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Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict as a Witness to God

December 1, 2010


Over a period of about 15 years, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the German journalist Peter Seewald conducted a number of interviews with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The edited conversations appeared as two rather lengthy books, The Salt of the Earth and God and the World. Seewald’s pointed questions dealt with fundamental matters—God, creation, Incarnation, redemption, sin and grace—and Ratzinger’s answers—clear, succinct, illuminating—were marvels of the teacher’s art. Perhaps the most extraordinary fruit of these encounters was Seewald’s conversion from an unfocused agnosticism to a full embrace of the Catholic faith.

In the summer of 2010, Seewald sat down once again for a lengthy discussion with Joseph Ratzinger, but this time he was dialoguing, not with a curial Cardinal, but with Pope Benedict XVI. The only slightly edited version of that six-hour conversation has appeared as Light of the World, and one is happy to see that Ratzinger’s elevation to the highest office in the church has not tempered the dynamic quality of their exchange. No question seemed to have been off-limits, as Seewald presses the Pope on everything from the sex abuse scandal, to women’s ordination, to AIDS and condoms, and to his personal reaction upon being raised to the throne of Peter. Throughout, Benedict’s mien is calm and his responses are models of clarity, concision, and insight. However, those who are looking for substantive information about Benedict’s psychological and personal life are going to be disappointed. The Pope seems far more comfortable expatiating on matters theological and cultural than exploring his own motivations and inclinations.

I’m quite sure that most of the commentariat—especially in the secular media—will focus on what Benedict has to say concerning the world-wide clergy sex abuse scandal, the dialogue with Islam, women’s ordination, and homosexuality. Thus, I don’t feel the need to rehearse these matters. I would like to focus instead on what I take to be Benedict’s prime concern, which is evident throughout the pages of this book and which provides the proper context for understanding what he says regarding everything else, including the issues mentioned above. Pope Benedict is interested, above all, in God, and he is worried, above all, that God has been marginalized, forgotten, or denied outright in the increasingly secularized Western world. “There are so many problems that all have to be solved but that will not all be solved unless God stands in the center and becomes visible again in the world.” The question of God is so central for Benedict, for he is convinced that, once God is denied, human freedom no longer has any limit or standard. And an unfettered freedom is tantamount to license, the rendering permissible of any outrage, any atrocity.

This setting-aside of God can take place both explicitly (as in the musings of the new atheists) or implicitly (as in so much of the secular world where a “practical” atheism holds sway). In either case, the result is a shutting down of the natural human drive toward the transcendent and, even more dangerously, the elevation of self-determining freedom to a position of unchallenged primacy. The Pope is elaborating here a theme that was dear to his predecessor, namely, the breakdown of the connection between freedom and truth. On the typically modern reading, truth is construed as an enemy to freedom—which explains precisely why we find such hostility to truth in the contemporary culture. Indeed, anyone who claims to have the truth—especially in regard to moral matters—is automatically accused of arrogance and intolerance. Society will be restored to balance and sanity, Benedict argues, only when the natural link between freedom and truth—especially the Truth which is God—is re-established.

The Pope offers a fascinating analysis of the Enlightenment culture that continues to shape us today. Starting in the 17th century, intellectuals began to put a huge premium on scientific progress, advance in knowledge. And they furthermore saw a tight connection between knowledge and power: the more we know about nature, the more thoroughly we can master it. However, Benedict argues, along with this stress on progress in knowledge and power there was no commensurate stress on progress in morality. Consequently, we did indeed grow in our capacity to master the world, but we did not know how to handle that mastery or what to do with it. The fruit of this rupture between progress and morality can be seen, theoretically, in the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche and, practically, in the murderous and amoral political movements of the last century. In response to Seewald’s question about reading the “signs of the times,” Benedict had this to say: “I think that our major task now…is first of all to bring to light God’s priority again. The important thing today is to see that God exists, that God matters to us, and that he answers us. And, conversely, that if he is omitted, everything else might be as clever as can be—yet man then loses his dignity and his authentic humanity.”

Very much in line with his intellectual hero St. Augustine, Benedict XVI characterizes the cultural situation today as a kind of battlefield between two “spiritual worlds, the world of faith and the world of secularism.” Behind all of our arguments about particular moral and political issues is a fundamental argument about the centrality of God. What became clear to me in the course of reading the wide-ranging conversation between Seewald and Ratzinger is that the Pope sees his primary task as witnessing to God, reminding us of God, speaking of God. Everything else in his mind is commentary.