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November 29, 2005

God's Choice George Weigel

A few days ago, I obtained (via the kindness of a stranger) a copy of God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church by George Weigel (this on the advice and review of Mr. Blosser at Against the Grain). While I sometimes admire the prose of Mr. Weigel, I have to admit that I do not share his reservations about Pope John Paul II theology. However, despite their obvious disagreements, Mr. Weigel obviously has enormous respect for the late great Pontiff.

The first part of this books is a recounting of the Papacy of John Paul II, on of the longest in history. In this recounting Mr. Weigel analyzes both the person and the writings of John Paul II and what effect they have had and may have on the Church. The analysis is insightful and helpful without being particularly detailed or prolix. Mr. Weigel knew the work and perhaps the person of John Paul II well and it shows in his exposition and analysis.

The book is oddly constructed, starting with the illness, decline, and death of John Paul II and then seguing back into the career and concluding this portion with a view of the great pontiff's funeral. This material comprises about forty percent of the book and sets the backdrop against which he will spell out the reign of Benedict XVI.

Now, I suppose I should start by saying that while I believe the title of this book--that is, Pope Benedict XVI is God's choice-- I can't claim to be overwhelmed with the present pontiff. I bear him no ill will, and I accept the judgment of others (including Mr. Weigel) that our present Pope is in every way suited for the position and conducting himself magnificently. Let's face it, John Paul the Great would be a hard act to follow no matter who took the position. So I start with some reservations about the present pontiff that are sometimes only exacerbated by news reportage. Mr. Weigel starts with no such onus. The portion of the book about the conclave is utterly fascinating--giving a diary of the events surrounding the conclave itself. I was a little uneasy about this material as the conclave is supposed to be absolutely secret and the publishing of this kind of diary, which while not an insiders look, still exploits the rumors and leakages that occurred seems a little problematic. Set that aside for the moment, the account is very interesting. Our present Pope went in with a sizable majority and eventually emerged as Pontiff. Looked at one way, this speaks well for the state of the Church--if those who voted for him did so out of the vision they had of the Church, this bodes well. If they voted out of mundane political reasons, it says nothing whatsoever about the state of the Church (because this has been involved since the beginning) but much about the guidance of the Spirit. We cannot presume to judge the motives of those voting, so either way, it was a manner of leading by the Holy Spirit.

After the tale of the conclave, we get a brief biography and précis of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI's career. Again, Mr. Weigel handles this with some aplomb--it is insightful without being boring and it touches nicely on the points where our present pope might be deemed "controversial." These include his opinions on such matters as liberation theology and the Boff case.

Finally, Mr. Weigel stares into his crystal ball and gives us a view of the agenda and the possible futures of the Church. His guess is as good as any, and far better than my own. This section plays nicely off the section that discusses the state in which John Paul the Great left the church for good and ill.

The book is deftly constructed, mostly well written. (Although I must confess to being taken aback but an absurdly ugly neologism--civilizational. This is the kind of thing that happens when editors dare not touch the work any more because you have become too popular.) While not particularly a Ratzinger partisan, this book helped me to better understand the man and the issues surrounding him and to dispell some of my concerns about our present pontiff. In short, it is an excellent introduction to the new pontificate, supplying background on both the late Pontiff and our present Vicar of Christ, deftly comparing and constrasting the two. (Were I to guess I would say that Mr. Weigel falls at least a little on the "Ratzinger" side of the Wotyla/Ratzinger continuum; whereas I am squarely in the Wotyla side of that continuum.)

For fans and detractors alike, this book may add fuel to the fire. What it does an exemplary job of is showing the state of the Church in the transition between these two pontificates. Pope Benedict XVI has a hard act to follow, and unless God grants him extraordinary longevity, a relatively shorter pontificate in which to exercise his influence. May the Holy Spirit guide and bless him (and us) all along the way.

Highly recommended for all readers.

