Busted: David Gibson

A candid conversation about the papacy with the author of The Rule of Benedict

In the wake of the midterm elections that created such a seismic shift in the American political landscape it is easy to forget that, not long ago, the entire world waited anxiously to hear the results of a very different balloting. Though the choice to make Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger the next pope was only decided on by a small group of cardinals and not a popular vote, the impact of that decision has been enormous.

Following in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II—one of the most significant world figures of the past 50 years—is not an enviable task. But as David Gibson’s insightful new book The Rule of Benedict makes clear, Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate will not simply be a transitional one. Gibson’s book—the first to be published about the actual papacy of Benedict—reveals that, as pontiff, the formerly strict doctrinal watchdog hasn’t turned out to be the “German Shepard” (as some had feared) nor is he the extroverted, tireless presence that his predecessor was.

In the interview that follows, Gibson discusses the first 18 months of the “new” pope’s reign. The image of Benedict that emerges from our conversation is that of an incredibly bright, complicated and private pontiff who—despite having limited pastoral experience—is charged with shepherding more than a billion souls through tumultuous times both inside and outside the Church.

BustedHalo: Where did the idea for The Rule of Benedict come from?

David Gibson: I worked over in Rome for a few years back in the 1980’s when I was still a Protestant. I was raised as a Billy Graham evangelical in Plainfield New Jersey of all things. And via a journey too long to describe here, I wound up over in Vatican Radio because I wanted to go live in Italy which seemed like a good idea. I was the English voice of the John Paul II for a few years in the late ‘80’s. That’s where I cut my teeth covering the Catholic Church. When I came back I had a career covering religion for newspapers in the New York metropolitan area and then I wrote The Coming Catholic Church in 2003 in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis. I had always wanted to write about the next pope and the next pope was a long time coming. Everybody was planning on John Paul dying or thinking about it; thinking about the conclave, who would be the pope etc for years and years and years. So my publisher said ‘Let’s do something on John Paul’s successor.’

BH: Can you describe a little bit what the feeling was like being at St. Peter’s Square with other journalists and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at the death of John Paul II, and then the conclave and election?

DG: I’m sure you probably experienced many of the same emotions just watching it on TV as everyone in the global village did. This book is coming out a year and half after the conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger as pope, but I still begin with that scene because it was so intense and remains the perfect motif to describe the dilemma of us as modern Catholics, Catholics in the modern world.

There I was standing in the square on this chilly April evening and you’ve got this little temporary stove pipe that looks like it’s the kitchen in a Tuscan farmhouse someplace sticking up out the roof of the Sistine Chapel next to this great Basilica of St. Peter’s and we’re all there trying to figure out if it’s white smoke or black smoke or if we have a pope to lead the Catholic church. And at the same time, there’s this huge jumbo-tron, several of them all throughout the square, for the tens of thousands of us standing there.

So I’m right in front, nose up to a jumbo-tron, which is also focused on this same little rustic smoke-stack. So you’re looking at that and you’re looking up at the real thing. And everyone is going, ‘Ay Bianco, Nero, Bianco, Nero.’ And the Brazilians are cheering because they are banking on one of their own walking out on the balcony and they were disappointed.

But this ancient ritual, as I have uncovered in the book on a couple chapters on the conclave, didn’t work as well as it was supposed to. They smoked out the Sistine Chapel. They couldn’t get anything right. Poor cardinals. They have this new fancy system for white smoke and black smoke but it is sort of like giving your grandfather a DVD for Christmas and telling him to figure it out. It’s like there are all these 80 year old men trying to work this medieval system to alert us all that there is a new pope. Again that contra-position of the ancient and the modern, the jumbo-tron and this old way of electing the pope, the spiritual leader of our Church, gets to that disconnect and that disjunction that we all have in our minds and it gets to the heart of what it is to be a Catholic. So even though that incident happened all these months ago, I think it’s still a very powerful way to start the book and to sum up the thread that goes through it.

BH: You worked in the Vatican in the late ‘80’s when Cardinal Ratzinger was there. Had you come in contact with him back in those days?

DG: Yeah, I saw him pretty regularly. He always passed across St. Peter’s Square. He was coming from his apartment over to the Holy office and I was coming from the other direction, over towards my office at Vatican Radio. He was a very quiet man, always in his black overcoat and his little black beret and he’d say with his German accent, ‘bon giorno.’ Hello. And we met eyes at press conferences but very few people have interviewed him or have gotten to know him. He is a very quiet, private person. He’s not a real people person the way John Paul II was. As I think Paul VI once said, one cannot be friend with the pope or a cardinal like that. They don’t pal around. And so even some of his biographers have never interviewed him. He has given a couple book length interviews to a German journalist but that’s about the extent of it.

