A Sensitive Head

CNS/Paul Haring

Like most Evangelicals of my generation—like most Protestants for the last five centuries—I was raised to regard the Vatican as a den of iniquity and the pope as the living symbol of all that was wrong with the Roman Catholic Church. Pius XII, the pope in office when I entered grade school in the 1950s, had no individual reality for me, nor did his immediate successors: they were merely different versions of “the pope,” a figure at once sinister and ridiculous.

All that has changed, of course. On the bookshelves you’d encounter if you were entering our house, there’s a photo of Benedict XVI. He was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when I first read a number of his books, including two earlier volumes of conversations with the journalist Peter Seewald. I have long been attracted by Benedict’s combination of deep learning and piety (not a pejorative word in my vocabulary). I don’t read him as a Catholic would—I know from the outset that there are points of sharp disagreement—but much of his work serves to illuminate what all Christians have in common, the hope that transcends our differences.

This preamble is necessary, gentle reader, to emphasize that I came to Light of the World with anticipation, not with any animus (at Christmas we sent a copy to our daughter and son-in-law in Texas, who converted to Catholicism not long after they graduated from Wheaton College). Alas, the book is disappointing. And the fault lies not with the pope himself, nor with the interviewer, but with a certain set of expectations structuring the conversation between them.

Benedict figures here as a sort of supreme talk-show guest, asked to pronounce on this or that crisis. The notion that we are at a decisive historical moment recurs throughout the book. The pope has something to say about threats to the environment, the malign influence of drug trafficking, and much more. He pronounces on these matters not from personal vanity but because his role seems to require it, just as the interviewer is required to ask his questions of the all-wise Holy Father. If many of the answers are banalities, what else could be expected?

It’s distressing, having read the book, to look back at George Weigel’s foreword. “I have had the privilege of knowing many men and women of high intelligence, even genius, in my lifetime,” Weigel writes. “I have never known anyone like Benedict XVI, who, when one asks him a question, pauses, thinks carefully, and then answers in complete paragraphs—often in his third, fourth, or fifth language. Peter Seewald’s well-crafted questions give Benedict XVI good material with which to work. But it is the remarkably lucid and precise mind of Joseph Ratzinger that makes the papal answers here sing.”

I have already testified to the impression Benedict’s deep learning has made on me. I think Weigel is right to emphasize his remarkable lucidity as well. But, for this reader at least, there is something faintly nauseating about such a hyperbolic tribute. There is no disrespect to the pope—not in the least—in observing that many of his answers do not “sing.” When Seewald poses a long question about the World Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, complete with scenarios of global disaster and the failure of collective action in the face of such threats, the pope responds:

That is in fact a big problem. What can we do? Meanwhile, in view of the threatening catastrophe, there is the recognition everywhere that we must make moral decisions. There is also a more or less pronounced awareness of a global responsibility for it; that ethics must no longer refer merely to one’s own group or one’s own nation, but rather must keep the earth and all people in view.

Does this sing? To my ears, it sounds very much like a press release from the United Nations.

But here and there in the book there are passages in which what I take to be the spirit of the man shines through. One such moment offers a detail that might catch the imagination of a novelist or a filmmaker. “It caused a stir,” Seewald says to the pope,

when you chose the now famous camauro, a sort of peaked cap that had last been worn by John XXIII, as a head covering for the winter. Was that just a fashion accessory—or was it the expression of a return to tried and true forms in the church?

To which Benedict’s answer is quite wonderful:

I wore it only once. I was just cold, and I happen to have a sensitive head. And I said, since the camauro is there, then let’s put it on. But I was really just trying to fight off the cold. I haven’t put it on again since. In order to forestall over-interpretation.

So much is concentrated in this brief exchange. How hard it must be to live under constant scrutiny! How foolish is the endless game of watching the Vatican (or the White House). The humanness of the pope comes through very clearly here (he was just trying to ward off the cold), as does his good humor.

The concluding chapter, “On the Last Things,” is my favorite. Here Benedict goes against the grain of much current teaching, which claims that the Christian message has become far too otherworldly. “Our preaching,” he says, “really is one-sided, in that it is largely directed toward the creation of a better world, while hardly anyone talks any more about the other, truly better world.” We must always remember, he says, that Jesus told us “I will come again. This statement comes before everything else.” And it leaves us with an imperative:

This is also why the Mass was originally celebrated facing east, toward the returning Lord, who is symbolized in the rising sun. Every Mass is therefore an act of going out to meet the One who is coming. In this way, his coming is also anticipated, as it were; we go out to meet him—and he comes, anticipatively, already now.

I wish there were room here to quote the rest of Benedict’s answer, as he continues to reflect on our relation to “the One who comes” in light of the Eucharist. It sings.

 

Related: The Human Dimension, by the Editors
Benedict on Contraception, Circa 1996, by Peter Steinfels
Read more of Commonweal's coverage of Benedict XVI here

Published in the 2011-02-25 issue: 

John Wilson is the editor of Education & Culture, a new critical review at TBS (TheBestSchools.org).

Also by this author
‘My Utmost’ by Macy Halford

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