Farewell to a Good Pope

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died in the Mater Ecclesiæ monastery in the Vatican Gardens on Dec. 31 and was buried in the crypt of the popes below the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica on Jan. 5. Joseph Ratzinger, the Bavarian-born priest and theologian who ascended the throne of St. Peter in 2005, probably will be remembered by the Catholic world at large as the first Roman Pontiff in six centuries to voluntarily renounce the papacy.

Christian believers of different traditions, by contrast, will remember Benedict as a great German teacher of the faith who was never willing to subject the essentials of Christianity to the standards of the post-Christian Western culture, which is turning ever more rabidly anti-Christian and is destroying the West. As an Orthodox, I know and appreciate that, to Benedict, religion was both a divine corrective of worldly power and the very foundational meaning of being human.

Joseph Ratzinger was born in 1927, on Holy Saturday in the final hours of the Easter Triduum. He died nearly 96 years later on the seventh day of the Christmas Octave and was buried one day before the Epiphany. “All very fitting for a man who put the Catholic liturgy at the forefront of his life,” to quote the Catholic daily La Croix. Indeed, he was good shepherd who, in the closing years of that life, pointedly warned against the twin evils of atheistic humanism and scientific-technological posthumanism.

As Benedict told an audience in Freiburg over a decade ago, “history comes to the aid of the Church through the various periods of secularization, which have contributed significantly to her purification and inner reform.” Those wayward periods force the Church to align the relationship between truth and freedom, between faith and reason, with the Gospel. Not because others had civilized Christianity, he said, but because the Church’s loyalty to Christ forced it to defend the individual’s right to freedom.

Benedict always took the presence of the sacred as a given and fought against reducing human existence to the banality of worldly standards of “progress” in a society that only recognizes itself as the supreme standard. The faith for him was the sole true counterforce to the debasement of life and the new forms of totalitarianism. He believed that reason and revelation belong together, just as exploring the world and trusting the purpose for creation belong together. He knew that reason without faith becomes heartless, just as faith without reason becomes blindly fanatical.

There was nothing particularly “dogmatic,” let alone “reactionary,” in Benedict’s restatement of such tenets of the Christian world outlook. These are timeless truths, common to all Christian traditionalists. His attachment to these truths inevitably made him an object of hate among the Western elite class, the progressive Deep Church included. Unforgivably, instead of obsessing over the issues of racism, inclusion, multiculturalism, equity, LGBT “rights,” etc., he focused on the heritage of Europe, the inviolability of human dignity, and the responsibility of man for his actions. As he told the German Bundestag on Sept. 22, 2011,

The culture of Europe arose from the encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law. This three-way encounter has shaped the inner identity of Europe. In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, it has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.

This was pure heresy from the progressivist point of view, starting with Benedict’s inclusion of Christianity as a pillar of European identity—which is explicitly rejected by the European Union apparatus—and ending with his subsequent invocation of natural law, which warns us that a thing is not right merely because a parliamentary majority has determined it to be so.

Lest we forget, all Green Party and many Social Democrat deputies had demonstratively left the Bundestag’s plenary hall just before Benedict’s address. Those parties rule today’s Germany, and the Greens’ leader is the country’s foreign minister. They still refuse to hear the Christian plea for protecting all creation, unborn life included. Yet the words of Augustine, which Benedict quoted to the German legislature, still resonate over 11 years later: “Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”

Reactionary, unworldly, a hardliner, the “armored cardinal,” and “God’s rottweiler”: for many decades, ideological opponents of Joseph Ratzinger—including those inside the Roman Catholic Church—tried to attach odious labels to him, starting with his tenure as Archbishop of Munich (1977-1982). He was presented as a dogmatic obscurantist and a fundamentalist opponent of “progress” who had nothing to say to the people of his time. The objective of such ad hominem campaigns was not to address specific issues manipulatively packaged by the media (LGBT “rights,” ordination of women, sex scandals) but to use those issues as tools with which to assassinate Benedict’s character and to make his theological opus untouchable now and toxic for future generations.

It is to be hoped, nonetheless, that future generations will read, if need be surreptitiously, Ratzinger’s 1968 slim volume, Introduction to Christianity. It is a warm Q&A summary on God and the world, faith and knowledge, death and resurrection—to be read in conjunction with his subsequent God is Love (Deus Caritas est). No other theologian of his generation has blended so seamlessly trust in God and trust in tradition with intellectual power and a rather non-German lightness of style.

Even the “religiously tone-deaf” Jürgen Habermas (as the famous philosopher described himself) was taken by Ratzinger’s opus. In 2005 the two of them co-wrote the Dialectics of Secularization, which examines the pre-political, ethical foundations of the modern constitutional state and its power. This was a fundamental question for Ratzinger after witnessing Nazism as a young man. As is revealed in Peter Seewald’s 2020 biography, Benedict XVI: A Life, the experience of a godless, self-legitimizing state power, and the need to confront it, guided him until the end of his life. He understood that human history is an incessant struggle between faith and unbelief, between love of God to the point of self-denial and love of oneself to the point of denying God: “If there is not the measure of the true God, man destroys himself.”

The urge of the German media to trample on Benedict’s grave was nauseatingly clear on the day of his death. The Berlin daily TAZ posted a highly critical obituary some hours before Benedict died: “He was a strict follower of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who fought liberal ideas in the Church.” “Liberal ideas” like the ordination of women, blessing same-sex unions, opening the floodgates to unlimited Islamic immigration, and so on.

On WDR (the German public broadcasting apparatus), a shrill blonde presenter stated angrily that she did not know why one should pray for the departed pope. Of course, she invoked, as a tool against Benedict, the cases of sexual abuse—a scandal against which he had taken more energetic and far-reaching action than any of his predecessors or, indeed, his successor. Even the Zeit, Germany’s weekly of record, carried a studiedly disrespectful headline on the last day of Benedict’s life: “Soccer legend Pelé and fashion legend Westwood are dead, Benedict XVI’s condition is ‘serious but stable’ and more young people are smoking.”

Some conservatives, not all of them Catholic, were offended by what they regarded as pope Francis’s bland homily at Benedict’s funeral, which sounded generic and paltry in comparison to Benedict’s homily at the funeral of Pope John Paul II. “You could have given the same homily for anybody, any cardinal, any bishop or even the butcher next door,” said Michael Hesemann, a biographer and friend of Benedict. The Orthodox and former Catholic author Rod Dreher, writing in The American Conservative, called the homily “an act of disrespect explicable only as an exercise of banked contempt.” Dreher continued:

You don’t even have to have liked Ratzinger’s theology to nevertheless recognize his significance. This was Francis’s opportunity to do so. He refused. He could have delivered this homily for his butler … It could be that Benedict’s last act was to reveal the small, bitter, spiteful character of his successor, by the way Francis sent him to the ages … Francis made no reference to Benedict’s immense theological legacy, which to me says that he is saying “goodbye to all that,” and effectively declaring Year Zero.

“I feel very bad for my orthodox Catholic friends,” Dreher concluded. “I believe the post-Benedict era under Francis will be awful.” As I wrote in the book of condolences at St. Martin’s cathedral in Mainz, “We can only pray that the next pope will be worthy of Benedict’s wisdom and pastoral responsibility, of his brilliant mind and encyclopaedic learning.”

Finally, it must be said that Benedict was not exempt from modernist guilt; he was fully in line with the magisterium of the Second Vatican Council. However, with all the suffering and humiliation the Vatican deep church made him endure—an unknown martyrdom that history will have to investigate—Benedict XVI had expiated ad abundantiam.

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