NYT: John Allen’s op-ed piece


My friend the nearly ubiquitous fair-minded former Rome correspondent for the ultra-lefty National Catholic Reporter has today an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

My emphases and comments.

Let’s have a look.

December 19, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
The Vatican’s Relative Truth

POPE BENEDICT XVI has offered a couple of recent previews of what’s likely to be his core message to the United Nations next April, the projected highlight of his first visit to the United States. Last Tuesday, the pontiff released the text of his annual statement for the Vatican’s World Day of Peace, raising typical papal concerns like poverty and disarmament, but also a defense of the family based on heterosexual marriage and, in the section reflecting Benedict’s budding environmentalism, a reminder of human supremacy over the animal kingdom.

Ten days earlier in Rome, Pope Benedict offered a more targeted message in a meeting with Catholic nongovernmental groups that work with the United Nations, delivering a stern warning against the “bitter fruits” of “relativistic logic” and a “refusal to admit the truth about man and his dignity.” Given the titanic battles the Vatican has waged against certain United Nations agencies over abortion and birth control, his comments were quickly spun by the Italian press as a major papal “attack” ahead of next year’s General Assembly address.

But if the pope’s words have fed expectations of a “High Noon”-style showdown, they are likely to be dashed. Benedict had no intention of making an anti-United Nations jeremiad. Like every pope since the birth of the United Nations in 1945, Benedict supports robust global governance, in a fashion that has long bewildered neoconservative critics of the United Nations in the United States and elsewhere. If there was anything remarkable in what he said, it’s only that the Vatican’s public-relations crew still hasn’t found a way to keep the pope from making cosmetic missteps that distract attention from his message.

While the Vatican may have its differences with United Nations agencies over sex, [Though I wouldn’t say "sex", it is not to be disputed that the key issues concern UN support of abortion and contraception.] it also sees the organization as the lone realistic possibility for putting a human face on international politics and economics — what Pope John Paul II called a “globalization of solidarity.”

Moreover, Benedict undeniably has a point about relativism. From China to Iran to Zimbabwe, it’s common for authoritarian regimes to argue that rights like freedom of the press, religion and dissent represent Western — or even Anglo-American — traditions. If human rights are to be protected in a 21st century increasingly shaped by non-Western actors like China and the so-called Shiite axis from Lebanon to Central Asia, then a belief in objective truth grounded in universal human nature is critical. That’s hardly just a Catholic concern, but no one on the global scene is making the argument with the clarity of Benedict XVI.

Part of the problem is that so far, this cerebral pope has a track record of blurring such compelling arguments during his biggest turns on stage. When he visited Auschwitz in May 2006, for example, he offended some Jews by asserting that the Nazis tried to destroy Christianity too. Four months later, he set off a firestorm among Muslims with a lecture at the University of Regensburg by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman,” such as “his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” And in Brazil last May, the pope incensed indigenous people in Latin America by suggesting that Christianity was not imposed on them.

In each case, Benedict was actually trying to make a deeper point worth hearing. In Auschwitz, his contention was that objective truth grounded in God is the only bulwark against the blind will to power; his Regensburg address was devoted to reason and faith, arguing that reason shorn of faith becomes nihilism, while faith without reason ends in fanaticism and violence; and in Brazil, he argued that since Christ embraces all humanity, he cannot be foreign to anyone’s spiritual experience.  [Go back and read Pope Benedict’s first Message for the World Day of Peace.]

Those ideas, however, were overshadowed by a few throwaway phrases that betray a worrying insensitivity to how unfamiliar audiences are likely to hear what he says. One would think that by now the lesson would have been learned, but all evidence is to the contrary. While it was intended to strike a tone of sympathy and common human concern, the speech to the nongovernmental groups instead came off as a screed.

Benedict’s trip to the United Nations in April will be his most important voyage to date, and his best opportunity to address the community of nations. He clearly has something valuable to say, a message that focuses on what he has termed a “dictatorship of relativism” menacing not just the Catholic Church or institutional religion, but everyone, especially the most vulnerable. The question is whether he’ll be able to find a language to ensure that what he pitches is also what people catch.

