The Facebook pages for this book (the English translation is being published by Ignatius Publishing House) provides excerpts from Peter Seewald’s Interview book with Pope Benedict, which, due to the breach of the publishing embargo by L’Osservatore Romano, has been overshadowed by the condom controversy. However, we should not be misled and overlook the immense intellectual impact that this book has more broadly, as the following excerpts show (Seewald’s question in italics):
1) From Chapter 17, “The Return of Jesus Christ” pages 167-168:
The German philosopher Robert Spaemann was once asked whether an internationally renowned scholar such as himself could actually believe that Jesus was born of a Virgin and worked miracles, that he rose from the dead and bestows eternal life on believers.
That’s just the sort of thing children believe in, isn’t it? Here is how Spaemann, now eighty-three years old, answered the question: “If you want to put it like that, yes, of course. I believe roughly the same thing I believed as a child—the point is just that since then I have had more opportunity to think about my faith. In the end, thinking about my faith has always strengthened it.” What about the Pope? Does he still believe what he believed as a child?
I would answer in similar terms. I would say: Simplicity is truth—and truth is simple. Our problem is that we no longer see the forest for the trees; that for all our knowledge, we have lost the path to wisdom. This is also the idea behind Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, which shows how the cleverness of our age causes us, ironically, to overlook the essential, while the Little Prince, who hasn’t the faintest idea about all this cleverness, ultimately sees more and better.
What really counts? What is authentic? What keeps us going? The key thing is to see what is simple. Why shouldn’t God be capable of letting a virgin give birth, too? Why shouldn’t Christ be able to rise from the dead? Of course, when I myself determine what is allowed to exist and what isn’t, when I define the boundaries of possibility, and no one else, then of course phenomena like these have to be excluded. It is an act of intellectual arrogance for us to declare that they are internally contradictory or absurd and, for that reason alone, impossible. But it is not our business to decide how many possibilities are latent in the cosmos, how many possibilities are hidden above and in it. The message of Christ and the Church puts credible knowledge about God within our reach. God wanted to enter into this world. God didn’t want us to have only a distant inkling of him through physics and mathematics. He wanted to show himself to us. And so he was able to do what the Gospels recount that he did, just as he was also able to create a new dimension of existence in the Resurrection. He was able to go beyond what Teilhard de Chardin called the biosphere and the noosphere and to institute precisely a new sphere, in which man and the world attain union with God.
Nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg admitted that reality is designed in such a way that even the improbable is essentially possible. The Nobel Prize winner’s conclusion: “The first swallow from the cup of the natural sciences makes atheists—but at the bottom of the cup God is waiting.”
I would agree completely with Heisenberg there. It is only so long as one is intoxicated by individual discoveries that one says: There can’t be anything more than this, now we know everything. But as soon as one recognizes the incomparable grandeur of the whole, one’s vision penetrates farther and the question arises about a God who is at the origin of all things.
2) From Chapter 6, “Time for Conversion”, pages 60-63:
Looking at the end of natural resources, the end of an old epoch, the end of a particular way of life, we become aware again in a fundamental way of the finiteness of things—and also of the end of life in general. Many people see already in the signs of this time the portent of an end time. Maybe the world is not going under, they say, but it is going in a new direction. A society that has become sick, in which psychological problems especially are on the increase, longs for healing and redemption and is actually begging for it.
Shouldn’t we reflect also on whether this new direction might possibly be connected with Christ’s Second Coming?
The important thing, as you say, is that a need for healing exists, that man can understand again somehow what redemption means. Man recognizes that if God is not there, existence becomes sick and man cannot survive like that. That he needs an answer that he himself cannot give. In that respect this time is a time of Advent that also offers much that is good. The great communication, for example, that we have today can lead, on the one hand, to complete depersonalization. Then one is just swimming in a sea of communication and no longer encounters persons at all. But, on the other hand, it can also be an opportunity. For instance, to become aware of one another, to encounter one another, to help each other, to go out of ourselves.
So it seems to me important not to see only the negative side. While we must be very keenly aware of it, we must also see all the opportunities for good that are there; the hopes, the new possibilities for being human that exist. So as then, finally, to proclaim the need for change, which cannot happen without an interior conversion.
What does that mean concretely?
Part of this conversion is putting God in first place again. That changes everything else. And inquiring about God’s words, so as to allow them as realities to shine into one’s own life. We must, so to speak, dare again the experiment with God—so as to allow him to work within our society.
3) From Chapter 1, “Popes Do Not Fall from the Sky,” pages 7-8:
For the Catholic Church the Pope is the Vicarius Christi, Christ’s representative on earth. Can you really speak for Jesus?
In proclaiming the faith and in administering the sacraments every priest speaks on behalf of Jesus Christ, for Jesus Christ. Christ entrusted his Word to the Church. This Word lives in the Church. And if I accept interiorly the faith of this Church and live, speak and think on the basis of it, when I proclaim Him, then I speak for Him—even though of course there can always be shortcomings in the details. The important thing is that I do not present my ideas, but rather try to think and to live the Church’s faith, to act in obedience to his mandate.
Is the Pope really “infallible”, in the sense that the media sometimes bandy that term about? An absolute ruler whose thinking and will are law?
That is incorrect. The concept of infallibility developed over the course of centuries. It arose in view of the question of whether there is somewhere an ultimate authority that decides. The First Vatican Council, following a long tradition from the time of the early Christian community, finally determined that there is an ultimate decision!
Everything does not remain open-ended! Under certain circumstances and under certain conditions the Pope can make final decisions that are binding, decisions that clarify what is and what is not the faith of the Church. This does not mean that the Pope can constantly issue “infallible” pronouncements. Usually the Bishop of Rome acts like any other bishop who professes his faith, who proclaims it, who is faithful in the Church. Only when certain conditions are present, when tradition has been clarified and he knows that he is not acting arbitrarily, can the Pope say: This is the faith of the Church—and denial of it is not the faith of the Church. In this sense the First Vatican Council defined the capability to make a final decision, so that the faith can maintain its binding authority.