Pope Benedict: what the media left out

By Rev. Robert Barron Over a period of about 15 years, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the German journalist … Continued

By Rev. Robert Barron

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.

Father Robert Barron holds the Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. He received his Doctorate from the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1992. Ordained an Archdiocesan priest of Chicago in 1986, he has published numerous books and a number of CDs and DVDs on theology and the spiritual life. Father Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, a non-profit organization using new media to evangelize the culture. For the past two years, Word on Fire has been producing a ten-part documentary series called “Catholicism”, journeying to 16 countries to tell the story of the Church.

Father Barron lectures extensively in the United States and abroad and has been a visiting professor at the Pontifical North American College at the Vatican, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and The University of Notre Dame.

For more information, go to www.WordOnFire.org.

  • Carstonio

    he is worried, above all, that God has been marginalized, forgotten, or denied outright in the increasingly secularized Western world.In my experience, such concerns tend to be disingenuous and parochial. The “world of faith” versus the “world of secularism” is a false absolutism that wrongly treats secularism as though it’s the same thing as atheism. It’s fairly obvious that people like Benedict really mean

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    Atheists do not believe in God. Why? Because through their eyes, they do not see God. This is not the same as denying God or turning away from God. Likewise, as Castonio has pointed out, secularism is all that is not religious; it is not disbelief, nor is it a turning away from belief; it is just anything and everything that is not religious and not religion.This attitude protrayed in this essay is a kind of intolerance. Religious intolerance is bad, no matter how you spin it. It is the assumption that you know all about God, and that anyone who does not agree with you has wicked or evil motivations and intentions.

  • Mary_Cunningham

    I am delighted to see you contributing here, Fr., hopefully the responses will not be too anti-Catholic, but you never can tell on this blog.I would only add that the Catholic faith is a

  • areyousaying

    Mary Cunningham,Until your Pope turns over his known pervert priests for civil prosecution, you can plan on anti-Catholic comments as a matter of course every time a Father or others in your clergy write columns here.It’s a big, inflamed, puss filled, prom night, pimple on the end of your self-righteous, pompous nose and it’s not going away. As a victim of a priest who befriended, groomed and raped me at 14 and then was moved to another parish to do the same again, I will not be silent about your Church’s sexual terrorism against children and the racketeering to hide the predators. Get used to it. It’s part of your legacy.Maybe the Mormons were right when they said the Catholic Chruch is “The Chruch of the Devil”

  • Carstonio

    This IMHO is our greatest difficulty with secularism, which must, by definition, be relativistic.How so? Numerous religions besides Catholicism assert the existence of dogmatic truths, and the religions disagree on what these truths are. The issue is that the existence of any of these cannot either be proven or disproven. What secularism does is take the question of their existence off the table, which is not the same as rejecting the truth claims. That’s not “relativistic”. (That term actually applies to the scientific concept of relativity.”)

  • Mary_Cunningham

    You are making an assumption that in order to be true, something must be “proven”. This is true in science– a scientific “truth” can be proven or disproven–but not elsewhere. (And in fact if you adhere to Popper, a scientific proof has not been proven, only not yet But a moral truth, for example, exists

  • Mary_Cunningham

    RU saying:You are a You live in Mexico–a Catholic country. Do you send nasty notes to your local priests in Mexico or do you confine your attentions to any Catholic stupid enough to post on the No Faith blog? ( Me included, of course. But I don’t come very often.)If you hate Catholics so much why live in a Catholic country? It’s cheap, eh? So obviously you love money more than you hate Catholics.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    What is truth? What is knowledge? What is belief? It is easy to think that these simple words have simple meanings, but they do not. When you say that you believe something, you are really saying, “that is how I see it … ” Belief is actually a way of conveying perception, and people do not control how their perceptions of the world work. If someone does not believe in God, that person has a valid point of view; it is insulting to say that such a point of view is a turning away from God, or a defiance of God. How do people normally react to insults? Merely for a single person, to state that their own point of view or perspective is absolutely true and perfect does not make such an assertion true; likewise, such a recognition does not mean that truth is relative, but, instead, merely elusive.My complaint with the Catholic Church is that it claims access to perfect truth, which others do not have, and it asserts, in an accusatory and derogatory way, that other beliefs are inferior and “relativistic,” when in fact, the relativism of Catholic dogma is not any different than any that it condemns; it merely asserts its perfection with greater emphasis, but being emphatic is not the same as being right or true.

  • Carstonio

    But a moral truth, for example, exists sui generis . As well, my consciousness cannot be ‘proven’, it exists for me only. But religious dogmas assert that moral truths have objective existence. That means they would exist like an object or phenomenon, and their existence wouldn’t depend on the existence of human consciousness. That would be like asserting that the concept of money would exist if humans didn’t exist. If there were no humans, dollar bills and quarter coins would only be scraps of paper and bits of metal. Of course it’s possible that moral truths exist like objects. The burden is still on religious dogmas to prove they they have such existence.As well, my consciousness cannot be ‘proven’, it exists for me only. But consciousness is still a phenomenon, and therefore has objective existence. My point is not about the ability to prove its existence. I’m instead arguing that any claim of objective existence should be open to scrutiny, since it’s a claim of purported fact. It’s too easy for someone to claim the existence of gods or miracles and then say, “Oh, no one should scrutinize my claim since it’s not provable.” Technically correct but wrong in principle. Gods either exist or they don’t. Miracles either happen or they don’t.

  • Mary_Cunningham

    @DILDThe Church claims that truth But the Church does believe that she protects God’s revealed truth. That is her main reason for existing. It is also the principal reason for the great split in Christiandom, the Reformation. Protestants held–and evangelicals hold today–that the Revealed Truth is found only in the Bible.

  • lomeli2460

    I agree on father Barrons comments,they are very true.

  • lomeli2460

    I agree with Father Barron,the pope is being attack by the media in many ways,but he has been very clever in his responce to the secular world.

  • mfears

    Fr. Barron’s insights into the portrayal and treatment of the Catholic faith in the media are very sound. The anti-Catholic rhetoric is a shallow veneer over the tepid and assumed anti-Catholic attitude that permeates most of modern culture. This permits the “new athiests” – either overt or covert – to make attacks on the Church and Catholic figures without creating the din and fury that would accompany any such denigrations of Islamic, Jewish, or Mormon leaders or beliefs.