Requiescat in Pace: Benedict XVI
The pope emeritus (1927-2022) will be remembered as one of the most consequential pontiffs of all time.
What do the Virgin Mary and William Shakespeare have in common? According to Cardinal Newman, they’re the two most underrated individuals in history. Both were barely appreciated in their own lifetimes. It would be decades before men could even begin to understand their real significance.
Someday, I’m sure, we’ll say the same about Pope Benedict XVI. At first, he’ll suffer the same ignominy. Then, in time, he’ll share in their triumph.
At first glance, Benedict’s papacy was a failure. His role in the sex-abuse crisis is negligible; he was neither a great hero nor a great villain. Most of his best work in the Liturgy Wars has already been undone by his successor, Pope Francis. His theology was brilliant but derivative, as orthodox theology tends to be.
All the obituaries are calling him “God’s Rottweiler.” That’s the nickname he earned at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the old Roman Inquisition). Back then, Benedict had a reputation as a rabid reactionary. He grappled with all the great Modernists such as Hans Kung and John J. McNeill. Most of the time he won, too. Benedict was never afraid to make a stand. The trouble is that, all too often, he found himself standing alone. And so Modernist errors are spreading through the Church like never before.
And yet, for all that, I have no doubt that he will be remembered as one of the most consequential popes of all time.
In the year 312, Emperor Constantine became a Christian. In 380, Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. For the next 1,400 years (give or take), Western civilization has been synonymous with the Church. Its governments and economies and cultures helped to spread the Christian faith—not only in Europe, but around the world.
Yet, ever since the Enlightenment, there has been a growing sense that Christians are losing control. Sometimes the Church would come under direct attack, as in revolutionary France. But, for the most part, “secularization” was slower and more subtle. There is no single figure we can call the post-Christian Constantine, but the effect was basically the same. Now, the machine of civilization—its governments and economies and cultures—are working to erode the Christian faith.
So, what are Christians going to do about it? How are we going to regain political, economic, and cultural dominance?
Ask a hundred Christians and you’ll get a hundred different answers. There’s liberal Christianity, Christian democracy, distributism, corporatism, clerical fascism, social conservatism, liberation theology, neo-integralism…to name just a few.
For Benedict, all of this was deeply unsettling. As a good Augustinian, he balked at the worldliness of Western Christians. Why do we make such a fuss about the City of Man? Why don’t we worry more about the City of God?
As Benedict realized, this worldliness is the reason so many Jews denied that Jesus was the Messiah. They were expecting a warrior-king, one who would drive out the Romans and restore the common good to Israel. And yet this Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world, and promises only to forgive their sins.
In the first volume of his study Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict notes that the Jews balked at Jesus’ message because “there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.” Israel wants a revolution, and yet all He can offer them is eternity in Heaven.
Benedict saw this same world-madness everywhere in the West today, even (or especially) in the churches. The death of Christendom was a consequence of, and a punishment for, that worldliness. Christians lost control of the City of Man because we lost sight of the City of God. And so, in 1969, Benedict gave his first great prophecy:
It seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that it was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
In order for the Church to flourish again, Benedict said, we Christians must return to the fundamentals of our Faith. We have to follow the example of a much older generation of Christians—one that not only lacked worldly power, but was persecuted by the rulers of this world. Benedict was predicting a new Apostolic Age. He elaborated on his prophecy in 1997:
Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more and more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world—that let God in.
In 2006, he repeated this conviction:
We must agree with Toynbee that the fate of society always depends on its creative minorities. Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority, and help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to thereby place itself at the service of all humankind.
To be clear, Benedict wasn’t saying that he wants a smaller Church. He was saying that the Church will go on shrinking, and there is nothing we can do about it. (Not in the short term, anyway.) We can’t build a Christian society because most of us don’t even know what Christianity is.
Of course, Benedict believed that Christendom was a good thing. There is no doubt about that. But he also feared it had become a burden, a distraction. It’s both a tool we don’t know how to use and a prize we haven’t earned. So, God in His mercy took it away.
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Where does that leave us? Right around square one. The West is mission territory, just as it was for Ss. Peter and Paul. This is an idea that is beginning to catch on. It was a major theme of Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium. It is also the thesis of Rod Dreher’s bestselling book The Benedict Option. But, really, it was Benedict XVI who first began to speak these inconvenient truths.
It will take decades for us to realize the debt we owe to Pope Benedict XVI. In the meantime, what a privilege it was to see a real, live prophet.
Rest in peace, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, a sinner.