Posted by Steven Riddle at November 29, 2005 9:00 AM

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Thanks much for this review. I put this book in my amazon cart. I do feel the same squeamishness about learning details from the Conclave. I'm no moral theologian, but isn't Weigel sort of an aider and abettor in accepting that sort of ill-gotten material? Or would I be an aider and abettor in reading it greedily as I no doubt will?

Posted by: TSO at November 29, 2005 11:39 AM

Also as far as Ratzinger & Wotja being on opposite ends of the spectrum, as you know Ratzinger was tapped by JPII and was his righthand man. It's hard to see them as opposites when JPII thought so highly of him. A poor analogy might be Condi Rice becoming president of the U.S. after Bush - it's hard to see them as oppositional in the way a Hillary Clinton or John Kerry would be.

Posted by: TSO at November 29, 2005 11:42 AM

Dear TSO,

I don't know that the idea is that they are so much opposites in faith or belief as opposites in personality, for which I think there may be some justification.

To put your mind at greater ease in the matter there is a footnote that I first overlooked on the diary:

The "diary" that follows is based on the author's diary and other memoranda and notes written during the period in question, amplified by interviews and conversations in April 2005 with cardinal-electors (none of whom violated his oath ofconfidentiality in the process.) . . . Given the cardinals' oath of confidentiality, any such reconstruction of events is bound to be impressionistic at points.

Still, my scrupulosity suggests that there is more here than should be. But scrupulosity is the problem of the reader and not of the author.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at November 29, 2005 12:05 PM

Great review. Thanks! Reading your comment about how you don't feel overwhelmed with Benedict ... I think that is how a lot of people feel. Which is why it surprises me all the more at how very attached I have become to this Pope in such a short time. I really love him wholeheartedly and certainly thought I'd take longer to warm up to him. I think it is because of the off-the-cuff things I've read that he has said such as his explanation of how we know God is with us even when we can't see him. (if that makes sense at all)

Posted by: Julie D. at November 29, 2005 2:48 PM

Steven, can you expand on your comment that you have "some reservations about the present pontiff"? Thanks much. Leo

Posted by: Leo Boever at November 29, 2005 2:48 PM

Dear Mr. Boever,

It is an essentially meaningless coded statement for "I don't like change." I know nothing about Pope Benedict XVI to his detriment, but he is, after all a NEW Pope, and I was perfectly comfortable with the old one, thank you very much. Hence, as a NEW pope, I have some reservations (which have nothing to do with the person himself.)

Also, I must confess that I haven't felt the particular pastoral embrace I felt from John Paul the Great. But then, if I'm busy holding myself off because I don't like change and this man is NEW, well then, I wouldn't be inclined to feel or accept that would I?

However, as I said in the review, this man is God's choice. The Holy Spirit spoke and this is the pontiff we received. I am grateful that it happened swiftly and with relatively little acrimony. There is no question about him as Pope. But as I said, he is NEW. The NEW is always unsettling.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at November 29, 2005 3:23 PM

Thank you for the review. I somehow hadn't heard about this volume yet.

The only thing that has me wondering from your description is that it sounds like the book almost spends more time on setting the background in regards to John Paul II's pontificate than discussing Benedict/Ratzinger's own backstory. Does it skimp in that regard, would you say, or does that come in well in the latter half?

Posted by: Darwin at November 30, 2005 9:31 PM

Dear Darwin,

I found it a nice balance. Yes, there was a lot about John Paul II's pontificate, but it placed everything into the historical melieu that is necessary to fully conmprehend what Benedict is facing, the advances and the challenges. I liked that aspect of the book a great deal.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at December 1, 2005 1:40 PM

Actually, the review I posted was by Fr. Neuhaus, not myself. My copy just arrived in the mail this week.

The structure of the book is identical to John Allen Jr.'s The Rise of Benedict XVI. I'm hoping that someday Weigel might write something with the depth and scale of JPII's Witness to Hope, but this is a good start.

Personal recommendation: anybody wanting the backstory on B16 couldn't do better than to start with his memoirs from childhood to Vatican II: Milestones.

Posted by: Christopher Blosser at December 3, 2005 2:16 PM

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