Coat of Arms of Benedict XVI
In my preivous entry I mentioned Father Robert Barron’s assessment of the papacy of Benedict XVI. I am a fan of Father Barron and his work, but he is an apologist (one whose work it is to present the Church and its teaching in a light that is meant to win souls to its truth) not a historian. From an apologist’s perspective, I think he did a fine and fair evaluation of this papacy, but I would like to tackle the subject from a historian’s perspective. It might be somewhat less sugar-coated, but I would be far from negative. That being said, I would have to begin by saying that overall the pontificate of Benedict XVI has been a tremendous disappointment, more to the Holy Father, I would imagine, than to anyone else. His aim from the beginning was to revive the Christian faith and culture of Europe but there is no evidence of success in this matter. Voices that have called for the very sort of renewal that would fan into new flame the embers of Christian Europe—voices such as the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini or the Swiss Abbots Martin Werlen and Peter von Sury—have been pushed to the margins while prelates that echo the same-old-same-old, and bizarre movements such as the Restorationist Institute of Christ the Sovereign Priest have found encouragement, albeit not by Benedict himself but by a Roman bureaucracy that has no consistent focus. The result is that there has been absolutely no improvement in Benedict’s eight year reign in the state of the European Church.In my years in Rome I saw Benedict often—both as Cardinal Ratzinger and as the Pope. He is a gentle and cultured man. A sincere man. Ironically in his days as the theological adviser to Cardinal Frings of Cologne during the Council, he was one of the principal sub-architects of the Council, but he seems—like the children of Israel in the desert—to have had a failure of confidence somewhere along the way. He also seems to have had a compulsive need for control and management yet been unable to assert that control once in a position to do so. His accession to the papacy in 2005 was according to a carefully engineered plan that Cardinal Ratzinger had meticulously put in place over the last ten years or so of John Paul’s papacy. He did this not out of ambition, I believe, but of a deep felt need to take control of the Church to correct the course that the Council had set and of which he had second thoughts. He had no idea of reversing the Council but of a rather drastic revision of its course. In the end he was not successful in this matter other than ordering some still unpopular changes in the Roman Missal’s vernacular translations.
His legacy will be his resignation. What will give him a place in the history books is his courage to walk away from a task that is greater than his strength. There is no shame in this—to the contrary he is to be congratulated for his candor and his rigorous self-awareness and for his putting the good of the Church ahead of his own desires. Moreover, he has set a precedent giving future popes an option—and perhaps even a mandate—to do something popes have not felt free to do in centuries.