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Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Century
By Joseph Ratzinger. An Interview with Peter Seewald
Ignatius Press. 301 pp. $12.95

What does the Pope read when confined to bed? During his stint in the Gemelli hospital last year, John Paul II’s bedside book was Salt of the Earth , by Joseph Ratzinger. This may not be a decisive argument for reading the book, but it’s not bad as endorsements go.

Salt of the Earth has an unusual genesis. Early in 1996 German freelance journalist Peter Seewald, a fallen-away Catholic, wrote an abrasive article on Cardinal Ratzinger for the Süddeutsche Zeitung . Though German Catholics by and large take a dim view of the Roman Curia, Seewald’s readers cried foul, accusing him of having portrayed Ratzinger in a simplistic and stereotypical way. To redeem himself, Seewald got in touch with Cardinal Ratzinger and proposed a thoroughgoing interview with the prelate, to be published as a full-length book. Perhaps surprisingly, the Cardinal acquiesced. Shortly afterward the two retired to Villa Cavalletti, a retreat house outside Rome, for a weekend interview session. Thus Salt of the Earth was born.

To date, the German edition, Salz der Erde , has sold more than seventy thousand copies, which makes it a runaway bestseller by German standards, and Ratzinger’s most popular work ever in his home country. It has been dubbed the new Ratzinger Report, and certain similarities justify the comparison. The Ratzinger Report was the fruit of an interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, who would later be responsible for the 1994 book-interview with Pope John Paul, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. The Report turned out to be a sort of State-of-the-Church address by Ratzinger, who was still cutting his teeth as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when the book was released in 1985. Salt of the Earth likewise presents, among other things, a global overview of the situation of the Church at the end of the second millennium.

Yet there are significant differences, too. For one thing, as Ratzinger himself acknowledges, passing time leaves its mark. The dozen intervening years between the two interviews seem to have mellowed the already introspective Ratzinger, and Salt of the Earth presents us with a more seasoned Prefect. Furthermore, Messori is a fervent Italian Christian, having abandoned his former agnosticism, while Seewald is a disaffected German Catholic, whose questions reflect his own doubts and difficulties with the Church. The question-answer format of Salt of the Earth also differs considerably from the more uniform, narrative style of the Report, and more faithfully reflects the spontaneous interplay between the Cardinal and his inquisitor. All in all, conditions couldn’t have been better for a literary chef d’oeuvre.

Unfortunately, Seewald doesn’t always prove up to the task. His imprecise terminology, occasional dips into banality, and desultory interrogation limit the work’s seriousness and fluidity. He persistently follows up issues of small import while missing precious opportunities to probe the Cardinal’s thought on weightier matters.

That said, there are two things that partially redeem Seewald’s folly. First, in representing a world that no longer believes, he provides a point of contact for the many who are out of touch with religious faith. Seewald formulates questions typical of a certain breed of Catholic who religiously reads the New York Times but at best has skimmed the headlines of the Catechism. He awkwardly moves between the superficial and the profound, the laudatory and the impertinent, the penetrating and the puerile. This can be unnerving to the reader, but Ratzinger responds to Seewald’s queries with a serenity, lucidity, and, above all, patience that would seem sufficient to dissolve the image of intransigence and severity with which he is commonly associated. Hence the second important merit of Seewald’s work: it furnishes the reader with a rare window into Ratzinger’s personality and inner life. Perhaps more than any other of Ratzinger’s numerous works, Salt of the Earth grants a glimpse of the man beneath the miter.

The first of the book’s three parts deals with the person of Joseph Ratzinger: his origins, vocation, theological and episcopal career, and his relationship with Pope John Paul. Particularly striking is Ratzinger’s description of his youth, especially during the years of National Socialism. Having grown up in a Germany dominated by Nazi propaganda and the suppression of heterodox opinions, he grew notably inimical to authoritarianism and ideologies that attempt to stamp out uncomfortable truths, especially the truth about God and the human person. Once we have suppressed the truth, Ratzinger says, we are left only with our personal choice, which is necessarily arbitrary. “When decisions are left solely to the domain of the will, whether particular or collective, man is debased.” Like Pope John Paul, Ratzinger believes that the proclamation of the truth is the greatest guarantee of human freedom. This conviction is enshrined in his episcopal motto, Cooperatores Veritatis , which he adopted when ordained archbishop of Munich-Freising in 1977.

