Church historians measure time in centuries, not weeks, so it is a daunting challenge to attempt even a brief assessment of a pontificate just concluded. Daring to go where prophets should fear to tread, what follows can only be a tentative status quaestionis of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy at this fascinating moment in the church’s life.
It’s about Jesus. From the very beginning of this papacy, it was clear that Pope Benedict saw himself as a professor-pope whose main subject is the Son of God. His inspiring encyclicals on the theological virtues, three volumes on Jesus and lovely Angelus and Wednesday audience talks on the early church and saints’ lives will likely be his greatest scholarly and pastoral legacies. In the main, they did not explore the dense and controversial theological positions that distinguished his pre-episcopal career but rather the central sources of Christianity. The challenge to balance faith and reason, which began in the Greco-Roman context of the first believers and worked its way through the medieval and Enlightenment centuries, remains with religious believers of all persuasions to this day. These are valuable resources.
The papacy, not the pope. Even before the resignation, it was clear that the quiet Pope Benedict was not the extroverted Pope John Paul II. The cult of the priesthood, papacy and person of Karol Wojtyla that was distasteful to some was not to be repeated. Even the way Pope Benedict celebrated Mass—with a large crucifix centered on the altar, much to the consternation of cameramen—put the focus on the Eucharist, not the celebrant. By separating the person from the papacy, Benedict may have helped recover a healthier conception of the papacy as an office with invested authority and not personal power—an important distinction lost in virtually every hierarchy, religious or secular.
A papacy of unintended consequences. Pope Benedict XVI and his curia did not communicate well with the world. Not a few observers believed that Pope John Paul II’s perfect pitch was replaced by a somewhat tone-deaf musician pope. Pope Benedict angered Jews when he reinstated a schismatic bishop who was revealed to be a Holocaust-denier. His expansion of the use of the Latin Mass did not remove offensive language about Jewish conversion and blindness from the Good Friday liturgy. In 2010, when Pope Benedict instituted some helpful procedures to investigate and remove pedophile priests, the same Vatican document aligned the question of ordaining women to the priesthood with the sexual abuse crisis. The pope showed he could learn from his mistakes, however, like his decision to take a well-received trip to Turkey in 2007 to try to make amends for the misunderstood speech in Regensburg about Islam the year before. Yet he could sometimes muddle his own message and then seem surprised by reactions.
The scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of children and the cover up of such actions by bishops and priests. It appears that as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger wanted to act more decisively against priests accused of sexual abuse of minors but was unable to do so. As pope he decried what he called “filth” among guilty priests, but it took him some time before he met with victims. The Vatican’s 2010 directives concerning abusive priests offered some hope: the statute of limitations for investigations was doubled from 10 to 20 years, laicization procedures were sped up, possessing child pornography was declared a grave crime and lay participation in the juridical process was increased.
But greater transparency and accountability were not extended to investigating bishops who might have moved those priests from one parish to another to avoid scandal instead of acting to protect children. The investigation by outside bishops of the response to abuse in Ireland is praiseworthy, yet it remains an exception to a process that cries out for a standard, objective investigation by a board of qualified men and women (clergy and lay) of a supervising bishop simultaneously with an accused priest. With investigation must come real punishment; the church cannot move on without decisive action on these crimes and sins.
A culture of distrust. At a moment when the church is blessed more than ever with theologians, ethicists and church historians of both sexes from many cultural contexts and vocations, the sometimes heavy-handed disciplining of those suspected of undermining the magisterium continues to harm the church, as it has for more than three decades. The teachings of many scholars have been questioned without a peer-reviewed and dialogue-based forum for discourse. This fact has alienated some of the best and the brightest who were motivated by the Second Vatican Council’s openness and invitation. Instead, they found their efforts under scrutiny by a system that appeared bereft of due process that would honor the dignity of the accused and their well-intentioned efforts to serve the church. We can hope that the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will now be resolved so that we can all say with pride and gratitude (and not simply defiance), “Thank you, sisters.”
Ecumenical, interreligious and intra-Catholic dialogue. We should not be surprised that Pope Benedict made minimal progress when dealing with our brother and sister Christians, along with non-Christians, since much of his time at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was spent emphasizing how Roman Catholic beliefs are different from other faiths, even as Pope John Paul II highlighted shared values. Yet despite missteps with Muslims and Jews, Benedict was not afraid to apologize and to work hard to repair those relationships, though with mixed results. His back-bending outreach to Anglicans, however, angered some within the Anglican Communion, who saw him as raiding their community. Some Roman Catholics charged him with caring more about non-Romans than about them—and that is before we consider how much time was spent trying to bring the numerically few Society of St. Pius X adherents back into the fold.
Vatican II: church governance and reform. If Pope John Paul II could be called the most medieval pope in recent history—influencing church and state in equal measure—then Pope Benedict was more of a Renaissance monarch, who reportedly consulted few and could disregard good advice. He let the curial drift of Pope John Paul II’s papacy worsen, which led to damaging problems like the “VatiLeaks” and Vatican bank scandals. Shared governance and greater collegiality among bishops as well as among clergy, religious and laity was a great hope to come out of the Second Vatican Council, but there is more to be done, specifically when it comes to real decision-making. Popes and bishops must seek out the creative and deliberative skills of learned, active and faithful men and women who want to serve the church with the gifts and experience that the Holy Spirit has bestowed on them.
For all the talk of Benedict XVI reforming the reform of the Second Vatican Council and seeking to turn back the clock, especially liturgically, no less eminent scholars than the ecclesiologist Rev. Joseph Komonchak (Am. 2/2/09) and the church historian John W. O’Malley, S.J. (Theological Studies, September 2012) have pointed out that in a talk Benedict gave to the Curia in December 2005, the pope essentially legitimated discussing Vatican II as a dynamic council of real reform when he declared, “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.” What Pope Benedict has said about the Second Vatican Council then and since continues to be parsed, but he may have opened a pathway to a synthesis of the council’s goals that church history teaches is only possible at least 50 years after its adjournment.
• • •
Pope Benedict’s honesty in acknowledging that he could no longer do his job resonates with the Christian paradox that we can be strong with God when we are weak as human beings. Moreover, his action allows us to have conversations that we know are necessary but could not speak aloud before. As Pope John Paul II suffered before our eyes, it seemed impolite to ask what would happen if he slipped into a coma. Pope Benedict’s selfless action opens the discussion; we can now talk about a pope’s living will.
This was servant leadership at its generous best. Most resignations are forced or accompanied by the phrase “in disgrace.” Pope Benedict’s resignation seems voluntary and planned. Whether a shoe of scandal will drop seems unlikely, but the fact that so many feel there must be more to the story than just advanced age and poor health bears troubling testimony to the lack of credibility that church leadership holds in the eyes of some believers and the world.
Still, in our age of bullying and raw power, who walks away? The answer: Someone who realized that his time had passed, that he had accomplished what he could and that the right thing to do was step down in a noble, honorable and praiseworthy manner. In the end, Pope Benedict XVI may have been a man better suited for another time—a shy, scholarly pontiff more fit to preside when the church needed a strong manager. While his resignation may not vindicate his missteps, it could well turn out that this teaching pope’s greatest lesson is that humility is still a virtue.