In his foreword to this remarkable book—structured as a conversation between Benedict XVI and journalist Peter Seewald—George Weigel praises the German Pope for his “frankness, clarity and compassion.” This is very true. It's also an understatement. No serving bishop of Rome has ever spoken so openly and disarmingly as Benedict XVI does in Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.
Benedict (as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) and Seewald have worked together in the past. While Seewald asks blunt questions, the Pope's trust in him is clearly high. The resulting exchange between the two men is bracing and memorable, an absolutely mandatory read for anyone who wants a sense of the Petrine ministry and its burdens from the inside.
And yet, one comes away from this text with a mix of exhilaration and sympathy. The exhilaration springs from meeting in Benedict an extraordinary Christian intellect, articulate and unfiltered; a man prudent, generous, and penetrating in his judgment, candid in his self-criticism, brilliant but accessible in his thinking, and unshakeable in his faith. The sympathy flows from knowing that, in the current media climate, almost anything Benedict says may be hijacked to serve other agendas. And exactly this happened even before the book's formal release—but more on that in a moment.
Seewald covers a lot of terrain with his questions, from China to liturgy to Fatima to the theology of the End Times. Each reader will gravitate to the themes that most interest him or her. But a few are worth special attention.
First, Seewald deals early and extensively with the Church's sexual abuse scandal. Benedict's answers are patient, tranquil, humble, and honest. This Pope is not a leader who downplays the damage done to innocent children and families, or evades responsibility, or makes excuses for evil actions. He is well aware of the scope of sexual abuse in other religious communities and public institutions, but he does not use that as an alibi for the sins of Catholic clergy. Nor does he ever stray from the priority of healing for victims.
Second, for a man once thuggishly caricatured as Rome's doctrine police, Benedict speaks with convincing sensitivity about the sanctity of human freedom and conscience, and the dignity of other religious believers. Like his predecessor, John Paul II, Benedict has a profound respect for Judaism as the root of Christianity and the Jewish people as our “fathers in faith.” His discussion of the challenges inherent in dialogue with modern Protestantism, which takes so many different forms, is masterly for its fraternal charity and candor.
And while some readers may find his assessment of Islam too optimistic and irenic—time will tell whether secularism or Islam poses the greater challenge to today's Christian believers—Benedict wisely notes that
Islam is lived in very different ways, depending on its various historical traditions. . . . The important thing [is] to remain in close contact with all the currents within Islam that are open to, and capable of, dialogue so as to give a change of mentality a chance to happen even where Islamism still couples a claim to truth with violence.
Finally, and maybe most powerfully, Benedict offers a withering critique of modern notions of “progress” and the practical atheism that infects nearly every developed society, beginning with Europe. For the Pope, the real battle lines in the modern world do not divide Christianity from other religious traditions.
Rather, “In [today's] world, radical secularism stands on one side, and the question of God, in its various forms, stands on the other.” When secular society seeks to reduce progress to material development, to exile God from public life and to ignore humanity's profoundly religious needs, then it starves the human spirit and attacks real human progress, which always has a moral dimension.
Ironically, the message of this good and brilliant Pope has been hobbled nearly as much by the baffling failures of some of his own aides as by unfriendly coverage from the world's media. One of the sensitive issues that Benedict treats in this book is the question of AIDS in Africa and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of infection. No institution in Africa has done more to combat AIDS and support its victims than the Catholic Church.
But intense controversy—at least in Europe and the United States—has always surrounded the Catholic rejection of condom use in AIDS prevention. The Church holds that condom use is morally flawed by its nature, and that, equally important, condom use does not prevent AIDS and can actually enable its spread by creating a false sense of security.
In the context of the book's later discussion of contraception and Catholic teaching on sexuality, the Pope's comments are morally insightful. But taken out of context, they can easily be inferred as approving condoms under certain circumstances. One might reasonably expect the Holy Father's assistants to have an advance communications plan in place, and to involve bishops and Catholic media in a timely way to explain and defend the Holy Father's remarks.
Instead, the Vatican's own semi-official newspaper, l'Osservatore Romano, violated the book's publication embargo and released excerpts of the content early. Not surprisingly, news media instantly zeroed in on the issue of condoms, and the rest of this marvelous book already seems like an afterthought.
Don't let that happen. Don't let confusion in the secular press deter you from buying, reading for yourself, and then sharing this extraordinary text. It's an astonishing portrait of an astonishing man.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Denver.