“If the papacy be dead, then the Catholic Church is dead,” wrote Msgr. Ronald Knox around the mid-point of the past century, “and if the Catholic Church be dead, Christ has failed. Close down the churches. Shut up the Bible.” The enemies of the Church seem to understand this far better at times than do many Catholics. The slanderous and often vile attacks on Benedict XVI are upsetting, to be sure, but they also are evidence of the living truth of the Catholic faith, the radical relevance of the Catholic Church, and, increasingly, the greatness of the man who has been the Vicar of Christ for the past five years.
Many of the enemies of Benedict—who are, first and foremost, the enemies of Christ and his Church—believe (with a religious fervor, it should be noted) that history is a stream of progress, evolutionary and relentless. This belief, as Ratzinger outlines in several works, has a roots in the eschatological vision of men such as Joachim of Fiore, blossomed during the Enlightenment (“Hegel’s logic of history”), and has flooded the world via numerous channels—Marxism, National Socialism, liberation theology, and so forth—during the past century. This false messianism, refracted throughout Western culture in countless different forms, has been a focal point of much of Benedict’s thought and writing. But it is a point found within what Father Aidan Nichols, writing in 1988, described as “a far wider vision of faith and the Church.” Father Nichols, a great theologian in his own right, expressed, in The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger (T&T Clark, 1988; revised 2005), his admiration for the “impressive coherence of that vision.”
If anything, the pontificate of Benedict XVI has amply measured up to that praise. The form and content of the recent attacks on the Holy Father bear this out. Rarely do they engage with the thought and teaching of Benedict. The angry throng that would arrest and prosecute Benedict cannot compete in the realm of knowledge, ideas, and logic. Their main weapons are fear, misrepresentation, self-righteous hypocrisy, and appeals to base impulses. They float in the sludge of the modern stream—a stream, Ratzinger noted in Salt of the Earth, that indeed contains both good and bad—apoplectic that an octogenarian in Rome would dare to call into question any part of the modern project.
“A dead thing can go with the stream,” Chesterton slyly noted, “but only a living thing can go against it.” Benedict has spent five years reminding the Church and the world that Catholicism is a living thing, whose life flows from the Author of life, the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. He has done this through a series of brilliant and engaging audiences on the Apostles, Church Fathers, and various saints. His three encyclicals have been bracing calls to return to fundamentals, while being the furthest thing from “fundamentalism,” a label many (including not a few Catholics) have sought to attach to Benedict’s teaching and actions. His encouragement of the extraordinary form of the Mass has infuriated a dying breed of liturgical nihilists while infusing life into the worship of the Church. By opening the door for Anglicans, he has exposed the failures of ecumenical endeavors too concerned with getting along at any cost and too afraid of real unity.
Benedict openly acknowledges his debt to Paul, Augustine, Benedict of Nursia, Bonaventure, Guardini, and von Balthasar, whose profound thoughts on Christ, history, culture, liturgy, and ecclesiology are evident in his writings. But I wonder if he might be compared, in some significant way, to Athanasius, who fought so hard to defend and uphold the teachings of the Council of Nicaea, even while numerous bishops and other Catholics fell into the errors of Arianism. Benedict, like John Paul II, has worked to defend—to take back firmly, really—the Second Vatican Council, which for too long has been used for purposes contrary to authentic Catholic doctrine, practice, life, and worship.
Yes, the saying, “Athanasius contra mundum” (“Athanasius against the world”), often seems applicable to Benedict. He is a serene and cerebral Papa, but also a strong and steady disciple of the Lord. Many have tried to exile him from the public square and banish him from the world stage. John Paul II was continually attacked for proclaiming what it means to be truly human in an often inhuman and anti-human world. Benedict, in a similar way (although with a different style) has proclaimed what it means to be a true Catholic in a world that often spits in the face of the Church. The spitting will continue. “But,” as Knox wrote, “Peter is still here.”