Ratzinger: God and the World

August 8, 2011

God and the World
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, with Peter Seewald
(Ignatius, 2000)
460 p.

These notes originally written 10 November 2005.

I ordered this book in the days following the election of  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  Like many others, I was keen to learn something of the man now known to the world as Benedict XVI.  God and the World is not one of the Cardinal’s books in a strictly authorial sense, but rather a book-length interview conducted by German journalist Peter Seewald.  The interview took place at the great Benedictine abbey at Montecassino over a period of three days in the early months of 2000.  It was the third such interview Cardinal Ratzinger had granted Seewald, the previous two having also appeared in book form (published as The Ratzinger Report (1985) and Salt of the Earth (1996) ).  True to its ambitious title, the interview ranges widely over many subjects: basic Catholic teachings, the Church and society, the person of Christ, problems of belief, ecumenism, the liturgy, the future of the Church, and on and on.  It is, however, reasonably well organized, falling into three main sections (God, Jesus Christ, the Church), each of which is divided into numerous subsections.

In the immediate wake of the papal election, I was taken aback by the manner in which the media lined up – one tried charitably to resist calling it unprofessional – to take pot-shots at the new Pope: ‘Panzerkardinal‘, ‘God’s Rottweiler’, ‘Cardinal No’, and so forth.  The image that came across was that of an authoritarian tyrant, hell-bent (one might say) on suppressing dissent, and eager to beat his shepherd’s staff into a cattle-prod.  Yet I heard from others – others who knew the Cardinal personally – that there was little truth and less justice in this portrait.

The nature of the complaints against him were often obscured behind the thicket of name-calling, but when a grievance was aired it was usually one of three: he had been a member of the Hitler Youth as a young man, he had suppressed the liberation theologians in Latin America, and he was a hard-line dogmatist who, if one could infer from the hysterical tone, roamed back and forth on the earth excommunicating embattled free-thinkers every day, and twice on Sundays.  In their lead story on the election, the CBC actually managed to get all three elements into the first 20 seconds of coverage — a journalistic tour de force!

Yet I knew that though he was recruited by the Hitler Youth as a teenager (as was mandatory at the time), he deserted the German army immediately upon seeing action, and spent the remainder of the war as an American POW.  And I knew that he had suppressed liberation theology in Latin America because its advocates were encouraging armed guerrilla warfare against the government in the name of Christ. (That this was frowned on by the secular western media was peculiar; after all, the Cardinal was placing restrictions on the involvement of priests and theologians in politics, something one would suspect the secular media would view favourably given their devotion to the separation of church and state.)  Finally, I read that in Cardinal Ratzinger’s twenty-six years as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church’s primary guardian of the integrity of Catholic teaching, he had disciplined, sometimes by excommunication, but usually by suspending their license to teach theology, just twenty-six people.  Now, you might argue over the merits of this or that case, but one disciplinary case per year hardly rises to the scale of a new Inquisition.  I wondered to myself whether the journalists had any idea what they were talking about.

But, given the conflicting reports, what better means to resolve the question than by sitting down with the man himself for a long conversation?

After patiently reading through the pages of this book one will find it difficult to give the media caricature any credence.  On the contrary, the person who emerges from these pages is a rather quiet, studious, thoughtful man who, quite against the natural inclination of his personality, finds himself duty-bound to occasionally discipline wayward Catholic theologians. Based on my reading of this book, I would say that we can expect the present Pope to be a generous but careful man. He has a special concern for the liturgy and a reverence for the enduring traditions of the Church; he has a love of European culture and a scholar’s understanding of her intellectual history; his first concern is for the well-being of the universal Church, and he cares not a whit what they think of him at the New York Times. I read with particular interest the portion of the interview in which he discussed the papacy. The then-Cardinal’s remarks on the almost unendurable demands placed on the Pope now have, of course, a special poignancy.  I will not be surprised if he manages to provoke the anger of many in the years ahead, but if so it will almost certainly be only because he is a faithful Catholic, and not because he is ‘Cardinal No’.

[On Christianity]
Christianity is great because love is great.  It burns, yet this is not a destructive fire but one that makes things bright and pure and free and grand.  Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.

[On conflict between the Church and culture]
If she [the Church] simply aims to avoid conflict, merely to ensure that no disturbances arise anywhere, then her real message can no longer make any impact.  For this message is in fact there precisely to conflict with our behaviour, to tear man out of his life of lies and to bring clarity and truth.

[On dealing with opponents]
We must recognize in our enemy the man who is God’s creature.  That does not mean that we should allow evil to befall us without attempting to oppose it.  But it does mean that in dealing with him, we should preserve at a deeper level this respect for him.  That we should aim at what is good even for the enemy, aim to bring him to what is good, finally to turn toward Christ.  In that sense, praying for him is one of the basic factors in our attempt to do him good.  In making a positive intervention on his behalf before God, and in trying to ensure that he does not remain our enemy but should abandon his enmity, we have already changed our attitude toward him.

[On the Papacy]
It is an ‘impossible job’, which is almost unlivable.  On the other hand, it is also one that has to be done – and which can, then, with the help of the Lord, nonetheless be lived after all.

[On sin]
It is true that wherever the idea of God disappears from people’s view of life, the concept of sin loses its meaning as a matter of course.  For if God has nothing to do with me…then there cannot be a distortion of my relationship with him – because I haven’t got one.  At first sight, sin seems then to have been cleared out of the way.  And at first one might think that life then becomes merry and easy again; it takes on, so to speak, the dimensions of an operetta.
But it has rapidly become apparent that the operetta phase of existence is of very brief duration.  Even if man wants to know nothing more about sin and has apparently got rid of whatever torments his consciousness, he soon notices that he still feels guilty… By denying the existence of God, and of the will of God, you can get rid of the concept of sin, but not of the particular problem of human existence that was thereby represented and expressed.

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