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In memory of Pope Benedict XVI: who he was and why he mattered

In memory of Pope Benedict XVI: who he was and why he mattered

With the recent death of Pope Benedict XVI, a Theos writer has looked at who he was, and asks what was his legacy? 05/01/2022

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been laid to rest. A Priest for 70 years, Pope for eight. One of – if not the – most influential figures in 20th century Catholic thought, Benedict’s whole life was the Church. He entered seminary not long after the end of World War II, and had apparently informed his family as a small boy that when he grew up, he wanted to be a Cardinal.  A great reformer, and a conservative traditionalist: he leaves behind a distinctive – and decidedly complex – legacy.  

Benedict wrote and thought with style and razor–sharp intellect. He will be remembered as one of the Church’s greatest modern theologians. His body of work will be difficult to surpass, and his encyclicals – especially his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, will be remembered fondly. Though Francis is often depicted as radically opposed to contemporary capitalism, Benedict’s teaching on the role of the state and the proper ordering of the free market, as set out in Caritas in Veritae, uphold and develop Catholic Social Thought with remarkable lucidity.  

He thought brilliantly, but at his best, he moved from academic to pastoral with ease. His writings as Cardinal Ratzinger develop a contemporary Christology – for instance, in Introduction to Christianity. Meanwhile, his writings as Pope Benedict reflect perhaps a more pastoral outlook – the broad appeal of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy is a good example of this, being both accessible and highly informative.  

Overall, Benedict put Christ at the heart of his thought and writing: ‘He [Christ] has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little.’ He fully embraced Vatican II’s call to evangelisation, and sought to frame the Church’s social teachings and action around Christological grounds.  

Internally, Benedict continued the work of dealing with some of the reverberations of Vatican II. His motu proprio (papal letter) on the Extraordinary Form of the mass – sometimes called the ‘Latin Mass’ – allowed Catholics with a preference for the older liturgical form to access the liturgy they felt comfortable with. This re–opened liturgical debates across the Church that have unquestionably been divisive. However, it was with an open and ecclesial heart that Benedict allowed the Extraordinary Form to be accessible.  

But the great task of the contemporary Papacy is not merely theological pronouncement, or to control a city–state. It is also to guide the Church both in and against modernity, to steer a vast and ancient organisation into the future. The echoes of Vatican II – the Church’s preeminent attempt at reconciliation with the modern world – reverberate around modern day Catholicism. Now, the Church’s relationships with the State and with Capital are just as important as her ecumenical work – work which Benedict championed. 

At Westminster Hall in London and at the Bundestag in Berlin, Benedict spoke about the relationship of Catholicism to modernity with nuance and intellect. He pronounced on various topics, and recognised the crucial importance of prudence and conscience for modern–day Catholic life. Unguarded remarks, though, at Regensburg in 2006 threatened to derail relations with the Muslim world early in his Papacy.  

The Church is reeling from the abuse crisis and financial scandals – and in this regard, Benedict will be remembered as a reformer at times, and a man who looked the other way at others. He was in many ways a deeply skilled administrator, and in many others a failure.  

Benedict created a financial regulator, to cast a careful eye over all Vatican finances. What’s more, he made Ettore Gotti Tedeschi – an outsider in Catholic circles – President of the Vatican bank in 2009. He made much of a ‘no–nonsense’ approach to the sex abuse crisis. He laicised over 700 priests, and improved the safeguarding process. Going forward, the Church is now safer. But many would argue that he failed on historical cases. To his critics, Benedict was too unwilling to see a Church that had men within it who had simply abused power, and too willing to shift blame to homosexual clergy or the moral laxity of the sixties or relativist theologians.  

He made Cardinal Bertone Secretary of State  – a man who was promptly investigated for financial crimes. As Paul Vallely argued in the Guardian, ‘Benedict was outmanoeuvred by those in the Vatican who wanted nothing to change’, because, fundamentally, ‘Benedict refused to sack his old friend.’ Before he resigned the Papacy, calls for him to step down over his financial inaction and alleged cover–ups as Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith were already gathering.  

And then he resigned the Papacy. The first to do so in nearly 600 years, and the first to do of his own volition in 800. A man often painted as the great traditionalist ended his papacy with a quietly revolutionary act.  

The Papacy is political. The Church has internal politics, like any other organisation, and there are factions, and blocs, and all the other things one would expect. It takes clarity of intention, and real moral courage, to step aside when your ‘team’ are telling you to stay on. Yet Benedict listened to the Spirit, and stepped down. In the eyes of the world, he may well be ‘The Pope Who Resigned’ – and many of his obituaries have reminded us of the rarity of the act of papal resignation. This was an act to be celebrated, a progressive move that understands modern medicine’s impact on the papacy, and the nature of the papacy itself. 

What is more – and this must be stressed – he truly did retire. Speculation at the time was rife that he would be a ‘Pope behind the scenes’, that he would use his influence and following. Barring a storm in a teacup on his involvement (or lack thereof) with a book by Cardinal Sarah, there was little by way of controversy around Benedict as Pope Emeritus.  

It’s easy to forget just how much power Benedict wielded with certain clergy, and how influential he was. Had he taken another path, he could have left the Church in utter disarray. Instead, he retreated to a monastery, where, despite his failing health, he prayed, and wrote, and lived in communion with his brothers. He spent 70 years as a priest, held the highest office, and died requesting to be known as Father Benedict. According to reports, his last comprehensible words were, “Lord, I love you”.  

If you want an example of how to be a good Catholic, you need look no further than Mary, Mother of Christ. Her radical, unbelievable act is submission to God’s will – ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.’ For all the power a Pope wields, perhaps that is their ultimate test – that they obey when it matters.  

Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.

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