By Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Ignatius Press, 2002 460 pages, $18.95 To order: (800) 651-1531 or http://www.ignatius.com

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is living proof that the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” when applied to the Catholic faith, are both meaningless and misleading. Hailed as a leading “liberal” theologian at the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger is and always has been a faithful son of the Church. The irony is that, now, four decades after the council, some critics claim he is a rigid, “right-wing” traditionalist. But those who have followed the work and thought of the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith know he is one of the finest theologians alive today — a man whose knowledge of God and the world is deep, wide and thoroughly Catholic.

And so God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time is an apt title for Cardinal Ratzinger's latest book, an interview conducted by the German journalist Peter Seewald. This is the cardinal's third such interview with Seewald and, just as in The Ratzinger Report (1987) and Salt of the Earth (1997), Cardinal Ratzinger answers questions and comments on a vast array of topics. In essence, God and the World is “The Cardinal's Catechism,” for the structure and chronology of the book has a decidedly catechetical sensibility. The prologue focuses on the theological virtues of faith, hope and love; the three parts of the book take on, in sequence, the topics of God, Jesus Christ and the Church.

Cardinal Ratzinger's brilliance shines forth through the crystalline focus and cohesiveness of his theological vision. He repeatedly returns, from varying angles, to key themes: the centrality of the Trinity, the heart of love forming the core of Christianity, the paradoxical realities of the faith. There is much discussion of the tensions and relationships between love and righteous anger, faith and reason, and the supernatural and the natural. In speaking of love, Cardinal Ratzinger states, “We must think of love as suffering,” and later notes, “Punishment is the situation in which man finds himself if he has alienated himself from his own essential being.” He concludes that God's love and wrath are not in conflict but are different sides of the same theological coin: “The wrath of God is a way of saying that I have been living in a way that is contrary to the love that is God. Anyone who begins to live and grow away from God, who lives away from what is good, is turning his life toward wrath.”

I admire how the cardinal is able to be both charitable and pointed in speaking on controversial issues. Some of the strongest statements are made about the issue of faith. “Faith,” the prefect states, “is not just a system of knowledge, things we are told; at the heart of it is a meeting with Jesus.” All those who meet Jesus will pay a cost for how they react to him. “Whoever comes close to [Christ] … must be prepared to be burned,” he exclaims. “Christianity is great because love is great. It burns, yet this is not the destructive fire but one that makes things bright and pure and free and grand. Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.” The brightness of that fire burns strongly in this book. Those who encounter it will find themselves warmed, challenged and inspired.

Carl Olson, editor of Envoy magazine, writes from Heath, Ohio.