Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Benedict XVI Has Died

Remembering the hero of the faith -- a pontiff who foresaw dark days ahead, and urged Christians to prepare
Screen Shot 2022-12-31 at 10.32.00 AM

News from Rome on this, the last day of the year, that Pope Benedict XVI has died. In one sense, I am grateful that his physical suffering has ended. But oh, what a loss! What a loss. The man was a giant of the modern Catholic Church, overshadowed by the pope he served so faithfully, St. John Paul II, but a very great theologian who, from his position as the chief doctrinal watchdog of the Church, kept the Catholic Church steady for decades. I loved him, and mourn his passing with sincere grief.

Many of my traditionalist Catholic friends are deeply ambivalent about Joseph Ratzinger, given his resignation of the papacy in 2013, which opened the door for the calamitous reign of Francis. I find it impossible not to sympathize with them to some extent; were I still a Catholic, I might be among their number. But we honestly can't say what mysterious providence was at work in this Great Refusal. I was told once by a priest who knew Benedict that he resigned when he realized that despite his official power as the absolute monarch of the Catholic Church, his de facto power was far less, and certainly insufficient to the task of cleaning up the massive corruption in the Roman Curia. According to this source, the aged and infirm Benedict resigned in hope that the Holy Spirit would send a vigorous young successor who was up to the task. I saw not long ago that the journalist Peter Seewald asked Benedict if I was right about that, and Benedict said no, it's not true. For me, that does not settle the question, however. I still believe there is something to it. I could be wrong. I suppose it doesn't matter now.


I will leave it to theologians and church historians to discuss the meaning of Benedict's life and work for the Catholic Church. The news of his passing just broke, so these are my initial thoughts. Charismatic John Paul II was the rock star, but shy Benedict, to me, was the rock. Have you ever read him? Unlike JP2, he was a lucid writer. You don't have to be Catholic to learn so much from reading his work. What comes through so clearly is how much Joseph Ratzinger loved Jesus Christ.

Personally, the peak of my career as a writer came on September 11, 2018, in Rome. I was there to present the Italian translation of The Benedict Option. My publisher had arranged a public event in a room at the Italian Senate. Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict's personal secretary, had agreed to give a talk presenting his views on my book. Before the event, my Italian journalist friends told me that whatever Gänswein said, I could be sure that Benedict approved every syllable. This was incredibly intimidating, given my immense respect for Benedict XVI (I have always called him the second Benedict of the Benedict Option). If Benedict, through Mgr Gänswein, had not liked my book, I could have taken it, because I'm a big boy. But in fact ... well, here is the text of Gänswein's address that day:

Thank you very much for the invitation to this esteemed House, which I accepted gladly, to present this book by the American author Rod Dreher, of which I had already heard a lot. The great monk from Norcia, who gave the book its programmatic title, made it very appealing for me to come here. But I was also touched and moved by the date on which we are meeting with this daring author here in Rome.

For it is September 11th, which in America – since the Fall of 2001 – has only been referred to as “9/11” in reference to that apocalyptic disaster in which members of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda attacked the United States of America as the whole world watched, in New York and Washington – using fully occupied passenger planes, which they had captured in-flight, as missiles.

The more time I spent reading the book of Rod Dreher during the hurricane of news over these past few weeks, the more I grew to understand our meeting tonight as purely an act of providence, following the publication of the report of the grand jury of Pennsylvania, on which now the Catholic Church too must cast a horrified glance at what constitutes its own “Nine-Eleven”, even if this catastrophe unfortunately is not only occurred on a single day, but over many days and years, and affecting countless victims.

Please do not make the mistake of misconstruing my remarks. I am neither comparing the victims nor the numbers of abuse cases in the Catholic Church with those 2,996 innocent people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 9, 2001.

No one has (to this date) attacked the Church of Christ by passenger plane.  St. Peter’s is still standing, as are the cathedrals of France, Germany or Italy, which are still the landmarks of many cities in the western world, from Florence to Chartres, from Cologne to Munich.
And yet, the recent news from America, where so many souls have been permanently and mortally injured by priests of the Catholic Church, is worse than any news could be of Pennsylvania’s churches suddenly collapsing, along with the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

And yet I remember, as though it were just yesterday, how I accompanied Pope Benedict XVI on 16 April 2008 to this National Shrine of the Catholic Church in the United States of America, where he so touchingly tried to rouse the bishops of that country by describing to them the “deep shame” caused by the “sexual abuse of minors by priests”, and “the enormous pain that your congregations have suffered as clergy have betrayed their priestly duties and responsibilities through such gravely immoral behavior.”

