"How do you judge your own work?" I asked Pope Benedict some years ago, in a conversation in his office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "Some of your critics say you are too harsh in your defense of the faith. Others say you are not vigilant enough, that distortions of Church teaching are widespread and never corrected. What do you think? Too harsh...or too lenient?"
Cardinal Ratzinger thought for a moment. "This is really the question of many faithful," he replied. "Does the Church still teach anything, or not? It is a reason for us to examine our consciences, no?
"We are always being attacked for being inquisitors. People say we suppress freedom of thought, and so forth. But there is another criticism: that, on the contrary, we do not do our duty to protect the faithful. I would say that this is a matter others must judge.
"There are some criticisms: that we have sometimes been perhaps a little too over-scrupulous. Or that we have acted in ways that are against the Gospels, as Kung claims, as many claim. Or that we should simply not exist, that 'the wheat' and 'the weeds' should be allowed to grow up together.
"And this criticism is perhaps in continuity with my own thought, and of my trust in the Lord, who said to us: 'Let the wheat and the tares grow together. You are not in a position yourselves to cleanse this field.' Not in the sense of letting everything go, but in the sense that we cannot follow everything and purify everything.
"We have to do two things. We must do what we can to allow the light of the faith to shine forth, so that it may be evident that there is a doctrine, there is a faith, and that the faith is this...It seems to me that this is the first point.
"If there is not a positive exposition, in which one sees 'Look, this is the faith,' any attempt at surveillance over distortions of the faith will occur in a void.
"Therefore, this seems to me the first duty: to set forth our faith. And we have done something essential, in this regard, in publishing the Catechism of the Catholic Church (in the fall of 1992) so that one can really see: 'Yes, the Church has a doctrine, and her doctrine is this.'
"The second point is: we must support as much as we possibly can the entire network of responsibility in the Church. To me, it would be a mistaken conception of the primacy if Rome had to correct everything.
"No, Rome must commit herself, together with the college of bishops, to see to it that there are shepherds who all really, together, and in the great communion of the saints and in their responsibility before the Lord, act in the fear of the Lord, not out of fear of men. They must act together to make possible a faith that is free. And they must act in unison to bring clarity when there has been deception, when a human word is presented as a word of faith.
"What I mean is that we must not depend entirely on the primacy. We must strengthen all of the elements in the Church, all of those in positions of authority, so that they function smoothly."
Conservative or Radical?
"Are they right," I asked, "those who say that you are an 'ultra-conservative'?"
"I would say the work is conservative," Ratzinger replied, "in the sense that we must preserve the deposit of the faith, as Holy Scripture says. We must conserve it. But conserving the deposit of the faith is always to nourish an explosive force against the powers of this world that threaten justice, and threaten the poor."
"That sounds as if you are conservative and radical at once. But few would say that about you. Do you think you have been misunderstood?"
"By a certain part of the media, certainly, yes."
"Does this cause you to suffer?"
"Up to a certain point, yes," Ratzinger said. "But, on the other hand, I am a bit of a fatalist. The world is what it is. And it lives on the basis of simplified images..."
A deep contradiction has marked Benedict's life. He wished to be a scholar, a man of books and study, yet he was compelled to give up scholarship and become a Church official, an administrator. All of the Church advancements he has obtained--even this final one, to the throne of Peter--have been against his own will for his life.
The man who most influenced Benedict's thought, St. Augustine, had a similar problem. "Augustine had chosen the life of a scholar," Benedict writes in his Memoirs, looking to Augustine's life to understand his own. "But God had destined him to become a 'beast of burden,' the sturdy ox who draws the cart of God in this world." Benedict saw that as his own fate as well: to be a type of "donkey" or "pack animal," carrying the burdens God had set upon his back.
Benedict on the true intent of Vatican II