Reading Benedict

If asking the Pope about condoms was nothing more than an author’s way of drumming up interest in a new book on Pope Benedict XVI, one would have to say: how very clever.  Featuring the sacred and the profane on the same page is a compelling casting coup. But, having just read “Light of the world,” I can say without reservation that the highlighting of the papal statement on condoms is a great disservice to an important book. I am not at all surprised that Peter Seewald, the German journalist who had the rare privilege of interviewing Benedict XVI for this project, has expressed grave disappointment over the manner in which the book has been publicized.

Seewald’s questions are as intelligent as they are complex. Benedict’s replies are as thoughtful as they are courageous.  Conversing for one hour every day over a span of one week while the Pontiff was on vacation in July this year, the two men covered a vast ground never before attempted by anyone in their respective positions. No secular journalist has ever been allowed to come this close to a pope, to ask him questions about things the whole world is curious about but would not dare ask.

The fact that the Pope would make himself available in this manner is itself extraordinary.  Important persons occupying sensitive positions would normally try to preserve the mystique that social distance conveniently provides.  They would speak from their offices rather than from their hearts.  Their presence is shrouded in ritual that makes personal conversation out of place.  This is the sacred canopy that Benedict gave up when he agreed to be interviewed for this book. The question is why — Why would a pope want to open himself up to the world like this?  Seewald, the interviewer, offers an explanation: “The Church must not hide, was his (Benedict’s) attitude; the faith must be explained; and it can be explained, because it is reasonable.”

Seewald and Benedict were clearly not unaware of the risks involved.

In an interview like this, the questions can be so innocuous and the answers so safe as to make the whole encounter no more than a pop version of a papal encyclical.  But, on the other hand, the conversation may yield statements that can be interpreted as doctrinal, infallible pronouncements representing the faith of the whole Church.  The resulting confusion can threaten an entire institution. The condom issue is just one example; there are more.  Seewald knew this and took the precaution to let Benedict review the transcripts before publication.  “In authorizing the text, the Pope did not change the spoken word and made only small corrections where he considered greater factual precision necessary.”

“Light of the world” offers more than a glimpse of the person behind the papacy.  It shows a man of God, suffused with humility and faith, sharing his personal vision of what it means to be a follower of Christ in the modern world.  Benedict does so with disarming simplicity, compressing the wisdom of Christianity into a few nuggets of reflection.  Yet anyone who has followed the twists and turns of contemporary social theory and philosophy would not fail to note the immense erudition from which these thoughts are distilled.  This is one pope who understands the theory of modernity — who not only seeks a place for the Church in the modern world, but firmly believes that the Church has a vital role to play in solving its problems.

Benedict, for instance, echoes a theme that was prominent among the Frankfurt School philosophers – the “dialectics of reason”: that the quest for knowledge which has led to material progress and

greater freedom has also made it easy for humanity to destroy itself and the world.  Whereas Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Adorno saw the problem in terms of technology spinning its own autonomous reason, Benedict sees it primarily as reason needing purification by faith.  “A major examination of conscience should begin today.  What really is progress?  Is it progress if I can destroy?… We see how enormously man’s power has grown.  But what did not grow along with it was his ethical potential…. Now the big question is: How can we correct the concept and reality of progress and then also master it in a positive way from within?”

I have never been a fan of popes nor do I usually bother to read the encyclicals they write.  But, from his first encyclical “Deus caritas est,” it has been a joy for me to read Benedict.  His is a philosophy of faith that even a non-believer can appreciate for its depth.  Perhaps more than any other pope before him, Benedict is fully aware of the danger of the Church being so engulfed in the temporal conflicts of the world as to lose what remains of its moral authority to speak to this world.

I read Benedict not for his theology but for his philosophical account of the place of belief in a radically secularized world. He is closely attuned to the theoretical self-understanding of our time. He recalls a dialogue he once had with Habermas, the German sociologist:

“Jurgen Habermas has remarked that it is important that there be theologians who are able to translate the treasure that is reserved in their faith in such a way that in the secular world it is a word for this world.  His understanding of this may be somewhat different from ours, but he is right that the intrinsic translation process of the great words into the speech and thinking of our time is under way but has really not yet succeeded.  It can be successful only if people live

Christianity in terms of the One who is coming. Only then can they also declare it.”  No one I know has explained the meaning of faith as clearly as this.