John Allen: The RealClearReligion Interview

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

When the National Catholic Reporter's senior correspondent John L. Allen, Jr. was called upon to put a question to Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, the Vatican press officer said: "Holy Father, this man needs no introduction." I caught up with Mr. Allen yesterday when he spoke at DePaul University in Chicago as a part of its Center for World Catholicism's World Catholicism Week. We discussed the new Pope, why he thinks appointing a Protestant as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See would be just fine, and what makes him nervous.

RealClearReligion: Time magazine referred to you as "The Man Who Picked the Pope." Did you?

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John Allen: [Laughter] No. I did twenty-two candidate profiles and he was one of them. Imagine how bad it would have been if I had done twenty-two profiles and the pope wasn't among them! Somebody on CNN, after we had been on-air for days talking about who the papal candidates were, asked, "How do you know?" All of this is unattributed reporting; we're not citing sources. How do we know this is real?

It is a confluence of three things: one, the buzz meter. Who is being talked about publicly? In the Italian papers and others throughout the world, which names seem to be drawing the most attention? Second, what are you hearing directly from Cardinals yourself? These are all background conversations, so you're not able to quote anyone, but if you've been around this beat a long time and have cultivated relationships, you can go to guys and get reality checks. The third thing is what Cardinals will say publicly in the run-up to the conclave -- the qualities they think a pope ought to have. You then listen carefully to all of that and compare it to profiles of guys you know. Again, if you've been around awhile, you can usually decode and figure out who they're talking about and who they're not.

One thing that was abundantly clear if you were paying any attention is that the Cardinals were not going to elect someone out of this Vatican regime. So, anyone who had ties to this particular ruling group obviously wasn't going anywhere.

RCR: So, you just have to know.

JA: Well, let me say this about the Vatican generally: it is the single beat in journalism where the byline counts the most. So much of it is done on background. So much of it is sort of trying to read the tea leaves. You really have to learn whose byline you can trust and whose you can't.

RCR: Newsweek's Ken Woodward once wrote that outside of North Korea, "no bureaucracy is harder for a journalist to crack than the Vatican's." Do you agree with him?

JA: I'm not 100 percent sure that's true. The problem with the Vatican isn't so much secrecy, because this isn't like the Pentagon where they have troop movements they're trying to conceal. There aren't really state secrets in that sense. There aren't spy satellites orbiting.

RCR: No drones either?

JA: [Laughter] No. The problem with the Vatican is that it's unique. It is unlike any other institution so you have to learn how to crack the codes. Now, it's not rocket science, but you have to spend enough time doing it that you learn to speak the languages.

RCR: Why do you think the Cardinals picked a Jesuit who seems to behave like a Franciscan?

JA: I don't think the Jesuit piece was the most important piece. I think it was that he is a Latin American outsider. I think this was clearly, and self-consciously, the most anti-establishment conclave of the last 150 years. I think you'd probably have to go back to the election of Leo XIII in 1878 to find a conclave where the Cardinals understood themselves so clearly to be voting for a change. In this case it wasn't a rejection of the substance of Benedict XVI's papacy, but it was a rejection of the methods of management and governance.

RCR: Or lack therof.

JA: They were either non-existent or dysfunctional. The Cardinals wanted somebody who was not tainted in any way by association with this regime. To them, this meant a geographic outsider and a life-experience outsider. I think those were the key pieces for Bergoglio.

RCR: How do you think this outsider will go about reforming the Vatican with his newly appointed "Gang of Eight"?

JA: Let's be clear about the mandate of that group: reforming the Vatican is only its second task. If you read the statement that was issued, it said that the Pope has assembled this group to (a) advise him on the governance of the universal church and (b) to study Pastor Bonus, John Paul II's document on the Roman Curia with an eye towards reform. So, this isn't like a commission to study reform of Social Security. This is the appointment of a cabinet that advises the chief executive on everything.

RCR: Specifically what do you think the Pope himself will do to reform the curia?

JA: We don't know yet. Depending on how this group plays out, it may go down as the most important act of reform. One, people have said since Vatican II that there's too much concentration of power in Rome and that the Church isn't collegial. The creation of the synod of Bishops by Paul VI was supposed to address that, but I think that it has been a mixed bag, at best. This group could actually promote the more collegial vision of Church that people have been talking about.

Seven of the eight guys aren't Vatican guys. They come from the local Church in various parts of the world. It is a way of saying that the Vatican has to be accountable to those local churches. Second, this is not a Pope who relies on people to make decisions for him. This is a Pope who does his own consultation. This is a Pope who picks up the phone himself and calls people and asks for advice. Clearly he's created this group to be his primary sounding board.

RCR: These are people he trusts.

JA: Of course. We don't know how long these eight guys are going to serve or how often he's going to be consulting them. These are not milquetoast, these are all strong personalities. It means you've got a Pope who wants real advice, not yes-men. What's more, these guys don't all think alike. Most people would see Cardinal Pell from Sydney as to the right and most people would see Cardinal Rodriguez from Honduras as fairly far to the left. This suggests that the Pope doesn't want to just hear one opinion before he acts.

RCR: There has been some concern from conservatives that this Pope won't be friendly to their issues. Are those concerns valid?

