Saturday, December 31, 2022

On the death of Pope Benedict XVI

I’m not sure when I first became aware of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was later to become Pope Benedict XVI.  During my high school years in the early 80s, I had only a vague awareness of the doctrinal controversies roiling the Church.  I then knew little more than that they had something to do with liberal theologians and their opposition to Pope John Paul II.  My first clear memory of Ratzinger himself is from the very end of that decade, when I had left the Church and was on my way to becoming an atheist.  I read a magazine article about him and his work as the pope’s chief doctrinal officer.  The impression it left me with was of a man of deep learning and gravitas.  For some reason, what stood out especially was a remark of his quoted in the article, to the effect that a sound theology “cannot… act as if the history of thought only seriously began with Kant.”  (I later learned that this came from a lecture of his since reprinted as the third chapter of God’s Word: Scripture – Tradition – Office.)

There were, as this indicated, serious minds in the Church who affirmed the continuing validity of the premodern philosophical and theological worldview I was then questioning.  It would take more than a decade for me to see that they were right.  But when I did, Ratzinger proved a helpful guide.  His interview book Salt of the Earth was something I read when I began to consider coming back to the Catholic faith.  That and the earlier interview book The Ratzinger Report (which appeared in the middle of the 1980s but is still depressingly relevant) made clear what was going on in the Church.  They also made it clear that the pope had made a very wise decision in naming Ratzinger the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  On the one hand, he was highly intelligent and cultured, well-read in the modern ideas that informed contemporary hostility to Catholic teaching, and keen as far as possible to address them by way of rational persuasion.  On the other hand, he also had deep knowledge of and love for the tradition of the Church, and saw that the Church was nothing if she did not preserve and pass on that tradition whole and undefiled.

This combination of traits informed many of the policies and documents for which he was responsible as head of CDF and, later, as pope.  Donum Veritatis reaffirms in no uncertain terms the duty of Catholic theologians to teach in conformity with the tradition of the Church and the binding statements of the Magisterium.  At the same time, more than any previous official teaching document, it makes clear that there can be cases in which non-infallible magisterial acts can be deficient, and in which a faithful theologian can, accordingly, respectfully raise criticisms.  Given the ambiguities of several magisterial statements of recent years, the timing of Donum Veritatis seems providential.  In any event, and as I have discussed elsewhere, as head of CDF and as pope, Ratzinger was in reality the opposite of the “Panzer Cardinal” of self-serving liberal myth.  Disciplinary action was for him always a last resort, and mild even then.  His preferred approach was to engage even the Church’s harshest critics at the level of rational argumentation.

Again, though, fidelity to tradition was non-negotiable, and Ratzinger saw that only what he famously called a “hermeneutic of continuity” was consistent with the basic claims of Catholicism.  This hermeneutic even led him gently to criticize the direction the hierarchy had taken the Church in recent decades.  Though very much a man of Vatican II, he thought Gaudium et Spes too optimistic about the modern world.  He had reservations about Pope John Paul II’s interreligious prayer meeting in Assisi in 1986.  While condemning Archbishop Lefebvre’s disobedience in consecrating bishops without papal approval, Ratzinger acknowledged that those who followed Lefebvre had understandably been scandalized by the changes in the Church since the council.  He urged his fellow churchmen to take the concerns of traditionalists seriously:

[I]t is a duty for us to examine ourselves, as to what errors we have made, and which ones we are making even now…

[S]chisms can take place only when certain truths and certain values of the Christian faith are no longer lived and loved within the Church… It will not do to attribute everything to political motives, to nostalgia, or to cultural factors of minor importance…

For all these reasons, we ought to see this matter primarily as the occasion for an examination of conscience.  We should allow ourselves to ask fundamental questions, about the defects in the pastoral life of the Church, which are exposed by these events…

[W]e want to ask ourselves where there is lack of clarity in ourselves…

The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero.  The truth is that this particular council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.

This idea is made stronger by things that are now happening.  That which previously was considered most holy – the form in which the liturgy was handed down – suddenly appears as the most forbidden of all things, the one thing that can safely be prohibited...

