WSJ Opinion piece about the book interview with Pope Benedict

The Wall Street Journal has an article by Francis X. Rocca about Light of the World, the book-length interview with Benedict XVI.

I wouldn’t really call this piece a “review” of the book.  It is more an opinion piece and it is appropriately on the Opinion Page.

My emphases and comments.

The Pontiff Speaks
Benedict sits down for several hours of conversation with a journalist.


‘The monarchy’s mystery is its life,” the English writer Walter Bagehot wrote in 1867. “We must not let in daylight upon the magic.” A turning point in the history of the British crown, according to some observers, was the 1969 BBC documentary “Royal Family,” which showed Queen Elizabeth and her relations engaged in TV-watching and other activities of ordinary folk. The broadcast endeared the royals to millions but may have helped to dispel the larger-than-life aura on which their prestige depended. [Here is a good lead and a good point.  To what extent is it wise to “diminish” the image?   The writer explores this below.]

Will future historians of the papacy say the same about “Light of the World”? Based on six hours of interviews with Pope Benedict XVI conducted in July of this year by the German journalist Peter Seewald, the book offers a rare portrait of a reigning pontiff, presenting him as insightful and eloquent—and pious of course—but also all too human.

Benedict confesses [The hook to the Queen and family.] to TV-watching of his own: the evening news and the occasional DVD, especially a series of movie comedies from the 1950s and 1960s about a parish priest sparring with the Communist mayor of his Italian town. [Don Camillo!] Despite such pleasures, the pope finds that his schedule “overtaxes an 83-year-old man” and reports that his “forces are diminishing,” though he makes it clear that he still feels up to the demands of his office.

When it comes to recent controversies, Benedict voices gratitude to journalists for recently exposing the clerical sex abuse in several European and Latin American countries.  [It probably would not have been dealt with without the press exposure.] He goes on to claim that “what guided this press campaign was not only a sincere desire for truth, but . . . also pleasure in exposing the Church and if possible discrediting her.” While there is doubtless much truth to such a statement, blaming the messenger is the last thing an image consultant would advise a leader to say in a crisis—which suggests that the image of Benedict that appears here is as uncensored as Mr. Seewald claims. [A good question.  Is it right for leaders in the Church to express such an idea?  Say that the press is also out to get the Church?  Or should we just lie there and be kicked?]

Likewise, concerning the uproar that greeted Benedict’s 2009 decision to lift the excommunication of Richard Williamson—the ultra-traditionalist bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier—the pope sees evidence, in the press, of “a hostility, a readiness to pounce . . . in order to strike a well-aimed blow.” In this case, Benedict concedes that he made a mistake—that he would not have readmitted Bishop Williamson to the Catholic Church had he known about his statements on the Nazi genocide. “Unfortunately,” he tells Mr. Seewald, “none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with.” [Odd.  After all, I knew about his strange ideas when I was working there.  Did not a single person in the decision making process know about this fellow’s notions?  Hard to imagine, unless you consider the crew you are talking about.]

Benedict also concedes that “maybe [the Vatican] should have” called for an immediate world-wide investigation of clerical sex abuse following the scandals in the U.S. in 2002. [NB:] Recalling the violent protests that greeted his 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a medieval Christian emperor describing the teachings of Muhammad as “evil and inhuman” and “spread by the sword,” Benedict confesses to naïveté. He gave the speech, he says, “without realizing that people don’t read papal lectures as academic presentations, but as political statements.” [There is no way that Pope Benedict didn’t know at the time how few people read carefully, or that the press wouldn’t go off the deep end, or that part of the Muslim world wouldn’t go bananas.  I think what shocked him was the violence, especially the killing of a Catholic woman religious.  Wasn’t she shot in the back by some practitioners of the religion of peace?  At that point the Pope made a conciliatory gesture.  But in the long run, some Muslim scholars undertook to start more dialogue with the Holy See.]

Disappointingly, Mr. Seewald never asks Benedict about the much-discussed case of a pedophile priest who was reassigned to pastoral work on Benedict’s watch as archbishop of Munich in 1980 and who later molested children again. Church officials have said that Benedict did not approve the reassignment, and there is no evidence to suggest that he did; but readers of “Light of the World” might have been grateful to receive that assurance from the pope himself and an expression of regret for the tragic error.

