In a series of interviews with journalist Peter Seewald*, which was published in book form as The Salt of the Earth, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) covered a range of topics – the essence of faith, the nature of the Church, its current troubles and the challenges it faces in the future, and some of his personal history and influences. In the opening section, where he discusses the essence of the Catholic Faith, there are several passages which serve as timely reminders that the Church is not an institution that exists solely to continue its existence for its own sake, but is the true source of abundant life and authentic freedom.
In making these suggestions – not systematically, as these are private interviews, and so the answers are spontaneous, albeit, as always with Pope Benedict, thoughtful and substantive – he proposes that the Church offers something to the modern world that is a real alternative to the thin and increasingly stale vision of modernity. The ‘ship’ of the Church can act as a place of refuge from a world that is becoming progressively soaked in a vision of man and the universe that actually undermines our liberty and diminishes our humanity. Asked by Seewald if it is still worth getting on board this ship, he replies:
‘Yes, I firmly believe that it is. It is a well-tried, yet youthful ship. The very diagnosis of the present makes it all the more clear that we need it. Just try to imagine for a moment the current parallelogram of forces without this ship; you’ll see what a collapse there would be if it were absent, what a precipitous fall in spiritual energy.
One can also see, in fact, that the decline in the Church and of Christianity that we have lived through in the last thirty or forty years is partially to blame for the spiritual breakdowns, the disorientation, the demoralisation that we are witnessing. In that respect, I would say that if the ship didn’t already exist, it would be necessary to invent it. It corresponds to such deep human needs, it is so deeply anchored in what man is and needs and is meant to be, that there is also a guarantee in man that the ship won’t simply sink, because man will never, as I believe, lose his essential powers.’
Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millenium (1997), pp.16-17, Ignatius Press.
What are these ‘deep human needs’ that Pope Benedict refers to, and which modernity has gradually wrung out of us? Primarily, I think he is talking about the innate tendency we have to recognise a transcendent horizon to our lives, the intuition we have that there is something more to our existence than the purely mundane satisfactions that we experience. Man’s ‘essential powers’ are, as beings made in the Image of God, to be able to appreciate Beauty, to apprehend the Good, and to use our reason to discern the nature of the Truth; furthermore, we are capable of giving and receiving Love. All these things have been subtly but thoroughly either explained away, marginalised, or diluted in their significance by the secular agenda of modern life.
The Church, contrariwise, affirms the reality of all these things, and the reality of our need for them, and so offers us a place where we can have these basic tendencies and intuitions not only ratified, but brought to their full fruition. The failure of those who have driven a secular vision (which, in its attempt to value man over and against God, actually diminishes man and is ultimately profoundly anti-human) to recognise the failings of their agenda, has led to situation of deep demoralisation and despair, such as Benedict describes. The Church offers a different vision of man and the world – one which celebrates all that is most noble in us, and helps us to strive to even greater heights in its celebration of faith, hope, and love.
Pope Benedict also describes briefly the importance of recognising that being a part of the Church is not just being a member of an institution – which the Church undoubtedly is – but being a member of a communion; being in relationship with all those others who are ‘in’ Christ, and being taken up into a new way of living that can reshape one’s horizons:
‘The fascinating thing is this great living history into which we enter. Looked at in purely human terms, it is something extraordinary. That an institution with so many weaknesses and failures is nonetheless preserved in its continuity and that I, living within this great communion, can know that I am in communion with all the living and the dead; and that I also find in it a certainty about the essence of my life – namely, God who has turned to me – on which I can found my life, with which I can live and die…
…It affects the whole structure of my life; it affects me in the core of my being. If I do my best to construct my life without or against God, then it’s obviously going to turn out differently than if I direct it toward God. It is a decision that encompasses the whole direction of my own existence as such: how I look at the world, how I myself want to be and will be. It is not one of the many casual decisions in the market of available possibilities. Here, on the contrary, the whole plan of my life is at issue.’
Life lived in the Church, life lived as a Christian in all its fullness, is about a fundamental change of orientation, an altering of one’s perspective and goals in life, which should make a real difference in ‘how I look at the world, how I myself want to be and will be’. Notice also how Pope Benedict responds in terms of directing one’s life either towards or against God. This is not to say that there are not many people of good will out there, who have promptings towards God and/or are more prone to a religious way of thinking about the world than not, but when we speak of Christ, the fullness of God’s being revealed, ultimately we are either for Him or against Him, and if for Him, then we must go all the way with Him – it is only this way our lives will be changed and reinvigorated.
