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Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church

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Ratzinger Report

Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Now that Joseph Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI, his past statements on religion, politics, and the Catholic Church are being examined much more closely. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had significant power and influence, but as pope, he wields even more. Fortunately, he was somewhat unusual in the extent of his writings on so many different subjects, so there is a lot of material to go through.


Title: Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church
Author: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Vittorio Messori
Publisher: Ignatius Press
ISBN: 0898700809

• Early commentary by Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on conflicts in the church

• Analysis is of problems in 1984 - much has changed since then

• Interview of Joseph Ratzinger by an Italian journalist
• Ratzinger explains what he thinks about the state of the church

Book Review

Perhaps one of the most important books which those interested in understanding the views of Pope Benedict XVI should turn to is the Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church. This book is actually an extended interview of Ratzinger by Vittorio Messori back in 1985 and is billed as a diagnosis of problems within the Catholic Church — the threats, both internal and external, which Ratzinger thought should be countered. People in Ratzinger’s position didn’t typically make themselves available for such extended and in-depth interviews, so at the time this was regarded as a ground-braking work. In many ways, it perhaps still is.

A number of important facts become evident through the course of the interview. First, as prefect, Ratzinger always sought to separate his personal views from the obligations of this office. The fact that all decisions had to be made by a council of cardinals, rather than being left in the hands of a single person, made this easier. If this is merely a general principle, it’s interesting; if it’s something that had practical consequences, it’s very important. Did Joseph Ratzinger have “personal views” which differed, even slightly, from the decision he felt obligated to make? Did he personally feel that some decisions should have been more lenient, more harsh, or entirely different? Will he, as Pope Benedict XVI, have the opportunity to give his personal views more force?

Second, Ratzinger preferred to avoid dichotomous labels like conservative/progressive and left/right. He regarded such labels as being derived from political ideology and inapplicable to the Catholic Church. Perhaps this is true in theory, but in practice the Catholic Church is every bit as political as any national party, both in its internal activity and its relationship to outside organizations.

I can understand why someone in his position would prefer to go beyond such labels, but this doesn’t mean that the effort will be successful.

The biggest weakness in the book is Vittorio Messori himself. I don’t know what the quality of his usual work is, but his statements in this book cast serious doubt on his own reliability. According to Messori, he rejects the idea of a journalists’ job being “critical” or “tough” on those who are interviewed or written about. Instead, he regards his task as a journalist to “inform” people about the standpoint of being interviewed or written about.

It is true that journalists must inform, but Messori’s position here is ultimately nonsense. People like Ratzinger don’t need journalists to “inform” the public about what their positions are — that’s what public relations firms and spokesmen are for. A journalist’s job is to go beyond merely repeating the spin from press releases and explain to the public why certain positions are adopted, why others are rejected, what problems may exist in these positions, and what the consequences for people may be.

Ratzinger Report

Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

If Vittorio Messori is content to be someone else’s mouthpiece, a regurgitator of press releases and the spin which powerful interest groups put on their actions, that’s his business — but he shouldn’t dress it up by adopting the misleading label of “journalist.” By eschewing critical, tough, and probing questions, his book became much less than it could have been.

It’s a fine insight into what Pope Benedict XVI was thinking at the time, but given how prolific of an author he has been that was hardly necessary. Even if we accepted Messori as a journalist, however, he doesn’t do a good job in the book of differentiating between his own ideas and those of Ratzinger — a problem rectified in later book-length interviews of the current pope. So while the book still has some value, it should be approached carefully.

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