In Called to Communion, published in 1996, a decade before the beginning of his papacy, Joseph Ratzinger had some strong words to say about the bureaucratic machinery of the Church. He wrote:
The more administrative machinery we construct, be it the most modern, the less place there is for the Spirit, the less place there is for the Lord, and the less freedom there is.
He added that in his opinion, “we ought to begin an unsparing examination of conscience on this point at all levels of the Church”. In a later collection of essays, titled Images of Hope, he observed that “the saints were all people of imagination, not functionaries of apparatuses.”
In recent days one senses that this unsparing examination of conscience might finally have begun. One also senses that in the papacy of Benedict XVI the Church had one of the greatest theologians occupying the Chair of Peter in centuries, but that for all his high intelligence, he never quite managed to contend with the bureaucratic machinery and it often let him down.
The decision to abdicate would not have been a decision made lightly given Benedict’s respect for historical precedent and the sacramental nature of his office. He is the last person on the planet to think of the papacy as a job. He never thought of himself as the CEO of a multinational corporation and he sharply rebuked those whose ecclesiology was borrowed from the Harvard School of Business or, worse, some Green-Left women’s collective. Christ was and is a Priest, a Prophet and a King, not a business manager. Benedict believes that the Church is nothing less than the Universal Sacrament of Salvation and the Bride of Christ. For him the keys of Peter are no mere mythic symbol. So a decision to abdicate could only have been made on the basis that he thought worse things might happen to embarrass and confuse the Church’s 1.2 billion faithful if he lacked the strength to govern.
Possible Like-Minded Successors
The challenge in choosing Benedict’s successor is finding someone who has the strength and ability to deal with the administrative side of the office of the papacy while retaining at least some of the intellectual flair and imagination of Benedict and his predecessor. There are many who think that either Cardinal Angelo Scola or Cardinal Marc Ouellet could carry these responsibilities. Certainly both are exceptionally intellectually gifted and are men of imagination, not functionaries. They are also in a similar intellectual mould to Benedict. They share the same interpretations of the Second Vatican Council and they are very much across the theological anthropology and moral theology of Blessed John Paul II. Scola’s most important book, The Nuptial Mystery, and Ouellet’s most important book, Divine Likeness: Towards a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family, build on the foundations of John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love, his trilogy of encyclicals devoted to each Person of the Trinity, the moral theology of Veritatis Splendor, and the vision of a culture of life and love set forth in Evangelium Vitae. They and quite a few other members of the College of Cardinals are completely on team with this theological project.
Cardinal James Stafford, Cardinal Francis George and Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, for example, are also men who are exceptionally intellectually gifted and have devoted themselves to following the leadership of Blessed John Paul II and then Benedict XVI. Caffarra was so strongly attacked in the press for defending Humanae Vitae he received a letter of support and encouragement from Sr. Lucia of Fatima. (When you start receiving support letters from someone who has private audiences with the Mother of God you know that you must be very high on the devil’s hate list.) Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, who is the second youngest member of the College of Cardinals, has also distinguished himself in battles for a civilization of life and love against those caught up in the culture of death, as has Cardinal Peter Turkson who also has a reputation for leonine courage.
It is worth mentioning these names in a piece about Benedict,not to get side-tracked but to make the point that one thing that Benedict has achieved, at great personal cost to himself, is that in soldiering on—accepting the keys of Peter while the Church is attacked by sexual perverts from within and militant atheists from without and while the Church is still contending with loopy interpretations of the Second Vatican Council—he has given the younger men, the Scolas, Ouellets and Caffaras, time to gain the administrative experience of running important archdioceses. He has held on until the next generation of hero-Cardinals is capable of moving forward.
He has also had some significant achievements on the ecumenical front and in so many ways one can say that his was a papacy dedicated to Christian unity. Since the divisions within Christianity often occur precisely because of bureaucratic heavy-handedness and intellectual narrowness it takes someone like a Ratzinger/Benedict with a deep sense of history and nose for cultural sensitivities to set about mending the bridges. It would be an interesting exercise to collect a list of names of prominent Protestant scholars who converted during this pontificate precisely because they could relate to Benedict intellectually. He spoke their Christocentric dialect and was equally at home with them in the field of Scripture studies. He broke the mould of the Catholic leader who cites dogma more often than Scripture.
Two disaster fronts on which he worked particularly hard were those of the English schism of 1570 and the Lefebrvist schism of 1988. His provision of an Anglican Ordinariate for members of the Church of England and its international affiliates who were doctrinally 99% Catholic and who were prepared to become 100% Catholic if they were allowed to bring their high Anglican liturgy and a few other English cultural accoutrements with them, is one example of his use of imagination to help a whole group of people to enter into full Communion.