At this stage, the odds that he’ll succeed seem, well, only relatively good.

John L. Allen Jr. is the senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and author of “The Rise of Benedict XVI.”


This is a basically excellent analysis.  I am not in synch with all of his conclusions.

Allen is exactly correct in his understanding of what the Pope was trying to say at Regensburg, in Latin America, in his speech to the NGO’s.

However, I think he is wrong about the Pope making "gaffs" which then obscure the Pope’s message.  

I don’t think the Pope is making mistakes.  While I am ready to admit that sometimes the negative reactions surprise Pope Benedict, I think he knows exactly what he is doing.  It may be that Mr. Allen is trying to explain away things Pope Benedict says with which he does not agree.  Nor are Benedict’s speech writers and screeners incompetent or plotting to undermine the Pope. 


We have to ratchet up our ability to listen closely, intensely, to this Pope.  His worldview is more complicated than pundits would like it to be.

It may be that Mr. Allen is arguing that the Pope should go to the UN and be supportive without committing a "gaff" – like criticising the UN’s support of abortion.  "Don’t blow it like you did at Regensburg, Auschwitz, Latin American and with the NGO’s.  Holy Father, you’re real message is so important, so don’t obscure it by making your discourse too complicated.  Dumb it down so people won’t misunderstand it and avoid the really hard issue."

Some things need to be kept in mind.

First, it is hard to tell what the Holy Father really thinks about certain issues of social doctrine.  We just don’t know yet.  We are going to have to see what his social encyclical says.  Unitl we have more focused texts from him, we are just reading tea leaves, such as snippets from Deus caritas est or the speech to the NGO’s.

Second, the Vatican has always had a nearly desparate desire that the UN succeed in certain spheres, such as peace-keeping, poverty, hunger, etc.  To a certain extent, the Holy See has tip-toed around elements of the UN that are simply bad.   Yes, they have fought the good fight at key moments, but there is still a lot of tip-toeing.  In my view, this is a mistaken strategy.  There are those who desire a bigger, more influential UN, even world government.  If the Holy See thinks (if Pope Benedict thinks) there is a problem in the heart of the EU, then wait until the UN gets stronger. The negatives of the EU would be magnified a thousand times in a stronger UN.

Third, a huge slice of the progressvist Catholic left still cling to the New York Times.

I think the Holy See, the Pope especially, must take the UN to the woodshed over the bad points. 

A lot of people are very worried Pope Benedict might actually do that.

I am not by this that I am sure this was was John Allen’s intent in writing his op-ed piece.  He highlights issues which are useful for provoking discussion.  At the same time, I am pretty sure some people will use his points to argue that the Pope shouldn’t bring to strong an agenda to the UN.

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  1. Anon says:

    I think Allen’s continued criticism of Pope Benedict’s rhetorical gaffes are meant to soften and extricate controversial ideas from the Pope’s ideological lexicon, not that he simply needs to repackage them. Allen is generally fair-minded, but no dummy and still a liberal(see his effusive praise for Marini without raising some important questions in his “analysis”).

    In each of the instances Allen cites, the Pope made a very important and ideologically-laden (not a bad thing) statement that gets to the heart of a problem he deeply desires to address (Christ as unique mediator, the intersection of faith and reason). Although the pope may have been surprised at the reaction some of the statements may have caused, they are still his views and he has not retracted them. He understands they may be hard truths, and in some quarters will not go down well. In each of the instances Allen cites, Benedict has provided a necessary corrective and stimulus to the discussion of each of these issues. I think the screaming fits each has caused point to the fact that these are not simply peripheral issues, but get right to the heart of the issues and confront (in some instances) nefarious ideologies opposed to the gospel. Namely, the pope’s comment that the expansion of Christianity to Latin America was a gift to the indigenous cultures (he never said, contra Allen, that it wasn’t imposed), and transformed them for the good of course irritates the multiculturalists and church liberals because it affirms the uniqueness and importance of Christianity as the salvific path. Likewise, his statements that the Holocaust was not simply an attack on Jews as such, but the whole people Israel (old and new, including the Church) were meant to broaden our understanding of that pernicious ideology as a threat to civilization and God, not just an egregious case of ethnic cleansing (which some want it to remain because of the theological implications the pope has mentioned). Finally, his statements about Islam countered the whole “religion of peace” lingo and got to the heart of the problem: faith without reason fosters violence, and Islam to whom the Pope was also speaking, has a distinct problem with this that seems to be getting worse. He could have avoided this important truth, but then it would neuter his message. And by the grace of God, these hard truths have actually fostered a dialogue or disputation or whatever one wants to call it. Very good things. Viva il papa!

