucked out the window because it just wasn’t going to work. They had to find someone who had the intellectual preparation. Someone who had the global vision, somebody who had the languages, the personality, the gravitas to be able stand on the world stage and sustain that. And that’s a much shorter list. If you are just looking for a nice guy, there are a lot of nice guys in the College of Cardinals. If you are looking for someone who fits that bill it’s a much shorter list. The number of plausible people who fit this redefined job standard was pretty small, and I think that is the thing that transferred Ratzinger from a candidate with a determined minority, but one possibility among many to almost a kind of slam dunk obvious choice.

BH: You don’t think the cardinals had much sense of that until they got to Rome.

JA: Well sure they had a sense of it, but what I am saying is that the experience of these two weeks drove that home in a way…it changed one consideration among many to the thing on top of their brains. You know how politics works, you can be talking about presidential elections in the States for four years. But everyone talks
about that October surprise, something that happens right at the end that shakes up the dynamics of the race. Well, we had an April surprise.

BH: You’d been covering John Paul II for six years, can you give us a sense of your personal reactions to being in Rome for the death of the pope, the funeral and the conclave?

JA: To tell you the truth, I didn’t have much
time to think about it. I essentially was wearing three hats. I was doing the TV stuff, I was trying to file daily for the paper and to write longer stories for the print edition. And also trying to make notes for this book. In addition, I was always being sought out for interviews and comments. So collectively those were pretty full days, which didn’t leave for a lot of time sitting around and emoting.

But there were a couple of moments, I suppose on the night that he died, April 2nd . I had been on the air until 8:30 that night. We went back to the office and I got a flash from the cell phone saying that there is an urgent declaration from the Vatican in your email box, which in that context could only mean one thing. I threw my tie back on, grabbed a cab and went back to the CNN location and walked up to the roof and stepped in next to Aaron Brown. I walk into the bureau and they just pointed to the roof they were screaming “roof!” So I ran up the stairs, stepped in and, without even a pause to think about it, started telling the story. Of course in a moment like that, when you are doing 9/11 kind of coverage, there are no commercial breaks from bell to bell and you are up there for about four hours doing all of this talking about what the papacy of John Paul meant, why people responded to it, what the unfinished business was, what the disappointments were, how history will evaluate all of that kind of stuff you talk about when a great figure dies. I was very much in the zone. I mean, this is what I do, and when we were done it was 3 or 4 in the morning. Then you step back and you think “Wow! You just had the opportunity to tell one of the biggest religious stories of all time, in real time, to the world.” If you can’t get pumped up over that in this line of work you ought to have your pulse checked.

So part of it was there was this amazing sense of privilege of being able to be in the front row for the show. In terms of emotional reaction, oddly enough that’s one thing I never thought about. I had prepared for this logistically and professionally for a long time but it never really occurred to me that I would have an emotional reaction to this, because you think of this as a story. What you forget is that the story is about someone who has died, in the early stages, and then a transition to the new guy. This was someone I knew. I had met this pope a couple dozen times, traveled with him a great deal. It’s not like we were close friends. He knew who I was. I had written millions of words about the guy so you can’t help but develop a sense of connection. God knows I am well aware that you can have a legitimate discussion about the policies of John Paul II and the strength and weakness of his pontificate. What is inarguable was that at the end of the day this was a good guy. Whatever you make of his politics or his philosophy he was a decent person, just a big personality, and you can’t say goodbye to someone like that without a sense of loss.

This really came home for me when we were doing the color commentary for the funeral mass and I was sitting next to Christiane Amanpour. I remember at the moment in the mass when the papal gentlemen picked up the casket at the end and turned it around for one last goodbye to the crowd I just lost it. I started crying because what went through my mind is ‘this is the last time I am ever going to form a sentence about John Paul II in the present tense.’ I had to get myself together. It was a moment when you are blindsided by the fact that, in addition to the various roles you play, you are also a human being. You’ve got to deal with what is going on in front of you at that level as well.

BH: You are a Catholic so you have a stake in this too.

JA: Journalism is essentially a secular enterprise, so you try to take the story straight on as it comes. But in the back of your mind you care profoundly about this material and that can’t help but shape you. It’s a very complex mix of emotions and it’s probably just as well that I didn’t have much time to think about it.

BH: What void do you think your book fills for readers?

JA: I think three things. One is the first chapter tries to chronicle the last days of John Paul II and, of course, all the attention to everything that followed. I think that period is already receding in people’s memories. And I think it is important for two reasons: one is there was kind of a witness to approaching death in terms of how the pope handled all of that. It’s important not to be forgotten. Secondly, you can’t explain the politics of the conclave without it. So for those two reasons I thought it important to get it on the record.

