Thursday, November 16, 2006

Gibson on Benedict

So I've long been meaning to plug David Gibson's The Rule of Benedict, a bit more candid of a look at the new Pope than we've been used to. Then again, given the author's experience as a veteran religion correspondent and onetime Vatican Radio staffer, the task was in sound hands.

After the wave of books on Benedict after his election, The Rule had the fortuitous timing of appearing in the midst of Regensburg and the Vatican's most concentrated hard-news prominence since the conclave.

(Full disclosure: yours truly was involved on the project as a consigliere to the author, a longtime friend and co-conspirator who first found the book's cover art here.)

Some snips from the BustedHalo interview with Gibson:
BH: You worked in the Vatican in the late ‘80’s when Cardinal Ratzinger was there. Had you come in contact with him back in those days?

DG: Yeah, I saw him pretty regularly. He always passed across St. Peter’s Square. He was coming from his apartment over to the Holy office and I was coming from the other direction, over towards my office at Vatican Radio. He was a very quiet man, always in his black overcoat and his little black beret and he’d say with his German accent, ‘bon giorno.’ Hello. And we met eyes at press conferences but very few people have interviewed him or have gotten to know him. He is a very quiet, private person. He’s not a real people person the way John Paul II was. As I think Paul VI once said, one cannot be friend with the pope or a cardinal like that. They don’t pal around. And so even some of his biographers have never interviewed him. He has given a couple book length interviews to a German journalist but that’s about the extent of it.

BH: You say in your book, than Joseph Ratzinger was the perfect candidate for the papacy because he was so intensely private.

DG: Exactly. And I really talk about the identity crisis of becoming a pope which I think is just a fascinating thing from a human point of view. Everyone wants to look at the pope from a political point of view. What’s this going to mean vis a vis America or Islam etc? And those are fascinating topics but to become a pope is an amazing thing. When you are first elected, you go to be vested in something called the room of tears, right off the Sistine Chapel because the it’s the first time you go in there and just the weight and the reality of this transformation bears down on you and you just weep. But it’s really a remarkable thing and, in a sense, there has been what I call this monasticizing of the papacy over recent decades in the last century or so where they want a pope who is really a spiritual leader, almost a type of Dalai Lama of Catholicism, who doesn’t have any ties. John Paul was also a perfect pope. He had no living relatives. No sisters, no brothers, no nieces….

BH: Do you think the cardinals were trying to send a message to the rest of the world or to the church? And now, a year and half into the papacy, has the message proven to be true? Who do you think the cardinals were trying to elect back then and what do you think they have gotten?

DG: Well I think to a great degree there was no sense that ‘we’re trying to do this.’ Again, I have had the advantage of a year to research the conclave and I detail for the first time that it was a bit of a campaign. Cardinal Ratzinger had the best organized campaign in the conclave. So I think a lot of the cardinals in the end just thought that they had to go along with what was happening because one of the big messages they wanted to send was stability. After this enormous outpouring of the death of John Paul II, the cardinals realized, ‘We’ve got to elect somebody who can stand up to this tsunami of outpouring and who can be their own person in their own right in the wake of this grief and all this enormous popularity for the Santo Subito, the saint right away that they wanted John Paul II to be. And Joseph Ratzinger, in that sense, was a no-brainer. We should have seen it coming. Here is a guy, older man, transitional pope, which I detail in the book as a term of art. He talks about how he has very little time left. But at 78, 79, who knows? He could be here 10 or 15 years. It’s stability. They wanted to send a message of continuity and stability. And I think they did that to a great degree. And I think you are right, you see a lot of conservatives who are lamenting that the Panzer cardinal did not become the Panzer pope. He hasn’t gone out there and cracked skulls and reinstituted the Latin mass and turned the altars around and that kind of thing. That may be coming, not the cracked skulls but the Latin mass.

BH: Really? You think that will happen?

DG: I think it eventually will. There will certainly be a greater use of it. One of his great efforts has been to reach out to the schismatic traditionalists on the right side. But, as I detail in the book, I think there are a lot of troubling aspects. However, I think the greatest hope in my mind is that he will appoint some better bishops. I think there have been some good signs. It’s fascinating. He really wants to depersonalize the papacy, to lower the profile of the pope. I think that is something that the cardinals also want very much. They want a little less intensity from the chair of Peter....

BH: You hear a lot of people saying they are “John Paul II” Catholics.

DG: And that's wonderful. You have to realize half the people alive on the globe today knew only one man as pope. That was Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II. And in a way I am one of them. I'm a 17 year old Catholic. I converted in 1989. So my first impression was first like, 'Holy cow. It's Joseph Ratzinger. I got that wrong.' And second was, 'What is he doing wearing John Paul II's clothes?' (laughs)

But really what I am is a Jesus Christ Catholic. It’s not about the pope. It’s not about Billy Graham or some leader of your faith. It's about the faith itself and yet the faith is made real by convincing personalities. So I'm torn between that and also, fundamentally, what my book gets down to is that it is not so much a crisis of faith.

Benedict is wonderful in his Christology and in talking about his love of Christ and why we should follow Jesus. But the question that remains unanswered is why we should remain Catholics, why the Catholic Church should be the container for our faith. His ecclesiology and his Christology overlap so much that they almost can't be separated. In his mind, if you talk about reforming the church or making any changes, you're talking about changing Jesus Christ himself, and that's a little too strict for me. He wants the faith to shine forth but the bottom line is that we can't ignore the incredible challenges that are out there that remain that have to be addressed. We can't just drift along just by preaching words without embodying them in deeds and having justice in the church as well as outside the church.
Part 2 coming tomorrow.