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from issue no. 11 - 2010


With simple eyes

Cardinal Georges Cottier, Theologian Emeritus of the Papal Household, comments on the book-interview of Benedict XVI Light of the World

by Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP

Cardinal Georges Cottier

Cardinal Georges Cottier

I was impressed by the authenticity and simplicity of the things said by Benedict XVI in the book-interview Light of the World, published by CTS, Ignatius, which brings together his conversations with the journalist Peter Seewald. In many pages of the book one encounters a relaxed, confident Pope, expressing himself freely without hiding anything. A Pope who speaks with the same simplicity both of his daily life with members of the papal household and of the major issues that touch upon the life of the whole Church.
In many pages there is a clear confidence in the current and future state of the Church in the world. The Pope does not appear distressed. He says clearly that the Church may seem in decline if looked at from a European point of view. But he adds that he believes “it’s only one part of the whole”. In fact, “the Church is growing and thriving, she is quite dynamic”, and “we on the continent of Europe are experiencing only one particular side but not the great dynamic of a new beginning that is really present elsewhere and which I encounter again and again on my journeys and through the visits of the bishops” (p. 12).
One wonders where this confidence comes from. The Pope notes without complaint secularization, relativism, the loss of the sense of God that prevail in the lived reality of many people. Faced with these phenomena, his hope and peace of mind does not seem to depend upon some invented notion, on some recipe, or on the promptings of some paradigm old or new, setting out the line and assuring a good “state of health” or even the “success” of the Church. Benedict XVI simply repeats that what keeps alight the living flame of faith in the Church is Jesus Himself, since “only the Lord himself has the power to keep people in the faith as well” (p. 7). Only on this basis, experienced now in his condition as successor of Peter, does the hope and confidence of the Pope rest: “When we see what men, what the clergy have done in the Church, then that is nothing short of proof that he founded and upholds the Church. If she were dependent on men, she would long since have perished” (p. 37).
This is the mystery of the Church which emerges in the very way in which Benedict takes on the task to which he has been called.

“Even at the moment when it hit me, all I was able to say to the Lord was simply: ‘What are you doing with me? Now the responsibility is yours. You must lead me! I can’t do it. If you wanted me, then you must also help me!’” (p. 4): so he recalls in the very first pages of the book the day of his papal election. And this is the leading thread that runs through many of his answers, with interesting corollaries from the ecclesiological point of view also. For Benedict XVI the Pope “too is a simple beggar before God – even more than all other people” (p. 17). In plain and simple words, the charism of infallibility is described in terms proper to Catholic doctrine, setting aside all “infallibilist” doubt: “Usually the Bishop of Rome acts like any other bishop who professes his faith, who proclaims his faith, who is faithful in the Church. Only when certain conditions are present, when tradition has been clarified and he knows he is not acting arbitrarily, can the Pope say: This is the faith of the Church – and denial of it is not the faith of the Church” (pp. 7-8). According to the Pope Vatican II “correctly taught us that collegiality is a constitutive element in the structure of the Church. That the Pope can only be first together with others and not someone who would make decisions in isolation as an absolute monarch and do everything himself” (p. 71). So, citing the last Ecumenical Council, Pope Benedict XVI reiterates that the shared responsibility of bishops is a constitutive datum of the very nature of the Church itself. And his are not statements of principle or formulas of the moment: you see from the importance he attaches to the Synod of Bishops and the care and willingness to listen with which he meets individual bishops on ad limina visits. One is well aware that through these precious meetings Benedict XVI is in direct contact with the problems, the trials and consolations of the people of God experienced in various local situations, such as the human and social devastation linked to drug trafficking of which “many, many bishops, above all from Latin America” (p. 60) have spoken.
The Pope also replies to the question of the possibility of summoning a Vatican Council III. For him the moment is not yet ripe. But certainly the criterion of collegiality outlined by him may have major developments in ecumenism, especially with regard to relations with the Eastern Churches. These Churches, Benedict XVI repeats, “are genuine particular Churches, although they are not in communion with the Pope. In this sense unity with the Pope is not constitutive for the particular Church”, although the lack of such unity “is a defect in the living cell of the particular Church, as it were. It remains a cell, it is legitimately called a Church, but the cell is lacking something, namely, its connection with the organism as a whole” (p. 89).

