It's the media variant on bait-and-switch advertising. First, you caricature a controversial personality. Then, when the evidence becomes overwhelming that the caricature is false, you announce with due solemnity that the person in question has “changed.” Being the Fourth Estate means never having to say you're sorry.
The public image of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 15 years, is a pristine example of this process at work.
First there was the ruthless Panzerkardinal, brought from Munich to Rome to crush theological dissent and enforce doctrinal purity through methods reminiscent of the Inquisition. (If there has ever been a story about Cardinal Ratzinger or his congregation that didn't invoke the specter of the Inquisition, I haven't seen it.) Now, we are told, the cardinal has mellowed and has suddenly become open, approachable, and sympathetic to those struggling with belief.
Not even his most implacable enemies have ever questioned Cardinal Ratzinger's erudition: his encyclopedic knowledge of theology; his command of biblical, patristic, scholastic, and contemporary sources; his elegance as a thinker and writer. If Salt of the Earth (Ignatius Press), the recently released book-length interview with him by German journalist Peter Seewald, an agnostic, corrects the caricature of the Panzerkardinal, well, I suppose we should be grateful. But that doesn't make it any less a caricature.
In any event, Salt of the Earth is a most interesting read. The book's optic is, in some respects, very Teutonic-intellectual: ideas really have consequences; the madnesses of the intellectuals lead to cultural collapse; the German intellectual world is the reference point for the life of the mind. The cardinal also worries about the institutional life of German Catholicism, which he finds too rich, too bureaucratic, too smug—at the expense of evangelism and genuine charity.
All of which is interesting (and not without instructive parallels for Americans). But it's when he casts his net wider that the cardinal is most engaging. Among the sharp-edged insights of Salt of the Earth:
ı Freedom is God's vulnerability, embodied by the cross.
ı True Church reform is always along the lines of “simpler, purer,” and is usually led by movements. The Benedictine reform saved classical culture; Francis and Dominic led us beyond the ossifications of medieval Christendom. The new movements in the Church today are leading us into an uncharted future; the test of their sundry charisms is whether they lead us to a simpler, purer Christian witness.
ı The “separation of Church and state” began with the Church. When Christianity refused to sacralize politics, it laid the cultural groundwork for what Jefferson and Madison would institutionalize, hundreds of years later.
ı Today's “canon” of “issues” (contraception, abortion, celibacy, divorce, women's ordination) is too introverted. Moreover, liberalization as the fix for these neuralgic questions has been falsified by the mainline Protestant experience. Thus the “canon” will fade in time. (And then what will The New York Times write about, one wonders?)
ı “How many ways are there to God? As many as there are people.”
ı Liberation theology had one important insight: The Bible belongs to the people, not the exegetes guild.
ı Liturgy “lives from what is unmanipulable.” Liturgical science isn't automotive design, and its task is not to come up with new models every year. Rather, the work of the liturgy is to “make man capable of the mystery,” to introduce us to the feast of God's bounty and love.
ı Celebrant-centered, rather than mystery-centered, liturgy is one dynamic in the agitation about women's ordination. Why should only one sort of person be the center of the action? A good question, but a false context.
The cardinal thinks of the future in terms of a “minority Church” that is no longer the “form of life of a whole society”—a different angle of vision than the Pope, who speaks regularly of the 21st century as a “springtime for the Gospel.” The two views are not contradictory, but the cardinal's is based on his experience of an intact Catholic culture—Bavaria—imploding, while the jury remains out on what will happen to Polish Catholicism and Polish culture as Poland re-enters Western history.
Salt of the Earth is an invitation to enter into conversation with a great mind and a great Christian spirit. I suggest you accept.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.