The second thing that the book does is the detective story, basically, about how Joseph Ratzinger went from being a kind of plausible but long shot candidate to being someone who got elected in four ballots. That is the “How the Pope was Elected” of the subtitle. So the book attempts to answer that question. I think it does that, frankly, very successfully.

The third thing is how this papacy is going to go. Perhaps that is the most important contribution to the book, because I think it will be, in some ways, a papacy that surprises.

If you happened to be anywhere near a television set during the extensive media coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict, chances are you are familiar with John Allen Jr. Allen, who serves as a Vatican analyst for CNN and NPR in additon to his role as correspondent for National Catholic Reporter seemed omnipresent during those weeks as he helped interpret the breaking news at the Vatican for American viewers. Just seven weeks after the installation of Pope Benedict, his new book The Rise of Benedict XVI: The inside story of how the pope was elected and where he will take the Catholic Church, has hit the shelves. On the eve of its June 7th release, Allen, 40, stopped by BustedHalo’s offices to talk about his new book. What follows here is the second part of a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion about the Catholic Church from a journalist who has gotten as close to the action as any American has.

BH: Your first book on Ratzinger was more
critical of him. How did that effect your reception at the Vatican?

JA: First off it was written and published before I got there. And, frankly, I think that almost no one read it except the cardinal and his circle. I think the book was inadequate and by inadequate I mean imbalanced. I got the issues right on the point of Ratzinger’s critics but it wasn’t sufficiently balanced with the way he would see the same things. Sure, in that dicastery [ministry office], the congregation of the faith, in the early stages it was a question mark for some people.

My experience is that your reputation, whether good or bad, only makes a difference the first time you deal with somebody and after that it’s their personal experience of you. Over the course of time I have had the opportunity to develop relationships with people of that dicastery–and I don’t want to speak for anyone–but my impression is that those experiences were satisfactory.

BH: Is there a danger of being co-opted and just picking up the Vatican spin? It seems to me that it could be a consideration at a place like the Vatican?

JA: Oh sure, the problem with covering the Vatican, particularly for the Anglo Saxon market, is that it’s never the text; it’s always the context…That’s what’s missing in most coverage because most people don’t have the chance to pick it up. I would define most of what I try to do is providing that missing context. That goes beyond just getting the facts right, it’s trying to put those facts into the appropriate context so people can make sense of it.

The danger is if that shades off from analysis into apology. That is, it’s not just “here’s what they mean” but the kind of subtle [implication] is “wink wink and they’re right.” That’s the kind of inside the beltway phenomenon that comes from getting close to any story. It’s the same thing with political reporters and business reporters. These are things you have to be constantly be aware of. On a personal level you get to know these people…There’s a certain affection you feel for many of them and that obviously can end up coloring how you report the story. And there is a kind of defensiveness you develop on behalf of the institution because it is so often so misunderstood.

It is very easy for me to see what different secular papers print about the Vatican and think “Jesus Christ not this crap again.” You can begin feeling that it’s your job to set the world right on these issues. You have to be aware of all of that.

BH: What are some of the biggest misperceptions you see about the Church in the secular media?

JA: That the only thing the Catholic Church cares about is sex. For example, I just did broadcast interview this morning for a major American news agency. It’s an hour thing, it’s a serious conversation. We were supposed to talk about the papacy of Benedict XVI. What did we talk about? We talked about condoms, we talked about stem cell research, we talked about women, and we talked about homosexuality. That’s fair. These are issues in the culture wars. It’s certainly part of this struggle against what Benedict defines as part of the dictatorship of relativism. Clearly they will be important issues of his pontificate, but you come away from the interview and think that’s all that the leadership team of the Vatican has got on its brain. I try to assert that this is part of the picture but it’s not the whole picture. I think a lot of that gets lost in the translation and that’s a frustration.

Another frustration is the legendary secrecy of the Vatican. People write stories about how impossible it is to get certain information. My response is if you knew Monsignor so and so in that dicastery I could get you that piece of information in five minutes. The problem is not secrecy, the problem is singularity. It’s different than other institutions people deal with. So people who don’t have the time to go through that process can come away thinking that there’s some kind of cover-up going on.

The danger is you can become so frustrated hearing all of that over and over again and having to respond to it over and over again that emotion takes over and what you get is the same kind of defensive posture…God knows the world doesn’t need it from me….

BH: Speaking of stereotypes you said in the book that Benedict XVI is not really as hard-nosed as we’ve thought… is this going to be a pope who people will fear?

JA: It depends on what kind of people you are. If you are a traditionalist/conservative Catholic, I don’t think there is a whole lot to fear except diminished expectations. I don’t know if he’s going to deliver everything they think he is going to deliver. I think where he thinks a matter of faith and morals is at stake he’s going to be hard-nosed. Anybody who thinks there’s going to be a change in the discipline on women priests in this pontificate is living in a fool’s paradise. To me that is not the interesting thing about this pontificate. Yes there will be discipline; yes there will be clarity on Catholic identity. For me the interesting question is what else will there be?