All this leads a great number of people to ask themselves if the Church of today is really the same as that of yesterday, or if they have changed it for something else without telling people.

His emphasis on combining fidelity to tradition and rational engagement with those who disagree continued after Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, and is reflected in two of the great documents of his pontificate.  His homily of May 7, 2005 emphasizes that papal teaching authority exists for the sake of protecting the deposit of faith, rather than giving the man who happens to hold the office a means for implementing some personal theological agenda:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law.  On the contrary: the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word.  He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism…

The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church's pilgrimage.  Thus, his power is not being above, but at the service of, the Word of God.  It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.

At the same time, in his famous 2006 Regensburg address, Benedict emphasized the centrality of reason to the Catholic faith and to the Christian conception of God, contrasting it sharply with the voluntarist tendency to see God as an unfathomable will who issues arbitrary commands.  He approvingly quotes Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus’s remark that “whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly,” and endorses the emperor’s view that (as Benedict paraphrases Manuel) “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”  The pope added:

[T]he faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy… God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos… Consequently, Christian worship is… worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason.

Needless to say, all of this makes for a sharp contrast with recent years in the Church, which have seen policies and magisterial statements whose continuity with tradition has in some cases been unclear, and which are backed not by any attempt at rational persuasion but rather appeal to the raw power of ecclesiastical office.

Like so many others, I was elated when Ratzinger was elected pope.  And like so many others, I was crestfallen when he abdicated.  Such a move was so grave that I felt certain at the time that his death must be imminent.  For why would he shirk his paternal responsibilities, unless he feared incapacitation of a kind that would make him strictly incapable of fulfilling them?  Yet as the years passed and he remained intellectually active, it became clear that that was not in fact what was going on.  And that made his decision not only more baffling, but also more heartbreaking.  In his inaugural sermon, Benedict famously asked Catholics to pray for him, that he would “not flee for fear of the wolves.”  And yet it has come to seem to many that that is precisely what he ended up doing.

I have always stopped short of making that judgment myself, simply because I don’t know all the facts and don’t know his heart – and because I have long had a deep affection for the man that makes me want to think the best.  Still, in my view, the story of our times, both in the world and in the Church, is more than anything else a story of men failing to live up to their duties as fathers, providers, protectors – and of the catastrophic consequences that follow when they fail.  And like many others, I find it difficult to evade the conclusion that the state into which the Church has fallen over the last decade would have been avoided had Benedict remained our spiritual father until death.

But again, I do not know that it is fair to blame him.  Even if it is, great men can have great flaws and still remain great men.  And Benedict XVI was a great man, who did enormous good for the Church.  Let us give thanks for him, and pray for his eternal rest.


  1. Jesus, I love you.

    His last words. How fitting.

  2. Very good post. Nothing more needs to be said.

  3. > And like many others, I find it difficult to evade the conclusion that the state into which the Church has fallen over the last decade would have been avoided had Benedict remained our spiritual father until death.

    Not me. Heads I win and tail you loose. If he stayed on he would have been like St John Paul II in the end. Very feeble and it would have been difficult for him to act. It also would have been easier to manipulate him. If he stayed the usual suspects would be kvetching "Why didn't he step aside for a younger man instead of letting the Church get out of control?" and who knows? Maybe we would have gotten another German Pope. One of the bad ones...

    Stepping down was the right move and I suspect Francis won't be long for his office. The real question is who will replace him? Someone better? Or someone who will make Trads and Cons long for the heady days of Pope Francis?

    Time will tell. But God will preserve his Church regardless. Happy New Year Professor and God bless.

  4. A great tribute.

    I remember his visit to London in 2010, and his walking down Westminster Abbey, and somehow I caught sight of the majesty and age of the episcopal and papal office. It pushed me forward towards conversion, and by the grace of God I was received into the Church on Easter 2012.