It was probably in vain, as we see today. The lament of the Holy Father could not stop the evil and not even the lip service of a large part of the hierarchy.

And now Rod Dreher is here, among us, who begins his book with the words: “No one saw the Great Flood coming”. In the Acknowledgements, he dedicates his book, in a certain way, to Pope Benedict XVI. And it seems to me that in large parts he wrote it in a sort of quiet dialogue with the silent Papa emerito, referring to his analytical and prophetic power, when he writes: “in 2012, the then-pontiff said that the spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century. The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West.”

I would therefore, if I may, like to complement the presentation of the “Benedict Option” by Rod Dreher with a few memorable words from the mouth of Benedict XVI during his ministry; words that I was reminded of when I read the book, for instance those of May 11, 2010, when he entrusted the following to the journalists accompanying him on the flight to Fatima:
“The Lord told us that the Church would constantly be suffering, in different ways, until the end of the world. … As for the new things which we can find in this message [the third secret of Fatima, ed.] today, there is also the fact that attacks on the Pope and the Church come not only from without, but the sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from the sin existing within the Church.”

At that time, he had already been pope for five years. More than five years earlier – on 25 March 2005 – Cardinal Ratzinger had already found the following words at the 9th Station of the Way of the Cross on Good Friday at the Colosseum, before the dying John Paul II:

“Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him! How much pride, how much self-complacency! What little respect we pay to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where he waits for us, ready to raise us up whenever we fall! All this is present in his Passion. His betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his Body and Blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison – Lord, save us.”

We had learned earlier, from St. John Paul II, that in our historical hour the true and perfect ecumenism was the ecumenism of the martyrs, allowing us to call, in our need, upon St. Edith Stein next to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as intercessors in heaven. But as we now know, there is also an ecumenism of need and secularization, and an ecumenism of unbelief and common flight from God and the Church across all denominations. And an ecumenism of the eclipse of God in general. We are only now witnessing the watershed of an epochal change that Dreher had already prophesied in the US a year ago. He saw the Great Flood coming!

But he also notes that the eclipse of God does not mean that God no longer exists. Rather, it means that many no longer recognize God, because shadows have been cast before the Lord. Today it is the shadows of sins and of transgressions and crimes from within the Church that for many darken His brilliant presence.

In the process of this darkening, the phenomenon of what in German is called the Volkskirche – a “popular church” to which everyone belonged, something which we were still born into, but that never existed in America as it did in Europe — has long since died. Does that sound too dramatic to you?

The number of people turning their back on the Church is dramatic. Even more dramatic, however, is another statistic:  According to the most recent surveys, of the Catholics who have not yet left the Church in Germany, only 9.8 percent still meet on Sunday in their places of worship to celebrate the Blessed Eucharist together.

This brings to mind Pope Benedict’s very first journey after his election. On May 29, 2005, on the banks of the Adriatic Sea, he reminded the predominantly youthful audience that Sunday is a “weekly celebration of Easter”, thereby expressing the identity of the Christian community and the center of its life and mission. However, the theme of the Eucharistic Congress (“We cannot live without Sunday”) goes back to the year 304, when Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians under death penalty to possess Holy Scripture, to meet on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist, and to construct rooms for their meetings.

“In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus.

Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied: “Sine dominico non possumus”: that is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.
After atrocious tortures, these 49 martyrs of Abitene were killed. Thus, they confirmed their faith with bloodshed. They died, but they were victorious: today we remember them in the glory of the Risen Christ.”
In other words, what we, as children of the so-called “popular church”, have come to know as the “Sunday obligation” is, in fact, the precious, unique characteristic of Christians. And it is much older than any Volkskirche. Therefore, it is truly an eschatological crisis that the Catholic Church has been in for a long time now, just as my mother and father reckoned they could perceive it in their day – with “horrors of devastation in holy places” – something perhaps every generation in church history recognized from a distance on its own horizon.

Finally, however, some days I felt myself transported back to the days of my childhood – back to my father’s smithy in the Black Forest, where the hammer struck the anvil without ceasing, but did not do so without my father, whose safe hands I trusted like I trust the hands of God.

Obviously, I am not alone in this. In May, the Archbishop of Utrecht in Holland, Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk, confessed that the present crisis reminded him of the “final trial” of the Church, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it in paragraph 675, which the Church must undergo before the return of Christ, as a trial that ” will shake the faith of many believers”.  The Catechism continues: “The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity.’”

