On Seeing and Being Seen by Pope Benedict XVI

There are many ways to see a pope.  While living in Rome, you might glimpse in a piazza an influential Vatican prefect and future pope who murmurs a mild “buongiorno” as he passes.  As a reporter you might travel with the epic Pope John Paul II, or wait with patient crowds in St. Peter’s Square as a conclave of cardinals locked inside the Sistine Chapel chooses his successor.

You might work for Vatican Radio at the center of the church’s global communications network. As a journalist, you might conduct interviews with church insiders and research the writings, biography, style, clerical career, and theology of Joseph Ratzinger, today’s Pope Benedict XVI.      

David Gibson has done all of the above.  His book The Rule of Benedict:  Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World is the result.  And it’s a first-rate book, told on the one hand from the perspective of those who see popes like John Paul and Benedict solely in their public roles, and on the other, from those who get an inside view of church structures and personalities at the Roman heart of the universal church. 

Given such different ways of seeing, Gibson enlivens his account with details of the Vatican’s theatrical landscape, its vestments, headgear, shoes, the drama of a new pope’s appearance on a balcony, and the sublime majesty of Catholic liturgy.  Within that culture and landscape, Gibson situates Pope Benedict’s personal history and his twenty-five years at the Vatican as John Paul’s defender of orthodoxy before becoming pope himself. 

Voice of the Faithful Catholics would do well to spend time with Gibson’s Pope Benedict XVI, especially to understand his Augustinian theology; his interpretation of the Second Vatican Council; his powerful role as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith; his resistance to change; his understanding of church structures; and – perhaps most importantly – his pastoral insularity from the lives of contemporary men and women.

At one point Gibson is struck by Ratzinger’s way of seeing,“an image of such affecting loneliness that one’s heart goes out to a man who would see himself so alienated from the world.”

By two specific measures, Voice Catholics should not be too optimistic about what kinds of church reforms might be accomplished during Benedict’s papacy:  his treatment of “dissent” while CDF prefect and his reification of existing church structures, making them not amenable to change.

On the dissent issue, Gibson documents the CDF’s years-long scrutiny of Fr. Tom Reese and America magazine that led to the departure of Reese from the Jesuit journal of opinion within days of Cardinal Ratzinger’s elevation as pope.  Under Reese’s editorial leadership, the magazine provided a forum for a variety of controversial church issues.  Church leaders as well as lay Catholics joined in spirited discussion and debate in the magazine pages.  “But that was the problem,” Gibson writes.  “Ratzinger did not want such discussion within the church.”

At its inception Voice of the Faithful certainly believed that the sexual abuse scandal and the secrecy and dishonesty of the church’s official response called for some kind of adequate reform of church culture and practice.

So it is less than encouraging to read that:  “In light of his nature, it seems unlikely that Benedict will offer much in the way of penitential reflection on his record as prefect of the CDF or in the still-pressing matter of acknowledging the church’s errors in the clergy sexual abuse scandal.” 

At its inception Voice leaders called for “structural” change as one of its goals, later developing that concept to mean a more open church with ways for laypeople to exercise their rightful participation in the church decision making that affects their lives and finances.

Gibson argues that Pope Benedict sees church structures not as something that human beings can reform but as something willed by God and therefore inviolable. “More challenging for proponents of reform,” he writes, “is Benedict’s extension of the church’s divine structure to include not just the hierarchy but the hierarchs themselves…By divinizing the structures of authority in the church so completely,  Benedict effectively inoculates the bearers of that authority – the bishops – from personal accountability, except of course to God.”

David Gibson’s book should be widely read and discussed among Voice of the Faithful Catholics.  Then, as antidote, we should read again Jesuit James Martin’s All Saints Day opinion piece in the New York Times.  There we find ourselves placed in the company of Mother Theodore Guerin, recently canonized by Pope Benedict, and other saints who were at odds during their lives with bishops or even with the Vatican:  Joan of Arc, Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius Loyola, Mother Mary MacKillop.  We need their company.

Catherine McKeen
Editor - Long Island Catholic Voice