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Benedict XVI’s legacy – a misunderstood pope?

Antonio explores the legacy of the late Pope.

With the death of Joseph Ratzinger, former Pope Benedict XVI, just before the dawn of the new year, more than a billion Catholics lost a powerful spiritual guide. Whilst Benedict XVI lacked the charisma of those who preceded and succeeded him, respectively Pope John Paul II and the current Pope Francis, he was a towering theological and intellectual figure. And, perhaps most importantly, a profoundly misunderstood one. 

Pope Benedict XVI was a controversial figure, both in life and death. Dubbed ‘God’s Rottweiler’ he was seen as a strong enforcer of church doctrine, maintaining confrontational and deeply conservative stances, particularly regarding issues such as LGBT+ rights, the sacramental definition of marriage, abortion and other issues surrounding female reproductive rights. From 1981 to 2005, he led the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – once known as the Roman Inquisition. There, the then German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sneeringly referred to as the ‘Panzer Kardinal’, became John Paul II’s right hand man in all theological matters. Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger’s views differed little to his predecessors, and, arguably, even with his successor when it came to the important issues of the day. Benedict XVI was an intellectual and an academic prior to being a pastoral guide: perhaps, this was his biggest shortcoming. Yet, many have argued that the three popes of the twenty-first century must be seen in a framework of continuity. Perhaps, as Ratzinger’s own secretary affirmed, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis encapsulated the three different theological virtues asked of a spiritual leader: hope, faith, and charity. It is this strong continuity which I believe ought to be stressed, particularly against those conservative fringes within the Catholic Church who have recently hijacked the legacy of Benedict XVI and used it in opposition to Pope Francis. The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, nevertheless, speaks for himself, and sheds light particularly upon the importance of dialogue with young people and across faiths. 

While seen as a conservative, ‘God’s Rottweiler’ belonged to a reformist faction of the church for most of his life. In the 1960s, he befriended Hans Küng, a liberal theologian who questioned the Vatican’s control over individual priests, and Ratzinger was one of 1,360 prominent and radical theologians who, in 1968, signed a statement asserting their freedom in exploring their faith. The tumult of 1968 certainly shifted his approach, yet he never abandoned a reformist agenda. Indeed, the chaos of the 60s merely signified a transition towards a more controlled theological reformist project. In the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI (1963-1978), Benedict XVI found ideological soulmates. Interestingly, even regarding the scandals which would eventually cause havoc during his pontificate, Ratzinger always took an uncompromisingly reformist line. It was he who asked John Paul II to take the powers to try cases of sexual abuse amongst the clergy away from the individual diocese and centralise them in the hands of the Vatican. In doing so, it became harder for individual bishops to cover up the scandals – something he must have encountered during his brief term as Archbishop of Munich and Freising in the late 1970s. The then Cardinal Ratzinger also argued that there should be no statute of limitations for cases of sexual abuse and paedophilia and pushed for a fast-track of clerical tribunals and dismissals. Crucially, Benedict XVI’s pontificate saw the largest number of priests and bishops be tried and lose their clerical status, hence being removed from the church. 

Benedict XVI, certainly, did not possess the charisma or the pastoral attention of his successor, yet he laid the strong foundations for Francis’ pontificate. He continued the path set by John Paul II in placing young people as the central focus for the future of the church, and thus he continued to champion and be patron of the various world youth days and connected celebrations. Further, he was a strong promoter of interfaith dialogue. His visit to England in 2010 was a historic moment, the first visit made by a Pope to England since Henry VIII’s break with Rome. And while his 2006 speech in Regensburg was criticised as taking an aggressive stance towards Islam, he never ceased to dialogue with the various representatives of the Islamic faith. Indeed, he was a strong advocate for a recognition of Palestine and had a close relationship with Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority. The problems which afflicted Benedict XVI’s pontificate were many, and perhaps his promotion of liturgical traditions, dogma and aesthetics aided in causing a rift between conservatives and reformists – a rift he desperately sought to avoid. Yet seeing Benedict XVI as belonging to one faction in opposition to that of his successor is a temptation which must be resisted. Controlled reform was what Benedict sought to secure, and all his reforms to the papal curia were confirmed by Francis. Benedict, as an academic rather than a prelate with much pastoral experience, was perhaps too weak to impose them on a divided church. This need not signify he condoned the extremes and excesses by some Catholic fringes. Indeed, his historic resignation must be seen as a partial admission of failure against those very fringes which now attempt to reclaim his legacy as their own. While Francis’ success in attracting young people belonging to different communities, as well as furthering reform in liturgy and theology, Benedict XVI’s pontificate must not be seen as the antithesis of Francis’. Rather, it should be deemed a humble, prudent, at times faltering, but steadfast antecedent to Francis’ laudable reformist policies. Benedict XVI may have become a rallying icon for catholic conservatives – chiefly represented by Cardinals Raymond Leo Burke and Robert Sarah – to be consequently deployed against the reformist Francis, but we must let Ratzinger’s own words speak for himself. In a speech given in 2016, the former pope gave a sermon on gratitude where he argued that ‘[the word] Eucharistomen points us to the reality of thanksgiving’, prior to arguing that ‘the Pope is one’. Ratzinger’s thanksgiving was towards the fact that Francis, who was present at the event, had been so generous and kind to him after his renunciation and de facto resignation. In practice, it was gratitude for the fact Francis had been chosen as his successor. Indeed, with this intricate Ratzingerian code and entanglement of words, befitting of a complex academic mind, Benedict XVI had signalled both his approval for Francis, and the strong reformist continuity between himself and his successor.

Image credit: M.Mazur/www.thepapalvisit.org.uk / CC BY 2.0 via Flicker

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