It is difficult for me to write this post. Not because I can’t find anything to defend Pope Benedict XVI with, but because I have to defend him from people of my own faith. Fellow Catholics.
I am the first to say everyone is entitled to their opinion, view, say and assertion. They are free even as Catholics to not agree with any Pope’s personal views on a subject or topic. It is only doctrinal exhortation and other matters related to dogma that faithful Catholics are called to obedience.
Hence, this is a rant, albeit one that provides apologetics.
As soon as the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation hit the news, some sides were already clear in terms of opinion:
1. Pro-Catholic: That it was about time. An old Pope is not a good Pope
2. Pro-Catholic: That it was a selfish decision, after all didn’t Pope John Paul II go to his deathbed as Pope despite age and ill-health?
3. Pro-Catholic: That it was a wise, humble decision borne out of years of prayer and intercession by Pope St. Celestine, another Pope who resigned a long time ago
4. Anti-Catholic: That a homophobic, woman-hating, paedophile-protecting Pope should have gone a long time ago anyway
5. Anti-Catholic: That it was a wise decision by an aging man, this religion needs young blood
Anti-Catholic opinion cannot be stopped nor should it be. Sometimes it serves as a mirror to us. Whatever Martin Luther’s convictions, he was right in showing the Catholic Church the evils of simony that had crept into its halls.
What surprises me, though, are those Catholics – Sunday Catholics, the ones who go for that weekly Mass out of duty but also out of a sense of required belonging and who can’t tell the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Incarnation – who now that they’ve been thrown into the spotlight among their fellow Catholics and non-Catholic friends, colleagues and acquaintance seem to be fumbling at the edges with knowledge of their faith.
They’re the ones who are commenting on Facebook or Twitter saying ‘good, he was corrupt anyway’ or ‘He was nothing compared to JP2, JP2 was a legendary leader for us’. They’re the ones who in huddled groups in the office pantry are answering questions from non-Catholics with ‘oh I agree with you, this Pope wasn’t important in fact he took us back to the dark ages, I preferred JP2’.
Which is why I’d like to lay it out straight here for all of you: Pope Benedict XVI, in his tenure as Pope and as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, has been one of the single most important men for the Catholic Church in the last 3 decades, barring Pope John Paul II.
Almost all our Catholic doctrine and dogmas for the last 40 years has been in his protection. He was the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the supreme Catholic entity responsible for safe-guarding our religious beliefs and traditions as well as seeing how they adapt to the modern era. As a Catholic, if you feel strongly pro-life, anti-abortion and pro-spirit-led-traditions, it was under his watch that you enjoyed the Church’s reflections and defence of this.
It was Ratzinger who, despite being fiercely Catholic, who helped JP2 become the most ecumenical Pope ever, wanting closer relationships with non-Catholic Christian faiths, wanting unity in faith and recognizing the diversity of the Holy Spirit in those Christian movements. It was him as Pope Benedict XVI, who in the new millennium after JP2’s passing away, spearheaded the ecumenical way, increasing his communication with Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other faith groups.
On the claim that he wasn’t as important for the Church, I’d like to remind them that the New Roman Missal that was announced in 2011 – to ensure the best possible translation from the Latin and Greek originals so as to ensure a richer Mass for all the faithful – was under his watch. He guided the work of hundreds of bishops worldwide, ensuring these same Catholics can get more inclusive Masses.
He is the Pope who wrote a definitive series of books on the life of Jesus. I wonder if they can name those books without Googling them. I’ll do it for you: ‘Jesus of Nazareth (from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration’, ‘Jesus of Nazareth (Holy Week)’, ‘Jesus of Nazareth – the Infancy Narratives’, and ‘The Joy of Knowing Christ’. These books form some of the best ever teachings in modern times on the personhood and divinity of Jesus Christ, and how He fits into the lives of Christians everywhere.
He is the Pope who wrote Deus Caritas Est, Latin for God is Love, an encyclical many have begun to call one of the greatest writings on the love of God in Christian history.
Those complaining, I wonder how many of these they actually read, or if they even knew they existed.
Those complaining of his legacy not being as effective as JP2s, I ask: JP2 was Pope for over 25 years. You’re judging the legacy of a 7-year tenure against that of someone who was Pope for more than 3 times that time? Did you know that in the first decade of JP2’s tenure there were people saying he wasn’t an effective, important or even required Pope? Sound familiar?
