A Catholic Mystery Writer
The Best English-Language Vatican Reporter Is Hard to Read
by Austin Ruse
The first time I saw John Allen on television I changed the channel. The second and third times, too. Allen was the ubiquitous CNN Vatican commentator during the “long Lent” of sex scandals and the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. How like CNN, I thought, to feature a Vatican commentator likely to oppose church teachings.
One night I was too slow in changing channels and actually heard Allen speak. To my surprise, he was quite sensible. He did not bash the bishops, did not jump to the usual left-liberal solutions to the crisis: the need for married clergy, a revision of teaching on homosexuality, and so on. He was even-handed and seemed to be without an agenda short of describing what he knew about the rapidly unfolding events. He seemed like that rarest of birds, a fair reporter.
Not long after this, while in Rome and dining with a well-known conservative priest, I brought up my new revelation, thinking I was the first conservative to have discovered John Allen. “Do you know John Allen?”
“He seems pretty sensible.”
[ Sotto Voce] “You know, John is on a journey.”
This is now something of a parlor game among certain Catholics who travel frequently to Rome: Whither John Allen? I know Allen, a little. He has covered two conferences I hosted in Rome, and mentions me among a long list of acknowledgments in his insightful book All the Pope’s Men. I have found him personally engaging and thoroughly professional, but have no personal insight into his spirituality or fidelity.
But here is the question: Quo vadis, John Allen? Is Allen headed into town, or is he headed out? Is he on a journey to orthodoxy, as so many of his conservative friends seem to believe, and his progressive readers fear? I sat down and re-read all of his columns to see if I could find out.
It would be impossible to discuss in brief the entire Allen corpus. His columns alone total upwards of one million words published since 2000, and he has written five books since 2000: a biography of then Cardinal Ratzinger titled Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith, Conclave, All the Pope’s Men, The Rise of Benedict XVI, and Opus Dei.
Allen is nothing if not thorough. He is always heading over to the Angelicum or the Gregorian university to dust off some new source’s doctoral thesis. In a not untypical single day he will attend more than one academic conference, a press conference, and still take sources out to lunch and dinner.
For one column, he tracked down John Paul I’s 30-day secretary and spent an afternoon with him a few hundred miles north in Venice. When he found himself in New York during a papal health scare, he found two Parkinson’s disease experts in New York and reported their thoughts. He does not stop.
Reading through all this from beginning to end, one can certainly discern Allen’s starting place. In the preface of his first Ratzinger book, he describes himself “spiritually” and “ideologically” as a “child of Vatican II.” He describes a church upbringing where everything was on the table—women priests, contraception, everything—and paints a picture of a 1970s progressive church as insular as any Catholic ghetto from the 1940s or 1950s. He explains that he is writing the book so he can better understand what for him is a foreign land: that “conservative” Church in Rome.
He dispatches the image of Ratzinger as a “vengeful, power-obsessed old man who lurks like a bogeyman in the imagination of many on the Catholic Left” and even says he would be happy to have Ratzinger as his confessor. But then he writes this: “Having seen fascism in action, Ratzinger today believes that the best antidote to political totalitarianism is ecclesial totalitarianism.”
The tone of some of the book is overtly, even aggressively, partisan, so much so that even a respected liberal reviewer took him to task in Commonweal. Father Joseph Komonchak accused Allen of “Manichean journalism.” In a 2004 Common Ground speech in Washington, D.C., Allen conceded the charge that the book displayed a “dualistic mentality in which Ratzinger was consistently wrong and his critics consistently right.” He concluded, “Is this the kind of journalist I want to be? My answer was no.”
John Allen is at least on a professional journey. As a journalist and reporter he has become, quite frankly, magnificent. No English speaker interested in Vatican affairs will want to miss his weekly column, “The Word from Rome.” He has become what papal biographer George Weigel calls “the best English language Vatican reporter ever.”
But when looking at Allen’s columns one must remember his audience. They are subscribers to the National Catholic Reporter, a readership that views itself as thinking and thoughtful Catholics who, in the words of Allen, hold two things in tension: criticism and fidelity. Others think that they are heavy on the criticism and light on the fidelity and that, at least in regard to what appears to be their understanding of women’s ordination, contraception, and even abortion, they are angry dissidents standing in rigid opposition to established and unchanging teachings of the church.
Still, Allen does not pander to his readers. He explains the church to them, shows them that it is larger and more complex than they know, and in the process bursts not a few of their bubbles. In one column, he discussed how, despite John Paul II’s orthodox understanding of Catholic sexual morality, he was really quite liberal on political and many church issues. In another, he challenged his readers’ belief that Ratzinger and John Paul II had a stranglehold on the church apparatus, explaining in great detail how no single person in the Vatican calls all the shots, not even the pope.
I watched him at the Los Angeles Education Conference a few years ago as he faced the usual hot-button questions on women’s ordination, homosexuality, married priests, and the like. Allen was quite frank, saying these types of changes will likely not happen, certainly not any time soon. He implied that the questioners ought to move on to more pertinent church issues.