Further on in this section of the interviews, Seewald raises the issue that many see faith as being not only hard work, but something that removes joy from life, something that makes us dull or sad people. In response to this, Pope Benedict answers that:
‘I would put it the other way around: faith gives joy. When God is not there, the world becomes desolate, and everything becomes boring, and everything is completely unsatisfactory. It’s easy to see today how a world empty of God is also increasingly consuming itself, how it has become a wholly joyless world. The great joy comes from the fact that there is great love, and that is the essential message of faith. You are unswervingly loved…
…The ease of unbelief is nonetheless relative. It exists in the sense that it is easy to throw off the bonds of faith and to say, I am not going to exert myself; this is burdensome; I’m leaving that aside. This first stage is what you might call the easy part of unbelief. But to live with this is not at all so easy. To live without faith means, then, to find oneself first in some sort of nihilistic state and then, nonetheless, to search for reference points. Living a life of unbelief has its complications…
…To believe means that we become like angels, they say. We can fly, because we no longer weigh so heavy in our own estimation. To become a believer means to become light, to escape our own gravity, which drags us down, and thus to enter the weightlessness of faith.’
Explicit mention is also made of Sartre and Camus, as examples of thinkers who had faced up to the emptiness of life lived without God, and the consequences of embracing a vision of radical autonomy. These men were, along with Nietzsche before them, prophets in their own way – they saw that we cannot have our cake and eat it, so to speak, and that when we reject God, we are rejecting the source of all value, all meaning, and ultimately, all hope. As Pope Benedict says, with characteristic understatement, living a life of unbelief ‘has its complications.’ Our problem today is that we have embraced the godless vision of Sartre et al, but rather than face up to its implications, have instead suppressed that knowledge of all we have lost in our rejection of God. It is this suppressed knowledge which is at the root of our anxiety and malaise.
The reduction in vitality that accompanies this malaise has also spread beyond the individual level into the community, where we find a breakdown of fellowship and shared commitments; a lack of energy to cooperate in the subconscious recognition that there is no shared goal, and so no reason to work together on the large scale. The relativism that has been a natural consequence of our corporate godlessness has also left us with no shared consensus on moral and social issues, which also makes it very hard to build genuine community. Pope Benedict touches on this in discussing the reduction of available knowledge to the empirical sciences during his Regensburg Lecture, made not long after he had ascended to the papacy:
‘…if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science”, so understood, and then must be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter…
…Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.’
from Meeting with the Representatives of Science, Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, 12th September 2006.
The subtraction of the Faith from public life, and from the roots of our society, has contributed greatly to a decline in the quality and effectiveness of moral dialogue, the truncating of the human person, and our ability to create properly functioning communities (as opposed to collections of individuals who happen to live nearby one another). These things have not disappeared entirely of course, but it seems clear that our loss has been great, and we are feeling the effects of this more strongly every day. Pope Benedict, in his official capacities as Cardinal, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope, and as a theologian of great insight and multifaceted learning, proposes an enriching alternative.
To some, especially as many today are enamoured of the doctrine that what is old is of no use, and what is new is by default always an improvement, the idea that we return to the Catholic Faith is incomprehensible. But, as time goes on, and we realise that what we have lost as a culture is greatly tied to what we have rejected, the alternative of the Church should present itself more and more as an option worth considering. If we want to enrich and energise our culture again, to affirm what is good in it and transfigure what is ordinary; if we want to not only celebrate our capacity for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, but allow it to flourish, then there is only one foundation worth building on – Jesus Christ – and only one place to find Him in His fullness – the Church that He founded.
*Seewald conducted two more interviews with Pope Benedict – one in 2002 (God and the World), and another in 2010 (The Light of the World: The Pope, The Church, and the Signs of the Times), the latter of which was conducted as Pope. Peter Seewald, who, after a Catholic upbringing, had drifted into Communism and atheistic leaning Agnosticism, returned to the Faith as a result of the first two of these three interviews.