In his brief time as Pope Benedict, Joseph Ratzinger dressed ostentatiously. He wore fancy red shoes and golden robes and otherwise aspired to resemble a monarch from a time before democracy. His wardrobe was a "fuck you" to millions of poor Catholics around the world who revered him, and yet his daring fashion may be his most admirable quality.
Framed as a biography of Ratzinger, Daniel Gawthrop's The Trial of Pope Benedict lists the erstwhile pope's multitude of faults with passion and conviction. Besides the more commonly known complaints about Ratzinger's public ambivalence about the Catholic Church's pedophilia problem (and his behind-the-scenes work to cover up the scandal), he also loathed the forward-thinking changes brought to the church after the Vatican II conference of the mid-1960s, and his very public snubs of Islam during a visit to Turkey may have been an attempt to incite religious violence.
Gawthrop's understanding of Ratzinger's biography and writings allow him to make some assumptions about the man's character that are, at the very least, fun to entertain. (Of the Turkish visit, Gawthrop theorizes that Ratzinger appreciates Islam's conservatism: "It's quite possible that Ratzinger was coming out of the closet here as a moderate Islamophile, a Catholic suffering the ecclesial equivalent of that old Freudian canard, penis envy.") While the book's framing sequence, which imagines Ratzinger on trial at the Hague, is a step too far toward the dramatic, the rest of The Trial is an informative and damning account of a hateful mind that ascended to the global stage.
Ratzinger's successor is making a splash on bookshelves, too. Quickly translated into English and published in the United States in those heady days immediately after Pope Francis was confirmed, On Heaven and Earth is a pleasure to read. The book, originally published in Argentina in 1995, is a dialogue between then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka about faith, other religions, fundamentalism, and guilt. It's a conversation between two men of great intellect and great faith.
While at certain points some readers will part ways with Bergoglio, there are plenty of human revelations that will charm anyone with a pulse. Bergoglio admits that as a young seminarian, he nearly gave up his calling after becoming "enchanted by a young woman at my uncle's wedding." It's a refreshingly un-Benedict-like admission of humanity, but ultimately it's to illustrate his affirmation that celibacy is important for priests. (In the same paragraph where he admits celibacy didn't become a clerical law until 1100, Bergoglio affirms: "Tradition has weight and validity. Catholic priests chose celibacy little by little.")
Just when you start to believe that Bergoglio will make a wholly different kind of pope than Benedict—he's practically a different species—you come to the more bruising passages. Near the end, his opinions on gay marriage spring not from his typical amiable thoughtfulness, but from pure-cut bigotry. Bergoglio fumbles toward the sciences to make his case, calling gay marriage "anthropologic regression," and saying that while he doesn't hate gay people, "every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity." After so many decent statements delivered throughout On Heaven and Earth, this Ratzingerian retreat from logic and from love is more than just uncomfortable—it's disappointing.