Great books, articles, and Web sites to read about the pope and the Catholic Church.

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April 12 2008 7:20 AM

Your Papal Homework Assignment

Prepare for the pope's America visit with these books, articles, and Web sites about him and the Catholic Church.

For more on the pope's visit, read " On Faith," a blog on religion produced by the Washington Post and Newsweek.  Religion professor Donna Freitas makes three wishes for the Catholic church.  On Faith's Sally Quinn interviews clergy-abuse victim Barbara Blaine. Anthony Stevens-Arroyo discusses the pope as a defender of faith. And "Campus Catholic" Elizabeth Tenety writes on faith, hope, and love.

Pope Benedict XVI. Click image to expand.
Pope Benedict XVI

My biggest complaint about how religion is covered in the media, and I certainly don't exempt myself from this criticism, is that journalists will go to almost any length to avoid writing about—how to put this?—God. So, in honor of this week's visit of Pope Benedict XVI, I'm going to buck both convention and my own inclination to slink in through the side door and recommend Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth. It is not a quick read. But it is subtle and revelatory and scholarly in the best sense. So much so that it made me wonder how much Joseph Ratzinger ever really enjoyed his work at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where until three years ago, as the old T-shirt I have says, he'd been "putting the smackdown on heresy since 1981."

Another must-read for those interested in a nuanced view of John Paul's successor is David Gibson's biography of him, The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle With the Modern World,and, in particular, his fascinating chapter "A German Soul": " 'The Germans,' Goethe once said, 'make everything difficult, both for themselves and for everyone else.' … The thread running through all things German, however, is an obsessive quest for the authentic, the authentic German, the authentic emotion, the authentic philosophy, the authentic esthetic, the authentic faith. Germans want to know where the truth is to be found, and they will risk anything and betray anyone, even themselves, to get it.'' Gibson makes me feel for the young Ratzinger, who was born in Bavaria two weeks before Hitler held his first Nazi rally and grew up attending Mass three times each Sunday and moving from one village to another "because his father 'had simply said too much against the brownshirts.' " (Gibson is also keeping an all-Benedict-all-the-time blog through the end of the pope's visit. It's called Benedictions: Blogging the Pope in America, at Beliefnet.com.)

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Commonweal recently published a terrific cover story by Robert Ellsberg based on his introduction to The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, due out later this month. The Catholic Worker founder's journals were sealed for 25 years after her death. In them, she writes of traveling to Cuba at the time of the missile crisis, fasting for peace in Rome during the Second Vatican Council, and getting thrown in jail at age 75, along with some picketing United Farm Workers.

For a history of the Catholic Church in America, you cannot do better than the thrillingly evenhanded (not an oxymoron just this once) Catholicism and American Freedom by John T. McGreevy. If I had not been a cradle Catholic, George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholicmight make me want to convert. And though spending time in Rome has been known to have the opposite effect, spiritual tourists might want to pick up A Catholic's Guide to Rome: Discovering the Soul of the Eternal City, by Frank Korn, a pocket-sized encyclopedia of some of the most undeservedly overlooked churches in Christendom.

Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.

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