Tough and resilient may not be the first words most people would use to describe Pope Benedict XVI, but this scholarly, reserved man of 83, who once said his preferred retirement job would be Vatican librarian, lately has been giving lessons in toughness and resilience that just about anyone might envy.
Pope Benedict is no stranger to being attacked. For many years before becoming pope, and especially as prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was targeted with epithets like “Grand Inquisitor” and “Panzer Cardinal.” Since his election in 2005 to the highest office in the Church, the assault has continued off and on.
Not ready to retire
Earlier this year, it took on new intensity when some international media, with The New York Times in the lead, sought to show that as archbishop of Munich, as prefect of the CDF, and now as pope, he hadn’t done enough about sex abuse by priests.
The results of these journalistic efforts were scanty, but the questioning and criticism continued. During a long hiatus while Pope Benedict was at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, voices were heard saying his pontificate was exhausted and washed up.
But then came September and his trip to Great Britain. Confounding prophets of doom who predicted disaster in that highly secularized and presumably hostile venue, he scored a personal triumph by reason of intellectual acumen and grandfatherly charm that dazzled rapt audiences and cheering crowds.
Since then he has presided over a successful synod of bishops on the Middle East, named new cardinals and convened a special gathering of the world’s cardinals to discuss current issues, made a pastoral visit to Spain and performed his regular duties as pope.
Such a schedule “overtaxes” a man his age, Pope Benedict casually admits in a new book-length interview.
The book — “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times” (Ignatius Press, $21.95) — provides a kind of capstone to the papal comeback. In it Pope Benedict answers questions on everything from scandals in the Church to the “new evangelization,” from the attitude of the media to the renewal of the Church.
Along the way, he fields this question from German journalist Peter Seewald: “Have you thought of resigning?”
To which he replies: “When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. ... One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.”
(At the same time, the pope says he can imagine a situation in which a pope has a right and sometimes an “obligation” to resign, if he “clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office.” This was an issue last raised, at least among Church watchers, in the final years of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, who was suffering a steady decline in mobility and ability to communicate because of Parkinson’s disease.)
Seewald has published two other book-length interviews with Benedict dating to before his election. The journalist, previously a lapsed Catholic, also returned to the practice of the faith. “Light of the World” is the product of six hours of conversations with the pontiff at Castel Gandolfo last summer.
The picture of Pope Benedict five years into his pontificate is of a man with no illusions about himself — and no false humility either — together with an exalted but wholly unsentimental view of the office he occupies.
When Seewald says the Catholic Church’s membership of 1.2 billion and its geographical extension throughout the world make him “the most powerful pope of all time,” Pope Benedict gives a two-part reply: Among those 1.2 billion Catholics are “many who inwardly are not there,” while the pope is “a completely powerless man” who nevertheless bears heavy burden of responsibility.
“He is to a certain extent the leader, the representative, and at the same time the one responsible for making sure that the faith that keeps people together is believed, that it remains alive. ... But only the Lord himself has the power to keep people in the faith,” he explains.
Later the pope carries the theme of papal powerlessness further. Noting that Christianity in its early centuries was the target of several bloody persecutions by the Roman authorities, he says: “The primacy developed from the very beginning as a primacy of martyrdom. ... Withstanding these persecutions and giving witness to Christ was the special task of the Roman episcopal see.”
Lest the contemporary relevance of that be missed, he adds, “The Church, the Christian, and above all the pope must always be prepared for the possibility that the witness he must give will become a scandal, will not be accepted, and that he will then be thrust into the situation of the Witness, the suffering Christ.”
Turning to controversy
Pope Benedict appears not only to accept this but in a way to welcome it. “There could not be cheerful approval all the time,” he says. In his own case, “if there had been nothing but approval, I would have had to ask myself seriously whether I was really proclaiming the whole Gospel.”
Like this pontificate, the interview soon turns to controversy. Here the sex abuse scandal has pride of place.
The pope clearly believes his handling of this ghastly problem (“a great crisis … so much filth”) has been at least satisfactory. But, having faced the abuse scandal in the United States and Ireland during his years at the doctrinal congregation, he concedes that steps should have been taken to find out the situation in other countries. For example, it came as “a surprise,” he says, to learn in the last year or two that “abuse also existed on that scale in Germany.”
