As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and key advisor to Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has been termed, in the words of interviewer Peter Seewald, "an aggressive, but also controversial, man of the Church." "Man of the Church," undoubtedly, but hardly "aggressive." "Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium" rather reveals the Cardinal as a kindly, sensitive, humble, and unassuming professor who brings to bear a powerful, subtle, and learned theological mind willing to grapple with the problems facing contemporary Catholicism. As Seewald, a famous journalist who had left the Church "a long time ago," notes, few Catholics have been "more painfully aware of the losses and the drama of the Church than the shrewd man with the simple background in rural Bavaria."
In this important volume which gives an extraordinary insight into the mind and thought of the Cardinal (the "Panzer-Cardinal" to his detractors and "Call to Action" types), there is a touching account of his youth, family life, student days, and even the period when he was an American prisoner of war. Readers will find fascinating this theologian's views of Hans Kung, sexual consumerism, evolution, and Fatima. There are precious comments on liturgy, infallibility and authority, celibacy, liberation theology and other attempts to politicize the Gospel, moral relativism, "fundamentalism," "pathological forms of religiosity," the exodus of Catholics to the sects, and "the dictatorship of public opinion."
While admitting that he has "so little knowledge of America," he does not hesitate to refer to the few American bishops "who are perhaps really somewhat extreme." He expresses the "humiliation" he feels that it is "Catholic countries like Rwanda and Burundi which have become the scene of the greatest atrocities."
Cardinal Ratzinger emphasizes that the renewal of the Church must come
from new movements and groups of Catholics that implement both the spirit and letter of
Vatican II. Decrying the false "spirit of Vatican II" that waters down the faith
to make modern man more "comfortable", Cardinal Ratzinger one of the key theologians
laboring at the council, insists that the Council Fathers in no way intended to
"turn the faith upside down, but, on the contrary to serve it
As for the "letter" of Vatican II, he adds, "The texts of the Council are wholly in conformity with the faith... The true inheritance of the Council lives in its texts."
Despite the de-Christianization of much of the western world, Cardinal Ratzinger resolutely maintains that "in spite of everything, God is stronger than evil" and that Catholic Christianity is credible because it is true. The myth of material and spiritual progress as "the law of history" has wrought horrendous mischief, and is profoundly false. Faced with the spread of sheer unbelief and its tragic effects on man and society, the Church continues to offer true liberation from the idols of this fallen world. Fixed in the perennial truth of God's Word, the Church more than ever before finds Herself giving prophetic witness to God's Love poured out on the Cross.
The following passage reflects Cardinal Ratzinger's mind concerning the prophetic charism that must be exercised by bishops in the Church:
It is true that the Church may never simply align itself with the "Zeitgeist" [spirit of the times]. The Church must address the vices and perils of the time; she must appeal to the consciences of the powerful and of the intellectuals, not to mention of those who want to live narrow-minded, comfortable lives while ignoring the needs of the time, and so forth. As a bishop [of Munich] I felt obliged to face this task. Moreover, the deficits were too obvious: exhaustion of the faith, decline in vocations, lowering of moral standards even among men of the Church, an increasing tendency towards violence, and much else. The words of the Bible and of the Church Fathers rang in my ears, those sharp condemnations of shepherds who are like mute dogs; in order to avoid conflicts, they let the poison spread. Peace is not the first civic duty, and a bishop whose only concern is not to have any problems and to gloss over as many conflicts as possible is an image I find repulsive.
In realistic Augustinian fashion, the Prefect of the CDF treats aspects of the "crisis of faith" afflicting the Church in our day. He notes, however, the need to follow "the collegial model rather than individual decision-making and to underscore the role of the individual organs (bishops, episcopal conferences, doctrinal commissions)" in addressing errors today.
Cardinal Ratzinger recognizes that the failure of modern secular ideologies "does not necessarily lead to a rebirth of Christianity." Sadly, many Catholics today:
"are often weary of their faith and regard it as a very heavy baggage which they do drag along, but which they aren't really joyful about... The living simplicity of the faith has been lost to view in this situation."
As for himself, it is obvious that he is a believer of deep and intense faith, always joyful before the Lord amidst the agonizing problems of his office, and hopeful for the Church's "new beginnings" as She reaches out to all who manifest an openness to the faith.
He reminds "modern man" of the lessons of 20th century history:
"When man leaves faith behind, the horrors of pagandom return with reinforced potentialities."
The fortunes of the Church lie in God's hands, and Christ will not abandon His Church. With Cardinal Ratzinger every faithful Catholic can look forward to a "new kind of Christian era" already emerging. The Church may become in various societies more of a "minority Church" than was seen in the Middle Ages, but its members will always serve as the "salt of the earth" and "light of the world" and "a city on a hill that cannot be hidden." (Cf. Mt.5:13-16). This is a remarkable work, a fitting sequel to "The Ratzinger Report." Interestingly, interviewer Peter Seewald has recently returned to the practice of the Catholic faith. In Cardinal Ratzinger's words:
"faith is the root that opens up the basic decision to perceive God, to take God at His Word, and to accept Him. And that's the key that explains everything else."