Clearly the Vatican, during Benedict’s papacy, has struggled to manage its “public relations,” a term the pope himself adopts here. In one respect “Light of the World” may appear to be the latest false move: Over the past several days—ever since the Vatican newspaper ran certain passages ahead of publication—Benedict’s comments in the book on the use of condoms have occasioned furor, confusion and mockery. In fact, the pope made a highly nuanced statement [once again] —  that the use of condoms in illicit sexual activity, when intended to prevent the spread of AIDS, “can be a first step” in the practice of sexual morality. But, naturally, the press pounced, to use the pope’s own word.

[Back to the point at the top…] By speaking to Mr. Seewald so informally on matters of such importance, the pope may be seen to be collaborating in his own diminishment. And yet, on the evidence of the book itself, Benedict’s decision to participate in the interviews was deliberate and principled. “Standing there as a glorious ruler is not part of being Pope,” he tells Mr. Seewald. “Is it really right,” he asks later, “for someone to present himself again and again to the crowd in that way and allow oneself to be regarded as a star?” People, he acknowledges, “have an intense longing to see the Pope” but only because he is “the representative of the Holy One.” No one, he says, should “refer the jubilation to oneself as a personal compliment.”  [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

Benedict’s self-humbling may be part of the “purification” and “penance” that he says the sex-abuse scandal has demanded of the church. Perhaps, too, he sees demystifying the pope—though not the papacy itself—as a contribution to the “new understanding of religion” that he sees emerging in the secular West: a “real faith in the Gospel” untainted by the mythical, archaic and irrational.

We are so used to hearing leaders profess how “humbled” they are whenever they attain honor and power that our first impulse is to be skeptical when Benedict describes himself as a “little” pope, by comparison with his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Yet his self-exposure in these pages is evidence of his sincerity and could prove a key to the ultimate success of his reign.

Mr. Rocca is the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service.

A thought provoking piece.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Gail F says:

    I read that this morning and thought it was a strange piece. Certainly not a book review. I was particularly struck by this:

    Benedict’s self-humbling may be part of the “purification” and “penance” that he says the sex-abuse scandal has demanded of the church.

    What?? The author is supposed to know something about the Church. Does he really think that the papacy is equivalent to the British monarchy? Does he really think the papacy is something to be “positioned,” as if the pope were a Hollywood star? Weird.

  2. Tim Ferguson says:

    I am looking forward to reading the book, and I hate to react to passages from the book without reading it in context, but the phrase, quoted above, “Standing there as a glorious ruler is not part of being Pope,” troubles me. I think that is precisely part of the “job” of being pope. Not to draw attention to oneself, but to draw attention to Peter, who’s successor the Pope is, and to Christ, who’s vicar he is. In fact, I think that the symbolic aspect of the office of the papacy can frequently be more eloquently didactic than the explicit teaching aspect. When one thinks of Pius XII, standing with arms outstretched in the neighborhoods of Rome during the allied bombing raids, or Paul VI’s embrace with Patriarch Athenagoras, or John Paul II kissing the soil of Poland – those are unmistakably papal moments, with profound effect. The verbosity of modern popes, while it has been a rich field to mine for philosophers and theologians, has also been somewhat of a mine field for ordinary Catholics, especially when the writings and teachings call for the kind of nuance that is difficult for the post modern mind to navigate.

    I’m not saying the Pope should just shut up and stand there, but I do think that it is a very important part of his role as pope to tolerate and even foster the devotion to the papacy that comes from just standing there as the glorious ruler that he is.

  3. catholicmidwest says:

    We are undergoing a re-evaluation of the position of the Church in the world, and we have been for several decades, for those who haven’t noticed. Note that in general, this isn’t doctrine or even anti-doctrine, although it may touch on it. The pope’s statement, along with his actions to date, is interesting in light of this.

    There is a not-inconsequential group in the church who says that it is different from worldly kingdoms and that the worse thing the Church ever did was accept acclaim from the world because it’s not that kind of thing. I wonder if this is what I am hearing.

  4. Vetdoctor says:

    Poor Peter, never comfortable with his crown.

