I first met John Allen through one of those instant arguments that e-mail makes possible. Allen had reviewed my biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, in the National Catholic Reporter — more positively than I had expected, given the NCR’s take on the pontificate. Still, I thought Allen had missed some things. So, noting his e-mail address at the end of the review, I shot him a message saying, in so many words, “Thanks for the kind remarks; here are the eight things you got wrong.”
Within ten minutes I had a cyber-reply saying, in so many words, “No, here are the nine things you’ve got wrong.” It was all in good humor and, as I was scheduled to speak in Kansas City, home of the NCR, in a few weeks, I e-mailed back, proposing that the argument be continued over barbecue at a K.C. eatery of Allen’s choice. He accepted and we had a fine evening, during which Allen told me that he was heading for Rome to open an NCR bureau in anticipation of the next papal election.
Over the past two years, John Allen’s Vatican reporting has probably surprised some of his paper’s readership, an integral part of the aging culture of dissent in U.S. Catholicism. In the paper, and in a weekly e-mail letter from Rome, Allen has challenged “progressive Catholic” shibboleths more than once — even if he challenges them rather gently. He also brings to his reporting and commentary a lot of energy, a sense of fair play, and a willingness to listen to those with whom he disagrees (or whom his paper considers Neanderthals).
It seems to me, though, that John Allen temporarily shelved his willingness to go against the “progressive Catholic” grain in writing his new book, Conclave: The Politics, Personalities, and Process of the Next Papal Election (Doubleday). His description of the process of a papal election is useful; the problems come on the “politics and personalities” side of his subtitle. Fully half of his twenty leading papal contenders strike me as utterly implausible successors to John Paul II, and his mini-portraits of the rest of the electors, while occasionally interesting, are strangely awry at numerous points.
But where I really take issue with my friend John Allen, and what I hope to explore with him over some spaghetti carbonara before too much times passes, is on his definition of the five great “voting issues” of the next conclave. I agree on one point: the biotech revolution will pose an enormous, critical challenge to the next pontificate. But are the other four great issues for John Paul II’s successor really collegiality (the old “progressive” lust for “power-sharing,” meaning, in fact, power); ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; globalization; and “women and the laity” (a variant on “collegiality”)? I seriously doubt it.
Stripped of its more lurid features, the Crisis of 2002 in U.S. Catholicism is something of a microcosm of the post-Vatican II situation throughout the world Church. That suggests a rather different agenda of issues to be addressed during the next conclave:
Orthodoxy: What explains the crisis of fidelity that is the root of the crisis of clerical indiscipline and episcopal misgovernance? Why are too many bishops, priests, and Catholic intellectuals unable or unwilling to communicate the great adventure of orthodoxy?
Headship: Why have so many bishops lost a sense of headship, adopting a managerial rather than apostolic understanding of their office? What new criteria for selecting bishops need to be implemented?
Human Degradation: How should the Church address the many ways in which modern culture treats human beings as artifacts, the body as a mere machine, and sex as another contact sport? John Paul II has waged a vigorous campaign against the Church’s ancient enemy, gnosticism (the heresy that the stuff of the material world, including the human body, doesn’t really count). How will that campaign continue?
Liturgy: Why, after forty years of liturgical reform, are churches emptier and Catholics less convinced of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist?
Evangelization: World Christian growth has been flat, as a percentage of world population, for a century. Now what?
Things to talk about, John. See you in Rome. Lunch is on me.