All the Pope’s Men – John L. Allen Jr (Review)

All the Pope's Men - John L. Allen Jr
All the Pope’s Men by John L. Allen Jr

2012 Note: the following review was written close to a decade ago, when I lived in Ireland. I was a liberal Catholic then, writing in a fairly liberal forum. If I rewrote it now – as a far more traditional Catholic – certain aspects would be different. But largely, I let it stand as I first wrote it.

John L Allen’s book All the Pope’s Men represents exactly what is most needed in the tragic situation of the Catholic Church’s communication with our media-saturated world.

For profound, heart-breaking misunderstanding and miscommunication characterise the ‘dialogue’ between a Church rooted in centuries of tradition and rigorous, painstaking thinking (yes, thinking !) – and a world of media myths and soundbites, which cannot hope to do justice to anything demanding a significant attention span.

Allen sees this much better than most. As a reporter, whose full-time beat is the Vatican and who knows its inner workings far, far better than nearly any English speaking lay-person, Allen has accomplished something desperately needed here.

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Not only is there real journalism here – but also a noble, inspired attempt to create fairness and justice, listening and understanding, appreciation of different perspectives and mindsets – amidst the psychic warfare that typifies not only the tragic divisions within the Church, but also those between Catholicism and the ideology of the Anglophone – particularly American – secularist ethos.

His very first sentence, in fact, reads:

The aim of this book is to promote better informed and hopefully less acrimonious conversation between the Vatican and the English-speaking world by identifying the core values and experiences that underlie specific Vatican policy choices.’

He is making ‘an attempt to understand how the Vatican thinks, why it reacts in certain ways and not others, how it sees the world.

Many traditionalists will be suspicious. Allen works for the very liberal National Catholic Reporter and has previously written far more critically of the Vatican. I am very happy to say that a certain turning is very evident here.

In this book, there is a genuine attempt to serve both liberals and conservatives, by reporting their views fairly and without bias. So that they can simply be heard.

Simply be heard – for God’s sake. This is what is needed. Allen knows it, and is evidently a man who has tried very hard to simply listen himself.

Thus I find something truly uplifting and sane as Allen cuts through layer upon layer of prejudice, misperception and mythology to simply render how people in the Vatican really think and how their thinking is necessarily shaped by very different concerns from modern secularism.

I think the best I can do at this point, is simply to let Allen speak for himself:

Critics often complain about a lack of accountability in the Vatican, by which they mean that popes do not stand for re-election, are not subject to recall, and are not otherwise answerable to public opinion as expressed in modern democracies …

Yet it is a terrible misconception [my emphasis] to believe that Vatican officials do not regard themselves as accountable …

Tradition [is what] informs the Vatican’s sense of accountability… policy is based on theological and philosophical principles derived from the tradition, the deposit of faith … Vatican officials believe the defense and transmission of the tradition is the highest service Church leaders can offer to their people …

Vatican personnel by and large do not see themselves as imperialists imposing their will on the rest of the Catholic Church. In many instances … they see themselves defending the people against elites [my emphasis] running roughshod over their rights, [protecting] the simple faithful against avant-garde theologians who would betray the faith, against experimental liturgists who risk transforming the Mass into something profane or banal, or against ecclesiastical bureaucrats.

Writing as an American himself, Allen can say:

Americans often want to do things their own way, and if Rome puts on the brakes, it’s a form of oppression. From Rome’s point of view, however sometimes its precisely the reverse – they’re saving the rest of the Church from being involuntarily ‘Americanised’ …

As I say, much of Allen’s self-declared aim is to render communication between the Catholic Church and the Anglophone world much better. And to do this, it is necessary to stimulate imagination by asking the parties concerned to really imagine the very different grounds on which they stand.

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Without this, as when Americans (who Allen as an American himself, largely has in mind here) simply assume Catholic values are identical to their own, there can be no impetus, no call to the imagination. That is, Allen suggests conservative Americans often simply assume that conservative Catholics are the same as they are.

For example, I have personally found there can be an assumption that conservative Catholicism can amount to little more than ‘pro-life, anti-communist’ – and that is that.

