Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Pontiff Speaks (Contribution)

'The monarchy's mystery is its life," the English writer Walter Bagehot wrote in 1867. "We must not let in daylight upon the magic."

A turning point in the history of the British crown, according to some observers, was the 1969 BBC documentary "Royal Family," which showed Queen Elizabeth and her relations engaged in TV-watching and other activities of ordinary folk.

The broadcast endeared the royals to millions but may have helped to dispel the larger-than-life aura on which their prestige depended.
bkrvpopeWill future historians of the papacy say the same about "Light of the World"?

Based on six hours of interviews with Pope Benedict XVI conducted in July of this year by the German journalist Peter Seewald, the book offers a rare portrait of a reigning pontiff, presenting him as insightful and eloquent—and pious of course—but also all too human.
Benedict confesses to TV-watching of his own: the evening news and the occasional DVD, especially a series of movie comedies from the 1950s and 1960s about a parish priest sparring with the Communist mayor of his Italian town.

Despite such pleasures, the pope finds that his schedule "overtaxes an 83-year-old man" and reports that his "forces are diminishing," though he makes it clear that he still feels up to the demands of his office.

When it comes to recent controversies, Benedict voices gratitude to journalists for recently exposing the clerical sex abuse in several European and Latin American countries. He goes on to claim that "what guided this press campaign was not only a sincere desire for truth, but . . . also pleasure in exposing the Church and if possible discrediting her."

While there is doubtless much truth to such a statement, blaming the messenger is the last thing an image consultant would advise a leader to say in a crisis—which suggests that the image of Benedict that appears here is as uncensored as Mr. Seewald claims.

Likewise, concerning the uproar that greeted Benedict's 2009 decision to lift the excommunication of Richard Williamson—the ultra-traditionalist bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier—the pope sees evidence, in the press, of "a hostility, a readiness to pounce . . . in order to strike a well-aimed blow."

In this case, Benedict concedes that he made a mistake—that he would not have readmitted Bishop Williamson to the Catholic Church had he known about his statements on the Nazi genocide.

"Unfortunately," he tells Mr. Seewald, "none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with."
Benedict also concedes that "maybe [the Vatican] should have" called for an immediate world-wide investigation of clerical sex abuse following the scandals in the U.S. in 2002.

Recalling the violent protests that greeted his 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a medieval Christian emperor describing the teachings of Muhammad as "evil and inhuman" and "spread by the sword," Benedict confesses to naïveté.

He gave the speech, he says, "without realizing that people don't read papal lectures as academic presentations, but as political statements."

Disappointingly, Mr. Seewald never asks Benedict about the much-discussed case of a pedophile priest who was reassigned to pastoral work on Benedict's watch as archbishop of Munich in 1980 and who later molested children again.

Church officials have said that Benedict did not approve the reassignment, and there is no evidence to suggest that he did; but readers of "Light of the World" might have been grateful to receive that assurance from the pope himself and an expression of regret for the tragic error.

Clearly the Vatican, during Benedict's papacy, has struggled to manage its "public relations," a term the pope himself adopts here. In one respect "Light of the World" may appear to be the latest false move: Over the past several days—ever since the Vatican newspaper ran certain passages ahead of publication—Benedict's comments in the book on the use of condoms have occasioned furor, confusion and mockery. In fact, the pope made a highly nuanced statement—that the use of condoms in illicit sexual activity, when intended to prevent the spread of AIDS, "can be a first step" in the practice of sexual morality.

But, naturally, the press pounced, to use the pope's own word.
By speaking to Mr. Seewald so informally on matters of such importance, the pope may be seen to be collaborating in his own diminishment.

And yet, on the evidence of the book itself, Benedict's decision to participate in the interviews was deliberate and principled. "Standing there as a glorious ruler is not part of being Pope," he tells Mr. Seewald.

"Is it really right," he asks later, "for someone to present himself again and again to the crowd in that way and allow oneself to be regarded as a star?"

People, he acknowledges, "have an intense longing to see the Pope" but only because he is "the representative of the Holy One."

No one, he says, should "refer the jubilation to oneself as a personal compliment."

Benedict's self-humbling may be part of the "purification" and "penance" that he says the sex-abuse scandal has demanded of the church.

Perhaps, too, he sees demystifying the pope—though not the papacy itself—as a contribution to the "new understanding of religion" that he sees emerging in the secular West: a "real faith in the Gospel" untainted by the mythical, archaic and irrational.

We are so used to hearing leaders profess how "humbled" they are whenever they attain honor and power that our first impulse is to be skeptical when Benedict describes himself as a "little" pope, by comparison with his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Yet his self-exposure in these pages is evidence of his sincerity and could prove a key to the ultimate success of his reign.

Mr. Rocca is the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service.