Benedict XVI: An Apology

I wish my book on Pope Benedict XVI to be a popular and accessible sketch of a great historical figure, in my judgment one of the greatest popes in the Church’s history, who ought to be more popular.

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he leaves his final general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Feb. 27, 2013. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Editor’s note: The following is an exclusive excerpt of the Prologue to Joseph Pearce’s forthcoming book, Benedict  `: Defender of the Faith.

Like most people, or at least like most Catholics, I remember exactly where I was on April 2, 2005, the day on which John Paul II died. Minutes after hearing the doom-laden news, I gathered together with Father Joseph Fessio and a small group of students on the campus of Ave Maria University in Florida, in the open air, to pray for the pope. I don’t remember the actual prayers that were said but I do recall that we sang the Salve Regina, beseeching the intercession of the Blessed Virgin for the pope and for the Church.

Even as we grieved for the passing of one pope, our minds and prayers were already turning to thoughts of the next. The Church was under siege from her secularist enemies from without and was being betrayed by the modernist fifth columnists from within. She was in need of a strong and faithful shepherd to protect the flock from the wolves outside her walls, baying for her blood, and the wolves in sheep’s clothing within her own ranks, betraying her with a kiss. Even though we knew that Christ would protect His Bride, it was difficult to avoid feelings of anxiety as we awaited the election of John Paul’s, and Peter’s, successor.

Like most Catholics, I also remember where I was on April 19, 2005, the day on which Pope Benedict XVI was elected. I was once again on the campus of Ave Maria University and, in union with Catholics around the world, was waiting with bated breath for news from the conclave. As the chapel bell of the university began to chime, I knew that the wait was over. White smoke must have risen from the chimney above the Vatican. We had a new pope! I rushed to the cafeteria where a large group of students and faculty had already gathered, crowding around the TV screen. Hope and anxiety filled the room. The wait seemed interminable, the tension unbearable, the silence deafening. Highly charged emotions were held in check by the absence of knowledge; a vortex in a vacuum. The doors opened. Another excruciating wait before anyone emerged. Eventually Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez made the long awaited announcement in Latin: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: HABEMUS PAPAM! As the name of Joseph Ratzinger was proclaimed as the new Vicar of Christ, all heaven broke loose! Everyone in the room erupted in sheer joy and jubilation, cheering and dancing. I found myself doing an impromptu jig with the Dean, leaping around in each other’s arms in a most indecorous manner! Father Fessio broke down with uncontrollable tears of joy. A former student of Ratzinger’s and a longtime champion of the Cardinal’s work, Fessio, as the founder of Ignatius Press, had published the first English translation of many of Ratzinger’s works. For this great and faithful Jesuit, his mentor’s election to the Chair of Peter was not only the answer to prayer but a dream come true. His personal joy was an additional reason for my own rejoicing, accentuating the sheer elation of the moment.

One imagines that the same scenes of joy erupted throughout the world wherever two or three faithful Catholics gathered together. In contrast, the election of Ratzinger was greeted with grief and horror by those heretical theologians and cafeteria Catholics whose heresies and backsliding equivocations had been condemned by the new pope during his many years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As usual, these wolves in sheep’s clothing howled in unison with the wolves in the secular media, uniting themselves with the avowed enemies of the Church in their hatred of the hero of orthodoxy who had forced them into retreat during his years as John Paul II’s faithful and fearless servant. In the war of words that followed the pope’s election, the enemies of orthodoxy decried the new German Shepherd as “God’s Rottweiler”. Although the gentle and saintly Ratzinger did not deserve such an epithet, it is ironically apt that the wolves who would devour the flock should hate the Rottweiler who had courageously stopped them from doing so!

I feel in Benedict’s presence what G. K. Chesterton felt in the presence of the saintly Dominican, Vincent McNabb. Chesterton wrote that “Father McNabb is walking on a crystal floor over my head”. I feel at least as strongly that Pope Benedict is walking on a crystal floor over my head, not only in terms of his sanctity but in terms of his wisdom and his scholarship. How can one hope to encapsulate someone who is so much larger and higher than oneself? Wouldn’t it be safer and more appropriate to do what T. S. Eliot counseled with regard to the genius of Dante? “I feel that anything I can say about such a subject is trivial,” Eliot wrote to a friend. “I feel so completely inferior in his presence – there seems really nothing to do but to point to him and be silent.” It is, however, significant that Eliot had already disregarded his own advice, even as he was penning his cautionary words of inadequacy to the friend, because he had just finished the writing of an article on “Dante as a Spiritual Leader”. Perhaps, following Eliot’s example and not the letter of his law, it is sometimes permissible to throw caution to the wind in writing about our superiors.