It seems to me that there is actually a whole lot of what else. First of all what we have to understand is that concern for clarity about the hot points of doctrine that are out there in the culture isn’t for its own sake, it’s a part of the deeper concern which is what Benedict calls this dictatorship of relativism. That is, we are living at the tail end of four centuries of intellectual development with this turn toward the subject and toward this collapse of confidence in objective truth which Benedict believes has all kinds of toxic consequences. And so he’s trying to reassert a whole different way of seeing the world, of seeing reality. Trying to propose a Christian alternative to the kind of regnant philosophy of the west. And in that sense the culture wars are so far down the line in terms of how important they are to him.

BH: John Paul II had an easier enemy to identify in communism.

JA: John Paul had the evil empire it was very visible it was easy to get your hands around who the enemy was. There was an obvious strategy to confront it and you had a global superpower on your side. Benedict is facing an amorphous, very difficult-to-define enemy and there is no comparable superpower out there.

BH: The Vatican seems to be straining to let us know that Benedict is a warm person and not the fearsome autocrat he’s been painted as. But after twenty-four years as the most public person at the Vatican outside John Paul, isn’t it a little ridiculous to expect people to just wipe away their knowledge of him and start with a clean slate?

JA: Like I said in the book the positions he took in the CDF will remain positions of this pontificate. On the other hand I will make three points: One at least in his mind, psychologically, whether you buy it or not, there is no contradiction in being personally compassionate and being firm on matters of truth. Quite the contrary, if you really believe that the key to human happiness lies in ordering your life on the basis of the patterns set by Christ then the least compassionate thing you can do is be fuzzy about that. The most compassionate thing you can do is helping people to see that clearly. Whether that ultimately works or not, that is how he psychologically understands it.

Secondly he’s got a different job now. It’s one thing to be the top doctrinal cop; it’s another thing to be the universal pastor of the church. It doesn’t mean that he’s going to change his spots; it does mean that he’s going to have a different pitch and a different tone.

The third point I would make is I don’t see any evidence to date that the great sort of “night of the long knives” some people have been anticipating, the great kind of purge. Setting aside the Tom Reese thing, which dates back before the election, I think the appointment of Archbishop Levada is a case in point if you wanted a headhunter there are plenty of people more aggressive along those lines than Levada to put in that job. Fr. Tom Reese was recently asked to step down from his post as the editor of the influential Jesuit magazine America, because of pressure the Jesuit order received from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which was headed by Cardinal Ratzinger before he was elected pope.-ed.

BH: As a journalist you must have had a reaction about the removal of Fr. Tom Reese.

JA: Tom’s a good friend. Yeah, Tom’s a friend and colleague and on a personal level my feeling is I am sorry it shook out this way. Tom is a terrific journalist, a terrific public face for discussion of Catholic affairs in the American press. I especially feel bad that it happened when it did because I am probably one of the few people on the planet who actually understands what Tom experienced during that month in Rome and how wrung out he felt. To have to come back and deal with all of that, it’s just awful, the timing of it certainly wasn’t best.

That’s my personal hat. Now for my journalist hat. I also understand the argument that because America magazine is officially sponsored by the Jesuit community it is, to some extent, is an official organ of the Church and therefore perhaps different standards apply. At least I can understand the argument that different standards apply. And I think what we do have here is a pretty basic difference in a sense in what that magazine’s mission ought to be. From the point of view of the Holy See and some American bishops it’s that fundamentally the role of an official organ of the church is to articulate Church teaching. Now that doesn’t mean that you pretend that there is no objection and pretend you don’t discuss it, but at the end of the day, fidelity to those positions ought to be clear to anyone who picks it up. And I am not saying that they weren’t faithful. But I am saying that for Tom and the other people at America their understanding would be much closer to the Anglo-Saxon journalistic understanding, namely that the role of a journal of opinion is to open its page to all points of view to make sure that all points of views are represented the conversations are fair, and leave the conclusions to the readers

I think it’s unfortunate, I think America made and continues to make a critically important conversation in the Catholic Church. On the other hand, I don’t think this was the kind of narrow-minded, vindictive intervention that some people thought that it was because he gets a lot of press. It was more thoughtful than that. I think it flows from a sense that in a culture that is often hostile to what the Catholic Church stands for that at least in an official Catholic instrument of communication you are entitled to expect, faithfully presented, the teaching of the Church. So I understand where that’s coming from.

BH: John, on the same lines, would you say that it’s true with Catholic education, Catholic colleges?

