Pope Benedict 16 Dies
When I learned of the death of Pope Benedict today, I began to think of those five men who had been pope during my lifetime, three during my time as a priest. As I begin these reflections about Pope Benedict XVI, let me state for the record that I think we have had a very good run of holy men who have been pope.
Pope Benedict XVI was well known when he was elected. After a wonderful homily on the death of Pope John Paul II, it was no surprise that he was elected. It was widely expected. His long tenure as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made him a well-known cardinal. This was both a blessing and a curse.
What I came to appreciate about Pope Benedict’s time as pope was getting to know better Pope Benedict XVI as a person. Too often what I heard described was either a caricature or so overlaid with so much bias as not to be accurate. An instance where these two realities came together was witnessing the reaction of another friar who first loved and then hated the phrase coined when he was elected, “The cafeteria is closed.”
He initially liked it very much. That was until he learned the phrase was coined by Maureen Dowd, hardly a fan of the new pope. Quite honestly, I think neither reaction was fair. Pope Benedict’s thought was far more nuanced than both fans and detractors would be willing to admit.
For example, he will probably not be remembered by the secular media as one open to dialogue. And yet, one of his first meetings as pope, four months after his election, was with Hans Kung. While it did not lead to any sort of reconciliation, (and Hans Kung remained very critical of Pope Benedict) given the myriad of theologians he could have met with, his choice to make Hans Kung one of the first was telling I thought.
He was complicated
Pope Benedict XVI was a complicated man. But I feel compelled to say that I believed him to be a holy man who loved Jesus, loved the Church and was a gifted theologian. My sense is that people who denied this did so because they did not agree with his theology, and not about the quality of his theology.
What is interesting to me is that at a theologian his writings were both dense (The Spirit of the Liturgy) and accessible (his encyclicals). I think his role as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith overshadowed key and central ideas of his theology. Seen too often as only being against things, I think what was missed was his emphasis on the notion of a friendship with Jesus which he indicated was the foundation of everything.
Yet there are important things to acknowledge. First, Pope Benedict sought to resign from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith more than once. Second, while the press focused on controversies such as the Church’s positions on Marriage, same sex attraction and women’s ordination, often what he wrote about was far more nuanced.
Consider the documents he wrote on liberation theology. First, his criticism. Then Cardinal Ratzinger was concerned about the heavy reliance of Liberation Theology upon Marxist ideologies. While there are many who might not want to admit it, a look around the world indicates that those countries who embraced Marxism never were able to live up to the ideals of thought, and the citizens in these countries, especially the poor, have suffered greatly.
There was also criticism about the means to achieve the ends of Liberation Theology. He was critical especially of those clerics who advocated taking up arms in the quest to achieve these ends.
But second, there was the parts of liberation theology that won praise from Ratzinger. Most especially, he liked its focus on care for the poor and for justice. It was not the case in my memory, however, that this nuance was ever really acknowledged.
I thought his encyclicals were among the best I have read in terms of being accessible to a wider audience, something that is not always the case for encyclicals, in my view. His decision to focus on the theological virtues also seemed to me to be an astute starting point for the renewal of the faith in Europe.
Pope Benedict’s insight about faith renewal was making the starting point a relationship. I do not think he gets anywhere near enough credit for this. He writes that love is “the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity.” Without the foundation of a loving God, much of what anyone could say about beliefs of any kind make little or no sense.
Each person finds his good by adherence to God’s plan for him, in order to realize it fully: in this plan, he finds his truth, and through adherence to this truth he becomes free (cf. Jn 8:32). To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:6).Caritas in Veritate
In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict demonstrates the absolute foundation of this love. “Everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope.” It is from this love that the “Dictatorship of Relativism” (you have your truth, I have my truth) is rightly criticized.
And this powerful foundation of God’s love provides the groundwork for Pope Benedict’s positions. His criticism of capitalism for example is based upon the teachings of Jesus. We are commanded by God to love both God but secondly our neighbor as ourselves. Being charitable to the poor, for example, comes from an understanding that God gives each person supreme dignity. Ironically to some, his criticism of Marxism, I think, could be due to a lack of emphasis on the God-given dignity of every human being.
Pope Benedict can use this focus on love to come to the important emphasis on justice and the common good. The emphasis on the notion of truth as the logos (the Word) is also the foundation for dia-logos. Without a common starting point, an understanding that in our discussion there is something that is absolutely and fundamentally true, how can there be any possible dialogue?
The Dictatorship of Relativism
Pope Benedict uses this phrase to summarize the fundamental problem of the age. If there is nothing absolute, nothing true, but all is dependent upon the personal opinion of the one making the statement, how is it we can get anywhere? Moreover, our current age is one where true dialogue has been replaced by this dictatorship of relativism. What do I mean?
Consider for example the phrase “alternative facts.” Look at the tendency for people to ignore news sources that do not align with their own opinions. There is the reality in the United States that often we fail to discuss ideas and principles, but rather find ourselves reduced to ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with us.
Moreover, it is not enough to simply disagree. Increasingly we must state these disagreements in moral terms. A person who disagrees with me is not wrong but evil. Even if someone is wrong, declaring the errors of their thought is not enough. Rather, it is important for me to call them evil, to see them a vicious, vile vermin.
And yet I think Pope Benedict was right on the problem. The logical end point of this “dictatorship of relativism” is precisely where we are. For, if everything is up for grabs in terms of the rightness or wrongness of an opinion, how does anyone address the significant problems we face?
Pope Benedict could focus on justice and the common good precisely because it rests upon something bigger than himself. I can admit I am wrong only to the degree there is a standard by which right and wrong gets measured. And without an appeal to the truth, which we believe is a person, then moral decisions are too often made by the most powerful and the loudest.
Pope Benedict loved Jesus and the Church
In our lives as Catholics, the ultimate standard of behavior is, I believe, the degree to which we love Jesus and the Church. I do not think that anyone can disagree with the idea that Pope Benedict was a man who loved Jesus and the Church. Too often, I think we forget that our fist obligation is to love. It is the theological virtue that lasts forever. Faith is not needed in heaven, nor is hope.)
Pope Benedict’s love of Jesus was evident in his humility and in the way in which he wrote about its primacy. And believing the Catholic Church to be founded by Jesus, his love for the Church was manifest in his staying in the role as the prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, his acceptance of being pope, and his resignation from being pope.
He was human
I hope that I will not be measured by my mistakes. I have made many. I have sinned. Despite my best efforts, I do not always know what the right thing to do is, and I choose wrongly. And sometimes I know what is right make no effort to do it and I sin. Every human being is complex. Pope Benedict was no different.
For Pope Benedict, especially as pope, it seems his administration skills were not the strongest. While he made efforts to improve the Church’s response to abuse, it was probably too slow. It seems he did not always trust the right people. His response to those who dissented perhaps could have been better.
But, in all this he reminds us he was a human being. He did what he did because he loved Jesus and the Church. Like all of us, he did not do this perfectly. He was both the German Rottweiler and the German Shepherd. But I think he sought and succeeded at doing the will of God. And that is all Jesus asks. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Rest in peace.