The fifth anniversary of Pope Benedict’s pontificate arrives amidst confident pronouncements of its failure: “Little to Celebrate,” “Besieged by Questions,” run the headlines. But how will Catholics and historians a century from now view it? They will likely see it as a very consequential and reforming one, a turning point in the restoration of orthodoxy and holiness to the Church and greater truth to the world.
Contrary to today’s conventional wisdom, Pope Benedict did not create a “Church in crisis”; he inherited one. But instead of throwing up his hands and succumbing to doctrinal and disciplinary drift, he has been planting seeds of reform that will germinate and produce great fruit in the decades to come.
To the dismay of those largely responsible for the abuse scandal in the Church, he restored the long-neglected ban on the ordination of homosexuals to the priesthood, which is the single most important reform in eliminating the scandal.
To address catechetical collapse and the scandal of unchallenged heresy, he has issued a steady stream of important speeches, encyclicals, and clarifications, such as the CDF’s Doctrinal Note on Evangelization, and repeatedly urged bishops to confront Catholic public figures who defy and distort Church teaching.
To address laxity and chaos within dioceses, he has called for a revival of canon law and used the occasion of the retirement of derelict and dissenting bishops like Roger Mahony to name orthodox replacements.
To arrest secularization of the liturgy and end a poisonous atmosphere of contempt for tradition within ecclesiastical circles, he issued Summorum Pontificum, which authorizes wider use of the Traditional Latin Mass and makes clear to all Catholics that the old Mass and the new Mass express the same changeless theology.
To redirect vague and feckless ecumenism and interreligous dialogue toward more fruitful and serious ends, he has undertaken historic initiatives such as Anglicanorum Coetibus and launched important talks with the Eastern Orthodox.
But perhaps his most lasting contribution to reform, apart from any one reform or initiative, will come from the progress he makes in removing the wedge dissenters have driven between the pre-Vatican II Church and the post-Vatican II Church. Therein lies the fundamental source of much of the confusion and crisis in the Church, as Pope Benedict is keenly aware. He observed earlier this year that “after the Second Vatican Council some were convinced that all would be made new, that another Church was being made, that the pre-conciliar Church was finished and we would have another totally ‘other’ [Church].” He called this movement within the Church “anarchic utopianism.”
Defeating the anarchic utopians inside the Church and the dictators of relativism outside it was the tricky and thankless task before him five years ago. He is receiving little gratitude in his own lifetime for undertaking it, but future generations will thank him. At a time when the West demands “reason” without faith and the East advances faith without reason, he stands as the still point synthesizing the two for the betterment of the Church and the world.