The second part of the book presents the Cardinal’s sketch of the state of the Church in the world, with country-by-country snapshots of some key areas, and then confronts the thorny issues where the Church often meets with criticism. Ratzinger demonstrates a broad grasp of the present ecclesial environment throughout the world and the cultural obstacles and opportunities vis- -vis the new evangelization. Among the regional vignettes, the situation of the Church in Germany receives the most attention, while many other countries are quickly passed over. Some American readers may be put off by the Cardinal’s unwillingness to analyze particular religious phenomena in the U.S.”because “I know America too little””along with his favorable and perhaps ingenuous citation of Hillary Clinton.

Seewald has Ratzinger run the gauntlet of what the latter terms “the canon of criticisms” against the Church, starting with her historical “errors” and ending with the celebrated modern points of contention, including everything from papal infallibility to contraceptives to women priests to abortion to priestly celibacy. One is impressed both with the precision and measure of Ratzinger’s comments and with the genuinely humble and respectful attitude with which he treats Seewald’s various doubts. He never makes light of the difficulties voiced by his interviewer, and he addresses all of them with understanding and clarity. In fact, his realism, openness to criticism, and evident humanity are disarming both to the reader and, it would seem, to the journalist.

The final seventy pages of the book examine where the Church has come from and where she is going. Here the reader gets a taste of Ratzinger’s priorities for the Church and how he expects her relationship with other groups and institutions to unfold. On many fronts his prognosis is bleak, and Salt of the Earth won’t do much to soften his reputation as a pessimist. Ratzinger’s Augustinian spirituality downplays man’s earthly accomplishments and highlights instead the “City of God,” the kingdom wrought by God’s grace that is not of this world. Borrowing John Courtney Murray’s useful distinction between two valid Christian orientations, an incarnational humanism (which emphasizes Christianity’s immanence and the close link between grace and the nature it perfects), and an eschatological humanism (which focuses on Christianity’s otherworldliness and man’s pilgrim condition), Ratzinger clearly leans toward the latter”whereas John Paul II tends toward the former.

Concerning prospects for ecumenism, for example, Ratzinger is typically guarded: “I don’t dare to hope for a full communion of Christians within history.” This reserve hardly seems to square with John Paul’s vision of the third millennium as the millennium of Christian unity, as expressed in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint or in the Pope’s reference to Christians’ “confident quest for full communion.” Citing examples of ongoing fragmentation of the Christian communions and the formation of new splinter groups”including syncretistic sects with a mix of Christian and pagan elements”Ratzinger points to other objectives. “Much more important is that we accept each other with profound respect and love, that we recognize one another as Christians, and that we endeavor to offer the world a common witness in the essential things, both in favor of a just world order and in giving a response to the great questions about God and about man’s origin and destiny.” While this mutual acceptance and common witness are clearly of major importance, one hopes the Cardinal’s soft-pedalling of efforts toward full communion between the Christian churches won’t play at cross-purposes to John Paul’s ecumenical program.

The new evangelization receives the same reserved response. Where Pope John Paul confidently proclaims the third millennium a springtime of evangelization, Cardinal Ratzinger presents a scenario of a shrinking Church of minority status, more concerned with creating small pockets of authentic Christian living than influencing the course of society. It would seem that Ratzinger’s experience with this century’s disastrous attempts at Hegelian Utopianism”both of Marxist and Nietzschean stamp”may have left him with a permanent distaste for programs of large-scale social change.

Nonetheless, Ratzinger’s eschatological orientation doesn’t preclude serious engagement with the world. There is a fine little section near the end of Salt of the Earth entitled “Church, State, and Society.” Here the Cardinal considers the separation of church and state, tracing it back to the Christian response to the Roman Empire. Ratzinger deems the rediscovery of this separation a positive contribution of the Enlightenment, the negative side being the subjectivization and privatization of religion. Christianity, says Ratzinger, while radically distinct from the state, “has always publically claimed to be not only subjective sentiment, but a truth that is proclaimed in public, that puts norms on society, and that, in a certain measure, is binding also on the state and on the powerful of the world.”

I am told that subsequent to the publication of Salt of the Earth , Peter Seewald has returned to his Catholic faith and that he attributes his “reversion” to his weekend interview with Cardinal Ratzinger. Perhaps this book will bear more fruit than its author would dare to hope.

Fr. Thomas D. Williams is Rector of the General Directorate of the Legionaries of Christ.