The Irrelevance of Benedict XVI According to Gary Wills

Just a brief observation.

Today, during my weekly routine of reading through the NYT Sunday Magazine (for those who prefer to read it segmented online in advance of Sunday’s print edition — I have no sympathy.  I prefer the print version), I noticed that this week’s interview was with famed historian Gary Wills.  Indeed, one of the most prolific american historians of the last fifty years, Wills has often written about his own Catholic faith (most famously, Why Am I Catholic, 2002), while also dabbling in authorial projects related to the Gospels (What Jesus Meant, 2006), the writings of St. Paul (What Paul Meant, 2007) and the life and thought of St. Augustine (several books).

Now, as you well know, the one-page weekly interview in the Times Magazine is hardly substantive.  Instead, it offers a brief glimpse into the musings of a particular public figure at a particular time.  It’s frequently (seemingly) random.  It’s also very “hit-or-miss” in quality and content.

Today’s caught my attention because, in addition to having read 5 of Wills’s books, a very brief two-question exchange was striking.  It appears as follows:

You’re an observant Catholic. What are your thoughts these days about Pope Benedict XVI?
I think he’s irrelevant.

Irrelevant to what?
To religion; to the Gospel.

Powerful and direct stuff!  Some people are going to read this and get all upset about the disrespectful potency of such a remark.  I would challenge such people to take Wills’s response seriously.  As someone who is indeed serious about his faith and has studied both the history of the papacy and the New Testament, I think Wills offers the reader something to ponder.  Is Pope Benedict XVI irrelevant today?  And, if so, how has the pontiff become irrelevant?  Has he made himself such?

While I disagree that any living pope is entirely irrelevant to “religions” or to “the Gospel,”  I do believe that the pontifical foci of recent decades has necessarily marginalized the moral, spiritual and theological voice of the Bishop of Rome.  My sense is that this is what Wills is also noting.  How does one become relevant to religion and the Gospel?  By speaking to a world that cries out for such direction and insight, in light of the Gospel and the message of Christ — not in contrast to it or in variations on a discriminating theme.

I hope that folks who read Wills’s remarks (by the way, the rest of the short interview is also interesting, making this week’s version a “hit” and not necessarily a “miss”) will take to heart an honest observation made and not ready pitchforks and torches to hunt a Christian making an insightful critique.

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One Response to “The Irrelevance of Benedict XVI According to Gary Wills”

  1. I don’t want to be flip, but it is hard to not make some snarky remark about how anti-Catholic the NYT is…

    OK, now that I have that out of the way, thanks for posting this. Reading the NYT is not something I can do with ease these days due to my crazy schedule.

    Benedict is an interesting case. So many want to make him a hero alone – or simply a villain. I am not an either/or person, but rather a both/and. And to understand him is to see the context.

    Now that he is irrelevant – another matter. I think Wills makes a point worth considering but one that is hard for folks of either stripe to just sit with.

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