I am further encouraged to throw caution to the wind in defiance of my own sense of inadequacy by the trail that Chesterton blazed in his book on St. Thomas Aquinas. One can only imagine what Chesterton must have felt as he embarked on the writing of this book. After all, the Angelic Doctor was not only walking on a crystal floor over Chesterton’s head, he was also walking on a crystal floor over the saintly head of Father McNabb. As a humble Dominican, McNabb was a follower of Aquinas, as was Dante, both of whom looked up in awe-struck admiration to the crystal floor on which St. Thomas walked.

Aware of the enormity of the task and the inadequacy of his ability to execute it, Chesterton began his study of Aquinas “by answering to the name of that notorious character, who rushes in where even the Angels of the Angelic Doctor might fear to tread”. Having equated himself with the recklessness of the fool, he adeptly and adroitly turned the tables on his potential critics by connecting his foolishness with the folly of St. Francis of Assisi: “Some time ago I wrote a little book of this type and shape on St. Francis of Assisi; and some time after … I promised to write a book of the same size, or the same smallness, on St. Thomas Aquinas. The promise was Franciscan only in its rashness …” In employing the adjective “Franciscan” to qualify his rashness, Chesterton was justifying the folly of a layman, untrained formally in Thomistic philosophy and theology, to write a book on the Church’s preeminent philosopher and theologian. His foolishness may indeed have been that of St. Francis who leapt in faith where fallen angels feared to tread but his focus was that of St. Thomas whose sharpness pointed to a needle on which the fallen angels feared to dance.

Although I can only claim to share Chesterton’s foolishness and not his sharpness, I am consoled by his pioneering example. I have no doubt that the book I have written was worth writing and that the time spent writing it was well spent. How could it be otherwise? It was time spent with Pope Benedict! And this is the reason that I can promise that the book is worth reading and that the time spent reading it will be time well spent. Everyone should spend more time with this wisest and most holy of men, and this best of teachers. We have much to gain in his presence and nothing to lose but the chains of ignorance.

Having made an apology for the inadequacy of this volume in the explanation of what it isn’t, I’d like to conclude these introductory remarks by declaiming unapologetically what it is, or at least what it is intended to be. However inadequate, it shares the same laudable goal as Chesterton’s Aquinas, which, Chesterton wrote, “makes no pretense to be anything but a popular sketch of a great historical character who ought to be more popular.” My goal is the same as Chesterton’s. I wish the following book to be a popular and accessible sketch of a great historical figure, in my judgment one of the greatest popes in the Church’s history, who ought to be more popular. Beyond this simple goal, it makes no pretenses whatsoever.

The ultimate justification for this book is that it is an apology in the other and better sense of the word. It is an apologia, a spirited and heartfelt defense of Pope Benedict’s words and works, a tribute to his life and legacy, a homage to his sanity and sanctity. It is a vigorous defense of a rigorous and vigorous defender of the Faith. For this, at least, I make no apology because no apology is necessary.


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About Joseph Pearce 28 Articles
Joseph Pearce is the author of numerous literary works including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare and Shakespeare on Love,Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN Books) and Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute/Ignatius Press), and the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. His other books include literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A native of England, he is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Visit his website at jpearce.co.

42 Comments

  1. If Pearce has written a true apologia for Ratzinger, his work will be only another empty paean to this scholar and holy man unless he has resolved the conundrum at the heart of Benedict XVI’s papacy. No one questions, let alone doubts, the intellectual brilliance of Ratzinger’s theology and philosophy. His magisterial pronouncements and secular scholarship speak more powerfully for themselves than any biography could ever do so. What troubles, and indeed baffles, every admirer of Benedict XVI is his murky renunciation of the papacy on the stated grounds of physical debility which opened the deluge of a horrifically destructive and pernicious succession that has swept away everything that Benedict built and that has attacked everything he believed. I see nothing in this review that even touches upon this question which will be for the remainder of the Church’s existence in this world the defining legacy of Benedict XVI’s papacy.

