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December 1, 2006

All the Pope's Men

The most unfortunate thing about this very interesting book by John Allen is the title. With a title reminiscent of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men and Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men one expect a book brimming with gossip, scandal, and revelations of evil intent.

While there is a considerable section devoted to discussion of the pedophilia scandal and to the Vatican's position on Iraq, there is nothing scandal-mongering about it.

The book is a guide to the Vatican, its structures, its institutions, its functions, the people who fill the offices and the general "culture" of the Vatican. For those, like me, who are ignorant of Vatican structure, who wouldn't know a dicastery from a congregation and have no idea what the difference between the Pope, the Holy See, and the Vatican are, this is a wonderful, informative guidebook.

John Allen is a correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter--and that will immediately influence some people one way or the other. But he states up-front that his intent as a reporter is to try to make the functioning of the Vatican, its offices and personnel, as transparent as possible so that it becomes feasible to understand some of the decrees and rulings that issue forth.

In the course of the book, he recounts the overlapping of offices; how one office dictates liturgy, but another actually puts together the liturgies for the Pope and how the two may be at loggerheads depending upon who is leading them. Thus, those who were particularly annoyed by the Liturgies for the Canonization of Juan Diego and others will be relieved to know that those are one office while the official liturgy of the Church is dictated by another.

John Allen dispels the myths of Vatican wealth, secrecy, and even what "The Vatican" is. I know that it gave me a completely different notion of how the Vatican functions and what the interrelationships of the various offices are.

One small problem with the book is that it was originally published in 1995 and so the names of some of the office-holders have likely changed since that time. But that is a minor quibble. The wealth of information and insight offered by the book are well worth your time and effort to seek it out. If you are as Vatican-illiterate as I am, you will likely profit from reading about it from one who appears to be fairly sympathetic to it as an institution and as a central authority and power.

Because of his reportorial venue and rumors I had heard kicked around the blogs, I had avoided reading John Allen. It's a shame. I must learn to filter out the scuttlebutt and make a decision based solely on the facts. (In this case, even if I had, I would not have picked up the book because of the unfortunate implications of the title.) In the future, books by John Allen will get a good deal more of my attention.

Highly recommended.

Posted by Steven Riddle at December 1, 2006 8:54 AM

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I am in the middle of reading it also and have been much impressed. John Allen is a capable and very balanced writer and is the only writer worth reading generally at the NCReporter. He also finally is blogging and there are RSS feeds for them.

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I agree with you about the title. I also would not have picked it up normally.

Posted by: Jeff Miller at December 1, 2006 10:27 AM

I read it when it first came out and was also much impressed. Looking through the paperback copy I see that they have updated the references to Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II with more current names so perhaps the other names have been updated as well.

About Allen's even-handed writing: I read something he wrote about having a real turning point some time ago when a conservative mentor scolded him for being too one-sided. This came as a real shock because Allen had been priding himself on his balance. To his great credit, he reread his work with the criticisms in mind and was shocked to see that the mentor was correct. He has made a great effort to correct that fault since then and I now trust his writing completely.

Posted by: Julie D. at December 1, 2006 12:27 PM

I, too, have long been impressed by Allen. He is a better writer (and does his homework better) than most mainstream journalists and is lightyears ahead of most of the self-consciously Catholic press (even, alas, perhaps especially, the orthodox ones). It would be a good thing to have more writers like John Allen covering church issues (and other issues as well, for that matter).

Posted by: Erik Keilholtz at December 1, 2006 1:17 PM

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