In many other details one sees that the inoffensive and peaceful strength perceptible in the Pope does not come from himself: “For I see very well”, he says of himself, “that almost everything I have to do is something I myself cannot do at all. That fact always forces me, so to speak, to place myself in the Lord’s hands and to say to him: ‘You do it, if you want it!’” (p.16). Benedict acknowledges that he is not a “mystic” (p. 16). He confides he prays invoking Mary and the saints: “I am friends with Augustine, with Bonaventure, with Thomas Aquinas. Then one says to such saints also: Help me! … In this sense I commend myself to the communion of saints. With them, strengthened by them, I then talk with the dear Lord also, begging for the most part, but also in thanksgiving – or quite simply being joyful” (p. 17). Benedict never presents himself as the hub of some kind of project of pontificate. For him, the bishop of Rome, “when he speaks as the supreme pastor of the Church, fully aware of his responsibility, then he no longer says something that is personally his, whatever happens to occur to him” (p. 8). Yet precisely through this way of looking at things and dealing with the happy or sad affairs of the Church in recent times he grasps in surprising fashion what can really open hearts to the Christian message and disarm the objections of the present moment.
I am thinking of the way in which the Pope came to speak again of the tragic business of pedophilia and of the sexual abuse committed by priests. Faced with the wickedness found among Christians, Benedict XVI repeated the words he had expressed in the past: mortification, penance, asking forgiveness, without hiding anything, without claims of victimization or conspiracy theories. He also sees that there has been “some pleasure in exposing the Church and if possible discrediting her” (p. 27). But first of all he recognizes that “only because there was evil in the Church could it be played off against her by others” (p. 27). According to him, “one might think that the devil could not stand the Year for Priests and therefore threw this filth in our faces. As it wanted to show the world how much filth there was, even and precisely among priests” (p. 34). But on the other hand, maybe “one could say that the Lord wanted to test us and to call us to a deeper purification, so that we would not celebrate the Year for Priests in a triumphalist way, as self-glorification, but rather as a year of purification, of interior renewal, transformation, and above all penance” (p. 34). And with the usual call to the shared responsibility of bishops, he says clearly that “the bishops have the first say” (p. 29). With the same clarity of vision he grasps what of good and great blossoms in the Church, and the gratuitous dynamics of this blossoming. It is always a matter of “initiatives that are not ordered by a structure or a bureaucracy”, because “the bureaucracy is spent and tired” (p. 59). He looks with sadness “on what you might call professional Catholics” (p. 141), enmeshed in the apparatus and in rankings, but is comforted by the new shoots of Christian life he sees sprouting even in secularized countries: “The liturgy in Paris was overwhelming. There were several thousand people gathered in the esplanade of the Church at Les Invalides – with an intensity of prayer and faith that was touching for me … It was very important for me to see that in so-called secular France the faith is not gone but is still present with an enormous energy” (p. 116). So he recalls his visit to France. “However, the Lord”, the Pope repeats, “told us also that among the wheat there will be weeds – but that the seed, his seed, will nevertheless continue to grow. We are confident of that” (p. 25).
The real and wide-ranging questions from Peter Seewald allow the Pope to say fine and intense words on a whole variety of issues. There are recurring references to John Paul II, for whom Benedict XVI expresses affection and devotion. And when the interviewer asks whether comparison of the media skills of his predecessor with his own is a burden to him, he answers honestly: “I simply told myself that I am who I am. I don’t try to be someone else. What I can give I give, and what I can’t give I don’t try to give, either. I don’t try to make myself into something I am not” (p. 112).

