‘In the Light of the Gospel’: New Book Offers Timely Reminders From Pope Benedict XVI
BOOK PICK: The range of topics covered in ‘What Is Christianity?’ is a reminder of the breadth and depth of Benedict’s thought and interests.
What Is Christianity?
The Last Writings
By Pope Benedict XVI
Ignatius Press, 2023
$24.95, 230 pages
“[T]he Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”
Over the past 60 years, this famous line from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (4) has been greatly misunderstood. Or outright distorted. Much mischief has been done by quoting only the first part. That second part — that the times are interpreted in the light of the Gospel — has been often omitted and thus soon forgotten. Thus, reading “the signs of the times” becomes a recipe for the Church prostrating herself before popular opinion and adjusting her teaching to fit the fads.
Indeed, that’s the controversy being played out right now at the Synod on Synodality. Does the Church read the signs of the times as a road map forward? Or does she interpret them in light of the Gospel? Do we interpret the Church’s teaching in light of the current situation — or vice versa?
Into the midst of this confusion comes Benedict XVI’s What Is Christianity? The Last Writings. While this collection from the late Pope doesn’t resolve the issues of our day, it’s a timely reminder of what the Church believes and — perhaps more importantly — how the Church thinks.
Benedict provides us once again with the example of a mind steeped in the Church’s thought and that knows how to read the current historical moment through the lens of doctrinal truth.
Now, you can’t judge a book by its cover. But you can’t even judge this book by its title. What Is Christianity? is not a systematic discussion of Christianity at all. It’s a random and uneven collection of speeches, essays, interviews and theological articles gathered since Benedict’s retirement. Some sections are meant for a broader audience and are thus quite accessible. Others are intended for theologians and less so (e.g., “Jews and Christians in Dialogue,” a lengthy theological article and then an exchange of letters with the chief rabbi of Vienna).
Honestly, the book’s misleading title and unevenness don’t matter. Giving Benedict’s voice a forum in the current climate is a great service to the Church. Still, at this point, the publisher should be honest and title future collections More Stuff From Benedict XVI. Sales and readership would be the same. Heck, The Post-It Notes of Joseph Ratzinger would be more edifying than a great deal of what is out there today.
The range of topics covered in What Is Christianity? is a reminder of the breadth and depth of Benedict’s thought and interests. It also displays the consistency of his thought and the major themes that he returned to throughout his pastoral ministry: truth and tolerance, beauty, the liturgy, music, and so forth.
While the entire book addresses timeless truths, a few words are in order about those sections timeliest for the Church in the United States. As we are in the midst of a Eucharistic Revival, “The Meaning of Communion” is an important chapter.
We wonder why Mass attendance is plummeting and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament so poor. Benedict locates the current crisis of faith and devotion in the loss of the distinctly Catholic teaching on the Mass as a sacrifice. Once that is forgotten or neglected — as it has been for decades — then Communion is no longer a participation in Christ’s sacrifice, meant for those who desire a cruciform life, but a meal open to all comers.
His diagnosis shows us a path forward. To increase Eucharistic devotion, we have to recover the sense of the Mass as not just a shared meal but as Christ’s Sacrifice made present. This also means that the Mass should be offered in a manner that conveys its sacrificial character. Liturgical practices that neglect that will inevitably reduce devotion and are indeed the cause of it now.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Benedict also links the lack of Eucharistic devotion with the decline in the sacrament of penance: “With the disappearance of the sacrament of penance, a functional concept of the Eucharist spread.”
Once the Eucharist ceased to be an element of conforming ourselves by repentance and worship to the sacrifice of Christ, it became simply a communal meal for everyone. Thus, Eucharistic revival is inseparable from a revival in the sacrament of penance. As Benedict said in his 2008 visit to the United States:
“To a great extent, the renewal of the Church in America and throughout the world depends on the renewal of the practice of penance and the growth in holiness which that sacrament both inspires and accomplishes.”
“The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse” was in large part previously published. This extended reflection on what happened in the past several decades is a great example of interpreting the times in the light of the Gospel. Benedict provides a principled critique of the chaos of the years 1968 and following. Perhaps more importantly, he explains why clergy abuse of minors, in addition to being an act of grave moral depravity, is also an offense against the faith.
His analysis is a reminder that the failure of the shepherds in the abuse crisis was not only a dereliction of duty in the natural order but a failure of fidelity to Christ.
Finally, Benedict’s reflections on the priesthood are a balm and an inspiration to the many priests discouraged and beaten down by scandals and scoldings.
In “The Catholic Priesthood” he confirms the dignity of the priest’s office and the importance of celibacy:
“To enter the clergy means to renounce a self-centered life and to accept God alone as the support and guarantee of one’s own life.”
In every age, the Church is tempted to conform herself no longer to Christ but to certain ideologies and trends. She is enticed to be imbued by the spirit of the times rather than by the Spirit of her Bridegroom. Only when the Body of Christ, beginning with her shepherds, holds fast to the deposit of faith and is rooted in the Church’s Tradition can she be an effective witness and truly become what she is. In What Is Christianity? Pope Benedict posthumously shows us how to think about the faith and how to bring it to bear on the here and now.