He has even shown what can fairly be called courage in taking up various church movements the progressives find troubling and even frightening. From the very beginning of his column he has explained and even defended the Legionaries of Christ and Opus Dei. His most recent book on Opus Dei examines all the common charges against it—its vast wealth, secrecy, extreme mortifications, and so forth—and shows why none of them has merit.
Still, his sympathies do not lie with the conservatives. He has come to respect Richard John Neuhaus but shows no special affinity for him. He genuinely likes George Weigel, drinking bourbon and eating ribs with him, but makes it clear that Weigel is to his right.
By contrast, he views Father Andrew Greeley as something of a hero, and when writing about Hans Küng he gets absolutely school-girlish, speaking of “magical” evenings in Switzerland, sipping wine and talking theology. And while he will openly defend Opus Dei and the Legionaries, the group Allen writes most about, indeed—dozens of times—the one he absolutely gushes about, is the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Rome-based group that works exclusively on conflict resolution and social justice but appears to be silent on abortion.
After social justice, Allen cares most about ecumenism and dialogue. He tells the story of UN Human Rights’ chief Mary Robinson speaking to a conference sponsored by Küng’s Global Ethic Foundation, and applauds this “dialogue” between thinking Catholics and UN policy makers. He wishes things like that could happen more frequently.
Yet in another column he reports on the petition by 60 “progressives” against Michael Novak’s visit to the Vatican to make the just-war case before the impending invasion of Iraq. He did not praise Novak’s dialogue with the Vatican.
Allen does have a point of view, and it was unmistakable during the last presidential election, when Democratic candidate John Kerry touted his Catholicism even while standing in active opposition to church teaching on a host of issues.
The political problem vexing progressive Catholics then and now is that, in the main, Democratic policies on prudential “peace and justice” issues can be viewed as more in line with the Catholic view than are the Republican policies, but Republican policies on issues like abortion, embryo research, marriage, and so forth—issues that admit of no prudential variances—are in much closer harmony with the church’s teaching than are Democratic policies. To state it bluntly, the goal for progressives is to find a way to promote Catholic Democrats who oppose the church on abortion.
The progressive answer is to raise prudential peace and justice issues to the level of abortion, to lower abortion to the level of prudence, or to muddy things altogether by suggesting that the right to follow one’s personal conscience is what matters most. Kerry chose the latter.
Allen attempted to improve the progressive argument through a carefully crafted hypothetical question he repeatedly asked priests, theologians, and bishops: If a Catholic politician agreed with church teaching on abortion, backed up that belief with personal efforts to promote childbirth over abortion, but voted against measures to criminalize abortion out of a sincere belief that such measures would force abortion underground or cause even more abortions, would this position be acceptable within Catholic moral principles?
The problems with this hypothetical question are numerous, but perhaps the most obvious is that it was asked during discussions of a candidate who did not remotely resemble the hypothetical candidate described. Neither did the platform of his political party. The question was irrelevant to the matters at hand, but it speaks volumes about the progressive project to make pro-choice politicians morally acceptable.
Allen also covered the rather complicated issue of the bishops’ response to the question of receiving Holy Communion. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick chaired an ad hoc committee exploring this question in preparation for a June 2004 bishops’ meeting in Denver.
Cardinal Ratzinger sent McCarrick a memorandum in advance of the meeting, explaining that, where a Catholic politician is “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws,” and “with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist” after instruction and warning from his pastor, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.” The memorandum was not provided to the bishops, nor—in the view of some—was its content faithfully reported to them. In the end, the bishops voted overwhelmingly to leave the Communion question to individual bishops.
Allen’s report characterized the story as a rejection by the bishops of Ratzinger’s recommendation, overlooking entirely the possibility that they may not have been properly apprised of it, and ignoring the nearly unanimous vote of the bishops that pro-choice politicians should not present themselves for Communion or be given platforms or honors by Catholic institutions. On these highly charged matters, Allen’s reporting seemed closer to progressive “spin” than objective journalism.
And so, quo vadis, John Allen? Certainly, his sympathies still lie with the progressive project of greater democracy in the church, with dialogue and ecumenism, and peace and justice. But that is not to say that he is a dissenter from church teaching; he has never pounded the drums of dissent in his writing, and there is no evidence that he harbors private dissent. Yet there seems to be little evidence that Allen is on track to be the next editor of Crisis magazine—at least not anytime soon.
Allen has achieved something remarkable, though, and that is genuine dialogue among sometimes competing voices in the church. He has written often about the lamentable factions among the faithful, each with its own publications, conferences, sympathetic bishops, and so on. His observation is that these groups tend not to talk to each other, but to shout past each other.
But Allen has built a space where progressives and conservatives do speak directly to each other, at least through him. And he has achieved this by being remarkably fair to the side with which his sympathies do not lie—that is, to conservatives, who have grown to trust him. All the while the progressives may grumble, but they figure Allen is still one of them, and they are probably right.
John Allen’s “The Word from Rome” can be found at www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/word.
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