  2. danphunter1 says:

    Go, Holy Father.
    Condemn the murdering of the little ones, all around the world.
    The United Nations will listen and have no excuse when they here the trumpet sound.
    Long live the Pope!

  3. Prof. Basto says:

    The pope always spoke like a true Christian, from a Christian standpoint, and mentioning Christianity. And that’s what Mr. Allen seems to dislike about the papal speeches: that there are no half-words in Pope Benedict’s speeches.

    The pope is returning the Vatican back to the great old-school tradition of saying things plainly, setting truths out clearly, in an uncompromizing way. We cannot compromize when it comes to the core issues.

    In a way, the whole pontificate of Benedict XVI has been and is a fulfillment of Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily in the Mass pro eligendo Romano Pontifice .

    The pope is acting tough, setting the record straight, and that’s what liberals, Mr. Allen included, dislike. They would rather have a pope who insisted less on the Catholic Truth and acted more like a UN Secretary General, just more cute, like a grandpa. Well, the Truth of Christ brings not unity in this corrupt world, but division, as He himself said. The pope cannot compromise with the Truth, and, after 40 years of appeasement with certain evils, and of a soft spoken message, we really need black and white tough statements from the Vatican. Mr. Allen, on the other hand, seems to think that this approach is wrong, and that we should go back to the ways of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, to the ways of Assissi and so forth.

    Well, not with this Pope. He clearly knows what he is doing, that is intentional, and he shouldn’t be and isn’t concerned with earthly popularity. He has the support and the prayers of true Catholics on his side, he has the intercession of the company of the Saints, and the only reward he seeks is that he be, at the end of his earthly service for the welfare of souls, received in the kingdom of Our Lord.

    Long live the Pope!

  4. Janice says:

    I cannot add anything to what the previous posters have said, but I echo their statements. And I do not think that John Allen is as fair-minded as people seem to think. He has merely changed his rhetoric. Read his biography of Cardinal Ratzinger. I know he “apologized” for it, and after Cardinal Ratzinger was elected, Allen began to write in a more conciliatory manner. But he has not really become unbiased and he does not intend to cover Pope Benedict in a fair manner. His article invariably sound like this Op-ed piece: the Pope is insensitive, he doesn’t have John Paul’s keenness with audiences and the press, and always there is the punch line: he’ll only do “relatively” well. To my mind, however, the Pope has done spectabularly well, since Day One, and he has honored the Chair of Peter. It’s no secret that Allen, et al., were disappointed at Benedict’s election. But now the strategy is to damn with faint praise.

  5. johnny vino says:

    I find Allen’s voice in that article similar to the disciples who were upset that Jesus drove people away with his “hard sayings” in John 6. It was Peter that placed his doubts in humility before the truth then. The chair of Peter does so again today.

  6. Dob says:

    There is always a violent reaction to the Truth. Look what they did to our Lord. Mr Allen should not be swayed by this new religion of Order and it’s supreme loveless commandment – “What ever you do, do not cause anyone to be disturbed”. If we move past the crazy initial reactions we see a most wonderful blossoming of understanding taking place. This Pope is opening the eyes of the blind. Sure they will squirm and squeal as the dirt and spit is applied, it is always so. We know however that the initial discomfort will be replaced by rejoicing – Look, I can see, I was blind, now I can see!

    Keep going Pope Benedict. The world needs Truth so very much.

  7. Folks: Please don’t turn this into an Allen bash. The issues are more interesting. John Allen is a very shrewed analyst. Learn from the discussion of the issues which he opens up.