BH: You say in your book, than Joseph Ratzinger was the perfect candidate for the papacy because he was so intensely private.

DG: Exactly. And I really talk about the identity crisis of becoming a pope which I think is just a fascinating thing from a human point of view. Everyone wants to look at the pope from a political point of view. What’s this going to mean vis a vis America or Islam etc? And those are fascinating topics but to become a pope is an amazing thing. When you are first elected, you go to be vested in something called the room of tears, right off the Sistine Chapel because the it’s the first time you go in there and just the weight and the reality of this transformation bears down on you and you just weep. But it’s really a remarkable thing and, in a sense, there has been what I call this monasticizing of the papacy over recent decades in the last century or so where they want a pope who is really a spiritual leader, almost a type of Dalai Lama of Catholicism, who doesn’t have any ties. John Paul was also a perfect pope. He had no living relatives. No sisters, no brothers, no nieces…

BH: There were no Roger Clintons or Billy Carters in there…

“Really what I am is a Jesus Christ Catholic. It’s not about the pope. It’s not about Billy Graham or some leader of your faith. It’s about the faith itself and yet the faith is made real by convincing personalities.”

DG: (laughs) No. No Billy Carter in his background. Joseph Ratzinger is very quiet. He took the name Benedict from which I take the title of the book, The Rule of Benedict. He had two siblings: a sister who died in the early ‘90’s who never married and an older brother who is also a priest. So there is no real wider family. There are not a lot of nephews and nieces running around. He is a very self-contained academic, intellectual type of man whom the cardinals felt could take one for the team which is essentially what anybody who followed John Paul, or John Paul the Great as some are calling him, would have to do. So they gave it to a 78 year-old German theologian. The conclave basically came down to a contest between Ratzinger and everyone else which is why I think the next conclave will, in a way, be the real successor of John Paul II because then, it’s just going to be everybody else. And then we’re going to see a real discussion of what the church needs; the developing world versus the Northern Hemisphere.

BH: I think one of the fascinating things you point out is that for a man who was so renowned for his iron fist as the Church’s doctrinal watchdog, Joseph Ratzinger, is by all accounts a very quiet, humble man. The main conflict you talk about in the book is squaring those two selves that we see. Can you talk a little bit about that?

DG: Yeah, it’s a difficult thing. And you’re right. That’s really something that I try and get at in the book because there are so many perceptions about him now since he’s become pope. There’s a lot of this, ‘Oh, he’s such a nice man and he has changed.’ Joseph Ratzinger does not change. I mean basically the short answer is: same guy, different job. Before, frankly he was the bad cop to John Paul’s good cop. He was the chief doctrinal enforcer. That was his job as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It’s the worst job in Christendom. And being pope, at least for John Paul, was the best job in Christendom. I mean you get to trot around the world and meet the folks, press the flesh, and Joseph Ratzinger stays back home and issues the edicts in order to keep everybody in line. Personally, I think Ratzinger enjoyed it a little too much. And again, he was never the “Panzer Cardinal” [Panzers were German tanks used in World War II] and neither is Benedict the Beneficent now. He’s the pope so he is not going to go out there and excommunicate people and divide the church. He knows he can’t do that and that’s not his job.

The church has been pretty well reigned in over the last 25, 30 years. Theologians know you are not allowed to step over the line. There is not a lot of creativity or inventiveness going on out there, which I think is a problem because there are huge challenges that need to be met. But again, one thing that I try to point out, is that this is really the first biography of Benedict as pope. Everything else, a lot of quickie biographies that came out, were basically talking about Joseph Ratzinger. This is looking at him as a pope and what that means. He has done a lot of things on liturgy, on banning gay men from the priesthood, on the removal of Tom Reese from America magazine which I think was such a terrible thing that might belie the transformation into the good pope from the bad cardinal. But again, you’re right. He is a very quiet man. Academic. An intellectual but one who believes so firmly in the principle of not coloring outside the lines that it’s kind of like the father who spanks the kid and says, ‘This is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you.’ He disciplines with regret but he does it very forcefully because he believes in serving a higher good. I think like many with that disposition, he says, ‘it’s not about me.’ It’s just about serving the truth. But I think that is a little problematic because we are always involved in everything. There is always a little bit of ourselves in every decision we make.

BH: Going into the conclave people were saying it was a wide open playing field and yet nobody picked Joseph Ratzinger.

DG: Nobody on the outside anyways.

