"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
"Among your teachers, who has had the greatest influence on your intellectual and spiritual formation?" I asked him. "St. Augustine?"
"Always the great master, yes," he replied.
"He was the most influential on your formation?"
"Without a doubt, yes. He has had a very great influence on my thinking and I will always regard him as my great teacher.
"But, naturally, I then also began to study others: Bonaventure. Also Thomas Aquinas. Also the Greek Fathers, particularly Gregory of Nyssa."
The Study of God's Word
"Above all, I must say, I have always studied a great deal of exegesis--the interpretation of scripture. Because, precisely by Augustine himself, I was led to the scriptures. For this reason, for me, it was always fundamental and still is, to study and meditate profoundly on God's word.
"And this is the reason I have become so engaged in the battle over exegesis, over how to interpret scripture.
"I have learned from modern biblical exegesis, but I have also learned that it is not enough to enter into the fullness of the scripture. For this reason, I have always sought to combine a sound critical exegesis with the grand exegesis of the Fathers, that is, theological exegesis.
"This supposes the unity of the Scriptures and supposes also the 'ecclesiality' of the Scriptures, an ecclesial and liturgical reading of the Scriptures.
"This study of the Scriptures is still for me, together with reflection on the liturgy--the two coincide, for the liturgy is the great theme of the Scriptures, is a part of the Church--almost the fulcrum point of my theological work. My search is to find the way to determine the real contribution of critical exegesis and integrate it with the liturgical-ecclesial reading of Scripture.'
The Struggle between the Faith and Modernity
"And it seems to me the whole struggle between modernity and true ecclesiality and also the struggle over the true intentions of the Second Vatican Council is concentrated here. Because here is the problem: Ought we to accept modernity in full, or in part? Is there a real contribution? Can this modern way of thinking be a contribution, or offer a contribution, or not? And if there is a contribution from the modern, critical way of thinking, in line with the Enlightenment, how can it be reconciled with the great intuitions and the great gifts of the faith?
"Or ought we, in the name of the faith, to reject modernity? You see? There always seems to be this dilemma: either we must reject the whole of the tradition, all the exegesis of the Fathers, relegate it to the library as historically unsustainable, or we must reject modernity.
"And I think that the gift, the light of the faith, must be dominant, but the light of the faith has also the capacity to take up into itself the true human lights, and for this reason the struggles over exegesis and the liturgy for me must be inserted into this great, let us call it epochal, struggle over how Christianity, over how the Christian responds to modernity, to the challenge of modernity."
"You use the phrase 'epochal struggle'..." I said.
"Well, at the very least, that means it is a struggle of enormous historical importance..."
The "True" Intent of Vatican II: To "Heal Modernity"
"And it seems to me," he continued, "that this was the true intention of the Second Vatican Council, to go beyond an unfruitful and overly narrow apologetic to a true synthesis with the positive elements of modernity, but at the same time, let us say, to transform modernity, to heal it of its illnesses, by means of the light and strength of the faith.
"Because it was the Council Fathers' intention to heal and transform modernity, and not simply to succumb to it or merge with it, the interpretations which interpret the Second Vatican Council in the sense of de-sacralization or profanation are erroneous.
"That is, Vatican II must not be interpreted as desiring a rejection of the tradition and an adapting of the Church to modernity and so causing the Church to become empty because it loses the word of faith."