When it comes to the Lefebrvists it is sadly the case that they can be incredibly narrow minded and neurotic. They are into conspiracy theories and many are latently Jansenist (and some not so latently). Nonetheless, on their behalf one could say that prior to the Second Vatican Council, France had a very high Catholic culture. One can still find vestiges of it in the great Benedictine monasteries and the villages that surround them. The Church in France had many martyrs during the Revolution. Some estimates of the revolutionaries’ death toll are as high as one million. Given this it is not surprising that a significant proportion of the French Catholic population was deeply indignant when in the 1960s, after the Council, clerical leaders were going out of their way to affirm the values of the Revolution and to destroy the solemn liturgical traditions. Anyone who has read The Dialogues of the Carmelites by George Bernanos, based on the story of the martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns from the convent of Compiègne, will readily appreciate how daft it would be to try to wipe this heroism from the French historical memory or otherwise trivialize the sacrifices made at the time of the Revolution.
This is all to say that when dealing with schisms one really has to address the historical memories, not just the doctrinal formulae, and Benedict XVI was very good at this. He did however take an enormous amount of flak for trying to bring home lost sheep. Hans Küng, for example, grabbed the tabloids’ interest by saying that in creating the Ordinariate and holding out olive branches to the Lefebvists, Benedict was fishing for converts in the muddy waters of right-wing extremism. It probably says an enormous amount about where Hans Küng sits theologically when he regards common garden variety high Church Anglicans as right-wing extremists.
In both cases, that of the creation of the Ordinariate, and that of the issue of Summorum Pontificum (which wasn’t just for Lefebvrists, but for all those who loved the Missal of St Pius V), the most common criticism inside the Church came from canon lawyers who thought these gracious gestures created a lot of administrative untidiness. However, as Benedict XVI observed when he was a Cardinal, those who preferred the Rite of antique usage had been treated like lepers and this was just not right. One cannot, on the one hand, honor the memory of the English martyrs who were sent to the scaffold because they attended this Rite contrary to the edict of a Protestant monarch, and, on the other hand, ban Catholics of the contemporary era from attending the same Rite as if there were something defective about it. This point was made by Cardinal Heenan of Westminster to Pope Paul VI. Similarly, there is something very illogical about tolerating the use of pidgin-English in the liturgy (banal modern hymns, etc.), while balking at the Anglicans’ King James English.
Ratzinger had always made the point that there is nothing wrong with having a number of different Rites in use providing each particular Rite is of apostolic provenance rather than something cooked up by a committee of academics or the parish liturgy team last Saturday. He was a liturgical pluralist, not someone with a mania for bureaucratic tidiness.
The members of the Anglican Ordinariate are likely to revere his memory for a very long time and the Lefebrvists may well be wishing that they treated him with more respect and were not so recalcitrant. He will also be remembered with great affection by the leaders of the Eastern Churches. He went out of his way to include quotations from the Eastern Church Fathers in his homilies and he invited Patriarch Bartholomew I to the Synod on the Word held in 2008. Patriarch Bartholomew described the gesture as “an important step towards restoration to full Communion”.
Key Documents and Addresses
In terms of his magisterial teaching, Benedict XVI wrote three encyclicals and four apostolic exhortations. Sadly, a fourth encyclical on the theological virtue of faith remains in draft form and may never be released. It would have completed the suite of encyclicals on the theological virtues. The first, Deus Caritas Est, was focused on the theological virtue of love, and the second, Spe salvi, on the theological virtue of hope. Deus Caritas Est dealt with the relationship between eros and agape and offered a reply to the Nietzschean charge that Christianity had killed eros. It also reiterated the central idea of the Conciliar document Dei Verbum, which the young Fr. Ratzinger had helped to draft, that Truth is a Person.
Spe salvi was the antidote to the liberal reading of Gaudium et spes. It makes the point that the only “thing” in which we may legitimately hope is Jesus Christ and that modern ideologies, which can be lethal, are mere mutations of Christian hope.
The third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, was a masterful synthesis of late twentieth-century papal social teaching, with a special emphasis on the social implications of the Trinitarian anthropology of John Paul II. At its core was the principle that a “humanism without Christ is an inhuman humanism”. It made the point that social justice without Christ is a recipe for secularism.
