Pope Benedict XVI
I have shared before that prior to Pope Francis I didn’t pay much attention to the papacy. I don’t know why that’s the case. I have many peers who have deep love for Pope Benedict XVI and speak of him as having a profound impact on their own relationship with God. They speak about Benedict the way I speak about Francis. It’s not that I didn’t like Benedict, or John Paul II for that matter, it’s just that during their papacies I wasn’t at a place to hear what they had to say.
As a catechist, I eventually came to love Benedict’s teaching. His encyclicals Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi have not only been theologically rich for me but also deeply devotional texts about who God is. For how profound his theological writing was, Benedict always grounded the faith, not in abstract ideas, but in the encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. “Being a Christian,” Benedict wrote, “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
I have also gravitated toward several of his homilies and speeches. Three stand out in particular.
First, when I was an undergraduate student I wrote a paper about a 1969 German radio broadcast by then Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. Here the future pope describe what he believed the Church would eventually look like. Fr. Ratzinger famously said:
“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges.”
In this address I hear Ratzinger saying that the mission of the Church is not to occupy spaces of power and that grasping at social privileges is ultimately futile. Rather, he said:
“The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves. To put this more positively: The future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints.”
The second is a homily that Cardinal Ratzinger gave to the College of Cardinals shortly before he was elected pope. This homily included his famous phrase, “the dictatorship of relativism.” The cardinal warned against the temptation for Christians to be swept away by passing ideologies instead of remaining anchored in Christ.
This homily is what rang in my mind two years ago when folks carrying crosses violently attacked the U.S. Capitol building on January 6th, 2021. This event was an example of Christians allowing themselves to be transformed by their politics and ideologies, to the point of outright denying truth and reality. This event was the kind of relativism that Cardinal Ratzinger warned us against.
The third is Pope Benedict’s 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia. This is where he coined the term “hermeneutic of discontinuity.” This address has helped me understand how doctrine develops and given me greater trust in the Holy Spirit’s guidance and protection over the Church’s living tradition.
All of this is to say, I have come to love Pope Benedict. I believe his charisms of knowledge and teaching have benefited the Church in ways that will take generations to unpack. I also believe his personal relationship with Jesus is what guided his life to the very end.
However, every person’s legacy, even the most saintly, is a mixed bag of good and bad. More so maybe if that person was an international figure and leader.
Benedict’s legacy, like his predecessor and his successor, is tarred by the ongoing clerical sexual abuse scandal and coverup. As pope and as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict participated in a culture of clericalism and in structures of sin that began before he arrived and persist to this day.
The systemic covering up of abuse is no mere blemish, it is a cancer in Benedict’s legacy just as it is a cancer in the Church.
However, I also believe that Benedict was a deeply holy, saintly, human being. This was perhaps demonstrated to me most by his historic resignation from the papacy. Freely relinquishing power and authority, particularly the power and authority of the papacy, is no small thing. I believe only someone deeply conformed to Jesus Christ would be able to give that up if God asked them. That kind of humility and courage, to me, demonstrates real holiness.
I hope that the Church waits to canonize him until the cancer of the abuse coverup is actually dealt with. However, I also believe that Pope Benedict is now interceding for the Church before the our Father in Heaven, working in a new way to heal the Church of all the harm this scandal has caused.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.
Pope Benedict XVI, please continue to pray for the Church.