JA: I wouldn't worry about him rejecting them. I would worry that it's not what he's going to be thinking about when he gets out of bed in the morning. I mean, I don't see him abrogating Summorum Pontificum. However, I don't think you're going to get what you got under Benedict XVI who self-consciously tried to set an example of a more reverent and sober liturgical style. To the extent that the reform of the reform in the liturgical life of the Church goes on, it's probably going to be led less from Rome. I don't think the Pope is going to get in the way of it, but I don't think he's going to be the agent of it in the same way Benedict XVI was.

RCR: Will Francis be a political figure in the same sense that John Paul II was?

JA: That's a good question and I'm not sure yet how to answer it. If you talk to people in Buenos Aires, they will say that he was not a particularly political figure.

RCR: He took on Cristina Kirchner over gay marriage.

JA: He got drawn into that because he was President of the Bishops Conference at the time. He certainly was not the leader on that issue and adjusted himself to where the consensus of the Conference was. He felt obliged to speak for the consensus of the Conference, but had it been left up to him, I'm not sure that the line from the Bishops would have been quite as tough.

Aside from that, can you name another political fight?

RCR: Not especially.

JA: Neither can anyone in Buenos Aires. In broad strokes, you can say he was in favor of justice for the poor, but what exactly is the political payout of that? Now, during the time of John Paul II there was a clear enemy, a clear target for the Church's political energies. Even if you want to say poverty is to Francis as communism was to John Paul II, where's the Kremlin of poverty?

I do think that the Vatican will continue to be active internationally. Clearly as the first Pope from the developing world, he will be conscious to advance the agenda of the Church in the developing world. Let me just put it this way: I don't think Bergoglio is as naturally gifted a politician as Wojtyła was.

RCR: What does that mean for Bishops who often go far beyond their competency when discussing public policy?

JA: I think we have to get past the model of the papacy as some kind of oracle who has something meaningful to say on every issue under the sun. Part of that, frankly, is just Italian culture. Italy is the only nation on Earth that puts out its annual budget and the first thing reporters do is run to a Bishop to get a reaction. There is this myth of omni-competence where churchmen are supposed to be experts on everything.

I don't think that's where Francis comes from. He doesn't have an exaggerated notion of his own competence. My guess would be that on a lot of this stuff, you're going to get fewer papal pronouncements and you're going to get more reliance on the experts of the Catholic world.

RCR: Why don't we have an Ambassador to the Holy See yet?

JA: First of all, it's not all that unusual because a transition took place with the Secretary of State. You've got to get that first and then everything else sort of falls into place. Further, it would be deeply destabilizing to appoint an ambassador during a period of transition because you already have a Chargé d'Affaires there who is sort of running the show. You want him to be able to make decisions without looking over his shoulder wondering what the next ambassador will say. I think they're going to let the dust settle and then make an appointment.

With that said, we need to break this model of appointing exclusively Catholics.

RCR: Appoint a Protestant to be the Ambassador to the Holy See?

JA: Appoint someone who is a career diplomat and who doesn't have a dog in Catholic fights. It's a particular problem for Democratic administrations where the most prominent Catholic Democrats are pro-choice, which would be completely unacceptable to the Holy See. There's a low pool of talent.

RCR: Congressman Daniel Lipinski of Illinois is pro-life.

JA: I floated that name, but it's not a long list. If you go to the Holy See and ask what they want in an ambassador, they don't care whether the person is Catholic or not. They want someone who is diplomatically serious. Somebody who can move the ball with the administration they're supposed to represent. Not somebody who's first conversation with the President is during the photo-op at his announcement and never talks to the President again meanwhile working with flunkies in the State department.

If Barack Obama were to name somebody with the caliber of Warren Christopher, who of course isn't around anymore, nobody in the Vatican would care that the guy is a Methodist. They would be very pleased with that appointment because to them it would mean that the United States is serious about the relationship.

RCR: You've been very professional and knowledgeable throughout this conversation and the whole time I've found it hard to believe that you're among colleagues at the National Catholic Reporter who meanwhile endorse gay marriage and women ordination.

JA: I'm not responsible for any of that. The only thing I'm responsible for is what goes out under my byline. I don't think that makes me different than most journalists on the planet. I've always found it curious that people have this expectation that I'm supposed to somehow be responsible for what's on the editorial page. Should we blame the Rome correspondent at the New York Times for its editorial page?

Whatever you may think of the editorial line of the National Catholic Reporter, at least they usually know what's going on in the Church.

RCR: Thanks to you.

JA: Well, think about how I feel sometimes in the CNN world. I have limited ability to control that kind of ignorance.

RCR: You don't subscribe to some of the wilder stuff that comes out of Kansas City?

JA: I don't take positions on issues like that.

RCR: Why not?

JA: I'm a reporter and an analyst, so I'm trying to give people tools to think about issues in the Church. I'm not trying to tell them what to think about these issues.

RCR: Your kind of objectivity has been described as "maddening." Does it ever drive you mad?

JA: I take it as a compliment, if it's true. I have never in my life set out in an effort to write an objective story. I'm just trying to get the story right. That's it. Getting the story right means you have to respect the complexity of reality. There's always more than one view of what's going on in the Church or anything else.

You try to assemble the facts as best you can, then you try talk to a bunch of different people representing different points of view about those facts, and then you try to lay it all out there in a way that's engaging to people who don't have a Ph.D in ecclesiology. More than that, I'm very nervous of any journalist who has a loftier notion of what our calling is. Any journalist who goes into a story with an idea of who the good guys and bad guys are makes me nervous.

The aim should always be getting the story right and objectivity is a byproduct.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the Editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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