Darkness at Noon

A review of Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times
by Benedict XVI and Peter Seewald

By Martin J. Salvucci

Even casual Vatican-watchers are likely familiar with the Italian proverb: "Always follow a fat pope with a skinny pope." Hardly politically correct, this statement gestures at the remarkable diversity that obtains between successive occupants of the Chair of St. Peter. Not surprisingly, popular depictions—caricatures, more likely—emphasized a different theme upon Benedict XVI's ascension to the papacy in the wake of Pope John Paul II's death: continuity. If nothing else, this stubborn and bracing conversation with Peter Seewald—the fourth such collaboration between the two, and the first of Benedict's papacy—reveals exactly how wrong the conventional wisdom regarding the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has proven.

At its most trivial, this text is an intimate portrait of Pope Benedict. Tasked with the unenviable assignment of succeeding one of the most charismatic and most popular religious figures in modern history, Benedict—whose advanced age and serious demeanor have left him more vulnerable to jests than to plaudits—presents himself as comfortable within his own skin. Such genuine self-presentation humanizes Pope Benedict. Never during the reign of his predecessor would we learn—as we do here—that the Pope's head is quite sensitive to the cold. Or that his choice in garments might only reflect this quotidian annoyance, and that some papal actions are not driven by deeper ideological goals. Such observations aside, however, these personal conversations are rather boring.

And Peter Seewald's obsequious manner will frustrate all but the most tone-deaf readers. Few of us will find ourselves at all surprised—or concerned, for that matter—by the revelation that an octogenarian like Benedict finds his duties physically rather demanding. But Seewald's penchant for stupid questions is eclipsed only by a style so deferential as to render him almost entirely uncritical. This is especially strange, given that probing queries like "Is it hard being you?" were mercifully absent from previous collaborations. True, they say, that turnabout is fair play, and readers sympathetic to Benedict might find some measure of relief in Seewald's affability, given the characteristic incivility with which the pontiff is often received by mainstream media sources.

"intrinsic coherence of the logos"—remarkable especially in light of its extemporaneity—suggests a seriousness of thought in the reconciliation of faith and reason that was never exhibited by John Paul II, even in the latter's encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998), which dealt explicitly with very similar issues.

Nevertheless, the mere need to rehearse what has been a settled issue for thousands of years—at least in the minds of Catholic theologians—is itself "a sign of times," though perhaps not one that either of the text's contributors would be keen to acknowledge. Indeed, times have changed, and so—too much for some, too little for others—has the Catholic Church. A surprising number of questions is devoted to ecumenical relations. It is an irony of which Benedict—himself a former prefect of what was once the Office of the Holy Inquisition—seems strangely unaware. Few of his remarks regarding Protestants or Muslims are of great consequence, though it is in some sense remarkable that Benedict does speak to these faiths without causing offense by some slight, real or most likely imagined.

Benedict is most vocal—and perhaps most progressive—in his remarks on concerning Jews. Like his predecessor—and uncharacteristically so—Benedict seems to have taken an interest in closer relations with the Jewish faith. But this amicable posture does not deter him from confronting controversial issues. He remains steadfast—and rightly so, in my judgment—in his defense of the frequently defamed Pope Pius XII, and refutes the typical litany of charges against a man familiar to many as "Hitler's Pope" with an impressive array of factual evidence. Benedict's conciliatory posture is more in evidence in his remarks on the so-called "Williamson Affair," where he evinces contrition for his early unawareness of Bishop Williamson's absurd denial of the Holocaust.

This text was largely unscathed by the controversy that ordinarily surrounds Benedict's pronouncements, and the Bishop of Rome won praise from some unusual quarters for remarks that were construed to an endorsement of the use of condoms by gay men. In this instance—as in many others—the mainstream reception was characteristically strange. Benedict will likely surprise his readers with a statement that condoms—though "not a real or moral solution"—might nonetheless "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, [prove] a first step in a movement toward a more human way of living sexuality." The extent to which this statement—ambiguous by any standard—is meant to apply only to gay males is not apparent, and could signal the dawn of a new debate within the Catholic Church.

Humanae Vitae(1968), which outlined Rome's present position on artificial contraception. More vexing to others might be Benedict's resolute condemnation of homosexual behavior—a position that stands uneasily alongside the notion that gay men might be well-served by the use of condoms. But such tension is typical of Benedict's thought, even when he appears to stand his ground doctrinally. He is—despite all contentions to the contrary—a subtle mind that we cannot easily characterize in ideological terms. In the end, this pope and this text are likely to satisfy few, apart from the occasional sympathetic reader.

It is then perhaps another "sign of the times"—or an irony—that few outside this sympathetic audience will likely take the time to read even so short and fluid a text. Its tone—meant, I think to be hopeful—seems to incorporate this dreary reality into the numerous denials and defenses that Benedict finds it necessary to rehearse. A litany of scandals has—rightly or wrongly—tarnished the moral voice of the Catholic Church, and the spiritual cost of these misadventures is evident throughout the text. The first few chapters—where, incidentally, the abuse scandal is prominently featured—come across not so much in propadeutic, but rather defensive terms. And only when such a pre-emptive defense has been erected can Benedict turn to the deeper issues of the day. This is a shame.

In the wake of a global financial crisis, where one might imagine Catholic social teaching should receive newfound and serious attention, Benedict's eloquent pleas for Christian charity seem largely as though they will fall on deaf ears. In truth, he is more likely to reach many readers in eschatological—rather than optimistic—terms, hardly the tone that he should hope to set. This pope might do well to replicate John Paul II's famous command: "Be Not Afraid!" But it is clear to those of us familiar with Benedict's thought that such bold—even blind—claims are no longer the norm in Rome. In this manner—as in others—some might wish that Benedict were a better politician. But so long as he's comfortable with himself, I am, too.