Like an exorcist, Rod Dreher is also familiar with this “mysterium iniquitatis”, as he has proven with his reports over the last few months, in which he also promoted the enlightenment of the scandalous history of the former archbishop of Newark and Washington like perhaps no other journalist. Yet he is not an investigative reporter. Neither is he a fantasist, but a sober analyst who has been following the state of the Church and the world alertly and critically for a long time whilst nonetheless retaining an almost childlike, loving view of the world.

That is why Dreher does not present an apocalyptic novel like the famous “Lord of the World”, with which the British clergyman Robert Hugh Benson shook the Anglo-Saxon world in 1906. Rather, Dreher’s book resembles a practicable guide to building an ark, because he knows that there is no dam to stop the Great Flood that has been flooding the old Christian Occident since long before yesterday, and to which America belongs for him as a matter of course.

This also makes for a threefold difference between Dreher and Benson: As a typical American, Dreher is firstly more practical than the somewhat eccentric Briton from Cambridge in the period before the First World War. Secondly, Dreher, as a citizen of Louisiana, has experience with hurricanes.  And thirdly, he is not at all a clergyman, but a layman who does not speak on behalf of others, but out of his own will and zeal for the Kingdom of God, which Jesus Christ proclaimed for us. In this sense, he is a man who is entirely after the flavor and taste of Pope Francis, who knows like no one else in Rome does that the crisis of the Church is at its core a crisis of the clergy. And that now the hour of the sovereign laity has struck, especially in the new and independent Catholic media, as almost embodied by Rod Dreher.

The ease of his portrayal probably has to do with the noble narrative traditions of the southern states of America, which Mark Twain once helped achieve global recognition. And when I said earlier that I last saw myself again and again as a child in the forge before my father’s hammer blows on the anvil, I must confess that the uncomplicated reading of this weighty book took me again and again into the adventure world of my childhood, where I daydreamed about Tom Sawyer and his friend Huck’ Finn.

Rod Dreher, on the other hand, is not about dreams, but about facts and analyses, which he condenses into sentences like these: “Psychological Man won decisively and now owns the culture—including most churches—as surely as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and other conquering peoples owned the remains of the Western Roman Empire.”

Or this one: “Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes—they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human. Our barbarians have exchanged the animal pelts and spears of the past for designer suits and smartphones.”

Chapter 3 of his book begins with the words: “You can’t go back to the past, but you can go to Norcia.” Shortly thereafter he continues – prophetically on topic, but in no way gloatingly – as follows: “Legend has it that in an argument with a cardinal, Napoleon pointed out that he had the power to destroy the church.

“Your majesty,” the cardinal replied, “we, the clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last eighteen hundred years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”
Four years after sending the Benedictines away from their home of nearly a millennium, Napoleon’s empire was in ruins, and he was in exile. Today, the sound of Gregorian chants can once again be heard in the saint’s hometown…”

In the same Norcia, however, more recently was heard the roar from the depths of that great earthquake that shook the city in August 2016 and ruined the Basilica of St. Benedict in just a few seconds, right down to the front façade. At about the same time, cloudbursts also flooded the hometown of Rod Dreher on the upper reaches of the Mississippi. These two dramatic key scenes now stand at the beginning and end of his book, as though based on a divine script – and as if to illustrate a thesis Dreher formulated in Chapter 1: “The reality of our situation is indeed alarming, but we do not have the luxury of doom-and-gloom hysteria. There is a hidden blessing in this crisis, if we will open our eyes to it… The coming storm may be the means through which God delivers us.

In recent days, the term earthquake was often used to describe the collapse within the Church, and of which I am now saying the Catholic Church has also experienced its “Nine-Eleven.”
Rod Dreher describes the response of the monks of Norcia to the catastrophe that destroyed their abbey in the birthplace of Saint Benedict, in but few words that I must read to you because they are so eloquent:

“The Benedictine monks of Norcia have become a sign to the world in ways I did not anticipate when I began writing this book. In August 2016, a devastating earthquake shook their region. When the quake hit in the middle of the night, the monks were awake to pray matins, and they fled the monastery for the safety of the open-air piazza.

Father Cassian later reflected that the earthquake symbolized the crumbling of the West’s Christian culture, but that there was a second, hopeful symbol that night. ‘The second symbol is the gathering of the people around the statue of Saint Benedict in the piazza in order to pray,’ he wrote to supporters. ‘That is the only way to rebuild.'”

Given Father Cassian’s testimony, I would like to tell you that Benedict XVI, since his resignation, has understood himself as an old monk who, after February 28, 2013, is committed above all to prayer for Mother Church and his successor, Pope Francis, and for the Petrine ministry founded by Christ himself.