    • That is because your question is not the right question. Like many, you confuse his decision to resign with the horrendous train wreck of Pope Francis that followed. His decision to resign is one thing. The damage that Pope Francis has wrought is another entirely different question that Pope Benedict bears no responsibility for.
      The College of Cardinals was selected by JP II and Benedict. Benedict could have assumed that the election of his successor was in safe hands. And as far as anyone knew, Bergoglio was a strongly conservative choice. So strong that the left wing Catholic papers immediately began freaking out and trying to smear Bergoglio for the first few months of his papacy. They thought he was in the mold of JP II and Bergoglio, as well. Then it changed, and Bergoglio revealed himself for what he really was. But that is not Benedict’s fault.
      The decision to resign was a logical one. A new, younger conservative pope, would almost certainly be elected. Benedict knew he was a mild academic, and the papacy probably would benefit by someone who could knock heads together. The first few months, it was said that Bergoglio was elected to clean up the curia. So he was sold as an efficient, tough bureucrat who could succeed where Benedict was too gentle. However, we found out that Bergoglio had been faking things for quite a while, and then his true colors came out.

      • Oh, not so sure. The “renuncio” seems bizarro enough in its own right, even apart from the puzzles of the successor’s pontificate.

      • “And as far as anyone knew, Bergoglio was a strongly conservative choice. ”

        Even the most peripheral association with the record of the former Argentine would cause one to suspect otherwise.

        Truthfully, Benedict erred when the then Cardinal took issue with his Regensberg address. It showed Bergoglio to be immoderate and intemperate.

        He should have been summoned to the Vatican and buried in some menial task, in some dark archive, allowed to reflect on his insubordination.

  2. With respect, sir, this post (and probably the book) partakes of the sentimentality and emotionalism that many Catholics bring to their understanding of the Pope, a sentimentality that is one of the most distinctive vices of our age. Whatever his orthodoxy, Pope Benedict will be known for his flight from his duty before God, turning the Church over to the wolves themselves.

    • Nonsense in the extreme. He performed his duties well, and he resigned only because he assumed a conservative group of cardinals would elect a similarly conservative guy. Everyone, including the Catholic left, thought Bergoglio was a conservative at first. This can be seen by the vigor with which they attacked him at first. To defame Pope Benedict as “turning the church over to the wolves” is unfair, unkind, untrue, and unbecoming of anyone who is rooted in reality.

      • Pope Francis is a true conservative Catholic, a faithful cradle Catholic. He is trying to veer us back to the true meaning of our discipleship, our calling to be faithful followers of Jesus, abiding by his commandment: Love God and neighbor (meaning every neighbor, including serious sinners).
        I liked Benedict and was saddened by his resignation, but I have come to admire and like his successor.

        • Mal, Bergoglio has penned a series of books with his chums in liberation theology. Asked to review them, PPBXVI replied that he had better things to do and was surprised to see co-authors considered “ennemies of the Church in my day”. THAT is a comment from a real Conservative about yours… Dont believe me? Check the lettergate on a site like onepeter5 and see the vatican press office’s scandalous attempt to use the letter to say the opposite, then apologize. The responsible priest was removed from office by the Argentinian Marxist for that… then given a promtion 4 weeks later! Péroniste politics as always.

  3. Funny, I can never remember either St. John Paul II or Benedict XVI calling faithful Catholics demeaning names or acting vindictively against those who had a vision different from theirs. It was clear that both men were Christ’s Vicar for the Church, understood their role, and exercised their ministry with genuine humility. But, alas, the enemies of Christ were merciless toward them and they know who they are. The enemies of Christ are always inclined to want to send Truth to the Cross. But…after the cross, the Resurrection.

    • Why past tense? Until there is canonical proof that PPBXVI renounced the munus, and concrete evidence that Bergoglio’s election was valid (British Consulate hired for pre-electoral priming by sankt gallen mafia according to staff member Nigel Shaw: a foreign nation implicated in election rigging…) PPBXVI remains for me and many others the valid Vicar of Christ. Bergoglio is at best an Auxiliary Bishop… not my words, Archbishop Lenga of the Polish Resistence. As a layman, remaining loyal to a living Pope with a white Zuchetto based in the Vatican and distributing Apostolic blessings is my right and in all good conscience.

  4. As I have several of Pope Benedict’s books I look forward to reading Mr. Pearce’s book on Pope Benedict. I was saddened when he stepped down.

  5. Benedict XI’s abdication even more painful in hindsight as it left the loophole for the enemies of the truth of Christ Jesus, to grab the reign of the Church already embattled. However, I believe Benedict XI’s decision was made in sincere prayer and intimacy with the God whom he had served all his life. It occurred to me that – yes – it could be the will of God at this time in the history of the Church, to let the wolves have it. The same can be said with Traditionalists who believe the church made a crash landing and is unrepairable; although they display little faith, as they know that Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit are always in control of the Mystical Body of Christ. The conclusion would be that the Divine Savior lets His Church crumble and as we all know that its apostolic foundation is invincible, may the glorious Christ the King of the universe have mercy on us and restore His holy Bride in even greater glory as before.