But Allen here provides a stimulus to imagination – by showing what a vast gulf really exists here. Thus he writes:

Cold War politics made temporary bedfellows out of the Vatican and the US, and what is re-emerging now is the caution and reluctance that have always characterized Vatican attitudes about America. In other words, perhaps [the cold war] alliance … was [an] aberration …

From this point of view, the clash of cultures most exacerbated by the Iraq War may not be between Christianity and Islam, but between the Holy See and the United States [My italics!].

The war [helped to suggest] to Vatican observers that the ghost of John Calvin is alive and well in American culture …

The deepest thinkers in the Vatican have always harbored their doubts about the United States, seeing it as a culture forged by Calvinism and hostile to a genuinely Catholic ethos … [My emphasis]

One archbishop put it this way: ‘Americans have a bad combination of youth, wealth, power, isolation and very little serious Catholic intellectual tradition …

Key Vatican officials … have long worried about aspects of American society – its exaggerated individualism, its hyperconsumer spirit, its relegation of religion to the private sphere, its Calvinist ethos.

A fortiori, they worry about a world in which America is in an unfettered position to impose this set of cultural values on everyone else. The Calvinist concepts of the total depravity of the human condition, the unconditional election of God’s favoured, and the manifestation of election through earthly success, all seem to play a powerful role in shaping American cultural psychology.

The Iraq episode confirmed Vatican officials in these convictions. When Vatican officials hear Bush talk about the evil of terrorism and the American mission to destroy that evil, they sometimes perceive a worrying kind of dualism …

After Cardinal Pio Laghi returned to Rome from his last minute appeal to Bush, just before the Iraq War began, he told John Paul II that he sensed ‘something Calvinistic’ in the president’s iron determination …

[One Vatican official] told me he sees a ‘clash of civilisations’ between the United States and the Holy See, between a worldview that is essentially Calvinistic and one that is shaped by Catholicism. ‘We have a concept of sin and evil too’ he said, ‘but we also believe in grace and redemption …

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago made a similar statement [saying] that U.S. citizens ‘are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith. [American society] is the civil counterpart of a faith based on private interpretation of scripture and private experience of God.’

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He contrasted this kind of society with one based on the Catholic [focus on] community and a vision of life greater than the individual. Yes, Allen’s book is largely oriented to America. And as I say, to helping Americans really imagine the very different place the Vatican is really ‘coming from’. Although I am emphasising Allen’s reportage on what is seen as a Catholic-Calvinist America divide, I would suggest far more is at issue here.

For Allen’s very fine effort can help to stimulate our cultural imagination in many unexpected ways – especially for those of us in the Anglophone world, who have little or no experience of cultures not of Protestant and secular heritage.

As another illustration, I note what Allen writes of Italian society:

Despite proud assertions of its identity as uno loco laico, a lay republic [Italy] has never really separated Church and State … The Church remains in a position to move votes … There isn’t a candidate in Italy who would say no to a picture with the Pope …

For every issue that comes up in Italian national life, one of the first thing journalists will do is seek out the opinion of a member of the College of Cardinals … Italian culture gives clerics every reason to conclude that nothing is outside their purview …

Their opinions on every conceivable issue, from cloning to tomorrow’s soccer matches are solicited and weighed with great seriousness … On the cultural front, Italy is many ways still an intact Catholic society in which the Church’s liturgical seasons still shape the annual calendar and in which Catholic custom’s and vocabulary are part of the ordinary public consciousness.

People in Italy know when it’s Lent, they know when it’s Advent … Cab drivers can explain the difference between Franciscans and Dominicans … Catholicism is in the marrow of the place.”

Certainly my own experience of Catholic Ireland mirrors Allen’s picture of Italy. Although Ireland rapidly secularises, and there is bitter opposition to Catholicism in certain quarters – this bitter opposition exists in large part precisely because Catholicism still counts in Ireland as a major cultural force.

People can get very worked up about the Church in Irish culture – precisely because this is a culture in which the Church can still mount an effective critique of the secularist and materialist capitalist shadow.

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It may boggle many a secular mind to realise this is a country in which, just over ten years ago, Playboy magazine and divorce were still illegal. (Divorce was legalised by referendum in 1995 – but 49.7% voted against it. Before that, the legalisation of divorce would have clearly been contrary to the will of the people.)

Now in speaking of ‘effective critique of the secularist and materialist capitalist shadow’ – I do not wish anyone to suppose that I am claiming Catholic culture is perfect.