As for criticisms of the Church’s approach in the past, Pope Benedict turns the criticism on the critics: “Why didn’t people react formerly in the same way they do now? Even the press formerly did not take up such matters; the mentality back then was different.”
The Church, he insists, must “punish those who have sinned” and exclude them from access to children. “First and foremost comes charity toward the victims.”
Invited to complain about media handling of the story, Pope Benedict mostly, but not entirely, declines. While there was “some pleasure in exposing the Church and if possible discrediting her,” he says, “insofar as it is the truth, we must be grateful for every disclosure. ... The media could not have reported in this way had there not been evil in the Church herself.”
He takes a similar approach to another painful issue — the decision, announced in January 2009, to lift the excommunications of four bishops belonging to the Society of St. Pius X, the schismatic traditionalist group founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
The decision was correct, he insists, but the reason was badly explained. And he and his associates were at fault in not knowing that one of the four men was a Holocaust denier.
‘Readiness to pounce’
Why were the excommunications lifted? Because the Lefebvrist bishops formally declared their acceptance of papal primacy, whose rejection, acted out in their ordination as bishops, was the reason for their excommunication rather than their objections to the Second Vatican Council. “In this matter our public relations work was a failure,” Pope Benedict says.
As for the Holocaust denier, an Englishman named Richard Williamson, the pope says he simply was not aware of his views and, if he had been, would have handled him differently. “Unfortunately … none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with,” he says.
But there was fault on the critics’ side, the pope holds: “We seem to be dealing here with a hostility, a readiness to pounce … a readiness for aggression, which was lying in wait for its victim.”
Pope Benedict also discusses the third big scandal of the last several years — the disclosure that the late Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the conservative religious congregation the Legion of Christ, sexually abused seminarians, fathered illegitimate children and misappropriated funds.
Before his death in 2008, the Vatican ordered the controversial priest to leave public life and devote himself to prayer in his native Mexico.
The Vatican is now conducting an official investigation of the Legion to ferret out details of the mess and, apparently, save what can be saved in the congregation and its lay affiliate, Regnum Christi.
Pope Benedict concedes that the authorities acted “very slowly and late” on Father Maciel, who is said to have had much influence in the Vatican. “Somehow [the facts] were concealed very well, and only around the year 2000 did we have any concrete clues,” he says.
Calling Maciel “a mysterious figure,” he says: “There is, on the one hand, a life that, as we now know, was out of moral bounds — an adventurous, wasted, twisted life. On the other hand, we see the dynamism and the strength with which he built up the congregation of Legionaries.”
The pope insists that the Legion itself is basically “sound,” with “many young men who enthusiastically want to serve the faith. ... A new structure is needed so that they do not fall between the cracks but are guided correctly so as to be able to continue performing a service.”
Besides scandals, the interview covers such matters as the pope’s domestic arrangements, his defense of the Church’s teaching on matters like birth control, homosexuality, women’s ordination, abortion and divorce, and particularly the current situation and long-term prospects of Christianity.
He sees a “new intolerance” in the secularized West that seeks both to deny Christianity the opportunity “to express itself visibly” while also — “in the name of non-discrimination” — trying to force the Church to change its stand on homosexuality and women’s ordination.
Partly in response, he recently established a Vatican department for the “new evangelization” and announced that the theme of the world Synod of Bishops in 2012 would be new evangelization.
“Progress has increased our capabilities, but not our moral and human stature and capacity,” he tells his interviewer. “We have to regain an internal balance, and we also need spiritual growth. This is something that the tribulations of our time are teaching us to recognize.”
Seewald’s interview suggests certain conclusions about Pope Benedict XVI. No one is more aware than he that he presides over the Church at a difficult time marked by rapid growth in places like Africa and Asia and shrinkage in parts of the secularized West. Catholicism needs new ways to deal with a widely shared ideology of libertarian individualism aggressively pushing much it opposes.
Pressures on the Church and the papacy come not only from opponents in governments, academic circles and the media, but also from within — Catholic dissidents of the left and right, together with a mass of nominal adherents largely ignorant of, even indifferent to, their religious heritage.
In these circumstances, the Church needs an exceptional leader. To judge from “Light of the World,” it has one.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Read excerpts from "Light of the World" here»