  8. Anon says:

    Fr. Z,

    Your point about Allen is well-taken. He is certainly a gentleman and all-around good fellow. The problem, as I see it, is that Allen is in a position to frame the debate and serve as a point of reference for these discussions. In many instances, this is a good thing (see, e.g., his books on Opus Dei and the Curia). That said, questioning those assumptions (not motives) snd the way he frames the issues should not be off the table. It seems in the piece above, there is some solid analysis, but the substance of the piece is based on faulty assumptions. He is opening up “discussions” but framing the “discussion” with his own assumptions. And, given his influence, that should be discussed.

  9. B Knotts says:

    that has long bewildered neoconservative critics of the United Nations in the United States and elsewhere

    The writer is confused. I realize that “neoconservatism” is the current bogeyman for the popular press, but if there is anything that pretty much defines paleoconservatism, it is distaste for the U.N., and other international quasi-governmental organizations. I know this may not seem like a major point, but the overuse (and misuse) of this term really grows tiresome.

    Regardless, I would not expect the Holy Father to rail against the U.N.; I\’d expect him to do what he is doing: reminding everyone of the basic dignity of the human person.

  10. Janice says:

    Well, as to the “issues,” Allen is discussing, yes, it’s all about the fact that Benedict is preaching an anti-relativistic view, but not articulating it in a way that people can understand or with which they can be in sympathy. Isn’t that really the upshot of the whole piece: That the Pope “blurs” his arguments with his use of language? That’s rather up to the hearer, isn’t it? But it would be impossible for the Pope to preach the Gospel in a way true to that message AND conform to the PC-straitjacket in which thought and language has been confined.

    This, basically, is at the heart of the struggle over Catholic identity and Catholic culture. Does one really accept the “hard sayings” of the faith or do we, like Allen, want to hedge our bets and cozy up to the powerful? There’s a powerful lobby within Catholicism itself, which Allen represents (NCR, Commonweal, America, many university professors, et al.). They question what is “contingent” and what is “essential” in Catholicism and, too often, they jettison much of the doctrinal, liturgical and theological identity of Catholicism in the process. And this column, to me at least, is evidence of that.

  11. Maureen says:

    I think Allen basically misunderstands our little Pope’s rhetorical technique. He does have one big point to make, but he also has subordinate points. Almost certainly he sets it up _on purpose_ to make different points depending on how far people are willing to follow the argument.

    So a person of goodwill and fairmindedness will understand the Regensburg speech as primarily a call to academics to accept and use their God-given reason as God-given, and to non-academics to accept and use God-given reason as part of religion. But a person who has enough issues to be pricked hard by one or other of the subordinate points — well, that’s obviously the subordinate point said listener needs to hear, so the Pope seems to feel that he might as well make it good and hard.

    I suspect this sort of subtle unsubtlety of approach was learned by teaching a squirrelly classroom of kids with different needs, and honed through years of preaching and teaching to various audiences.

  12. Rose says:

    It seems to me that Mr. Allen’s article actually reflects the “deafness” which the Pope has to overcome. It should not surprise that when most opinion makers are engaged in “soft-pedalling” and tuning to the pitch of political correctness, someone who actually speaks the plain truth and whose thesis requires independent thinking, would be considered “tactless” and lacking in “correctness”! I may have missed it, but has Mr. Allen ever written about the Islamic scholars’ letters in response to Regensberg, or does he, like most of the MSM, consider the two letters a `bold` intiatiave that sprang out of nowhere?

  13. michigancatholic says:

    The pope is doing fine, better than fine. Many people don’t attend to what he says very deeply, even though he speaks profoundly. I don’t know how or if that can ever be fixed, but it’s not the pope’s fault. It’s to be expected. The pope should not, after all, sound (or think) like an auto mechanic. And to his credit, he does not.

    Perhaps the stupid progressives’ would rather have a stupid pope that everyone could understand dumbly but thoroughly like a burger king commercial? That would solve this issue for those who think everything is pedagogical on its face, and ought to sound like Dick-Jane-&-Sally, but I for one, don’t think it will happen…. This article is a thinly veiled progressive attack in that it attacks the pope for not following the “dumbing down” rules that progressives like. Woe to the man who speaks in greater than 5-letter words–NCR says so.