In a fallen world, any institution with a two thousand year history which embraces 1.1 billion people – nearly one sixth of humanity – will clearly include countless sinners.

It is my contention however that this Catholic Church is also casting far, far more light and hope, than many people will be able to credit.

And the incapacity to credit this, will be particularly true in countries where there is little Catholic tradition – and I fear often almost no sense of any cultural alternative whatsoever to constructing a society around an increasingly shallow media world – rooted less and less in tradition and thinking and more and more on a corporate agenda of keeping us all ‘entertained’.

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I know that the picture here of highly-Catholicised societies sends chills down many a spine. But I wish that the power and manipulation wielded by the Corporate Priesthood sent far, far more of a shudder – a cold shudder – down our collective spine. Yes people in Ireland celebrate overthrowing clerical power, with no idea they are now even more in the grip of corporate power …

Be that as it may, I hold Allen’s effort in the highest regard. For raising awareness of cultural alternatives and stimulating imagination – Allen’s is a book that deserves to be deeply listened to.

Again in my review, I have emphasized some aspects more than others. For example, I have laid more emphasis on Allen’s effort to hear and represent the perspective of Catholic conservatives. For it seems to me in a world awash with media hype and secularist assumptions, that this latter voice is almost entirely drowned out or stereotyped…

In conclusion, however, I wish to emphasise that as someone coming from a liberal American Catholic newspaper, and a liberal background himself, Allen clearly understands very different positions and his book is a call for understanding in every quarter – as when he writes:

Exchanges between Rome and America would be more constructive if both sides were to drop the pretense that they know the real motives of the other, and consider instead their actual aims and fears.’

At times, I feel Allen’s inspiration is near angelic. As an example, I will simply turn to one last passage, regarding divisions between liberal and traditional Catholics – which has flared up in the U.S. after the sexual abuse crisis, involving perhaps as much as 4% of the American priesthood.

As Allen points out, such a figure is disproportionately and tragically high. (In America, it is perhaps almost double that of other institutions, where reports of abuse might be assessed at around 2% in analogous non-Catholic contexts of authority).

Yet Allen points out that both sides of the Church seek healing very sincerely – but often they can barely communicate. As Allen writes:

Both sides in this conversation would feel more at ease if they could somehow assuage the worries of the other. Americans often suspect that when Rome talks about reform, they spiritualise the concept in order to avoid any substantive changes. In truth, the Holy See [is] not closed to the possibility of structural changes …

In the Vatican … suspicion is often that Americans know only the language of political power and their reform agenda is more akin to a putsch than a purification. American Catholics would reduce anxiety levels in Rome if they would learn to speak in a more spiritual argot.

For example, since forgiveness and healing are essential … to the sex abuse crisis, perhaps the various groups … could promote a nationwide return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If the Vatican were to see churches across the United States filled Catholics desiring to make confessions, imploring God’s grace … it would speak volumes about the underlying ecclesiology of the reform movement.

Further, it would help to avoid phrasing public activism in antagonistic terms, as if ‘the laity versus the clergy’ or ‘the left versus the right’. Obviously no one is pretending that pious exercises by themselves can solve the sexual abuse crisis… Yet … to heal, an examination of conscience by all parties is essential.

Prayers for forgiveness and grace are never wasted. The more the reform movement can be visibly rooted in faithful, committed Catholicism, the better.”

There is great, great deal of good will and sobriety – calm, caring soberness – in Allen’s book. Things that are desperately needed in a culture of increasing stress and hype.

If you care about the Catholic Church, if you care about its mission in the world, I would suggest that a great deal of good could be effected by reading this book and indeed recommending it to others. For widely circulated, the kind of material in this book, so lovingly, fairly and articulately expressed, can do both Church and world an enormous power of good.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers. ‘ Blessed be John L. Allen.

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9 responses to “All the Pope’s Men – John L. Allen Jr (Review)”

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  10. […] “All the Pope’s Men” is about the conversations that happen with the rest of the world and thos people in the Vatican. This book is about conservatives talking about what they think about this topic and not being bias about this topic they are talking about to John L. Allen Jr. People in this world think that their values are the same values as the Church’s values. The book is mostly on what he thinks about Americans on this topic. […]