JA: I think that Catholic institutions generally, whether they are schools or universities, hospitals, publishing houses whatever, I would expect that there would be strong intention to the question that what they present and what the activities that they are engaged in do track with what is considered in the Holy See to be faithful Catholic teaching. Which, for me, I guess means two things: one is, increasingly it is important for Catholics to have spaces for conversations that are not directly connected to the institution. The center-left in the Catholic Church, if it wants to survive and prosper, is going to have to become much savvier than it presently is about Church politics. By that I mean part of the reason that things like America and Tom Reese happen the way they do is because the thought world of the Holy See and the thought world of the main street USA are very, very different and often it’s not just the particular issues at hand.

What happens on both sides people dig themselves in because they aren’t just fighting a particular battle; they actually think they are fighting the broader war. “We’ve got to show these radical individualists, the capitalist Americans that they aren’t going to set the tone of the universal church” or “we’ve got to show these rambunctious, disloyal Jesuits that we know a thing or two.” Meanwhile “we aren’t going to let these authoritarian, narrow-minded Vatican meanies get away with it.” Of course there are elements of truth in all of those sentiments but they really are caricatures and wild exaggerations on all sides. Given the fact that it’s going to find itself, at least on some issues, in awkward moments, it would be very helpful if the center-left of the Church could learn to speak a little bit more in the language of the people on the other side of the fence. By that I mean, can you learn to stop making your points of reference things that come out of corporate culture, secular democracy and start making your points of reference a little more of things native to Catholic tradition? For one thing, on a very basic level, if you are going to come together to talk about lay empowerment in the sex abuse crisis can you start that with an hour of Eucharistic adoration? It’s things that visibly, symbolically indicate that the conversation you want to have is very much rooted in the faithful expression of Roman Catholic spirituality and faith life. And, as much as possible, reach out to the leadership of the church that this is not an us versus them dynamic. All these things, in addition to being right because they come out in an ecclesiology of communion, also is smart politics. And that’s a challenge that a lot of people that are moderate and progressive in the church are going to find themselves up against. I think one of the things that will reduce the sting and make those sort of conflicts less frequent and less painful is taking a few steps in the direction of the other.

BH: Do you think the church will get smaller because of that?

JA: I think that’s on open question. I don’t think that Benedict XVI is setting out to downsize the Catholic Church. I do think if he does have to choose between quantity and quality he would choose quality and by that I mean a kind of integral, uncompromising acceptance of the full range of Church teaching. If he could get 10 committed Catholics who are passionate about the full range of Catholic teaching as opposed to 20-25 who are selective about it, I don’t think there’s much doubt about which he would prefer. He talks about the Church being a creative minority…The idea that cultures are regenerated by their creative minority. Whether or not in the end that produces a leaner, meaner church I don’t know.

BH: You have been reporting at the Vatican for six years can you tell us what your journey of faith has been like during that time? Did you come in on one ideological camp and come out in another?

JA: I hope that the fundamental premise of faith is not about negotiating various camps. I hope it is about something deeper. But I would describe it this way, there is this old bit of Roman wisdom that Rome is such a spiritual city because so many people have lost their faith there. There is some truth to that. I can understand the reaction of people who come to Rome and get turned off by the kind of pomposity, the grandeur, the very kind of human dimension of the institution. The pettiness, the bickering and the careerism that is there. I was probably in a very unique position. I was covering the Catholic Church for a number of years before I got to Rome, so it was no news to me that there was a very strong human dimension to the institution–that people can occasionally be short sighted or egotistically authoritarian, all of the stereotypes. So I didn’t have any scales that needed to fall from my eyes on those questions. Actually for me what was striking was how much more than all that is in Rome and, especially, in the Vatican. What I found in most cases most of the people you run into there are, by their lights, genuinely motivated by a sense of service to the common good of the Church. Most of the time what goes on is not motivated by careerism and power politics. Given their theological convictions and political convictions these are people who are making real sacrifices in their careers in order to answer the call they have been given to participate in the Petrine ministry in the anonymous, hidden way that work in the Vatican usually means. So I’ve been very edified by that. That is point number one.

Point number two is how complex a business it is to govern the universal church. Bare in mind Roman Catholicism has 1.1 billion members world wide. American Catholics number 65 million, we are 6% of the global catholic community which inevitably means that our issues cannot be the issues of the global church and our perspective cannot always prevail. And its one thing to say that notionally, it’s another thing to experience it on the ground. I traveled with the Holy Father to 25 countries and I have been to a baker’s dozen more on my own in these six years and always moving in Catholic circles and what becomes clear is just how complex this all is. You know it’s not just about how it’s going to play in Peoria but how is this going to play in Pakistan and how is it going to play in Beijing and Buenos Aries. It is just hard damn work and therefore I guess I am more inclined to give these guys more of a break at some level than I might have been prior to this experience because I have seen first hand how difficult it is to try and think your way through all of that.