  5. catholicmidwest says:

    Oh well, sometimes more comfortable than not, Vetdoctor. History says so. We’ve had a variety of characters as pope.

  6. TNCath says:

    While I look forward to reading Mr. Seewald’s book in its entirety, I am already quite moved by what I have already read in this article and others about the Pope’s humility and candor. At the same time, it seems to support what I have suspected all along: this Pope has a naive side to him, which obviously revealed itself in the Williamson, Regensburg, and sex abuse debacles. I also suspect this same naivete is revealed in some of the initial choices he made for a couple of key curial positions. Nonetheless, this Holy Father has picked up where John Paul II left off in restoring the Church, and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will ultimately succeed, despite human frailty and the forces of evil working against him.

  7. catholicmidwest says:

    Fr Ray Blake, who is on Fr Z’s link list, had an interesting post a while back. Fr Z, permit me to place a link here, please?

    He may be right. We’re in the teeth of a precipitous decline and have been for some time-a decline perhaps of our own making or simply a decline necessary for these times? Who can know which? But there’s not point in splitting hairs about what is, I expect.

    Those of you who make pious talk about humility and the sex abuse crisis, I would remark that it’s not exactly like that. Things like sex abuse crises have direct, concrete and very costly consequences. This is not a head trip we have here.

    I think he is trying to say we are, like it or not, finding out what the church is precisely in the world. Perhaps we’ve finally gotten to the point where we have no choice-not sure. The church isn’t 10 year epic BS extravaganzas over translations, for one thing. And we aren’t the worlds’ pre-eminent social work organization period, like many people think we are. And we aren’t merely a solid voting block-we aren’t even a sloppy one anymore. And we aren’t a justice watchdog over international affairs, a sort of UN special organization like many of the religious orders in the church now aspire to be. There are a lot of things that the church isn’t.

    Meanwhile, many people, even people who criticize us ruthlessly, don’t seem to recognize what we ARE.

  8. catholicmidwest says:

    Thus the smaller but more faithful church this pope has posited.

  9. Mike says:

    I have read in the last two days about 70% of “Light of the World”, and I am really deeply moved and impressed by Benedict’s talents and humility that come across in the interviews.

    Keep praying for him, with small sacrifices done in love for his intentions and that the Lord with strengthen and guide him and protect him.

    Finally, the most impressive answer he gives in the book?

    “Are you afraid of an assassination attempt?”


  10. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    I suppose I like to see patterns, but I understand His Holiness’ remarks about not being a star as a direct criticism of the work of Pope John Paul, and the entire rapprochement through Anglicanorum Coetibus and the discussions with the Society and the Orthodox as a direct criticism of the Pauline reform. To assert (not acknowledge, mind) that the law always permitted the older form, despite the indults of his predecessor, is to assert a much-needed change in policy.
    Business as usual since 1958 has allowed the problems to develop, so perhaps it’s time to do something other than business as usual. When Cardinal Burke chimed in recently, my suspicions were confirmed.

  11. catholicmidwest says:

    Although, interestingly, consider this: This book has just hit the market. The publish date was 11/24/2010, day before yesterday. Perhaps this is all publicity for the book?

  12. Geremia says:

    Cannot we erase “Holocaust denier” from our vocabulary? Bp. Williamson is not a “Holocaust denier.”

    Also, @Vetdoctor: You mean tiara, not crown, right?
    Mr. Rocca does have a point in being concerned that the papacy transform into implicitly promoting, by Peter’s emphasizing himself as “a man just like everyone else,” democracy and egalitarianism. The minute the papacy is seen as a merely human institution, the harder it will be for people to understand that Christ divinely instituted the Church.

  13. Geremia says:

    All people desire fundamental truths clearly and repetitively spoken, not “dialogued” as though the Church is unsure about her dogmas, which some think are merely opinions. Sadly, this book contributes to the confusion. St. Pius X, ora pro nobis!

  14. catholicmidwest says:

    I’m not sure it makes much difference what Williamson thinks about WWII. I do think that it’s in the Church’s best interests to gather as many faithful together as possible in preparation for what comes next. Things are not looking good these days.