Even then, legacy? Increased vernacular Masses, the improvement of the Roman Rite and the Roman Breviary, the commissioning of the new Roman Missal, World Youth Days going to the most troubled Catholic-majority cities in the world (Sydney, Madrid, Rio de Janiero) to rekindle the faith? Someone tell me how these are supposed to small, un-important decisions please.
Then there’s that ‘selfishness’ move, that he should have been like JP2 and been Pope to the death. I find this argument the most interesting, because it shows a complete lack of understanding of the Papacy beyond the celebrity factor.
Pope John Paul II was an exceptional man, who rose in difficult, trying circumstances to become one of only 4 Popes in history to be given the unofficial title ‘The Great’, the others being Pope St. Leo The Great, Pope St. Gregory The Great and Pope St. Nicholas The Great. He survived an assassination attempt and forgave his assassin. He launched the World Youth Days, the single biggest religious youth event in history, drawing tens of millions of Christian youth together every 3 years since 1984, to learn about their faith and Jesus Christ.
Overwhelming information? It is. It is also important to know that all the above served to make JP2 a larger than life figure beloved by many peoples of all faiths and no faith. The media helped turn JP2 into a celebrity, the ‘nice old man of the Church everyone wants to love – or hate’. Compare that with the media slander Pope Benedict XVI has received since before his becoming Pope and then after he was given St. Peter’s Chair. Vilified for being ultra-conservative, headlined as an old man with rigid, misogynistic views of women and hateful views of homosexuals (all incorrect), the media served to present the negative, evil, disturbing alternative to JP2s holy, all-encompassing persona. They failed miserably to either report or acknowledge that this same ‘negative’ man was one of the influences behind JP2’s doctrinal, philosophical and spiritual legacy. JP2 relied on Ratzinger above all on earth to help him with the Holy Office.
I wonder why he would do that if Ratzinger was so ‘selfish’ and ‘useless’. JP2 would have known better, right? He did. Which is why he chose him.
Above I used the term ‘given’ regarding Ratzinger’s accession to the Papacy. That’s because no Cardinal can ‘choose’ the Papacy. He is voted in heavy secrecy. Even those who are nominated do not know they are nominated. One would find it hard to believe that all 120 voting Cardinals were forced to vote for Ratzinger. Surely the majority that did, did so out of complete knowledge of this man’s ability and humility as well as the surety that the Church would prosper under his watch?
All the above was to highlight the comment regarding his staying Pope to his death. My answer is a question: Why? Why does being Pope to the death mean so much to the people who never bothered to know more about this Pope or any Pope anyway? So that you can score a few brownie points among friends by saying so? Or to convince yourself that you were right to have been ignorant of his Papacy in the first place, since he is so ‘selfish’? Cyclic reasoning.
It is a bit hypocritical to argue that the Church needs a modern-thinking, open-minded, liberal and young Pope and then in the same breath ask why this 85-year old man decided to resign from the Papacy so that his old age would not hinder the Church’s progress.
Make up your minds. If the CEO of a company becomes to old and fragile, the shareholders vote for him to leave. If the President of a country becomes too old to maintain his duties to his best possible mental and physical capacity, he resigns. Those decisions are accepted as wise, and in favour of a progressive society or business. Why not so for Pope Benedict XVI’s decision?
Leaving the Papacy does not mean weakness. Leaving the Papacy – the power and authority over 1.2 billion Catholics (20% of all humanity) – is no weakness. It is courage. It is humility.
It is strength. Strength that can only have come from the Holy Spirit.
There is a new comment floating around: If the Holy Spirit chooses the Pope through the Cardinals, why would he choose someone who wouldn’t stay Pope until the end, or someone with ill health? I surely hope we aren’t judging the Holy Spirit’s infinite wisdom. He did after all choose a man who denied Christ 3 times to lead the Church. He did after all choose a man who killed the first martyr of the Church to be the Apostle to the Gentiles (St. Paul). He did, after all, choose broken, lost, sometimes reviled men to become the Disciples of Christ, all of whom would run away from the Cross that fateful afternoon.
Ask yourself again: does the Holy Spirit make mistakes? I thought not.
Pope Benedict’s legacy is still being written. His influence as quoted above is vast, spanning more than 5 decades and 4 Popes as well as a controversial yet important Vatican Council.
You, as a Catholic, owe a lot of what you believe and practice in your faith today, to him.
Judge him well, if you must. But judge him with full knowledge, not hear-say and ignorance.
P.S. I have not touched on the scandals of paedophile priests, because that is not something that is coming up in discussions by Catholics based on the first points I mentioned. That is a discussion for another blog at another time, by people far more experienced than I on that topic.