BH: Do you think the cardinals were trying to send a message to the rest of the world or to the church? And now, a year and half into the papacy, has the message proven to be true? Who do you think the cardinals were trying to elect back then and what do you think they have gotten?

DG: Well I think to a great degree there was no sense that ‘we’re trying to do this.’ Again, I have had the advantage of a year to research the conclave and I detail for the first time that it was a bit of a campaign. Cardinal Ratzinger had the best organized campaign in the conclave. So I think a lot of the cardinals in the end just thought that they had to go along with what was happening because one of the big messages they wanted to send was stability. After this enormous outpouring of the death of John Paul II, the cardinals realized, ‘We’ve got to elect somebody who can stand up to this tsunami of outpouring and who can be their own person in their own right in the wake of this grief and all this enormous popularity for the Santo Subito, the saint right away that they wanted John Paul II to be. And Joseph Ratzinger, in that sense, was a no-brainer. We should have seen it coming. Here is a guy, older man, transitional pope, which I detail in the book as a term of art. He talks about how he has very little time left. But at 78, 79, who knows? He could be here 10 or 15 years. It’s stability. They wanted to send a message of continuity and stability. And I think they did that to a great degree. And I think you are right, you see a lot of conservatives who are lamenting that the Panzer cardinal did not become the Panzer pope. He hasn’t gone out there and cracked skulls and reinstituted the Latin mass and turned the altars around and that kind of thing. That may be coming, not the cracked skulls but the Latin mass.

BH: Really? You think that will happen?

DG: I think it eventually will. There will certainly be a greater use of it. One of his great efforts has been to reach out to the schismatic traditionalists on the right side. But, as I detail in the book, I think there are a lot of troubling aspects. However, I think the greatest hope in my mind is that he will appoint some better bishops. I think there have been some good signs. It’s fascinating. He really wants to depersonalize the papacy, to lower the profile of the pope. I think that is something that the cardinals also want very much. They want a little less intensity from the chair of Peter.

BH: Talk about that a little bit. What does that mean?

DG: Well, John Paul II was the world’s pastor. There was a fascinating poll done by Jim Davidson and Dean Hoge a couple years ago, right up to the sexual abuse scandal, asking Catholics if they could name their bishop. Fewer than 40% of American Catholics said they could name their own bishop (and they didn’t even test them to see if they could get the name right). So fewer than 4 in 10 Catholics even know who their bishop is. Everybody knew the bishop of Rome. John Paul II with his globetrotting, his writings, his telegenic rock-star personality became everybody’s bishop and everybody’s pastor. So that was a really problematic thing. And also administratively, Rome was micromanaging. A lot of the bishops were fed up, quite frankly, with Rome telling them how to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ and what to do. They wanted a bit of a break from that.

They’ll have it to a degree now with Benedict. Benedict wants to make the church and the papacy not about the person of the pope but about Christ himself. And he wants to step back and let the light of Christ shine forth. And that is a really admirable thing but, personally, I’m a bit ambivalent. Yes, John Paul did very much make the church about himself but we are in a different age. We are in an age of celebrity. Does Catholicism need a Billy Graham type of pope to go out there and really evangelize or do we need somebody like Benedict who is somebody who would simply sit back and be the chief Catechist and let the faith speak for itself? I go back and forth myself. I think we need a really convincing personality and someone who would also allow some more personality and creativity to go on in the Catholic Church.

BH: You hear a lot of people saying they are “John Paul II” Catholics.

DG: And that’s wonderful. You have to realize half the people alive on the globe today knew only one man as pope. That was Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II. And in a way I am one of them. I’m a 17 year old Catholic. I converted in 1989. So my first impression was first like, ‘Holy cow. It’s Joseph Ratzinger. I got that wrong.’ And second was, ‘What is he doing wearing John Paul II’s clothes?’ (laughs)

But really what I am is a Jesus Christ Catholic. It’s not about the pope. It’s not about Billy Graham or some leader of your faith. It’s about the faith itself and yet the faith is made real by convincing personalities. So I’m torn between that and also, fundamentally, what my book gets down to is that it is not so much a crisis of faith.

Benedict is wonderful in his Christology and in talking about his love of Christ and why we should follow Jesus. But the question that remains unanswered is why we should remain Catholics, why the Catholic Church should be the container for our faith. His ecclesiology and his Christology overlap so much that they almost can’t be separated. In his mind, if you talk about reforming the church or making any changes, you’re talking about changing Jesus Christ himself, and that’s a little too strict for me. He wants the faith to shine forth but the bottom line is that we can’t ignore the incredible challenges that are out there that remain that have to be addressed. We can’t just drift along just by preaching words without embodying them in deeds and having justice in the church as well as outside the church.