This review of Pope Benedict XVI's book, Light of the World, as of its publication in Germany, was first posted at the German District's website on November 27, 2010.
Light… and shadows in Light of the World
Fr. Matthias Gaudron
Once more among the many deeds and gestures of the pope, some isolated and not even central statements are being blown out of proportion and threaten to make us forget all the rest. Just as his critical comments about Islam—during his speech at Regensburg—and his words about condoms—during his trip to Africa—were retransmitted in a distorted way that often showed little fidelity to the truth, so now in that same tone the international media recently heralded the “fact” that the pope had finally permitted condom use, and that they solemnized this event as a historic reversal in the world of Catholic morality.
Did the pope permit the use of condoms?
The fact of the matter is, the pope simply said that one might see a male prostitute’s use of a condom with the intention of preventing the transmission of AIDS as a first step toward his own moralization and assumption of responsibility. One might, along the same lines, say that a murderous thief’s decision to restrict his future activities to larceny, so as to cease making attempts on the lives of others, could be seen subjectively as the first step toward his moralization. To conclude that theft would therefore become morally defensible is just as unfair as the assertions of certain bishops and theologians, according to whom Benedict XVI finally opened the door to certain means of contraception.
We must note however that the pope’s reference to “particular cases” provides a certain basis for such interpretations. He actually should have taken advantage of Peter Seewald’s question, whether the Church is not “opposed in principle to the use of condoms” to remove all doubt. But he simply answers that the Church does not consider condoms to be a “real or moral solution,” although “in this or that case,” condom use could “be a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more humane way… of living sexuality” (Light of the World, Ignatius Press, 2010, p. 119).
To put it politely, that is a weak argument. Of course the pope did not deny that sexuality can be lived out in a manner consistent with God’s will and human dignity only within the context of marriage, and that condoms or any other method of artificial contraception must be rejected morally, but neither did he clearly affirm it, which would be quite necessary today. As a result, and because of his desire to go as far as possible to meet the secularized world and not hurt anyone, he shares with the media a certain responsibility for the confusion and deception that this recent information has caused among faithful Catholics.
We must also note, in the statement that the Catholic Church approves of natural family planning (p. 147), a certain relaxation of Catholic morality. Certainly, it is morally defensible for a couple to use the infertile periods in the female cycle to space births or even to limit their number, but only in the case where the growth of the family would not be morally responsible, because of health or economic considerations, or other similarly serious reasons. The pope’s statement may give the impression that spouses would be permitted to use natural family planning just as others would use other methods of artificial contraception, that is, with the goal of having no children or at most a limited number of them. Now that is not at all in keeping with Catholic morals, given that procreation is the principal goal of marriage.
The cases of abuse of minors—celibacy
Clearly, the cases of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests occupy a major portion of the work. Concerning the problem of the cover-up of these cases by certain ecclesiastical authorities, the pope makes the interesting observation that the
ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s… After the mid-60s, however, it was simply not applied any more. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish" (pp. 25-26).
These comments allude to the disaster that was to befall the Church with the Second Vatican Council. But that problem is not addressed in the book.
Meanwhile, the question of celibacy is back on the floor. Benedict XVI does not venture to sketch a relaxation of the Roman discipline of priestly celibacy. However, what he says about priests who cohabit with women is peculiar. In such cases, he says,
one must examine whether a real will to marry is present and whether [the priest and his concubine] could build a good marriage. If that is the case, they must follow that path." (p. 39)
This does indeed conform to the current practice of Rome, of systematically secularizing such priests, but it is in flagrant contradiction with the ecclesiastical discipline before Vatican II. To allow a priest so easily to contract marriage calls into question the true meaning of the vow of chastity that he made. Does a definitive promise made before God to practice continence have such slight significance? A married man cannot simply leave when life in common with his spouse seems to have become tiresome. Furthermore, what conjugal fidelity can be expected of a priest who did not hesitate to reject the most sacred oaths that exist?
The pope correctly points out that celibacy is feasible and credible “only … if there is a God and if celibacy is my doorway into the kingdom of God. In this sense, celibacy is a special kind of sign.” Therefore
[i]t is important for priests not to live off on their own somewhere, in isolation, but to accompany one another in small communities, to support one another, and so to experience, and constantly realize afresh, their communion in service to Christ and in renunciation for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven" (p. 149).
Since its foundation, the Priestly Society of St. Pius X has put this ideal into practice.
Man is capable of truth
The words of the pope on the subject of the “dictatorship of relativism” are among the most important passages of his book. Contrary to “a large proportion of contemporary philosophies,” Benedict XVI firmly professes man’s capacity for truth and voices concern that “the concept of truth has become suspect” (p. 50). In this context, he even finds strong words against the intolerance toward Christianity that is characteristic of modern society:
When, for example, in the name of non-discrimination, people try to force the Catholic Church to change her position on homosexuality or the ordination of women, then that means that she is no longer allowed to live out her own identity and that, instead, an abstract, negative religion is being made into a tyrannical standard that everyone must follow. (p. 52)
In the name of tolerance, tolerance is being abolished; this is a real threat we face." (p. 53)
The Williamson Affair
There is a whole chapter dedicated to the “Williamson Affair”. The pope’s opinion that Bishop Williamson “was never Catholic in the proper sense”, since “he was an Anglican and then went over directly to Lefebvre,” is not right (pp. 121-122). Richard Williamson was not in the Society of St. Pius X when he converted to Catholicism; he did so independently of it, before entering the seminary in Econe. What is more, at the time when he entered, among the first groups of seminarians, the Society enjoyed the full approval of the competent ecclesiastical authorities.
