Excerpts from Salt of the Earth: Pope Benedict XVI’s Insights Into Important Questions

01-24-2016This Week in Vidi DominumFr. Will Schmid

As many of you know, spiritual reading is a significant part of my daily life. I read for an hour or more nearly every day. Recently, I finished Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium. This is a published interview between Pope Benedict XVI and Peter Seewald, recorded in 1996 when Pope Benedict XVI was Cardinal Ratzinger and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). In this interview, Pope Benedict XVI offers some profound insights into his personal life and what it means to participate in the life of the Church, and he addresses some important questions about the Church in today’s world. I thought it would be nice to invite you to participate in my spiritual reading by sharing some excerpts from this interview.

What were your concerns when Pope Paul VI made you the bishop of Munich?

“I had, of course, very great doubts at first whether I should or ought to accept this appointment. I had little pastoral experience. I felt that, in principle, I was called from the beginning to teach and believed that at this period of my life - I was fifty years old - I had found my own theological vision and could now create an oeuvre with which I would contribute something to the whole of theology.

I then took counsel and was told that in an extraordinary situation such as we live in today, it is also necessary to accept things that don’t seem to be in the direction of one’s life from the beginning. Today, the problem of the Church is very closely tied to that of theology. In this situation, even theologians have to be available as bishops.” (Excerpts from page 81)

Does the Church have a negative view of sexuality?

“No, that’s not the case, for that would be contrary to the faith, which tells us that man is created by God in his totality and that he is created by God as man and woman. So sexuality is not something that originated first after sin but really belongs to God’s creative plan. For to create man as male and female means to create him sexually.

Sexuality forms man’s entire bodiliness, whether male or female. Precisely because it is great and because man can’t become mature without it, can’t even become himself, it molds the person most deeply. However, when sexuality escapes man’s unity, it can also tear him apart and destroy him.” (Excerpts from pages 98-99)

Must we share our faith with others?

“Faith is in reality a gift to be passed on, which you don’t even really have if you want to keep it for yourself. A Christianity that has really been accepted interiorly comes with the dynamic requirement to communicate…It’s exactly like when you are filled with joy about something, you have to express it and communicate it in some way, otherwise its not authentic joy at all.” (Excerpts from page 180)

What does the term “people of God” mean?

“Above all it is a relational term..Israel is not the people of God when it acts simply as a political nation. It becomes the people of God by turning to God. It is the people of God only in relation, in turning to God, and in Israel turning to God consists in submission to the Torah. In this sense, the idea of the people of God in the Old Testament includes, first, the election of Israel by God, who chooses it for no merit of its own, despite the fact that it is not a great or significant people but one of the smallest of the peoples, who chooses it out of love and thus bestows his love upon it. Second, it includes the acceptance of this love, and concretely this means submission to the Torah. Only in this submission, which places Israel in relation to God, is it the people of God.

The Church is understood as the continuation of Israel…They enter into it, says the New Testament, by their descent from Christ and thereby also become children of Abraham. Thus, whoever belongs to Christ belongs to the people of God…Only when we understand the term, ‘people of God,’ in its biblical usage do we use it in a Christian way. Everything else is an extra-Christian construction that misses the real core and is, in my opinion, also a product of arrogance.

The Church lives her life precisely from the identity of all the generations, from their identity that overarches time, and her real majority is made up of the saints. Every generation tries to join the ranks of the saints, and each makes its contribution. But it can so that only by accepting this great continuity and entering into it in a living way.” (Excerpts from pages 187-189)

Why is there celibacy in the priesthood?

“To have to die without children was once synonymous with a useless life: the echoes of my own life die away, and I am completely dead. If I have children, then I continue to live in them; its a sort of immortality through posterity.

The renunciation of marriage and family is thus to be understood in terms of this vision: I renounce what, humanly speaking, is not only the most normal but also the most important thing. I forego bringing forth further life on the tree of life, and I live in the faith that my land is really God - and so I make it easier for others, also, to believe that there is a kingdom of heaven. I bear witness to Jesus Christ, to the gospel, not only with words, but also with this specific mode of existence, and I place my life in this form at his disposal.

In this sense, celibacy has a christological and an apostolic meaning at the same time. The point is not simply to save time - so then I have a little bit more time at my disposal because I am not a father of a family. That would be too primitive and pragmatic a way to see things. The point is really an existence that stakes everything on God and leaves out precisely the one thing that normally makes a human existence fulfilled with a promising future.

I think that what provokes people today against celibacy is that they see how many priests really aren’t inwardly in agreement with it and either live it hypocritically, badly, not at all, or only live it in a tortured way…The poorer an age is in faith, the more frequent the falls. This robs celibacy of its credibility and obscures the real point of it. People need to get straight in their minds that times of crisis for celibacy are always times of crisis for marriage as well. For, as a matter of fact, today we are experiencing not only violations of celibacy; marriage itself is becoming increasingly fragile as the basis of society.” (Excerpts from pages 194-196)

Mustn’t celibacy be dropped for the simple reason that otherwise the Church won’t get any more priests?

“I don’t think that argument is really sound. The question of priestly vocations has many aspects. It has, first of all, to do with the number of children. If today the average number of children is 1.5, the question of possible priests takes on a very different form from what it was in ages when families were considerably larger. And there are also very different expectations in families. Today we are experiencing that the main obstacles to the priesthood often come from parents. They have very different expectations for their children. That is the first point. The second point is that the number of active Christians is much smaller, which means, of course, that the selection pool has become much smaller. Looked at relative to the number of children and the number of those who are believing churchgoers, the number of priestly vocations has probably not decreased at all.” (Excerpts from page 200)

Does the spiritual state of man influence nature?

“Yes…the pollution of the outward environment that we are witnessing is only the mirror and the consequence of the pollution of the inward environment, to which we pay little heed. I think that this is also the defect of the ecological movements. They crusade with an understandable and also legitimate passion against the pollution of the environment, whereas man’s self-pollution of his soul continues to be treated as one of the rights of his freedom. There is a discrepancy here. We want to eliminate the measurable pollution, but we don’t consider the pollution of man’s soul and his creaturely form. Instead of making it possible to breathe humanly again, we defend with a totally false conception of freedom everything that man’s arbitrary desire produces. As long as we retain this caricature of freedom, namely, of the freedom of inner spiritual destruction, its outward effects will continue unchanged.” (Excerpts from pages 230-231)

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997. 

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