Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Light of the World: Some Impressions of the New Book of Conversations with Pope Benedict XVI

I've just finished reading Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times: A Conversation with Peter Seewald (Ignatius, 2010). This is the record of six hours of interviews conducted during the summer of 2010 by Peter Seewald.

On two previous occasions, Seewald's interviews of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger were published as The Salt of the Earth and The Ratzinger Report. Seewald is a veteran German journalist whose journey back to the Church was greatly aided by the witness of Ratzinger during their first encounter.

This new book represents the first time a reigning pope has submitted to this level of questioning and allowed the questions and answers to be published. Seewald states that no editing was done by Ratzinger of the book except reading, minor stylistic corrections and approval. Nothing was deleted. This book provides direct access into the mind of the pope and represents a fascinating glimpse into how he thinks.

As George Weigel points out in the Foreword, Benedict XVI is a unique individual. He typically pauses to think before answering and then gives his answers in paragraph form precisely and clearly, often in his third or fourth language. He is one of the greatest minds alive today. Whether you are a Roman Catholic or not, this must be recognized. Another thing that must be acknowledged by Protestants is that there is no greater spokesman for traditional, Christian morality today than this Pope. In this respect he is a worthy successor to John Paul the Great.

What stood out to me? I would like to note several passages.

The Great Condom Controversy:
First, the context of the comments on condoms is given (pp. 117-19) and makes the whole media storm that arose over these remarks seem patently absurd, politically-motivated and fundamentally dishonest. The secular media's treatment of this Pope - and the New York Times is a leading example here - is shameful and despicable. Those who tried to spin this as the Pope admitting that condoms are morally acceptable are not merely wrong. Anybody can be wrong without necessarily being malign. But they are deliberately, systematically deceptive and malicious.

When you read the context of the question about condoms and AIDS in Africa, which should be the prerequisite for responsible reporting on the Pope's comments, you immediately see that there is absolutely no change to the Church's teaching on contraception and you immediately see that all talk of "lesser of two evils" and "double intent" is just the same old moral relativism that the "Spirit of Vatican II Left" has been peddling since the 1960s superimposed on a few words of the Pope lifted out of context and twisted for nefarious and mischievous purposes.

Here is the best analogy I can offer. Suppose that someone told the Pope that in a crime-ridden, inner city context some gang members were robbing convenience stores with loaded guns in which employees were frequently murdered, but that one particular gang had taken to using unloaded pistols in their robberies, which they used as clubs and to bluff with, but could not kill with them because they were unloaded. If the Pope responded by saying that in such as tragic, sinful, hopeless situation as that it was perhaps a step toward morality for that gang to use unloaded pistols in their robberies, would the world press be justified in putting out blaring headlines about the news that the Pope no longer considers the 8th commandment to be absolute and that there are, after all, situations in which poor inner-city youths might rob stores and be morally justified in doing so - would that be responsible reporting of his words?

No, I don't think so either.

Homosexuality and the Priesthood
Another passage that stood out to me was the discussion of homosexuality (pp. 151-4) in which Pope Benedict XVI was crystal clear about the real issue:
"The issue at stake here is the intrinsic truth of sexuality's significance in the constitution of man's being. If someone has deep-seated homosexual inclinations - and it is still an open question whether these inclinations are really innate or whether they arise in early childhood - if, in any case, they have power over him, this is a great trial for him, just as other trials can afflict other people as well. But this does not mean that homosexuality thereby becomes morally right. Rather, it remains contrary to the essence of what God originally willed." (p. 152)
He also clarified (and this was the first time I heard this as a definite teaching of the Church) that being homosexual disqualifies one for the priesthood. I understood that this was recommended and the preferred stance of some in the Church, but here it is stated unequivocally as the Church's position:
"Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation. Otherwise, celibacy itself would lose its meaning as a renunciation. It would be extremely dangerous if celibacy became a sort of pretext for bringing people into the priesthood who don't want to get married anyway. For, in the end, their attitude toward man and woman is somehow distorted, off center, and in any case, is not within the direction of creation of which we have spoken. the Congregation for Education issued a decision a few years ago to the effect that homosexual candidates cannot become priests because their sexual orientation estranges them from the proper sense of paternity, from the intrinsic nature of priestly being. The selection of candidates to the priesthood must therefore be very careful. The greatest attention is needed here in order to head off a situation where the celibacy of priests would practically end up being identified with the tendency to homosexuality." (pp. 152-3)
That is a clear and logical position and makes much more sense to me than the view that "being homosexual" (whatever that is construed to mean) is seen as irrelevant to whether one can be a priest or not. That view seems to "normalize" homosexuality in a way that leads almost inevitably to the tolerance of the sin itself.

Women's Ordination:
In response to a question that included the premise that modern progress demands the ordination of women even though that would have been unthinkable two thousand years ago, the pope replies:
"That is nonsense, since the world was full of priestesses at the time. All religions had their priestesses, and the astonishing thing was that they were absent from the community of Jesus Christ, a fact that in turn is a point of continuity with the faith of Israel." (p. 150)
This is a very interesting point: the absence of priestesses as a distinguishing mark of biblical religion.

Pius XII and the Jews:
I found the pope's response to the question of why he had approved the beatification of Pius XII when some Jewish groups still blame him for not speaking out more forcefully against the Nazis during World War II. He said that at first he withheld his signature from the decree and ordered an inspection of the archival materials to ensure that there were no contradictions to his understanding of what had happened during the war. Only then did he proceed. He said:
"You have already pointed out yourself that Pius XII saved thousands of Jewish lives, for example, by ordering the convents and cloisters of Rome to open their doors - something only the Pope himself can do - and declaring them extraterritorial, which was a not completely secure position legally, but which was nonetheless tolerated by the Germans after the fact. It is perfectly clear that as soon as he protested publicly, the Germans would have ceased to respect extraterritoriality, and the thousands who found a safe haven in the monasteries of Rome would surely have been deported. It just recently came to light that Pacelli, already as Secretary of State, had written to all the bishops of the world in 1938, instructing them to take pains to ensure that visas were generously granted to Jews emigrating from Germany. For his part, he did all he could to save people." (pp. 109-110)
The benefit of reading this book is that you will gain a perspective on issues of the day that you simply will never get from the secular media.

I am glad I read it and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the mind of the Roman Catholic Church and where it is going.

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