  6. No sooner are we told to swallow the notion that John-Paul II was somehow “the Great,” now we have to do the same for the pope who abandoned us to the wolves. I too appreciated several of Cardinal Ratzinger’s books. But the idea that Benedict XVI was one of the greatest popes in history is preposterous.

    • I am surprised to see you smear Benedict with this false narrative. It is entirely false, and perjorative, and it is nothing any fair minded person would say. As everyone and their brother knows, Benedict and JP II THE GREAT were top notch popes, who left a strongly conservative college of cardinals. EVERYONE in the world thought that they would elect someone in the vein of JP II and Benedict.
      You are the sort of guy who would have said “Abraham Lincoln, the coward, left us just when we needed him the most!”
      I usually hear this baloney about “leaving the church to the wolves by the bitter, schismatic, breakaway sect lovers of the SSPX and similar. They, of course, have said that about pretty much every pope since Pius XII. I am shocked to hear you mimic them.

  7. Of the three Popes who reigned during my lifetime Benedict XVI was the best.The worst? I’ll give you two guesses (hint: it’s not John Paul II).

  8. As a long-time admirer of Joseph Ratzinger, I might have been able to read this book with enthusiasm. But the end of the tale is just far too tragic. Pope Benedict XVI abandoned us when we needed him most, casting us to a successor who has reversed nearly all of Benedict’s blessed accomplishments. For a while it seemed as if the Catholic Church would see a true restoration, a return to some of the many treasures the modernist iconoclasts had destroyed. But no. It was so short-lived that we ended up with spiritual whiplash. And now, what intellectual in this world would turn to the papacy for its profound teaching and moral courage? Only mutual gangsters who hold up truth for mockery. The present state of the Church is one of abiding hesitancy and confusion. And if one dares to teach the ancient faith, one must do so knowing that he or she will find no support from Rome. Lots of luck; take a chance. Maybe you can correctly teach the faith and not get in trouble for it. Hesitancy and confusion – graces straight from hell.

    • Again, someone who feels that Benedict chose his successor! You cannot have any understanding of the Catholic faith if you believe that. Perhaps there is another animus at work among those who spread this nonsensical narrative. Perhaps they never liked any of the popes…after Vatican II, know what I mean?

      • First, you claim that JPII left us with a “strongly conservative college of cardinals,” when in fact he appointed a rogue’s gallery of bureaucratic modernists and perverts. Now, you tell us Benedict is not responsible for abandoning his vocation, when he not only did that, he also refuses to join the few orthodox bishops and cardinals who have been courageous enough to call out his heretical successor. What is next? Francis is not responsible for Pachamama?

        • First of all, Pope Benedict XVI did not abandon his vocation. Do you know what his vocation is? He did retire for reasons he clearly stated.
          Heretic successor? No, mate, only heretics believe that.

          • You just accused a huge number of outspoken Catholic intellectuals and prelates, including 4 Dubia Cardinals, of being heretics for resisting the apostasy of Bergoglio. Looking forward to your book length response to them all Mal. Hold on tight to that handle.

  9. Pearce’s apologia will not be as authoritative, documented, or long as George Weigel’s bios on Pope John Paul II: “Witness to Hope” (2004) and “The End of the Beginning” (2010). But some might still attempt the comparison.

    But, as for comparing the persons themselves, yours truly is reminded of an event in 2005… Weigel was in Seattle speaking about his “Witness to Hope” to a breakfast group of young professionals (meeting at the University of Washington Newman Center, with others invited to sit in). Weigel was asked how he might compare the two popes?

    Those who criticize Weigel for never having a critical word to say about John Paul II might be amused at least by his response: “Readers of the circling and layering John Paul II,” he said, “will be happy to hear that Ratzinger writes in simple, declarative sentences!”

    Got a hearty laugh with that. The steadfast days, prior to the nested obfuscations after 2013 where, instead of merely saying things differently, we say or signal different things altogether.

    • Signaling has developed into a science from economics to psychology. As a theorem we signal what we wish at a cost to gain trust. For the ordinary man it used to be shiny shoes for an interview. Or today the celebrity who shows up dressed conservatively except for jeans signaling mellowness. It can and seems to be used by churchmen as I believe you allude, to suggest permission not ordinarily thought licit. In modern Byzantium ordinary talk can be complicated. It doesn’t square with Christ’s, Say yes if you mean yes, no if no. All else is from the Devil. Personally, I could never trust those who use coded language. John Paul II may have layered and circumvented [the bane of philosophers] though at least he was honest.

