History will most likely treat Pope Benedict XVI more kindly than his chattering-class contemporaries, who held him in barely disguised (or undisguised) contempt, caricaturing him as a former Hitler Youth become “God’s Rottweiler.” And, truth to tell, Joseph Ratzinger was made for caricature, at least in a culture of narcissism in which the exchange of sound bites passes for conversation, and polemics for serious debate.
An intensely shy, old-fashioned gentleman of deep and broad learning, the only man I have ever met who, when asked a question, paused, reflected, and then answered in complete paragraphs; a man whose life was built around the conviction that Christianity bears within itself, by the grace of God, the truth of the human condition; a man who, late in his eighth decade, accepted responsibility for leading and guiding one of the few Western institutions that have not completely caved in to the cult of the imperial autonomous Self, the ideology of Gender, and the notion that nothing is simply given in the human condition; a man who assiduously avoided media contact, in part because he did not understand what good television he in fact was — well, that’s not someone likely to find a warm welcome in the North Atlantic salons in which opinion is crafted and from which it is merchandised.
Others did find him compelling: those who regularly attended his packed weekly audiences, where they were spiritually and intellectually enriched by a master teacher of luminous clarity; those who heard, at his pontifical Masses, one of the great preachers of modern Christianity (and the finest papal homilist since Gregory the Great) expound Bible and doctrine in ways that touched quotidian life, and at its most sensitive points; those who read his triptych, Jesus of Nazareth, the distillation of a lifetime of scholarship and a brilliant example of the insight that comes from critical historical study complemented and disciplined by a theology deeply versed in Christian tradition; the victims of clerical sexual abuse with whom he met, wept, and prayed; the young people, in their hundreds of thousands, with whom he knelt in silent adoration before the Eucharistic Christ at World Youth Days in Cologne, Sydney, and Madrid; the world leaders who discovered, perhaps to their surprise, that one of the modern world’s greatest theologians had a keen and sympathetic understanding of their problems.
So, as the Bill Kellers and Garry Willses of this world heave great sighs of relief while throwing further dirt and stones at Benedict as he leaves the world stage (even as Keller, Wills, and those of a similar cast of mind fantasize that his successor will change what cannot be changed in the Church’s self-understanding and teaching), others will remember him with gratitude and affection. And they will wish an obviously frail and exhausted man some years of peace before he meets the Lord he served — and to whom he must render an account of his stewardship, both of the gifts with which he was endowed and of the office to which he was called.
As a first draft of history, then, what might his lasting legacy be?
As far as the Catholic Church and its evolution goes, he will be remembered as the pope who completed the deep reform of Catholicism that began with Leo XIII in the late 19th century. That complex historical process produced the great Catholic liturgical and theological movements of the mid 20th century (in which Joseph Ratzinger was formed) and reached a high point of ecclesiastical drama in the Second Vatican Council (at which young Father Ratzinger played a significant role as a theological adviser). And both the reform process and the Council to which it led have now been given an authoritative interpretation by John Paul II and Benedict XVI: The Catholic Church is to understand itself as a communion of disciples in mission — a Church of the New Evangelization.
Thus, with Benedict XVI, the door is closing on the Counter-Reformation Church and an ecclesial sensibility of institutional maintenance, as the door opens on Evangelical Catholicism: a Church in which all Catholics understand themselves to have been called to a missionary vocation, and in which every Catholic enters mission territory every day. In completing this transition from one phase of Catholic history to another, Benedict XVI ended, for all serious purposes, the 40-year debate over the Catholic future that ensued after Vatican II. The strategy has now been defined, Catholic Lite is over, and the Barque of Peter is launched on the course proposed by John Paul II in his apostolic letter closing the Great Jubilee of 2000 — the Catholic Church is putting out “into the deep” (as John Paul wrote, citing Jesus in Luke 5:4): The Church is casting its nets into the roiling waters of postmodernity in order to convert the world. How? By proposing Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life, and by modeling a more humane way of living in an increasingly frigid and calculating world that measures human beings by their utility rather than honoring their inalienable dignity.
As for the world, Benedict XVI has left behind a legacy of profound insight into democracy and its 21st-century discontents, in what the Canadian author Father Raymond de Souza has nicely styled the “September Addresses.”
In September 2006 at Regensburg, the Bavarian university where he taught before being named archbishop of Munich and Freising, Benedict XVI reminded the Western world that its civilization derived from the fruitful interaction of Jerusalem and Athens: the encounter between Biblical religion and Greek reason, which purified religion while deepening and broadening rationality. Absent either Jerusalem or Athens, Benedict warned, the Western commitment to the rule of law (the Roman contribution to the foundations of the West) would weaken, and perhaps crumble.
