The Corner

How Not to Understand Pope Benedict

E. J. Dionne writes a widely syndicated column for the Washington Post. He knows his readers, so it makes perfect sense that most of what he writes has a political angle to it. Dionne is also a Catholic and frequently writes from a Catholic perspective on Catholic matters.

Take for example Dionne’s column from this Monday about the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Dionne describes this Pope, and his interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, in explicitly political terms.

I have always regarded Benedict as a kind of neo-conservative — not in his foreign-policy attitudes but in sociological terms. Like the original neo-conservatives, Benedict was a moderate progressive before he became a conservative. He was pushed to the right, as so many neo-conservatives were, by a deep, visceral reaction to the rebellions of the 1960s. . . .

From this, it’s possible to see how a one-time liberal became an ardent critic not only of Marxism but of liberalizing trends in the church, including the great reforms of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John XXIII. As he put it in a famous series of interviews before he became pope with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, “one has encountered dissension [in the church], which seems to have passed over from self-criticism to self-destruction.” Benedict was thus intent on pressing the most conservative interpretations of the meaning of Vatican II, which liberals saw as undoing the council’s forward-looking spirit.

Earlier today in Rome, Pope Benedict, for the last time, met with the clergy of that diocese as their bishop. At that meeting, he offered a lengthy personal reflection on his experience of the Second Vatican Council. It is worth noting that Benedict is the last pope who will have played an official role in the council. (As a young priest, he served as an adviser to Cardinal Frings of Cologne.)

The Pope’s account of the council was, to say the least, very different than Dionne’s. His remarks covered a great many different aspects of the council, but he concluded by explicitly addressing the chasm between how the Church and the council fathers understood the council and how the media came to (mis)understand it.#more#

I would now like to add yet a third point: there was the Council of the Fathers — the true Council — but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council in and of itself, and the world perceived the Council through them, through the media. So the immediately efficient Council that got [through] to the people, was that of the media, not that of the Fathers. And while the Council of the Fathers evolved within the faith, it was a Council of the faith that sought the intellectus, that sought to understand and try to understand the signs of God at that moment, that tried to meet the challenge of God in this time to find the words for today and tomorrow. So while the whole council — as I said — moved within the faith, as fides quaerens intellectum [faith seeking understanding], the Council of journalists did not, naturally, take place within the world of faith but within the categories of the media of today, that is outside of the faith, with different hermeneutics. It was a hermeneutic of politics. The media saw the Council as a political struggle, a struggle for power between different currents within the Church. It was obvious that the media would take the side of whatever faction best suited their world. There were those who sought a decentralization of the Church, power for the bishops and then, through the Word for the “people of God”, the power of the people, the laity. There was this triple issue: the power of the Pope, then transferred to the power of the bishops and then the power of all . . .popular sovereignty. Naturally they saw this as the part to be approved, to promulgate, to help.

And we know that this Council of the media was accessible to all. So, dominant, more efficient, this Council created many calamities, so many problems, so much misery, in reality: seminaries closed, convents closed liturgy trivialized . . . and the true Council has struggled to materialize, to be realized: the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council. But the real strength of the Council was present and slowly it has emerged and is becoming the real power which is also true reform, true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that 50 years after the Council, we see how this Virtual Council is breaking down, getting lost and the true Council is emerging with all its spiritual strength. And it is our task, in this Year of Faith, starting from this Year of Faith, to work so that the true Council with the power of the Holy Spirit is realized and Church is really renewed. [Emphasis added.]

Viewing the Second Vatican Council, “as a political struggle, a struggle for power between different currents within the Church,” obscures, rather than clarifies, what the Council was about. That Pope Benedict took his final meeting with his own priests and clergy to emphasize this fact only underscores how profoundly inadequate this same hermeneutic is to understanding Pope Benedict XVI, his teachings, or his legacy.

To be fair, E. J. Dionne wasn’t the the first to describe the papacy, the Church, or the council in fundamentally political categories; he didn’t invent the false narrative Benedict derides. But Dionne is the most widely syndicated Catholic purveyor of that narrative. Given the teaching opportunity provided by the current interest in this Pope, his papacy, and one of the seminal religious and cultural events of the last century, it’s too bad Dionne hasn’t done better by his readers — to say nothing of his Church.

— Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. 

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