Over a period of about 15 years, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the German journalist Peter Seewald conducted a number of interviews with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The edited conversations appeared as two rather lengthy books, The Salt of the Earth and God and the World. Seewald’s pointed questions dealt with fundamental matters—God, creation, Incarnation, redemption, sin and grace—and Ratzinger’s answers—clear, succinct, illuminating—were marvels of the teacher’s art. Perhaps the most extraordinary fruit of these encounters was Seewald’s conversion from an unfocused agnosticism to a full embrace of the Catholic faith.
Two weeks ago, I was privileged to participate in the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Council for Culture. This curial department, led by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, concerns itself with the interface between the faith and the many facets of the contemporary culture. I had been asked to share some insights gleaned from the work that I do in my Word on Fire media ministry. The opening session of the meeting took place in a sumptuous room in a palazzo on the Campidoglio, the symbolic center of the city of Rome. That evening, we heard from a representative of French television and a professor of film at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
My favorite movie is “A Man For All Seasons,” a film based on the Robert Bolt play of the same name. I first saw it when I was in high school, and I’ve watched it at least once a year every year since then. When I was teaching full time at the seminary, I would show it to my students, and on June 22nd, I would offer a screening to my fellow faculty members. That date, of course, is not accidental, for it is the feast day of the great St. Thomas More, with whose final years the movie deals.
The Catholic Church is suffering mightily today from two self-inflicted wounds. The first is the clerical sex abuse scandal, involving the gross violation of the most vulnerable members of the community by some priests and the countenancing or enabling of this crime by some bishops. This outrage has been the perfect storm. Not only has it deeply wounded young people; it has also compromised the work of the church in almost every way, since it has undermined so thoroughly the credibility that the church requires in order to teach, preach, catechize, and evangelize. If you had asked me twenty years ago what the worst moment in American Catholic history was, I would have identified the mid nineteenth century, when anti-Catholic bigots were burning down convents, attacking priests, and organizing political parties whose purpose was the elimination of Catholicism on these shores. But now I would say that we are living, right now, through the worst moment in American Catholic history.
Lord Kenneth Clark is one of my intellectual heroes. Clark, who died in 1983, was for many years the director of the National Gallery in London and was generally recognized as one of the most insightful and influential art critics of the twentieth century. He burst into the popular consciousness in 1969 when his television program “Civilisation: A Personal View” became an unexpected international sensation. I watched this ten part series (and devoured the accompanying book) when I was a teen-ager, and Clark’s perspectives massively shaped my own thinking about history, aesthetics, and philosophy. When, a few years ago, I embarked on the production of a ten part documentary about Catholicism, emphasizing both the truth and the artistic beauty of the church, Kenneth Clark was my model and inspiration.