  5. This is a very fitting and touching tribute!

    I think though to emphasize on Pope Benedict XVI totally as a men of tradition without mentioning that atleast theologically he did differ from tradition at times is unfair, like for example through out his writings even though he did not agree with Balthasarian hope and he affirmed that people do go to hell, he also was willing to argue that this number might not be that huge based on his few for the many soteriological theology. Aspects of this are present in his Encyclical Spe Salvi.

    He also remained very appreciative of Henri De Lubac throughout his theological career, time as Pope and after retirement as well going as far as to mention him in a Papal Encyclical.

    It was during his direction as Pope that the Vatican issued a definitive statement against Limbo, clearly declaring that it was not required.

    All these indicate that the portrayals pf him as a watch dog or inquisitor were grossly exaggerated. Theology as far as possible should never go against the natural law or contradict properly defined church teaching and that was all Pope Benedict XVI strove to maintain as the head of the CDCF.


    1. The Limbo document to which you refer is pointedly not a magisterial document, nor, by any means, is it definitive.

    2. Rev. Edward B. ConnollyJanuary 4, 2023 at 5:23 PM

      The Limbo document to which you refer is not magisterial, nor is it definitive.

    3. Under Benedict, the International Theological Commission issued a statement, not a definitive statement, on the status of children who die without sacramental baptism. In it, they stated unequivocally that the theory of Limbo is, as before, an available theological teaching. They also identified ambiguities in the possible meaning of "Limbo". They tried to give, to the best they could, a reason to deny the idea of Limbo by laying out "the case" for such children being saved and going to heaven. Unfortunately for their effort, (so far as I can see), the entire argument they give, in order to defeat the position of there being a Limbo (of some sort) would be equally an argument that ALL men must go to heaven, regardless how many sins in they are guilty of a few moments before death. And...the Church ain't going there. So, in effect the argument practically defeats itself because it proves too much. There might be SOME OTHER ARGUMENT out there to establish the thesis, but...they didn't provide it. Limbo remains the best explanation available so far.

    4. Hi Anonymous, Rev Edward B Connolly and Some Guy
      Thanks for your thoughtful reply.
      I think I misused the word definitive, I wasn't using it in the formal sense of the term, more like the common sense of the term ,as in just to indicate that it was the first time the issue was treated on some sort of prominent level. The fact that the document requires the approval of the Pope indicates that it was read by the Pope and put out there with all the ensuing implications of the document influencing people. (A pope regarded to be one of the Church's greatest theologians)
      What this does is imply that at the very least theological opinions expressed in the document are opinions that can be licitly held. I guess that one can say that other opinions were valid when Cardinal Ratzinger himself said limbo was just a hypothesis when he was head of the CDCF.

      Ofcourse Limbo remains and will continue to remain a valid theological opinion. I have no qualms with that and I think it should be a valid opinion.

      But it is usually the people who hold to Limbo that are trying to permanently and magisterially invalidate the opinion of those who don't hold to Limbo. That's why the document is significant.

  6. I think we all preferred the aesthetics of Pope Benedict's pontificate compared to that of Pope Francis. The state of the Church over the last decade is not essentially distinct from that over the previous several decades, however. Pope Benedict made some efforts to correct the direction, but, on the essentials he never looked as though he was going to do it.

  7. I don’t believe Pope Benedict deserted the church because he moved into a ministry of prayer and sacrifice that has implications we may never understand in this life. As a crude analogy, did Obi-Wan Kenobi desert Luke Skywalker because he let Vader defeat him, or did he make a strategic move that would better benefit the cause?

    1. Great example, except for the minor fact that Obi-wan is a fantasy built up out of a false religion. Better to use the example of Christ...except that Christ was, ya know, GOD, and he came back from the dead to prove it.

  8. Some have compared Queen Elizabeth staying on in contrast to Benedict stepping down. I don't think it is a fair comparison. An Constitution Monarch whose role is largely ceremonial is not to be compared to a literal Absolute Monarch. Which is what the Pope is in his office. Granted the Pope has limitations to his authority but he doesn't have a Parliament or Prime Minister to take the heat when the country goes south.