From the monastery Mater Ecclesiae behind the Basilica of St. Peter, the old monk would therefore, considering Dreher’s work, likely point to a speech he gave as acting Pope on 12 September 2008 in the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, in front of the spiritual elite of France.

That was exactly ten years ago tomorrow, and I would therefore like to briefly present excerpts of this speech to you once again:

In the great cultural upheaval of the migration period of the Völkerwanderung and the emergence of new structures of state, the monasteries were the place where the treasures of the old culture survived and at the same time a new culture was slowly formed by them, said Benedict XVI at the time and asked:
“But how did it happen?  What motivated men to come together to these places?  What did they want?  How did they live?

First and foremost, it must be frankly admitted straight away that it was not their intention to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past.  Their motivation was much more basic.  Their goal was: Quaerere Deum.  Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential – to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself.  They were searching for God.  They wanted to go from the inessential to the essential, to the only truly important and reliable thing there is…they were seeking the definitive behind the provisional…

Quaerere Deum – to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times.  A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences.  What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”

These were the words of Pope Benedict XVI on September 12, 2008 about the true “option” of Saint Benedict of Nursia.  – After that, all that remains for me to say about Dreher’s book is this: It does not contain a finished answer. There is no panacea, no skeleton key for all the gates that were open to us for so long and have now been thrown shut again. Between these two books covers, however, there is an authentic example of what Pope Benedict said ten years ago about the Benedictine spirit of the beginning. It is a true “Quaerere Deum”. It is that search for the true God of Isaac and Jacob, who showed his human face in Jesus of Nazareth.

For this reason, a sentence from chapter 4,21 of the Rule of Saint Benedict comes to my mind, which also pervades and animates the entire book of Dreher as Cantus Firmus. This is the legendary “Nihil amori Christi praeponere”. That means translated: the love of Christ must come before all else. It is the key to the whole miracle of occidental monasticism.

Benedict of Nursia was a lighthouse during the migration of peoples, when he saved the Church through the turmoil of time and thus in a certain sense re-founded European civilization.
But now, not only in Europe, but all over the world, we are experiencing for decades a migration of peoples that will never come to an end again, as Pope Francis has clearly recognized and urgently speaks about to our consciences. That is why not everything is different this time, as compared to how it was then.

If the Church does not know how to renew itself again this time with God’s help, then the whole project of our civilization is at stake again. For many it looks as if the Church of Jesus Christ will never be able to recover from the catastrophe of its sin – it almost seems about to be devoured by it.

And this is precisely the hour in which Rod Dreher from Baton-Rouge in Louisiana is presenting his book today near the tombs of the apostles. And during the eclipse of God, which is frightening us all over the world, he steps before us and says: “The Church is not dead, it only sleeps and rests”.

And not only that. The Church is “young”, he seems to say, and he says it so joyfully and freely, as Benedict XVI said when he took over the Petrine ministry on April 24, 2005, when he recalled the suffering and death of Saint John Paul, whose collaborator he had been for so many years. He called out to all of us in St Peter’s Square:
“During those sad days of the Pope’s illness and death, it became wonderfully evident to us that the Church is alive. And the Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future. The Church is alive, and we are seeing it: we are experiencing the joy that the Risen Lord promised his followers. The Church is alive – she is alive because Christ is alive, because he is truly risen. In the suffering that we saw on the Holy Father’s face in those days of Easter, we contemplated the mystery of Christ’s Passion and we touched his wounds. But throughout these days we have also been able, in a profound sense, to touch the Risen One. We have been able to experience the joy that he promised, after a brief period of darkness, as the fruit of his resurrection.”

Even the satanic “Nine-Eleven” of the Universal Catholic Church can not weaken or destroy this truth, the origin of its foundation by the Risen Lord and Victor.

I must therefore honestly confess that I perceive this time of great crisis, which today is no longer hidden from anyone, above all as a time of Grace, because in the end it will not be any special effort that will free us, but only “the Truth”, as the Lord has assured us. It is in this hope that I look at Rod Dreher’s recent reports on the “purification of memory” which John Paul II entrusted to us, and so I also gratefully read his “Benedict option” as a wonderful inspiration in many respects. In recent weeks, few things have given me so much comfort.

Thank you for your attention.