Moreover, he suggested, in the meeting of revelation and reason that was Christianity’s engagement with classical learning, Islam could find a model by which it could move beyond its present intellectual sterility, thus abandoning the lethal politics that derive from a faith undisciplined by reason. Might Islam find, in an encounter between disciplined reason and its own religious resources, a way to warrant both religious tolerance and the separation of religious and political authority in a 21st-century state? That, Benedict argued, was the way that Islam and “the rest” might find a way to coexistence, perhaps even mutual enlightenment. He was pilloried for suggesting any such thing by an uncomprehending world media and by less learned men, such as the ubiquitous Al Jazeera commentator Yususf al-Qaradawi. But history will show that Benedict put his finger squarely on the critical issues that must be addressed if this clash of civilizations is to be tempered.
Then, at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris in September 2008, Benedict XVI took up the other side of the reason/revelation dyad, suggesting that reason cut off from revelation — from transcendent truths encountered in the Word of God — was, inevitably, diminished. Reason’s “capitulation” to positivism, as he put it, led to a hollowing out of culture, for a culture that dismissed the Word would become a culture of mere words: a culture of sound and fury signifying, not nothing, but a new kind of barbarism. It was an astutely placed observation in the very city where madcap rationalism had led to the Reign of Terror.
In Westminster Hall in London, addressing the great and good of the United Kingdom in September 2010, Benedict XVI (the German pope who thanked the people of the U.K. for having won the Battle of Britain) gently reminded his listeners that they were gathered at the place where Sir Thomas More had been tried, found guilty of treason, and condemned to death. Here, the pope suggested, was a lesson for the present: Just governance is imperiled without men and women of conscience, whose conscience tells them (as their faith reveals to them) that there are limits to state power, and that even the noblest polity can descend into tyranny when power trumps moral truth at every point.
But there was another example from British history that pointed out a more excellent political way, Benedict suggested. For it was also in the Palace of Westminster (if this time in the House of Commons) that another man of Christian conscience, William Wilberforce, fought successfully to end the slave trade through laws enforced by that once-robust instrument, the Royal Navy. Conscience in politics, the pope proposed, need not always lead to a noble political failure like Thomas More; conscience in politics could bend history in a more humane direction.
Finally, in the German Bundestag in September 2011, Benedict XVI took a note from one of his theological masters, Augustine of Hippo, and reminded his countrymen that a state without justice is a “band of thieves.” Any polity in which public policy was formed without reference to human ecology, to the moral order built into human nature, would inevitably lead to a dictatorship of relativism, in which an auto-constructed morality of doing it “my way” would be imposed on all of society by coercive state power.
As for the debit side of the ledger, Benedict XVI’s pontificate was plagued by his seeming inability to draw around him men of high quality who could manage the affairs of the Church competently, allowing the scholar-preacher-pastor-pope to maximize the impact of his unique talents. Time and again, the Roman curial machinery — led, it must be admitted, by men chosen by Benedict XVI — let the pope down.
Attempting to reach out in pastoral charity to schismatics of the far right, the followers of the late French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Benedict was blindsided by the revelation that one of the Lefebvrist bishops whose excommunication he had lifted, Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust-denying lunatic: a fact that could have been ascertained by a two-minute Google search. Someone’s head, or heads, should have rolled in the Roman Curia, but no one’s did.
A year ago, his less-than-shrewd cardinal secretary of state, Tarcisio Bertone, was manipulated by the Castro regime in Cuba, such that the pope was prevented from meeting with the brave women of the pro-democracy (and very Catholic) “Ladies in White” and then maneuvered into a photo-op with a doddering Fidel Castro. Now more than three years past the normal retirement date, Bertone remains at the top of the Vatican bureaucracy (and will remain a player in his role as Cardinal Camerlengo, the man who tends to the affairs of the Church during the interregnum). Yet under Bertone, the Roman Curia has reverted to many of its less admirable Italianate habits and is now as dysfunctional as it has been in living memory. Benedict’s successor will thus have a major house-cleaning job to do, so that the Vatican bureaucracy becomes an instrument of the New Evangelization and an evangelically assertive papacy, not an impediment to both.
There is irony, bordering on tragedy, here. Many of the accomplishments of Pope Benedict XVI have been obscured by one of Joseph Ratzinger’s most touching human qualities: his inability to willingly inflict pain on others, even if failing to do so makes his own life more difficult and painful. “God’s Rottweiler,” it turned out, was anything but an attack dog. And because he did not crack the whip, lesser men created filters of incompetence and incomprehensibility that obscured his own challenging and ennobling message.
Thus perhaps the last accomplishment of Benedict XVI, and the last piece of the first draft of his legacy, is a cautionary tale. What the Church and the world gain from a pope of profound faith, utter decency, deep learning, and coruscating intelligence can be diminished, even obscured, if that same man is not an astute judge of character and competence with the will to discipline failure when necessary. It seems not unlikely that Benedict XVI’s successor will be a man who loved and esteemed him. That affection and respect must be complemented by a deep and careful reading of what went wrong and why it did, in a pontificate now ending with a final great act of self-abasement, the first renunciation of Peter’s Chair since the Middle Ages.
– Mr. Weigel is the Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, recently published by Basic Books.