    I don't see how a 96 year old or 100 year old man can run the Church? Resigning was needed because Popes will live longer and they cannot rule to the end like they once did.

    There is after all a reason why Cardinals 80 years or older cannae vote in Papal Conclaves. It has been said Francis hasn't stepped down because having two Popes was bad enough and we dinnae need three. So I am thinking sooner or later he will become Pope Emeritus. I don't think Benedict could have foreseen his successor would make such a hash of it? So I don't approve of feelings he abandoned us. That is the wrong take IMHO. But others will have to sort out their feelings for themselves. I have made up my mind suborn Scot that I am. The rest ye can feel how ye like. I dinnae judge.;-)

    I doubt if Francis steps down anytime soon there will be Francisvacantists running about. But Patrick Coffin is hawking his crap book & today has said the Chair of Peter is empty. Mr. Sad git he is and I have no respect for Sede nonsense.

    Thought I suspect for Sede nonsense to survive they need a re-set. 62 years is a long time without a Pope according to "Traditional" Sede nonsense. So today as of this post, Coffinism is "day one" "without a Pope".

    It is madness and I am nor having it. This is my rant for the day. Carry on. God save Pope Emeritus Benedict and God save Francis.

    The Church is forever and Sedes are not Catholic.


    1. Why are my posts going up as anonymous? This one is me. Linux is weird....

    2. I knew it was you from the first "cannae"

    3. I don't see how a 96 year old or 100 year old man can run the Church?

      Leo XIII did pretty well.

      There is after all a reason why Cardinals 80 years or older cannae vote in Papal Conclaves.

      I feel quite strongly that this is actually a definite mistake for the Church. I agree that a bishop, or cardinal in the Vatican, needn't be assumed to have an active role of governance in their 80's. But until a man has reached dementia, his wisdom into his 80's is a positive treasure for the Church, and a conclave to vote for a pope is not physically taxing the way constant duties would be.

      More importantly, having octogenarians retain their vote (if compos mentis) is an important stabilizer for the Church. In holding office now for just under 10 years, Francis has virtually re-made the college of cardinals in terms of its voting members, by "stacking" the deck with just about 65% of the voting cardinals. If he holds even one more consistory, he will push that well over 67%. And given that Francis, unlike his predecessors, has been appointing men in his own mold, his choosing will have a predominant influence over the voting even though he won't have appointed half the cardinals.

      On the whole, while there is a serious issue with a man like bishop or pope holding office into his dotage, where it is not he who is governing but his appointed subordinates, it is not best solved with an automatic retirement age. This fact has been handily shown in secular affairs. Other mechanisms are called for. For bishops, for example, instead of having them submit their resignation at 75, it should be possible for him to appoint a group of 5 (his own) trusted subordinates (including at least 1 or 2 doctors) to ascertain his capacity for ongoing independent decision-making and certify this to the pope.

      As for the pope, while I can see that having a similar mechanism might be a very bad idea, I also see that the Church managed for 2000 years with old popes, many of whom gradually lost their ability to function and died in office. I do not think that the most recent example, Benedict, is a great shining example of a pope stepping down at "the right time": maybe, maybe, he had some disabled capacity that he had not disclosed (and never did disclose) that was clearly the sort of disability under which he could not execute the office of pope. But...wouldn't it have been better to disclose exactly that which made his choice necessary? And that's the crux: from the example of 260 prior popes, resignation should not be an "option" like retiring from your job, where you can either stay or go depending on your preferences; it should only chosen out of necessity, and the necessity (typically) can be exhibited at least in general form, and should be made public in justice to those for whom he is the "servant of the servants of the poor". Possibly Pope JPII overdid the idea of staying in office and offering up his suffering while trying to muddle through, but it is equally possible that Benedict overdid the idea of leaving before his encroaching incapacity harmed the Church.

      We will not and cannot know for sure, and I don't presume to judge Benedict. God knows, and I hope and pray that God has already said to him "welcome, my good and faithful servant." Surely the reign of Francis would have been sufficient suffering and punishment to Benedict to pay recompense for a hypothetical boatload of failings.