    If Benedict reads it to the UN a little bit, he wouldn’t be doing anything that Mother Theresa of Calcutta hadn’t done before him. And the world didn’t come to an end then, and it won’t now. Even if the powers-that-be get their little selves bent into uncomfortable little shapes over it for a few minutes, they’ll survive. In fact, it might do them good.

  14. Fr. W says:

    Regarding man’s superiority over the animals kingdom – this needs to be said. I have noticed a terrible trend, even among Catholic children: when I ask small children, ‘Why did God make you,’ the inevitable and consistent answer is to protect the animals or to help the animals. Even approved religion texts by the bishops are unknowingly teaching this error. When even Catholics don’t know why they were made, we are heading down some terrible future. The Pope is surely onto this, I hope he makes it a major point.

  15. michigancatholic says:

    Fr. Z,

    I don’t doubt that John Allen has a reputation as a “shrewd analyst” as you say. However, I think the issues ought to be discussed fairly and openly without prejudice. That means facts count.

    It is a fact that John Allen will have some preconceptions coming in to his analyses, just like anyone else would. His preconceptions *should* be examined as well as his analyses, because they are not independent of each other any more than anyone else’s would be. [The only way to avoid this would be to discuss something so simplistic that it could be put into formal symbolic logic–with no dispositional content–and this topic is clearly not that sort of thing.]

    Therefore, the whole content of what he writes and from what disposition he writes it, is open to evaluation just like any other columnist’s would be. Allen is no special case, for whom we have to suspend the usual methods of evaluation we would use for anything any other columnist has written. We should be fair & intelligent about what we read.

    I have heard it said he has good connections in Rome, and I’m sure he does. That might be good enough reason to read his work. But it’s not a carte blanche to trust. I always read journalists and columnists analytically and Allen is no exception. I don’t feel the need to hold him at arm’s length–a special case among all others. No logical reason exists to do so.

  16. johnny vino says:

    It really doesn’t matter what Benedict says. Something will be snipped for “outrage”, and something will be snipped to support leftist causes. That’s the way the press works. Someone told me today that he’s “too old” and “isn’t as popular” as JPII. It would be one thing if I could dismiss that as a silly superficial judgment, but this woman taught at a Catholic school for 8 years. She asked me why I would possibly like him, and I told her we could have lunch sometime so I could really introduce her to the man. But is someone like that going to get “Introduction to Christianity” or Dominus Iesus? Not likely. She’s a 12 year product of the Jonathan Livingston Seagull catechesis which she presumably passed on to her students. If Allen thinks B16 would get a break from the MSM if he tailored his message to that crowd he is 100% wrong.

  17. michigancatholic says:

    So, if Pope Benedict is “too old” and “not as popular,” why did the audiences in Rome double right after he became pope?

    And um, popes are pope for life. There’s no such thing as “too old” for a pope. The idea is just plain silly.

    I suspect there are some sour grapes in some places over recent developments in the Church, and that’s all that kind of “too old” talk is.

  18. Greg Smisek says:


    Great word. I’ll have to remember that one.

  19. magdalen says:

    I do not think the Holy Father is swayed by public opinion of writers or
    others who might seek to dissuade him from speaking what he sees as the
    truth. Certainly I will not apologize for him or any or his words! Just
    like little Blessed Mother Teresa stood up before the president and the U.N.
    and was unfazed byt their ‘power’ and the the requests to keep things fluffy,
    rather she took them to task on abortion, the murdering of innocents. I do
    not expect less from our saintly Holy Father.

    Ave Maria!

  20. Tom Smith says:

    Concur with your assessment. One counter point however to note. John Allen I think infered a possible reason for the papacy support of the UN.

