One of the decisions left hanging by Pope John Paul II, and which now awaits a ruling by Benedict XVI, was the beatification of the Frenchman Father Leon Dehon (1843-1925). Founder of the order of the Priests of the Sacred Heart and a pioneer of Christian democracy and social Catholicism, Father Dehon was strongly anti-Semitic: he equated Jewishness with greed, a familiar equation at the time. Jews, Dehon wrote, had “a thirst for gold and Christ as an enemy”; their passion for wealth was a “racial instinct”; the Jew was “a cosmopolitan who ruined the nation”. According to Henri Tincq, writing in Le Monde in June, Leo XIII, the Pope of the time, kept his distance from Dehon even though the Pope was keen on social Catholicism. But now Dehon is being presented in Rome as a great mystical figure - and his time to join the saints may be nigh.

As a number of his biographers remind us, John Paul created far more saints than his predecessors. This increase, writes John Cornwell in The Pope in Winter, was “part of a strategy of evangelisation: to demonstrate to the world the heroic sanctity that could be achieved by the faithful in every quarter of the globe”. He lowered the tests devised for creating new saints - most notably, he abolished the office of Devil’s Advocate, the post filled by a lawyer to probe the merits of the would-be saint.

This was not the only contradiction he encompassed: he did more than any of his predecessors to bring a church with priests such as Father Dehon closer to an understanding with a distrustful Judaism, and he seems to have been naturally impervious to the pervasive anti-Semitism in his native Poland (one of his early close friends was Jewish; he played goalkeeper for a Jewish boys’ football team). Garry O’Connor, a much friendlier biographer than Cornwell, quotes him as saying - during the first papal visit to Rome’s synagogue - that “the acts of discrimination, unjustified limitation of religious freedom, oppression on the level of civil freedom in regard to the Jews were, from an objective point of view, gravely deplorable manifestations”. This was not an unconditional condemnation of past practice, but not bad. Yet, at his death, the sanctification of an anti-Semite was in his in-tray.

The largest contradiction - Cornwell dwells on it - was between his reception as a figure of liberation cum religious superstar on the one hand, and his own determined religious conservatism on the other.

In an essay reprinted in the collection of “reflections” on the late Pope from The Tablet, George Weigel, the official biographer, insists that “neither John Paul nor the historic initiatives of his papacy can be grasped if the man and his ministry are forced into the Procrustean bed in which ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are the dominant categories” - and underlines the point by remarking that he was a man of “mystical sensibilities”.

That he clearly was, but the Pope, contrary to the meaning of Stalin’s famous gibe, does have divisions - and he used them, in the political arena, in country after country. Since the Pope is always a political actor, and a very large one, it is inevitable that he is evaluated and described in political terms, even if these are imprecise. John Paul will always be known as the conqueror of communism: he was an enemy within, in this case within the communist bloc’s weakest link, Poland - to which the introduction of communism was, as Stalin put it in a more accurate comment, “like putting a saddle on a cow”. Yet the decisive nail in communism’s coffin came not from John Paul - nor Ronald Reagan nor Margaret Thatcher, though these principled anti-communists all played large parts. The nail was selected, positioned and hammered home by Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist party - without whom the Soviet Union, and its party, would probably still exist.

The Pope had divisions, of which Solidarnosc was the most effective. But the beast rotted from the inside out. John Paul’s less famed but deeply held views, whose impact was felt in political arenas the world over (if not nearly as strongly as he would wish), were strongly anti-liberal. John Wilkins, the now-retired liberal editor of The Tablet, notes in Reflections that after the collapse of the Soviet Union (indeed, before and during that collapse) “the Pope turned his criticism against the western democracies. He sought to recall them to essential questions of value which he felt they had forgotten or spurned... he feared above all an alliance between democracy and relativism... westerners listened to him with respect but, proud of their freedom, their affection went out to the singer, not the song... they faulted the church [in such areas as] the dignity and status of women; the pastoral needs of divorced and remarried people; justice and dignity for homosexuals; victims of sexual abuse; the devastating Aids pandemic. All these, they pointed out, were issues of human rights” (and issues at the heart of politics, in state after state).

Besides his fervent and mystical Catholicism, John Paul had two other “Cs”: (anti) communism, and charisma. Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, has only the first of these.