      • By “circled and layered” is simply meant a style of discovering and clarifying as in stages, with resonance and deepening repetition, maybe a little more like poetry than mathematics. Certainly, as you say, honest, truthful and forthright.

    • Name calling? Might you mean name dropping??
      If so, it’s hardly name dropping to attend an open-invitation public speaking event–and to actually remember part of what was said. Weigel lived in Seattle until 1983 and has visited from time to time, with or without your approval, and does a lot of public speaking everywhere. Try again.

  10. Like Mr Pearce, I too regard Pope Benedict XVI as perhaps the most important Christian intellect of the twentieth century, and one of the best popes. Like Benedict XVI, but unlike Mr Pearce, I have no time for hagiography. Having just read this article and also quite a few of Mr. Pearce’s books, most of them are well-meaning but ultimately hagiographical works, annoyingly pun-laden (Scott Hahn unfortunately does the same thing, a lot, a weak attempt at latter-day Chestertonionisms presumably) with unfortunately a limited, repetitive (albeit well-meaning, again) themes. He has done a tremendous disservice to a holistic appreciation of the works of JRR Tolkien by repeatedly reducing the great man’s legendarium to a check-box list of ‘Catholic’ ‘allegories’, something Tolkien explicitly urged many times should not happen. His book on Solzhenitsyn (A Soul in Exile) is (by a mile) hid best. His ‘autobiography’ (Race with the Devil) is a deeply troubling work, largely by what it left unsaid, and by the bumbling (Chestertonian?) manner so much grave matter in his past is batted away.

  11. I loved reading Benedict XVIs writings. I do believe that he was one whose progressiveness was firmly based in solid Catholic doctrine, just like the Pope before him and the one who succeeded him. He said: “I didn’t want to operate only in a stagnant and closed philosophy, but in a philosophy understood as a question — what is man, really? — and particularly to enter into the new, contemporary philosophy. In this sense I was modern and critical.”
    The wolves, who wanted much change were out in force, just as the wolves who dislike our present Pope’s desire to be “modern and critical” – relevant in today’s world.

    • So which of these bands of Wolves did PPBXVI ask us to pray for fear he flee before them? Was the the known Sankt Gallen Lavender Mafia Network – descended from the freemasonic Cardinal Rampolla Network who claimed to have placed the Argentinian on his Throne – or some other “band” that you can name?? Perhpas you think he was fleeing from the Catholic Cardinals, perhaps? Cardinal Sarah and Burke, perhaps??

  12. I think there is a lot to learn from Pope Benedict/Cardinal Ratzinger/Fr. Ratzinger.

    And how his career ended is one part from which there are lessons to draw.

    But, as things stand, Benedict/Ratzinger has retired. He has quit.

    So, the torch passes to theologians who are still active and in service to the Church and its past, present, and future.

    The Church is in a terrible, unprecedented crisis.

    The Church needs bold and brilliant THEOLOGIANS to guide us, to show us the Lord’s way out of this darkness, chaos, confusion, disorder, weakness, and sickness.

    All you THEOLOGIANS, all you with genuine training in theology, we need you to be more than a zealous partisan for this or that sub-movement within the Church, being a champion of this pope or that pope or this document or that.

    We need you to open your minds to the mind of the Lord and pronounce the holy solution to this mess!

    Something has gone terribly wrong with our bishops and they are not leading us as they ought to.

    I think something very much like this happened in the ancient kingdom of Israel, when the appointed high priests had compromised themselves but the nation was eventually led back to righteousness by bold and brilliant prophets who did not have the official offices or high standing of the high priests.

    This is what we need our theologians to do and to be. Not partisan zealots of the conservative camp or the progressive camp. But holy prophets.

  13. Joseph Pearce is such a remarkable scholar and a brilliant writer with a host of biographies of great Catholics he has written over the years.
    I am so pleased he has written this account of the life, history and writings of Pope Benedict who is a living saint and a future Doctor of the Church.
    I have already informed my sons that one of them should purchase it for me as a Christmas gift.
    I look forward to unwrapping it on Christmas morning.

  14. Oh wow! A book on my beloved Pope Benedict XVI, the greatest Holy Father of my lifetime, written by one of my favorite writers, Joseph Pearce, how can I not get this book? Absolutely!

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