Busted: David Gibson

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

BustedHalo: The new pope had a bit of a honeymoon up until the incident at Regensburg. How do you think this wave of people who are so affectionate and in love with John Paul II will take to Benedict XVI after this honeymoon is over?

David Gibson: The pope is always popular, much like the president is always the most respected man in the Gallup Poll whoever he is, Clinton or Bush. And there is great affection for [Benedict]. That’s fine for John Paul II Catholics who are dedicated to the Church but what about everybody else? Those who are alienated Catholics or those who are not Catholics at all? What about speaking to them? That’s important.

The other thing that I really want to point out is, as much as I am a fan of John Paul II, he was enormously popular, one of the most amazing figures certainly in the 20th century or possibly the past millennium. And yet, all of the problems and challenges that were there in the Catholic Church in 1978 when he was elected are still there. They were there when he died in 2005 or worse, sometimes much worse in degrees of sacramental observance, certainly in the United States, vocations crisis (no matter what they say, sure they are booming in some areas but there are issues of numbers and quality in the Southern Hemisphere as well). Pentecostals and other Protestant sects, as they call them, are making inroads in Latin America, the biggest Catholic continent there is. There are 40% more Catholics than there were in 1978 and 4% fewer priests.

You can talk about all these great plans or that the Catholic faith should be made real to people, but how can you do that when there are no priests, when there are no masses, when they are closing parishes, when you can’t make the Catholic faith real and present to people through the Eucharist? These are all just fundamental realities such as the parish school system etc competing in a religious marketplace like we have in the United States. Again, all those challenges exist and you can’t go back and just be the pope who issues nice homilies or tough edicts from the Vatican.

We have a pope, the supreme pastor of the church, who’s only parish experience was in 1952, the year after his ordination, when he helped out for a year a parish in Germany. Since then, he has been in academia. He can write very beautiful homilies but he can also, as you saw with the furor over the speech in Regensburg on the Islamic comment, talk in a very clinical way about what he sees as the ailments out there. Whether it is those of us in the modern world who he sees as subject to the dictatorship of relativism or Buddhism, which he sees as an autoerotic spirituality or gays and lesbians who are objectively disordered or non-Christians who are gravely deficient, and on and on, he is very tough in his language.

BH: Regensburg turned out to be the first real controversy of this pontificate. Can you talk a little bit about what was behind that gaffe and his response?

DG: I do think it was a mistake in the sense that Benedict wants to challenge Islam a little more forthrightly than John Paul II did. John Paul also advocated very much for reciprocity, that is allowing Christians to have the same rights in Muslim countries and Muslims have in Christian countries. And that’s a big issue.

You have to face the fact that there are Christians who are persecuted in African countries and in Southeast Asian countries to a terrible degree. But the baffling thing about the whole Regensburg speech is that he did not mean to challenge Islam. His lecture was on faith and reason and if anything, it was a real shot at us in the secularized West and especially liberal Protestants, and those who privilege reason over faith. So he uses a weird anecdote from 600 years ago.

He hasn’t realized that he’s not just an academic theologian. He is the pope, a head of state. What he says is going to have a huge resonance. And he invoked this anecdote at the beginning to talk about the problems when faith becomes fanaticism. Of course, he could have used any number of examples of Catholic or Christian history to do that but that would have required a bit more introspection and Joseph Ratzinger is not an introspective person.

He has talked about the masochism of the various apologies that church leaders have made for sins of the past especially John Paul II who enunciated what I call the theology of apology, making more than 100 formal apologies over his pontificate from everything from the church’s treatment of women to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the slave trade, the treatment of Muslims. Benedict was not on board with that. He did not like that and he is not someone who is going to apologize.

After Regensburg, he expressed regret for the reaction to his comments and he said they don’t reflect his views of the Koran but he hasn’t apologized for the comments themselves. He also does not like the Church to be seen as weak or retreating. He has a very high vision of the Church and of the papacy.

“My faith is not about who is the pope. I think that is one of the most salutary things about this whole transition. As I looked up there on the balcony and wondered who is that wearing John Paul II’s clothes, I also realized for the first time that the papacy, the pope, is not about a person. The office exists. The popes come and go. And while they are very important to us, it is not the faith.”

He says these things and he can be completely right in what he says but as pope he has to realize that people suffer. Nuns get shot in the back. Churches get burned. What he says is going to have a real life consequence and that is always going to be a difficulty for him: connecting the abstract principle with the idea that words can wound.

BH: There are many instances in the book where you talk about a student uprising in 1968 at the university in Tubingen where he taught. I get the sense that all of that activity, all of that conflict, all of that unrest scared him a bit. Is that fair to say?

DG: Yeah I do think that is fair to say. It just overwhelmed him and that has been a motif of his life since then. A real fight against organizing and activism and reform and all those kind of things. He is an Augustinian at heart. He has that idea that it is only by the grace of God that we can do anything and that anything that smacks of human endeavor, of organizing, of reform, of doing something to improve especially something about the church is really wrong-headed. He speaks very critically of those kinds of efforts and again, since he has been pope, he has stressed very much that Catholicism is about contemplation. It is about prayer and devotion. It is about contemplating the mysteries of faith. It is not about being active. As he said just a few weeks ago, faith and parish life is not about projects or plans drawn on a blackboard. It is about coming to mass. That’s it.