  15. Tradster says:

    I applaud His Holiness for coming out against the “rock star pope” syndrome. However, his words would carry more validity if he brought an immediate end to the horrible World Youth Day extravaganzas. Instead, as with issuing Summorum Pontificum yet refusing to celebrate a public TLM himself, or dispensing Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue yet refusing to make it mandatory for all even at his own Masses, this seems just another instance of the frustrating inconsistency of Pope Benedict’s words and actions.

  16. anna 6 says:

    Two things that Rocca takes out of context and overplays…
    In the book, the pope overwhelmingly says that the crisis comes from inside the church and is grateful that they came to light through the media in order to correct and heal the problem. Rocca highlights the line about “pleasure in exposing the Church” which is actually a response to a question about the media. This comment is followed by the statement:
    “All that notwithstanding, one thing was always clear: Insofar as it is the truth, we must be grateful for every disclosure.”
    Also, the following quote” “Is it really right,” he asks later, “for someone to present himself again and again to the crowd in that way and allow oneself to be regarded as a star?” was a response to a discussion about something attributed originally to the words of Paul VI.
    Unfortunately, in much of the commentary we have the pope’s answers…but we don’t have the questions !
    Please read the book in its entirety…is it very powerful.

  17. Gail F says:

    catholicmidwest: I don’t know if you were referring to me when you referred to “those of you who make pious talk about humility and the sex abuse crisis” but I was not being pious and I didn’t refer to the sex abuse crisis — the reviewer did. He wondered if the pope was being humble in order to purify the church from the sex abuse crisis, or something like that. I thought that was a bizarre thing to say. This guy is the Vatican correspondent for a religious news service and he doesn’t seem to understand anything about the papacy or the current pope. I thought the whole piece was a very strange take on Benedict XVI that says more about the author than about the pope.

  18. Traductora says:

    Curious situation. Part of the problem is that BXVI is following somebody who saw himself as a star and acted as if he thought that the Papacy was all about him. I don’t think JPII started out that way, FWIW, but the press loved him and after a while he began to believe his own press reports. I think he saw himself, personally and individually, as the most important thing about the Papacy, more important than the office itself and existing somewhat outside of it.

    I wish BXVI would be a little more on the “wise as serpents” side (we already know he’s harmless as a dove), but he obviously is not going to change. However, I don’t think he’s doing this in a calculated way, either to boost or to diminish his standing or that of the office. Instead, I suspect that the contrast between him and his predecessor is so great that it is hard for the press to understand it and hard for him to anticipate or respond to their expectations.

  19. Melody says:

    I agree with others that the Holy Father can be a bit naive, but it’s the kind of naivete that overestimates the rest of humanity. It’s a truly difficult and painful thing to realize that much of the world does not really seek truth, but rather confirmation of existing bias.

    But this portrayal of Pope Benedict may be a great idea! Too many people, even among the Church, think that the Pope is or thinks himself to be a demigod. The media loves to demonize the Pope as a dictatorial ruler. The world needs to understand that the Holy Father as a person. He’s a kindly old college professor, not a warlord. He does his best for the Church, and then he sits down at the end of the day and watches some TV like a normal person. That is a lot harder to hate. I do trust the Holy Father to speak about what his office represents. I like what he said in this article.

  20. Sixupman says:

    Tradster 3:37: We were all disenfranchised at the time of Vatican II, leaving aside being lied to, at almost stroke. If one demurred, either clergy or laity, we were attacked and harrassed – particularly the former. Charity was completely absent. BXVI imbues Charity and wishes people to conform by means of example and persuasion. not by coercion. He recognises his flocks have been misled and taken astray and matters cannot be overturned at a stroke.

    [A church which I attend, when I can, persuaded the parishioners to kneel for Communion and accept, without demur, Ad Orientem Celebration of all Masses. This was done by persuasion and presentation of the evidence, in support, in free booklet form. Also the Masses, although NOM, are as close as you can get to the TLM, which, in any event, is Celebrated every Sunday. The availability of Confessions are profuse and well used. It can be done, but it needs a forthright, but charitable, clergy to effect the same. Communion in the Hand still outstanding! This church has fifty at 07:00 and 17:00 Masses weekdays and is full every Sunday. It can be done, but pusillanimous clergy opt for the easy life and have given over the Tabernacle to self-opinionated laity.]

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