What kind of Pope can this man - 20 years older than the 58 years of Karol Wojtyla at the start of his papacy - be? The question is a central one. Those of other faiths than Roman Catholicism, or with only a residual loyalty to a faith or none at all, might see it all as irrelevant to both the trials and the satisfactions of the material world, which offer us all more than enough with which to torment and divert ourselves. But that would be wrong: Roman Catholic believers are serious people. To be sure, in the west they no longer seek to translate what political power they may acquire directly into state policy. The last state to do that in any determined way was the newly independent Republic of Ireland in the 1920s, a tendency that lasted, in attenuated form, until the 1960s (and the last traces of which are now disappearing as rapidly as Irish congregations, hastened out of the chapels by revelations of extensive priestly child abuse). But Catholics who believe do, like other believers, seek to further their views in secular frameworks; they would hardly be true to their faith if they did not. And though they are no more sheep-like than any other group, religious or not, they may also be expected to look to and be influenced by a leader, especially one who insists, as John Paul did and Benedict does, on the infallibility of his word and who holds out to backsliders the promise of an eternity of torment.

The biographies of Popes are thus not just books about large figures: they should be illuminations of the effect of a still considerable centre of religious and political power. In this respect, Garry O’Connor, a professional biographer, has given an account that is good only intermittently; John Cornwell, a Cambridge academic, confines his book to John Paul’s last years and gives a revealing sense of the Pope’s effect on liberal Catholics because of the author’s animated exasperation at his subject; and John L. Allen’s work stands out because he has mobilised the skills of a good reporter (he is Vatican correspondent for the US National Catholic Reporter) and added to them the faith-driven questioning of one who occupies a position similar to that of Cornwell, but with a more obvious desire to understand that which he dislikes.

Benedict identified his main foe, when still Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as the same as that which consumed John Paul in the last decade and a half of his long office: relativism. This is a much slippier, more omnipresent, insidious and powerful enemy than the dinosaur of Soviet communism had been. Relativism, for Benedict, is much of contemporary culture. John Paul confronted an enemy that had territorial boundaries and a clear (if hollow) ideology - which many liberals, even leftists, could agree should be defeated. Benedict’s enemy is liberalism, and its necessary concomitant - the belief that absolute truth is not likely to be available, and certainly cannot serve as an organising principle for society.

For Benedict, relativism is the belief that there can be no one true belief: that all must have at least the offer of equal respect; and that modern societies reach the highest pitch of civilisation when they attain the most perfect tolerance of diverse faiths, all of which can practise their rites in peace and mutual indifference. This seems to be Benedict’s vision of one of the circles of Hell.

Allen illuminates the nature of the Pope’s faith when he writes that “the cornerstone of Ratzinger’s thinking [is that]... the church must not allow itself to be bullied by the world. Feminism and the gay rights movement are expressions of a culture that has lost its capacity to accept limits imposed by authority and grounded in revelation. How can the church simply align itself with the ‘signs of the times’, Ratzinger asks, in a fallen world?”

In his preface, Allen says that he wrote the book - published first in 2000 as Cardinal Ratzinger: the Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith and reissued this year with a new title but no other obvious changes - because “I needed to know how positions that seemed so obviously detrimental to women, to the intellectual life, to the cause of social justice, all of which the church cares a great deal about, could be so deeply entrenched and so vigorously defended by the best and brightest of Catholic officialdom.”

He tries his best to be fair, largely by referring to Benedict’s personal charm, patience and straightforwardness. But he ends by measuring him against a text of Pascal - “A man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once,” adding that, “if that is the test, then despite his intellect, his piety, his sense of purpose, all that makes him remarkable, Joseph Ratzinger has fallen short of greatness.”

Allen is illuminating and intelligent, but he is also a son of the church and a reporter who has to report, not a Hans Kung who can remain immured within dissent. So in The Rise of Benedict XVI, the quickie he did after the papal election, Allen writes that “it is still unclear to what extent Pope Benedict’s reputation as an ‘enforcer’ will follow him to the Apostolic Palace” - this from the writer who had done more than any other to give him that reputation, and who had been clear that it would follow him to the grave. Now he thinks that “it may turn out to be the self-appointed members of the ‘orthodoxy police’ who are most disappointed in Pope Benedict’s reign, given their high expectations”.

The Roman Catholic Church has not preserved itself so well since the Reformation by forgetting the lesson of the great schism from which Protestantism was spawned. Allen’s adjustments indicate a disciplined recognition of new realities and powers from influential professional Catholics with a position to retain - a reaction on which the church can still count. Benedict will still have critics from within. But most of the church will try to interpret what he does as compatible with their social beliefs, whatever they may be. Catholicism’s strength - as against the Protestant churches’ - is its ability to call to heel its sons and even its daughters.

