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The Rise of Benedict XVI: The inside story of how the Pope was elected and what it means for the world

02 November 2006


Penguin £8.99 (0-14-102470-40); Church Times Bookshop £8.10

reviewed with

We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI
Matthew E. Bunson D.Min.
Gracewing £9.99 (1-59276-180-1); Church House Bookshop £9

Pope Benedict XVI: Successor to Peter
Michael Collins
Columba Press £6.50 (1-85607-503-6); Church House Bookshop £5.85

Labourer in the Vineyard: A portrait of Benedict XVI
Greg Watts
Lion £5.99 (0-7459-5218-6)

Choice of name: a good omen? Robert Nowell reads quick books about the new Pontiff

THE election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI has called forth a rash of instant books, keen to enlighten us about what manner of man this most recent Bishop of Rome might be. None of these four has an index: clearly, there just wasn't time.

The most useful and informative book is that by John L. Allen, who has already put us in his debt with his biography of Ratzinger published in 2000 (and rapidly reissued this year under the new title of Pope Benedict XVI). To my mind, he goes into a little too much detail in covering the last days of John Paul II, the interregnum, and the conclave from which Ratzinger emerged as Pope. But, combined with his previous biography, it offers a decent basis on which to judge the latest successor of Peter.

Like everyone else working in this field, Allen suffers from the difficulty of not knowing quite how this pontiff will exercise his ministry. He may yet surprise us: to recall the refrain in the first chorus of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, "Cry woe, woe, but may the good prevail." At least the choice of name is a good omen.

Greg Watts's effort is the cheapest and, I think, the shortest. It suffers from having been written too hastily, and has errors that could have been removed by judicious editing: Vatican II, we are told, went on for only three years, not the four it actually took; Bavaria wasn't the only part of Germany that stayed Roman Catholic at the Reformation, nor was its Christianity as dependent as other regions' had been on Boniface's missionary efforts; the point of the 1933 Concordat wasn't what the Church gained from it, but the respectability it gave the newly established Nazi regime. It seems a bit odd to describe Hitler as "himself a Catholic": surely only in the sense of paying his Kirchensteuer. And why give Tübingen its umlaut while depriving Küng of his?

The other two are not to be read by those of a nervous disposition. That by Matthew E. Bunson (D.Min., by the way, stands for Doctor of Ministry, a newfangled American degree) comes from a world in which Rome can do no wrong and is ever vigilant to protect the flock from the ravages of heresy.

Very nearly 40 years ago, at the first session of Vatican II, Bishop de Smedt of Bruges denounced the triumphalism, clericalism, and juridicism that disfigured the Church. But Dr Bunson gives the impression that these blemishes should be welcomed back. His idea of describing the preparations for Vatican II is to list the various Roman documents - two encyclicals, three motu proprios, and one apostolic constitution - needed to get it under way. It does  not make sense to gloss the Latin title of Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum literally as "On New Things", when what the Pope was talking about was revolution - res novae in Latin.

Michael Collins, a priest of the archdiocese of Dublin who has just spent seven years working in Rome, displays appalling ignorance about Ratzinger's German background: the Nazi party never actually won a majority of either votes or seats in the Reichstag; and it wasn't Austria but Poland that German troops invaded on 1 September 1939 (the Anschluss took place in March 1938).

According to Fr Collins, there was a risk that Vatican II would go on and on, but this is news to those of us who were in Rome during the council's final session. Paul VI's disastrous encyclical Humanae Vitae is described as "a meditation on the dignity of marriage and the human family". Fr Collins's observations on Latin in the liturgy suggest that he has never heard of all the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome, unless by "mass" he means merely the eucharist as celebrated in the Roman rite. He also seems blissfully unaware that Archbishop Lefebvre may have originally attended Vatican II as Archbishop of Dakar, but that, after the French diocese of Tulle found him too much to stomach, he ended up attending as the superior-general of the Holy Ghost Fathers.

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