(Translated by Anian Christoph Wimmer)

I sat there stunned. An Italian journalist friend in the audience texted me:

I assure you that a lot of people in Rome and all over the Catholic world are stunned by those remarks. Exactly because it clearly means approval [of The Benedict Option] by BXVI …


The idea that Benedict XVI, one of my heroes of the faith, approved of The Benedict Option, though written by a man who had lost his Catholic faith?! Lord have mercy, I spent the rest of that day walking on air! The old monk Joseph Ratzinger cannot possibly have known what a gift he gave to me that day. I ran out and bought a copy of a book I already owned, because I wanted to mark the day of this blessing somehow:

I was so grateful that BXVI understood something about my book that so very many others did not: that it is not a call for heading for the hills and total retreat from the world, but rather a call to strengthen ourselves, individually and collectively, in the faith so that we can be resilient and faithful in the persecution to come. This ought to be clear to anyone who troubled to read the book, but very many people who never cracked its covers were sure that I was talking about escapism.

I want to point to this passage from Mgs. Gänswein's speech:

Obviously, I am not alone in this. In May, the Archbishop of Utrecht in Holland, Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk, confessed that the present crisis reminded him of the “final trial” of the Church, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it in paragraph 675, which the Church must undergo before the return of Christ, as a trial that ” will shake the faith of many believers”.  The Catechism continues: “The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity.’”

Again, recall that BXVI approved every word of this address. The pope emeritus was sending us a grave message about his views on What Time It Is. This morning I was texting with a traditionalist Catholic friend about the death of this dear man, and my friend said he believes that Benedict knew something before his resignation, that forced his resignation -- the "something" being mystical and eschatological. It's only speculation, but I think there's something to it. I think that Benedict had a very strong sense that some hideous trial is about to overtake Christians, and that he was not strong enough to prepare the Catholic Church for it. I believe that he hoped that his successor would be what he felt himself to be too old and frail to be. Instead, in my view, he tragically opened the door for disaster.

This year, in my travels in Europe, I met a faithful Catholic who received a personal letter from BXVI in 2015. The man told me what occasioned the letter, and what the letter said. My jaw dropped. He said he was going to release the letter after Benedict's death. Well, here we are -- and let me tell you, when this comes out, it's going to make world headlines. It puts Mgr Gänswein's speech about The Benedict Option in a certain light, and helps me understand why Pope Benedict effectively endorsed my book. Watch and wait for it. I have this sense that Joseph Ratzinger was a kind of katechon among us, in some mystical sense holding back the worst, and now that he has gone to God, we are going to face a déluge. I hope I am wrong. I don't think I am.

Whatever is yet to come, I give thanks to God for the life and service of Joseph Alois Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, and thanks too for the great intercessor I believe that all of us, even us non-Catholics, have gained in heaven. If you have never read his books, a great one to start with is his magisterial Introduction To Christianity. Again, you don't have to be Catholic to learn from it. A much shorter one, a reflection on the current crisis, is Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam. Of course there is also the two-part biography written by Benedict's amanuensis Peter Seewald, which I've just purchased.

I'll leave you with this excerpt from a letter BXVI sent this past January to the newly elected prior of a traditionalist Catholic monastery in France, a man of only 35 years. It comes from an interview with the new prior, Dom Louis Blanc, in the French Catholic magazine La Nef. From BXVI's letter, good advice for us all:

In the current confusion, it is important that we do not defend just any theory, but that we simply live in the faith of the Church, according to the tradition conveyed in its Creed and in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Such a fundamental attitude gives mobility in the little things and firmness in the essentials.

"Mobility in the little things and firmness in the essentials." In that simple phrase was, and is, the humility and humanity of this great pope, Benedict XVI. May his memory be eternal.

UPDATE: A friend e-mails to say that there was an endorsement by BXVI of the Benedict Option idea that I missed:

It was in the last paragraph you quoted from BXVI's letter. 

"In the current confusion, it is important that we do not defend just any theory, but that we simply live in the faith of the Church."

"not defend just any theory" addresses the great mistake in Western Christianity of separating theology from life. This was a tragedy. It's the very thing you're trying to overcome, in BenOp. You're saying that how we live our lives matters most. We must be humble. We must be chaste. We must love each other. We must love even our enemies. 

But the temptation is to go online and argue about ideas. To think of your actual daily habits as being in a separate box, and irrelevant to the Truth. This really is one of the tragedies of Catholicism. And BXVI is saying, and you are saying, "Do not defend just any theory." It is not necessary to keep yelling because "Someone is being wrong on the internet." What's necessary is to live the life. That is ultimately the only thing that can win--people who are filled with the Holy Spirit, bearing humble witness. The *presence* of such people wins the war, regardless of the words they say. That's what we need more of.  

Did you see today the report about Benedict's final words? "Jesus, ich liebe Dich." Jesus, I love you. Perfect. What a saint.