The response to Peter Seewald’s book-length interview with Benedict XVI is a case study of media bias. A few sentences from Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times – mere minutes from last summer’s six-hours-in-six-days discussions between the journalist and the pope – have been turned into headlines conveying the opposite of the pope’s meaning. His Holiness is used to this, and yet it can’t have been pleasant for him to read that a former model and current First Lady of France has called his comments about condom use “an enormous step towards something very new.”
The Holy Father must be frustrated that media distortions of his words and Church teaching make it seem two steps forward and three back in public perception of the Church. So he speaks not just to notify, but to rectify. In another age, his candor might have provoked sputtering outrage in the Vatican, and some there today may be longing for the days when popes were “prisoners of the Vatican,” rarely traveled anywhere, and never gave one-on-one interviews to journalists. But we are blessed to have a pope who takes the time to explain his role in the Church and the enduring importance of the Catholic faith in the contemporary world.
Change is everywhere, and no pope has been more cognizant of technological developments and cultural transformations, which may be why some liberal Catholics and their media counterparts turn mere splinters of thought into sequoias of revolution. But Light of the World reveals a pope intent upon carrying forward the Church’s traditional ministry. Yes, he actively seeks new ways of evangelizing, but the mission itself is in striking continuity with the previous fifteen popes named Benedict.
He communicates with a clarity and directness that may surprise some who expect this most scholarly of popes to be professorial, even tedious. In fact, he’s an illuminating teacher. For instance, he knows well the disdain with which many in our democratic age hold the notion of papal infallibility. His explanation is elegant and levelheaded: “Only when certain conditions are present, when tradition has been clarified and he knows that 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.”
Like teenage boys with a racy novel, the media have thumbed through Light of the World in search of the juicy bits. To be sure, Mr. Seewald, whose questions are occasionally longer than the pope’s answers, asks a lot about matters sexual: with regard to the abuse crisis, marriage and divorce, contraception, homosexuality, celibacy, and condoms. Considering events of the last five years, that’s understandable. Every one of the pope’s replies – if actually read in context – will disappoint the headline writers.
It has been clear for some time that the pope sees no role in the Church for actively gay individuals. “Homosexuality,” he says, “is incompatible with the priesthood.” (The media missed that one.) About the number of gays and lesbians in religious life, the pope calls this “just one of the miseries of the Church.”
I’d just read that when I happened get a call from a priest friend who happens to be reading a book by James Alison, a gay priest, in which the author apparently foresees a coming transformation of Church teaching on homosexuality.
“Does he propose a timeframe?” I asked.
My friend thought not or, if so, far in the future, and I remarked that if timeframes are open-ended you may reasonably predict anything. But reading Light of the World leads rather more to confidence that acceptance of homosexuality, or ordination of women, or change in Church teaching on contraception are probably as unlikely now as they ever have been. If homosexuals are not accepted into seminaries (as the new rule stipulates), and if current and future seminarians are (as they appear to be) more Sons of Ratzinger than of Küng, and if the College of Cardinals continues to be populated by men in the mold of, say, Raymond Burke (as after three decades of appointments by JP2 and B16 it is), then continuity with tradition seems all but certain.
I also heard from a military veteran, who called to bemoan the Defense Department’s integration of homosexuals in the armed forces. Does the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell portend a similar change in the Church at some point in the not-too-distant future? Apples and oranges. The pope tells Seewald: “This is a point we need to hold firm, even if it is not pleasing to our age.”
Benedict often speaks of the “present framework” or of the “structure” of things, which may be taken in several ways: as references to Western relativism or to the Church’s stance against it. But mostly the pope’s concern is for constructive measures, for reform. This is a “reasonable and determined” re-former in Chesterton’s sense: he sees a certain thing out of shape and means to put it into proper form, and he knows what form.
Towards the end of the interview, Mr. Seewald asks Benedict XVI about Last Things, and the pope speaks about “breaking through the sound barrier of finitude.” We’ll be ready to meet the Lord at His Second Coming if we meet him frequently in the Mass. Here is hope and change: “The Eucharist is the place where men can receive the kind of formation from which new things come into being.”