    “From China to Iran to Zimbabwe, it’s common for authoritarian regimes to argue that rights like freedom of the press, religion and dissent represent Western – or even Anglo-American – traditions.
    If human rights are to be protected in a 21st century increasingly shaped by non-Western actors like China and the so-called Shiite axis from Lebanon to Central Asia, then a belief in objective truth grounded in universal human nature is critical. That’s hardly just a Catholic concern, but no one on the global scene is making the argument with the clarity of Benedict XVI.”

    China is becoming a world superpower. And given the churches relationship with it, one has to consider options
    that will allow the church a voice for the oppressed. I’m not convinced that’s a viable conclusion, for reasons you staed about the EU. But the alternative is what?

  21. killian says:

    Mr. Allen writes: “The question is whether he’ll be able to find a language to ensure that what he pitches is also what people catch.”

    If we all try to attune our ears to the frequency of the supernatural, I’m more than confident we will all be able to catch it. Which will be a very different interaction than the one proposed by the delivery of the daily newspaper which is, faithfully, take it or leave it.

  22. Habemus Papam says:

    We are about to see just how popular this old Pope is. Reading between the lines I sense a distinct jitteriness on the part of his opponents. “He aint Pope John Paul”. Quite.

  23. Dob says:

    “then a belief in objective truth grounded in universal human nature is critical. That’s hardly just a Catholic concern, but no one on the global scene is making the argument with the clarity of Benedict XVI.”

    “objective truth grounded in God is the only bulwark against the blind will to power”

    These two groundings of objective truth are not the same.

  24. S. Quinn says:

    I would be very interested in reading John Allen’s apology, referenced above, for his work on the Pope when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. It is my belief that his bio of Ratzinger was one of the prime sources for many of the MSM’s hate-filled comments on the Pope. Allen said that Ratzinger believed in “theological terrorism” and gave him his various nicknames, like “enforcer of the faith.” The brilliant book (Twomey, is the author, I believe, but I do not have it in front of me), on Benedict, “Conscience of the Age,” has an entire chapter negating just about every single thing Allen said – including the “fact” that his family did not do enough to combat the Nazis!! I read Allen’s book and it was an extreme hatchet job, full of – not to put too fine a point on it – outright lies.

    If anyone has a link to Allen’s apology I wish they would post it. I would like to see if it is specific to the above points.

  25. Little Gal says:

    I think the fact that so many in the Vatican-with different ideological viewpoints-talk to Mr. Allen is a testament to his objectivity. I have read his work for quite a while and I think he is frankly the best.
    Based on my reading-in contrast to some of the comments here- I suspect Allen is a man who thinks very highly of the Holy Father.

  26. S. Quinn says:

    Little Gal – are you SURE you read his bio of Cardinal Ratzinger????

  27. Little Gal says:

    Quinn: Quote from Wikipedia:

    “In 2000, Allen published a biography entitled Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith. Several reviewers criticized this book for being biased, since it very often took an anti-Ratzinger stance. Joseph Komonchak, for example, called his writing “Manichaean journalism.”[2] After some examination, Allen concluded that these criticisms were valid. As a result, in his next biography of the same man, The Rise of Benedict XVI: The Inside Story of How the Pope Was Elected and Where He Will Take the Catholic Church (2005), Allen tried to be fair to all sides and viewpoints. Allen acknowledged that his first book was “unbalanced” because it was his first book, and it was written, he says, “before I arrived in Rome and before I really knew a lot about the universal church. The book “gives prominent voice to criticisms of Ratzinger; it does not give equally prominent voice to how he himself would see some of these issues.”[3]”

    He wrote two books: the one referred to above and the other is a biography of the Holy Father written (obviously) after he ‘had arrived in Rome.”

    I respect someone who can look at himself in the mirror and assess his mistakes and correct them. And, he did so in a public venue. I would also suggest folks to read what Allen has written about the Holy Father.

  28. CPKS says:

    Two suggestions:

    1) It is said that when a message doesn’t generate controversy, it sinks without trace; when opposing factions are in strong agreement or disagreement, people generally will become more aware of it.

    2) By holding out the promise of juicy “gaffes” (which may of course not really be gaffes at all), perhaps the Holy Father is ensuring that what he communicates will be studied and debated by those who disagree.

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