After a week in Rome last November I flew into London. It was late in the evening and the closely-cropped immigration officer had probably been dreaming about abusing a referee in tomorrow’s soccer match. He looked me up and down and said, “so what have you been doing in Rome, eh?” I hadn’t been expecting this Stasi-like interrogation and I responded a bit defiantly, “Seeing the Pope”.
“The Pope, eh?” said the officer. “And did he have anything to say for himself?”
Three months later, that is the question that everyone is asking. Benedict XVI has announced that he is abdicating, the first pope in 600 years to do so. Does he have anything to say for himself?
For many journalists the answer was no. Greg Sheridan, of The Australian, wrote, “Benedict XVI is a good man but a poor Pope.”
But how do you measure the success of a Pope, the spiritual leader of a billion-plus Catholics, and a benchmark for Christian teaching for millions of others? Twitter followers? B16 only has 1,536,000 and Paris Hilton has 9,751,000. Is she a better communicator, a more influential thinker, a more inspiring example?
The core business of Catholicism is evangelisation, helping people to fall in love with God. As @Pontifex said in one of his last tweets, “Every human being is loved by God the Father. No one need feel forgotten, for every name is written in the Lord's loving Heart.”
The monsignori whispering their petty complaints to journalists in the colonnade, the thieving butler, the red ink in the Vatican book – none of these matter much for a Pope. Or rather, they only matter as obstacles to his mission. The journalists who focus on process are missing the real story.
And by that standard, history will probably account Benedict XVI a success. When I visited St Peter’s Square that Sunday in November, tens of thousands of people were there to see him speak at noon from his balcony window – Italians, Americans, Russians, Koreans, Spaniards, Chinese. Most of them were youngish; many were obviously honeymoon couples.
This morning I was on a train to work when a lawyer friend hailed me and sat beside me. “Did you hear the news?” he asked. We chatted about the resignation. “You know,” he said. “He’s in Rome, but he was very influential in my entering the Catholic Church last year. He is so gentle and prayerful and his writings are so piercingly intelligent. It’s amazing that he had such influence on me from so far away.”
As the years pass, Benedict XVI’s legacy will become clearer. But I would highlight six key contributions.
Benedict as a defender of Christian culture. As an analyst of Western culture, he has no peer. The 21st century is experiencing a radical rupture with its Christian past as a process of secularization which began with the French Revolution. Benedict has used his bully pulpit to warn politicians and intellectuals that expelling God from public life will have disastrous consequences.
He has made a number of stunning speeches in Paris in 2008, in London in 2010, and in Berlin in 2011 about the consequences of deChristianisation. He told French intellectuals: “A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity.”
Benedict as a defender of reason. In an often-quoted speech just before he was elected, he said, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.” Paradoxically, modern culture has less and less respect for reason as it distances itself from truth. Time and time again, Benedict pointed out that the world around is only intelligible if it comes from the hands of a Creator. And without truth, politics becomes a game of thrones and science loses prestige.
Benedict as a defender of tradition. In the Catholic world, “tradition” is not crusty conservatism, but faithfully passing on, from one generation to the next, the teachings of its founder in all their original integrity. One of Benedict’s strong points has been a tremendous sensitivity to the centuries of tradition in the Church. Every Wednesday for years he gave talks on contributions made by saints from the early years of Christianity. Unlike many radical theologians, he refused to interpret Vatican II as a radical break with the past. Instead, he insisted that nothing good from the past was truly outmoded. He called this the “hermeneutic of continuity”, as opposed to the “hermeneutic of rupture and reform”.
Benedict as an evangeliser. Media critiques have focused on empty pews and empty seminaries in Europe. This is the result of corrosive secularization stretching back many, many decades, long before his election, or even before the Vatican Council. But like John Paul II, Benedict sees a new springtime for Christianity beneath the snows of a secularized culture. He created a new section in the Vatican which is dedicated to the new evangelization. The clarity of his message and his encouragement have given new optimism to Christians all over the world.
Benedict as the West’s link with Islam. The media are recycling the myth that Benedict poisoned relations with Islam. This is superficial and wrong-headed. If anything, his call for a united front against secularization has attracted Muslims. Admittedly, his Regensburg address in 2006 caused great consternation, but he put his finger on the difference between Islam and Christianity: that the God of Islam is pure will, above and beyond reason, and that the God of Christianity is creative reason, ordering and guiding the world.
But he delivered the same message – in slightly different words – in a mosque in Jordan in 2009, to great applause. The West’s engagement with the Islamic world will be one of the great challenges of the 21st century; Benedict has created a framework for understanding our differences. Both the Pope and President Obama have reached out to the Muslim world. But if you were a Muslim, whom would you respect more? A pious priest who worships the Almighty, or a president who showers bombs on Afghan weddings and confetti on gay marriages?
Benedict as a reformer. The Pope has been bitterly criticized for sexual abuse within the Church. Time will show that this is absurd. Shortly before his election, he bitterly lamented “How much filth there is in the Church, even among those who, in the priesthood, should belong entirely to Him.” He was aware of how much had to be done and as Pope he was unsparing in his treatment of proven abusers. He wrote a severe letter to the people of Ireland to castigate their bishops and demand reform and penance.
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"A poor Pope"? I’d say, a poor analyst. As Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger burned with the pure gem-like flame of transcendent intellectual clarity which puts his critics to shame. Critiics like the teeth-gnashing pope of atheism, Richard Dawkins. He tweeted, “I feel sorry for the Pope and all old Catholic priests. Imagine having a wasted life to look back on and no sex.”
The best response to such tripe is to quote the first Pope: “To silence, by honest living, the ignorant chatter of fools; that is what God expects of you.” By that standard Benedict XVI has been all that Catholics expected of him, and more.
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