The American author Garry Wills, whose writing on the paedophile scandals in the US has been unsurpassed in the fierceness of its criticism, writes scathingly (in his 2000 book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit) that “the arguments for much of what passes as current church doctrine are so intellectually contemptible that mere self-respect forbids a man to voice them as his own”. In an interview earlier this year, he confidently predicted that the cardinals would elect a liberalising figure because they too had grown sick of the contradictions within John Paul’s papacy. But in a later book, Why I am a Catholic, he returns to his experience growing up in a devout Catholic family, and argues that criticism is a measure of love and commitment: “We do not leave a father whenever he proves wrong on something.” It is the genius of Roman Catholicism, so baffling and alien to the Presbyterian mentality, to trump the intellectual with the emotional, even parental, experience; Protestantism, which puts the individual alone with his or her God, tends more rapidly to have the individual draw the conclusion that s/he is better off alone, without this nagging and demanding presence following like a fateful shadow (the dominant trope in James Hogg’s masterwork on the Presbyterian mentality, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner).

As the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, said in a radio interview soon after Benedict’s election, the latter may change in the supreme office from the militant conservative he was in the subordinate one. “Now he has much wider responsibilities, and I think he’s aware of that,” said the cardinal - his way of agreeing with Allen. In fact, they may be right. On the one hand, Benedict has acted as you would expect. Shortly after the church scored a great victory in the Italian referendum in June on artificial insemination - by apparently persuading many of the faithful not to vote, thus leaving a restrictive law on the statute book - Benedict and the Italian President, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, had their first formal meeting in the latter’s Quirinale Palace. The commentator for Repubblica, Giulio Anselmi, wrote in June that “those who were counting on a papal Ratzinger quite different from the cardinal of steel who preceded him have lost their bet. Only yesterday, in the amiable context of the official meetings between the two elderly gentlemen who face each other on the opposite sides of the Tiber, Benedict XVI didn’t lose the opportunity to define the space and limits of the state’s autonomy. For the new pontiff, laicism is admissible only insofar as it is ‘healthy’ - a state defined by those reference points which find their basis, ultimately, in religion.”

Ciampi, himself a devout Catholic, countered the Pope’s insistence that religion ultimately defines the health of the state by insisting on the Italian state’s secular nature in his speech, remarking that “we are proud of our laicity”. In a later commentary, also in Repubblica, the constitutional lawyer Gustavo Zagrebelsky wrote that “this is a sad time for those who don’t possess the truth and believe in dialogue and liberty. For they are ‘relativists’, and relativism is the terminal sickness of our society: so says the Catholic church, strong in both its truth and its authority. Truth and authority are obviously incompatible with dialogue and liberty. Relativists and absolutists can only oppose each other... [and thus] there’s a risk of a social and cultural breach, with unforeseeable consequences.” The Pope has prepared himself for such defections: in his quickie book, Allen quotes the Pope as saying, two years before his election, that the church would have “smaller numbers, I think. But from these small numbers we will have a radiation of joy in the world. And so it’s an attraction, as it was in the old church... and so, I would say, if we have young people really with the joy of the faith and the radiation of this joy of the faith, this will show to the world: ‘Even if I cannot share it, even if I cannot convert at this moment, here is the way to live for tomorrow.’”

On the other hand, Benedict’s first months have seen him choose to re-animate the work of the committee on relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, with the aim, as he put it in June, “neither of absorption nor fusion, but a recognition of the multiform fullness of the church”. He has let it be known that he is working on a “mini-concordat” with the Chinese authorities, which would allow the church to appoint bishops to the millions of Chinese Catholics - which would mean a very worldly deal with the communist leaders. It is also rumoured that he is considering allowing the administration of the Eucharist to “innocent” Catholic divorcees - those who have been abandoned by their husbands or wives, and then remarried. He has said that he wishes for greater collegiality among cardinals and archbishops in the government of the church - something against which John Paul had set his face. And finally, faced with the decision to beatify Father Dehon and with numerous protests against doing so, he has established a committee to examine the matter: not the act of a determined conservative.

For the old cardinal there seemed to be one choice for the church: to be reshaped into a disciplined and lean organisation, not retreating but, like a spring recoiling upon itself, ready for the next - or last - great leap into a transformed world. But for the new Pope there may be “wider responsibilities”, as Murphy-O’Connor said. Whatever way he chooses, it will matter to the world.

by John L. Allen
Penguin £8.99, 252 pages

by John Cornwell
Penguin £8.99, 352 pages

John Paul II: Reflections from the Tablet
edited by Catherine Pepinster
Continuum £9.99, 144 pages

Pope Benedict XVI: a Biography of Joseph Ratzinger
by John L. Allen
Continuum £12.99, 352 pages

Universal Father
by Garry O’Connor
Bloomsbury £20.00, 448 pages

Benedict XVI: Fellow Worker for Truth
by Laurence Paul Hemming
Continuum £8.99, 156 pages

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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