A Luminous Life of Benedict

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When Joseph Ratzinger did his book-length interview The Ratzinger Report with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori in 1985, the future pope explained that the Second Vatican Council, during which he served as an adviser, “wanted to mark the transition from a protective to a missionary attitude. Many forget that for the Council the counter-concept to ‘conservative’ is not ‘progressive’ but ‘missionary.’”

That’s only one of the many gems in Joseph Pearce’s brief but big-hearted new book Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, a concise portrait of the figure who may have been the greatest theologian ever to become pope, to many “the Mozart of theology.”

It’s typical that he repeatedly refused the efforts on various sides to impose a political framework of Right and Left on the Church. Pearce is especially useful just now because of the polarization once again being stirred up among Catholics. Benedict’s wisdom might offer us a way forward.

That wisdom was most evident in the way he handled questions about liturgy. Pearce briskly recounts how the new liturgy was imposed on the whole Church within only six months, about which Benedict comments: “I was dismayed at the prohibition of the old missal since nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy.”

As pope, Benedict encouraged a reasonable effort at “mutual enrichment” between the old and new Mass (observing, also, that the “older” valid form cannot be banned).  Unlike the recent and harsh unsettling of this truce in Traditionis custodes, Benedict’s was a gentle intervention intended to allow the slow and continual growth typical of liturgical reform throughout Catholic history.

That gentleness and prudence have been invisible to critics who only saw in his constant fidelity “God’s Rottweiler.” It was amusing to see, therefore, how the press was – even if only briefly – charmed by his conspicuous humility when he visited the United States in 2008. Scott Hahn – who was converted partly by his reading of Ratzinger – rightly describes Pearce’s book in the Foreword as “a portrait of a beautiful man – a shy, kind, Christian man given many gifts in the course of his life [who] labored to use all those gifts in loving service to the Giver.” The sheer volume of Ratzinger’s writing testifies to that.

Pearce organizes his story around several key Ratzinger texts, particularly the book-length interviews he has given. Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (with Peter Seewald) is an autobiographical outline of the future pope’s early life (readers may also want to look at the sequel with Seewald, Salt of the Earth as well as the first volume of Seewald’s own massive biography, Benedict XVI). For anyone who doesn’t have the time to read through multiple long volumes, Pearce provides an excellent summary and synthesis.

Ratzinger was always interested in history – not in the neutral secular sense, but as one of the ways that we see the God of the Bible acting in time. He chose to write one of his doctoral dissertations on the Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, which takes an entirely different approach to human history – to say the least – than we see in Marxist and materialist approaches.

Like St. John Paul II, his early years unfolded while Nazism and Communism were potent forces. He never fell prey to what he called the “optimistic naiveté” of the revolutionaries or the moderate progressives who talk glibly of being “on the right side of history.” Too many people have been murdered, and continue to be killed – now even in the womb – by simple-minded people mouthing such platitudes.

Still, he maintained Christian hope alongside Christian realism:

The Christian knows that history is already saved, that therefore the outcome in the end will be positive. But we do not know through which circumstances and reverses we shall arrive at that great finale. We know that the “powers of darkness” will not prevail over the Church, but we do not know under what conditions that will transpire.

This also challenges a certain kind of a-historical traditionalist who imagines that there once was some ideal moment in the Church’s own history and believes there’s some easy path back to that moment.

Most thinkers today who engage in such nuances wind up in relativism or some sort of agnosticism. One of Benedict’s striking qualities is this ability to hold on to the multiplicity of truths without losing the main – true – plotline of human history.

That plotline includes God’s steady action in sacred history, including Church history. Contrary to those who think the Church discovered social justice and her true vocation at the Council: “There is no ‘pre’ or ‘post’ conciliar Church: there is but one, unique Church that walks the path towards the Lord, ever deepening and ever better understanding the treasure of faith that He himself has entrusted to her. There are no leaps in this history, there are no fractures, and there is no break in continuity.”

Even the greatest admirer of Benedict, however, has to ask a hard question: Why, then, did he resign the papal office? He has defended John XXIII and Paul VI, the popes of the Council, for their good intentions, despite their misguided optimism towards the world, which has had, at best, mixed results. Can something similar be said of his 2013 abdication?

The Swiss Guards confirm that he was barely able to incense the altar before he resigned; he’d become that physically weak. His unexpected survival these eight years, after resigning, suggests just how heavy the burdens of office had become. In his resignation announcement, he himself said that because of waning strength: “I have had to recognize my incapacity to fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” Still, many questions persist.

Pearce touches on the abdication in his last chapter but contents himself with saying that despite its consequences, Benedict will still be remembered “as one of the most resolute defenders of the Faith in the Church’s long and tempestuous history.”

About that, at least, there is no doubt.


You may also enjoy:

Fr. Gerald Murray’s and Michael Pakaluk’s Two Commentaries on Benedict XVI’s Letter

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.