    4. "I don't see how a 96 year old or 100 year old man can run the Church?"

      I don't see that the pope is supposed to "run" the Church (and making an appearance at World Youth Days, etc., should definitely not a priority be). The pope should have some real trusted (and trustworthy) friends to whom he can delegate whatever he needs to delegate in his time of need (regardless of how old/infirm he is). And he ought not to fear the wolves, let alone make them cardinals.

  9. Largely agree w/ Son of Ya'Kov. Seems clear he was trying to avoid a repeat of JPII's later years, and to set a new precedent for the era of modern medicine so that the last 5 years of every papacy wouldn't be marked by a senile or debilitated pope. Also criticisms of BXVI's resignation need to be realistic about the counterfactual - if JPII and BXVI appointed cardinals from 1978 through 2013 and Francis was the result, what reason is there to believe a better pope would have been elected now if Benedict did not resign? The real criticism of BXVI (and JPII) is that they weren't more aggressive in reshaping the episcopate and college of cardinals in a more orthodox direction.

    1. The real criticism of BXVI (and JPII) is that they weren't more aggressive in reshaping the episcopate and college of cardinals in a more orthodox direction.

      Absolutely true. Even further, they can and should be criticized for not reforming the method by which bishops and cardinals are selected. If anything is clear from the existence of multiples of bad cardinals (and bishops) from Germany, Belgium, America, and Argentina, (and so, so many more) it is that the system by which they are being selected is gravely defective.

  10. The Holy Gospel teaches us that the quality of an act is like a tree: it must be evaluated by the quality of its fruit. The very early resignation of Benedict XVI has probably led us to the most horrible times the Catholic Church has been experiencing since the Arian heresy as we can see. Hence, we can conclude without too much verbosity, that his resignation was an evil act.
    Benoit XVI has never shown publicly to repent of this public act and right now he is facing his Creator and Savior with this spiritually overwhelming burden: as catholic we must absolutely pray and ensure masses of requiem in his favor in the case, he has been judged by the Christ to be worthy of the purgatory.
    Let us pray for him with in an indefatigable way.

    1. "the most horrible times the Catholic Church has been experiencing since the Arian heresy"
      The Borgia popes disagree.

    2. Well, the present issue, which is very specific to our times, is the pretentiousness of the Vicar of Christ (though he is not the Church as such) to declare pastoral mistakes as Faith's Truths.
      Even Borgia or the "pornocratics" popes of the beginning of the second millennium of our era did not pretend as much: as sinners, they knew they were sinning, at least. ;-)

  11. Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine et lux perpetua luceat ei. Te decet hymnus Dominus Deus in Sion et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem. Exaudi deprecationem meam. Ad Te omnis caro veniet. Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine et lux perpetua luceat ei. Rewuiescatbin pace. Amen

  12. Thank you Ed. You organized many of my random thoughts, and wove in BXVI's writings for context.

    We'll miss him more now.

  13. It's not a new that had a large diffusion in the media, but it seems quite sure that Benedict XVI explicitly stated that he did not welcome Biden's participation at his funeral. This speaks volumes about a lot of things, I guess

  14. Thank goodness Trump wasn't there!

  15. Every time I think of our Pope Benedict XVI I remember this very old - but still more relevant than ever - video that he was celebrating a Mass in Latin ( You can feel the heart's passion especially when he was praying the Our Father prayer.

    May he now could profess the same words looking into God's eyes and may he rests in His arms now.

    1. I liked him too. It's a great pity, still, that he never celebrated the old rite as Pope.

  16. I find this praise of Benedict all very odd considering that he was part of the wicked liberal faction at Vatican II. There is no need for a hermeneutic of continuity if you haven't broken something.

    1. The point of such a hermeneutic is basically to tell people not to read Vatican II as a new beginning but in continuity with what the church has always taught, a hermeneutic that contrasts with what is now claimed: tradition is evil and Phariseeism.

  17. His Jesus of Nazareth series will live on forever.