BH: In America, we clearly have a different culture. How do you think that will play out here or in the rest of the world?

DG: I don’t think it plays out that well. In North America, for example, you see parishes that are very intentional. They try and reach out to young people and try and create ministries for others and they are extremely successful. There will always be people in parishes where they really only want to come to the liturgy and that is fine. That’s wonderful. But a lot of parishes, the ones that are really successful, are the ones that are really out there putting their faith into action. In the Southern Hemisphere, in Asia, Latin America and Africa especially, you see social justice is the way that the faith is embodied and I have a whole chapter about that because I think that is hugely important. We are often debating issues of sexuality and women priests and married priests which are important discussions to have but activism is also vitally important. It’s a matter of life and death for the nearly three quarters of Catholics in the world who live below the equator in areas of extreme poverty. That’s where embodying the faith and putting it into culture, not just as one on one charity, which is what Benedict sees social justice as being, but in terms of changing society and constantly renewing our wounded world.

BH: One of the legacies of John Paul’s papacy is how he was instrumental in helping Poland free itself from Soviet control. John Paul II frequently spoke out against war and injustice. Do you think we will see less interaction on the world stage and with heads of state under Pope Benedict XVI?

DG: Yes. He will still speak out against war and fighting poverty but not in a concerted way and also he cannot travel as much. He has taken four foreign trips so far and two of them have been back to Germany. And he said he is not going to travel very much. He is not going to make visible the successor of Peter as an agent of justice, a champion of justice out there. And he also wants minimize the profile of the papacy, especially politically. He has already cut out so many meetings with heads of state that John Paul would have done. Diplomats and ambassadors who come to the Holy City often don’t see him.

BH: Is that unusual for a pope?

DG: John Paul met with everybody coming through town. The number of audiences and talks he gave was just overwhelming and Benedict wants to reduce that. But again, there is also a difficulty. It is a changed world. When we had John Paul elected, it was an East/West world. It was visibly marked by the Berlin Wall. John Paul left that wall and helped bring it down a decade later in 1989. It’s a much more complex and different world and we see that vis-a-vis Islam, which many see as the communism of today. But it’s not as easy, as we’ve seen, to battle communism. I would say in Catholic terms and in world terms that the wall may not be East/West but North/South between the industrialized wealthy North and the poverty stricken and underdeveloped South. But that’s not a wall that Benedict is really going to leap. And the relation with Islam, which is one of the real reasons that got him elected, is going to be much more problematic.

BH: A lot of our readers are spiritual seekers who are perhaps not involved in a faith community at all. As Catholic convert, what keeps you here and what is your message of hope for people out there who are in the same shoes you were maybe 20 years ago looking for faith?

DG: I have great hope for so many reasons. My faith is not about who is the pope. I think that is one of the most salutary things about this whole transition. As I looked up there on the balcony and wondered who is that wearing John Paul II’s clothes, I also realized for the first time that the papacy, the pope, is not about a person. The office exists. The popes come and go. And while they are very important to us, it is not the faith. It’s an important thing but it is not the faith. I’m a Catholic because of the Eucharist, because of the Catholic Church, because of the universality of the Church, because of other Catholics. There is so much to Catholicism that I love apart from the truth of Catholicism which is why I’m a Catholic.

Places like BustedHalo, congregations like the one I go to, parishes all across the country, the priests, the nuns, the whole culture of Catholicism, the debate that goes on in Catholicism, the controversy itself, the living with the tension, the living with 2000 years of saints and many, many sinners, lots of them popes, lots of them people just like me, is why I’m a Catholic.

Benedict, at World Youth Day in May last year when he went to Cologne, had a great line at a closing mass with hundreds of thousands of young people. He said, ‘the problem with do-it-yourself religion is that in the end, that leaves us all alone.’ And I think that’s really true. Again, there is so much to Catholicism. And I’ve been lucky. I’ve seen Catholicism in Cuba, in Zimbabwe, and in Asia, and in Europe, and in North America and all over world. So I had this wonderful sense of the universality of it and the very challenge of it both to myself as a Christian, myself as a Catholic, to the wider culture, and to our church. That engages me. It doesn’t drive me away.

BH: You are somebody who has made a choice to opt into the Church while in Rome at the Vatican which is an interesting decision. If you saw the institutional church that close up and it didn’t drive you away, then there must have been something holy going on there…

DG: Absolutely. The Italians say, ‘Once you’ve seen Rome, you’re faith is gone.’ But the reality is that there are lots of wonderful people who work in the Vatican. And they are not wonderful because they are saints. They are wonderful because they are sinners like me. And they are sinning saints on their journey of sanctification. I guess Protestantism or what I was raised with is so much about justification. Meaning being saved, finding grace, believing. But what happens afterward? Again, that’s where I have some issues with Benedict. In America in particular, people believe in everything and anything, but it’s a question of sanctification, becoming holy. How do we do that? Where is the community that we find to help us become better Christians on this pilgrim journey. And from the Vatican to St. Paul the Apostle on the West Side of Manhattan, I find that same journey of wonderful and flawed people who are helping bring me along. And I find that here more than any other community that I’ve come across.