It is interesting to learn (p.121) that already under the pontificate of John Paul II, a reunion of all the heads of dicasteries had decided to grant the lifting of the excommunication if the bishops asked for it. Besides this, hardly any mention is made of the Society of St. Pius X, or of other traditional communities, in the pope’s work. The liberalization of the traditional Mass was supposed to be a sign for the internal coherence of the Church’s history; Benedict XVI’s adoption of the distribution of communion on the tongue is in his eyes a “clear signal” in favor of the Real Presence (pp. 158-159). The pope claims here to have nothing against communion in the hand in principle, and to consider the New Mass as the normal form of celebration, but at the same time regularly repeats that the liturgy should not be open to a celebrant’s creative antics.
Ecumenism and relations with the Jews
Ecumenism is ever and always for Benedict XVI the path that the Church should follow. He insistently evokes the good relations that he maintains, principally with several directors of Orthodox communities. As for the Protestants, he has to admit that they, “with women’s ordination and the acceptance of homosexual partnerships,” etc., have rather distanced themselves from the Church (p. 94), a fact which, however, in no way makes him question his ecumenical orientations.
St. Augustine wrote concerning heretics:
On many points they are with me, only on a few are they not with me: but because of these few points on which they differ from me, it is no good for them to be with me on all the rest." (In Psalm. 54, n. 19; PL 36,641).
Although Benedict XVI holds the bishop of Hippo in great esteem, he certainly seems to differ from him on this point, since he looks for all the points he has in common with the Protestants. The name “ecclesial community” (and not "Church") given to the Protestants is supposed to show “that such communities embody a different mode of being a church” (p. 95). According to Benedict XVI,
Protestantism has, as it were, shifted the accent of Christianity and… we are trying to understand this, to acknowledge one another as Christians, and to join in service as Christians." (p. 95)
This positive outlook on Protestantism is in contradiction with the traditional teaching of the Church. Each Protestant taken as a private person can certainly be “bona fide”, that is, in good faith for lack of knowledge, but Protestantism in itself cannot be said to be “a different mode of being a church”, it is separated from the Church of Christ.
Benedict XVI’s clear defense of Pope Pius XII against the unjust and untenable accusations that in the wake of dramatist Rolf Hochhuth are constantly being made against him, is a source of great joy (pp. 109-110). When objectors say that Pius XII had “old-fashioned ideas about the Jews”—in spite of everything he did to save them—and that he did not "measure up to Vatican Council II ”, Benedict XVI rejects this criticism, but he proves again that he at least measures up to Vatican II.
Indeed, rather than speaking of “elder brothers”—an expression that the Jews, drawing a connection with Esau (the reprobate brother) might find hurtful—Benedict XVI speaks of “our fathers in the faith” (p. 82). Although that is true of the Jews of the Old Testament, it is not true of those living today who expressly reject Christ and His Church. His explanations of the new prayers that he introduced into the traditional Good Friday rite are still more obscure. Contrary to many trends of modern theology, the Holy Father remarks “that there are not two channels of salvation, so that Christ is also the redeemer of the Jews and not just of the Gentiles.” He immediately adds, however, that in the new prayer, we do not make “a direct petition for the conversion of the Jews in a missionary sense,” but rather ask “that the Lord might bring about the hour of history when we may all be united” (p. 107).
For anyone who thinks logically, it will be difficult to understand why we would not pray for the conversion of the Jews, if it is given that Christ is their Savior. What is more, in reading the prayer introduced by Benedict XVI: “Let us pray for the Jews, that the Lord Our God may enlighten their hearts, that they may recognize Christ as the Savior of all men”, the normal faithful will be led to think that we are praying for the conversion of the Jews.
The crisis of the Church
The crisis of the Church, especially concerning Europe and North America, is often mentioned. Because of the pope’s (and Peter Seewald’s) origin, the particular situation of Germany receives special attention. Benedict XVI is aware that “in Catholic Germany there is a rather large group of people who, so to say, are on the lookout for an opportunity to attack the pope” (p. 125). He cannot understand why in Germany, where every child has between 9 and 13 years of religious instruction, “so very little sticks” (p. 140). What a euphemism! The pope cannot but know that the official books of Catholic teaching transmit anything but the Catholic faith, and that most of the professors of religion, in spite of the canonical mission given by the bishop, are not qualified to transmit the Faith. Consequently, his exhortation to bishops to “seriously reflect on ways to give catechesis a new heart” should probably be understood as an implicit criticism.
In this new book, Benedict XVI stays true to his course. He remains the teaching and pacific [? irenic?] pope, who does his best to understand everything, to avoid extremes and to reconcile in the Church modern reasonings and Tradition. Already in 1985 he said so himself in his book-length interview with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: “I have always tried to remain true to Vatican II, to this today of the Church”, without “any impatient thrust toward a tomorrow that is not ours”, but also without anachronistic “longing for a yesterday irretrievably gone”. (p. 19 of the English edition, Ignatius Press, 1985)
This book will certainly open the eyes of many who know little or nothing of the Catholic Church to the deformations and errors propagated by the press. In his introductions to his different questions, Peter Seewald clarifies the facts several times, which paints a picture very different from those that are now widespread in the public. Perhaps we could not hope for more for the time being. The Priestly Society of St. Pius X is however of the opinion that the Church cannot have a renewal without a clear condemnation of the false developments realized since Vatican II and without a return to her perennial Tradition. (Source: SSPX-Germany—DICI 226, 12-12-2010)
1 Author of the play The Deputy.
Fr. Matthias Gaudron was ordained a priest of the SSPX by Bishop Tissier de Mallerais in 1990. For 12 years he was rector of the International Seminary of the Sacred Heart in Zaitzkofen (Bavaria). He is currently serving at the Priory of St. Peter in Berlin.
Author of The Catechism of the Crisis in the Church (Angelus Press), he is a consultant to the SSPX's Roman Commission responsible for the doctrinal discussions with the Holy See.