In many of his addresses Benedict also emphasized that love and reason are the twin pillars of all reality. The love and reason relationship and the faith and reason relationship were themes to which he often returned. One sensed that he was trying to reconcile the Thomist and Franciscan traditions in a higher synthesis. Rather than a system which gives typical Thomist priority to truth or one which gives typical Bonaventurian priority to love, he insisted that love and reason are equally foundationally significant — thus the notion of ‘twin pillars’.
Although at the time of its delivery the Regensburg Address was regarded as a public relations disaster, for those who take the time to read the whole academic address, what it offers is a deep analysis of the faith and reason relationship. As Fr. James V. Schall, SJ, explained in his book, The Regensburg Lecture, the central thesis of the Address is that both contemporary militant Islam and contemporary militant western liberalism share the same voluntarist starting point. Each one makes the mistake of thinking that what is true is linked to someone’s will, rather than what is true being linked to what is good. For the militant Islamists truth is linked to the will of Allah, for the militant liberals truth is linked to the will of the individual. The point Benedict was making was that an irrational voluntarism is a common pathological property of Eastern Islamists and Western Liberals. The problem however is that the average journalist has no anthropology, no conceptual scaffold in which to plug ideas like the will and goodness, the will and truth, truth and goodness etc. The low level of education of newspaper journalists makes it very difficult for world leaders to communicate anything more than shallow sound-bites. This was not merely a problem for Benedict but it remains an issue for any deep thinking world leader.
The Apostolic Exhortations addressed the topics of liturgical theology, revelation and Scripture, the situation of the Church in Africa and the situation of the Church in the Middle East. The first two reflect Benedict’s own theological priorities and interests, the last two the distinctive problems of the faithful in Africa and the Middle East. Of these the first two will be of enduring theological value while the last two are likely to provide something of a pastoral plan or at least a significant briefing paper for the new pontiff.
In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict summarized the high drama of the Eucharist in the following terms:
The substantial conversion of bread and wine into His body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission,” which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28).
In the same document Benedict concluded that everything pertaining to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty.
There is no doubt that beauty is Benedict’s “favorite transcendental”. He shares St. Augustine’s and St. Bonaventure’s and closer to our own time, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s attraction to the transcendental of beauty and this comes across very strongly in his liturgical theology. As a Cardinal he coined the expressions “parish tea party liturgy”, “primitive emotionalism” and “pastoral pragmatism” to refer to the post-1968 trend to make the Mass more like a Protestant fellowship gathering. He said that this was analogous to the Hebrews’ worship of the Golden Calf — a pathetic attempt to “bring God down to the level of the people” that is nothing short of apostasy.
Although it is taking time for his liturgical theology to reach suburban parishes it is being taken up by the BXVI generation of seminarians and taught in the more serious academic institutions such as the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein. The effects should start to filter down to the parochial level within a decade.
Verbum Domini, the second Apostolic Exhortation, addressed the issue of how God relates to the human person through revelation, Scripture and Tradition. Themes included the cosmic dimension of the word, the realism of the word, Christology and the word, the eschatological dimension of the word, the word of God and the Holy Spirit, and God the Father, source and origin of the word. This particular exhortation amplified the central theses of Dei Verbum and the general Trinitarian Christo-centrism of the Council.
Finally, though not of magisterial standing, the Jesus of Nazareth books were read by millions of people and helped to repair some of the damage of so-called scripture scholars who approach the sacred texts without faith. Even here however, journalists tried to spin paragraphs in ways they were never intended. Thus, Benedict’s statement that the ox and the ass at the Christmas crib are symbolic of the Jews and the Gentiles was reported as, “pope says that there was no donkey”.
An Intellectual Treasury
When his magisterial teaching is combined with his scholarly output of over fifty books and God alone knows how many academic articles and scholarly homilies, Ratzinger/Benedict has offered future generations of Catholics an intellectual treasury. As it is commonly said of St. Augustine, if anyone says that they have read everything Ratzinger/Benedict has written, they are stretching the truth. It may also be the case that just as today we only know about Donatists because Augustine had to contend with them, future generations may only know about parish tea party liturgy because it was a strange late 20th-century phenomenon with which Ratzinger had to contend.
In his early life he went to war against the dualistic tendencies in neo-scholasticism, then in the late 1960s he took on the fight against “correlationism” (accommodating ecclesial belief and practices to the spirit of the times). After that it was liberation theology, various problems in Christology, ecclesiology and moral theology and finally militant atheism. Given the successive waves of intellectual combat Pope Benedict has endured in the service of the Church he loves, a future pope may well declare Benedict XVI a Doctor of the Church. If that happens, I think he should also be honored as the patron saint of people who are oppressed by bureaucracy, especially bureaucracies run by philistines.
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