For Benedict XVI the Pope “too is a simple beggar before God – even more than all other people” (p. 17). In plain and simple words, the charism of infallibility is described in terms proper to Catholic doctrine, setting aside all “infallibilist” doubt: “Usually the Bishop of Rome acts like any other bishop who professes his faith, who proclaims his faith, who is faithful in the Church. Only when certain conditions are present, when tradition has been clarified and he knows he is not acting arbitrarily, can the Pope say: This is the faith of the Church – and denial of it is not the faith of the Church” (pp. 7-8)
I was also much struck by everything he says about relations with Judaism and with Israel. When he confides that from the first day of his theological studies “the intrinsic unity of the Old and the New Covenants” was immediately clear to him and that “we can read the New Testament only together with what preceded it; otherwise, we would completely fail to understand it” (p. 81). Then he acknowledges that as a German what happened under the Third Reich “gave us a special reason to look with humility and shame, and with love, upon the people of Israel”, and that in his theological training these things “came together and began to shape the course of my thinking as a theologian” (pp. 81-82). The reigning Pope responds out of this sensibility to the resurgent temptations that in Catholic theology, on the lines of the gnostic Marcion, aim to separate and set in opposition the Old and New Testaments. This is why “this new, loving, sympathetic interrelationship of Israel and the Church, where each respects the being and distinctive mission of the other” (p. 82) is central to his magisterium. In this regard Benedict XVI prefers to describe the Jews as “our ‘fathers in the faith’” because this expression “illustrates perhaps even more clearly the character of our relationship to each other”, while the one used by John Paul II – which referred to the Jews as “our elder brothers” – is not well received by the Jews given that “in the Jewish tradition, the ‘elder brother’ – Esau – is also the brother who gets rejected” (p. 82).
I also found his replies on relations with Islam interesting. The interviewer asks him if the paradigm of the past, whereby the popes considered it their duty to defend Europe from Islamization, is still valid, and Benedict XVI replies that “today we are living in a completely different world, in which the battle lines are drawn differently”. As a model of mutual understanding he speaks highly of that present in large areas of black Africa, where “there has been a long tradition of tolerant and good coexistence between Islam and Christianity (p. 100). Regarding the famous Regensburg speech, which – Seewald notes – “has been classified as the first mistake of the pontificate”, the Pope recalls the positive events that in any case followed that episode: “It became evident”, he says, “that Islam needs to clarify two questions in regard to public dialogue, that is, the question concerning its relations to violence and its relation to reason”. It brought about “an internal reflection among Muslim scholars that in turn became a theme of dialogue” (p. 98). At the same time, the Pope recognizes humbly that at Regensburg “I had conceived and delivered the lecture as a strictly academic address, without realizing that people don’t read papal lectures as academic presentations, but as political statements” (p. 97).
In the sincere acknowledgement of that oversight (as in his regret at the withdrawal of the excommunication of the Lefebvrean bishop Williamson without having been first adequately informed himself of the latter’s holocaust denial theories) one well sees that the speaker is a Pope, and not just a professor defending his legitimate academic theses. The same thing, in its way, one sees in his words on the use of condoms, that have aroused so much discussion.

In his words on the use of condoms to combat AIDS, the Pope did not mean to reform or change the Church’s teaching. As made clear in a statement by the Director of the Vatican Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi, Pope Benedict XVI simply recognized that the use of condoms may decrease the risk of death in cases where sexual activity poses a threat to one’s own life or that of the other. In similar circumstances, such as those experienced by prostitutes who have contracted the HIV virus, the use of condoms to reduce the risk of infection can be “a first assumption of responsibility”, “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality” (p. 119). It is worth focusing on the example chosen by the Pope. The requisites for a virtuous sexuality are to be understood within the sacrament of marriage. And the virtue itself of chastity on the part of both spouses presupposes the whole of Christian life, prayer and the sacraments. Prostitution is instead a structure of sin. For those who live in that structure, the fact of thinking about avoiding the risks of contagion that threaten one’s life and that of the other certainly does not make prostitution virtuous, but it is already an opening towards greater humanity, to be judged positively. Because Catholic moral doctrine wants happiness and salvation for all, and pushes no one towards perdition and death. Furthermore for reasons of hygiene or of the fight against infectious disease, the public authorities have a duty to take protective measures. Where education is impossible, as a last resort, the condom is legitimate. And this is something quite different from the campaigns in favor of condoms that end by encouraging sexual permissiveness.

The book-interview of the Pope is truly rich, and interesting ideas and notes are to be found in it on almost every page. Such as the reflections on the fact that the testimony of faith lies altogether in looking at “Christ who is coming”, and the saints who “live out their Christianity in the present and the future” (p. 64) show us precisely this. Or the reasons wherewith Benedict XVI explains his use of “we” is not an imperial plural, a plural maiestatis: “For on many, many matters”, says the Pope, “I am not simply expressing ideas that have happened to occur to Joseph Ratzinger, but I am speaking out of the Church’s communitarian character. In these cases, I am speaking, as it were, in intrinsic fellowship with my fellow believers – and I am expressing what we are in common and what we can believe in common” (p. 83).
What the Pope says on his criteria in making appointments should be heeded: he thinks it decisive that the appointee “has the right qualities, ... is a man of God, a true man of faith, and, above all, a man of courage. I think that courage is one of the chief qualities that a bishop and a Curia head have to have nowadays” (p. 85).
Special attention is devoted to the particular plight of Chinese Catholics: the Pope confides he prays every day to the Lord that the Church in China may definitely get over every division, and lists as the first positive development “a fervent desire to be in union with the Pope”, a desire “that has never been absent among the illegitimately consecrated bishops” (p. 92).
Even when one looks at the wider often terrible issues that face mankind today, the Pope’s words are simple and clear: “How do we manage in a world that is threatening itself, in which progress becomes a danger? Shouldn’t we make a fresh start with God? (p. 75). This is perhaps the fundamental proposal made by this extraordinarily rich book.

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