Meaningful Dialogue & the Myth of the Vatican

The Vatican is a myth. That’s the first lesson to be learned from John Allen‘s book All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks. To be clear, there is a small city-state completely surrounded by Italy and recognized as Vatican City. That part is real. There are also Vatican gardens and museums. But to assert that there is a monolithic entity known as “the Vatican” that represents one point of view is to tell an untruth. As a correspondent for National Catholic Reporter and a “Vatican analyst” for CNN and NPR, John Allen has spent many years in and around Vatican City reporting on the goings-on of the center of Catholic power. (Allen is also a Catholic, although this does not seem to bias his reporting in the least, but rather seems to enrich it.) And John Allen wants us to know right off the bat that although the place he is an expert on is real, the way in which “the Vatican” is commonly discussed and personified is a myth.

Published in 2004, All the Pope’s Men was written mostly in 2002 and 2003, during the twilight years of the papacy of Blessed Pope John Paul II, which, unbelievably, was “two popes ago” now. But the book itself is as relevant today as it was cutting edge almost a decade ago. Through direct observation, a sampling of Vatican employee pay stubs, and a series of interviews with key players, Allen crafts a compelling case for the uniqueness of the Vatican, painting a picture unlike any I’ve ever seen. Sistine Chapel at VaticanThe book itself is an astute sociological and psychological portrait of a Vatican that operates by long-standing rules and assumptions that are frequently misunderstood by the rest of the world. Allen dispels myths and misconceptions about the Vatican that are commonly held to be true, such as Myth One: that there is such a thing as “the Vatican.” Another example is Myth Four, wherein Allen demolishes the popular idea that the Vatican is wealthy. (How much is the Sistine Chapel worth, anyway? A gazillion dollars? Fantastic. Who’s going to buy it, then?)

A common theme throughout the book is the clash of cultures and misunderstanding between the Vatican and the United States. This topic is explored extensively in the sections about Vatican sociology and psychology, as well as in the detailed timelines of events and responses to the American sexual abuse crisis and the war in Iraq, which Allen presents in the second half of All the Pope’s Men. Although these two final sections may seem slightly out-of-date to the reader in 2013, they exemplify and affirm the theses Allen puts forward in the first half of the book regarding the Vatican’s culture and practices.

Although this book is filled with insights and memorable stories, what stuck out most to me as I read it was how valuable it is as a tool to promote meaningful dialogue both within the Church, and outside of it. By dispelling myths and misunderstandings, and by expounding on a list of ten key Vatican values, Allen provides a veritable communication toolkit for dialogue. Like a couples therapist between the Vatican and American Catholics, Allen does not choose sides, but rather promotes dialogue by providing a common ground for the two sides to engage in communication, recognizing the contributions, limitations, and strong suits of each. In this way, All the Pope’s Men is timely and timeless, an indispensable book for anyone interested in learning how to meaningfully engage the Faith and the faithful.

At some point during my reading of this book, I must have taken these gems to heart. Last week, when I published my article Confession Confusion & Conscience on Catholic Majority, I had not yet reached the final 100 pages of All the Pope’s Men. Imagine my surprise and delight when I got to page 311 (of the Kindle Edition) where Allen writes:

American Catholics would reduce anxiety levels in Rome if they would learn to speak in a more spiritual argot. For example, since forgiveness and healing are essential elements of resolution to the sex abuse crisis, perhaps the various groups and movements in the United States could promote a nationwide return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation […I]t would speak volumes about the underlying ecclesiology of the reform movement. Further, it would help to avoid phrasing public activism in antagonistic terms, as if it’s “the laity versus the clergy,” or “the left versus the right.”*

Of course, I thought: That’s what I was trying to do in my article! We’re on the same page! Furthermore, Allen’s book reaffirmed my commitment to and belief in Catholic Majority as a blog, in that its ultimate goal is to create a community of Catholic believers who are educated, informed, and willing to engage in precisely the type of dialogue that Allen believes can make a difference (i.e., is effective) and which he recommends in his book.

I can, without hesitation, recommend All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks to all, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Even if a reader is merely interested in satisfying their curiosities about the operation of the Vatican, this book is worth its price. But for those of us who strive to live as faithful Catholics of conscience, uninterested in petty attacks of both the political and ad hominem variety, this book is invaluable.

*Allen Jr, John L. (2007-12-18). All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks (p. 311). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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