After the shock of September 11, 2001, it would seem that a certain numbness of sensibility has allowed the world to absorb a succession of otherwise near apocalyptic events. I might mention just a few examples. The storm that inundated the northeastern United States is predicted to be the first of many more global warming catastrophes to come. The economic collapse of 2008, which lingers still, was in many ways the storm front for a larger breakdown many expect sooner or later. And the continuing meltdown in the Middle East is not just a realignment of political players but a massive reminder that “the old order changeth” and that new powers are emerging. But the February 11 announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he will retire February 28 in some ways evokes a religious 9/11.
Benedict’s pontificate is but seven years—not long for an office usually held for many decades until death seals a very public physical decline. As a child I well remember the international concern as aged Pope John XXIII battled a weeks-long bout of hiccups. Benedict came to the office an elderly man and leaves obviously frail but not in precipitous decline. We had not expected him to leave.
Hindsight is always clarifying. With that perspective it now seems portentous that Benedict seems to have had a special identification with Celestine V, the pope who resigned in 1294 after changing canon law to allow for such a thing. Benedict visited the tomb of Celestine twice—the only pope to have done so. And, amazingly, the cathedral in Sulmona, Celestine’s hometown, has a mosaic showing both Celestine and Benedict. But I do remember loose talk at the time of Benedict’s election that he might be a caretaker or transition pope.
During the years of the Pontificate of his close friend and ideological twin John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger was the “Rottweiler” who kept the church on a strange dual course. Through his papal alter ego the church experimented with relevancy and public relations events. And Ratzinger, through a series of documents written by him during the John Paul era, reaffirmed the Roman Catholic historic claims of authority.
I think of the document “Ad Tuendum Fidem” (to defend the faith), which asserted the right to act against theologians, church members, or “anyone” who held what the church had condemned or rejected what it enjoined. I think of the document “Dominus Dei” (Lord’s day) that acknowledged all the Bible proofs of a seventh day Sabbath and then appropriated them to Sunday—as it said, not by instruction from Jesus but because the church felt that it had the authority. I think of the document “Unicity of Salvation” that so shocked the larger ecumenical community—as it informed the separated churches that they were not churches at all unless sharing the Eucharist. And I think of the document “Memory and Reconciliation”—so clearly designed to shed the baggage of the past while retaining the unblemished role of the “magisterium.” It apologized for the persecution of Jews, for the Inquisition, and for the sack of Constantinople (a city named for the emperor who adopted Christianity, but when sacked by Crusaders incited by Rome led to the schism between eastern and western churches).
When John Paul died, few expected Ratzinger to become pope. It is humorous to look back on the prognostications of the time. As this time around, too many confused the selection with a purely political event with overtones of popularity. Many miss that the election of a pope expresses the shared agenda of the church princes. Ratzinger, as a uniquely gifted theologian and church strategist moved into the papal role to ensure continuity of the agenda he had helped set—a conservative agenda.
So today one must think about the strategy behind the resignation. Declining health has never been a reason for papal truce. It may be that internal dissatisfaction within the curia over rumored administrative disarray has led to this moment—but short of a Borgia-like intrigue it could not have required it. No, I think the most logical dynamic is that it gives a golden moment for a pope still in some physical and administrative control to influence and maybe even select his successor and the direction the papacy will take.
Difficulties abound. Benedict has never quite recovered his equilibrium with the Islamic world after it took offense when he used the words of a 14th century Byzantine emperor in a 2006 speech at Regensburg. He has floundered in dealing with the sex abuse scandal that has spread worldwide. He has seemed irrelevant to many nominal Catholics. But he has done more than many realize.
Benedict has continued to articulate a theological counter-argument to secularism. Like John Paul II he has solidified his viewpoint by many new Cardinals. And most important to this magazine, he has positioned the Roman Catholic Church as both a persecuted and beleaguered faith group and turned it into a global proponent for religious freedom. That is some shift for the church that in the Middle Ages had monolithic religious control in Europe, acted as a controlling older brother to the state and often violently dealt with any opposition.
The magic moment for Rome was not really the Protestant Reformation, which it followed with its own counter-reformation. The magic moment for Rome continues to be the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. That council brought in all manner of liberalizing trends like the mass in the vernacular instead of the Latin Tridentine Mass. But in particular it broughtforth the document “Dignitatus Humanae,” or the Dignity of Man. It opened the way for a more enlightened, Biblical view of man responsible directly to God and a free moral agent.
Reactionaries like the now deceased Archbishop Lefevre of France persisted with the old mass, and even today lay Catholic reactionariesl like filmmaker Mel Gibson yearn for the day when the “fallen” church goes back to the good old days. But so far Vatican II holds—even though in a curious way John Paul and Benedict regret some of it and are working to turn the clock back in some areas—particularly in areas of morals and church governance.
I can think of no better example of the effect of Vatican II than a remark by U.S. Cardinal Dolan at a one-day seminar for Roman Catholics at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. last year. The charismatic cardinal (by the way, he is my uninformed long pick for next pope, who I think could easily take the name Peter) was holding forth on the grand principles of religious freedom and a Roman Catholic commitment to protecting this freedom for all. Then he hesitated, paused, and almost chagrinned said, ” There was a time when Roman Catholics held that error has no rights.” The comment sparked much debate later, at which time a Catholic historian explained that indeed there had been a seismic shift for the Roman Catholic Church.
Recently a Roman Catholic reader, bothered at a perceived criticism of his church in Liberty kindly invited me to come back to Rome and the “mother” church. Of course we each owe it to our conscience to be fully persuaded as to where that home is. I hope we have not been too critical in the sense of attacking, as all faiths have the right to exist and to practice freely. However we have a valid religious liberty church-state critique. Rome is both a church and a state and a very political entity. That is a danger for true, uncomplicated religious freedom. The even bigger danger is that Rome itself will come back or go back to its country of old men. I wish Benedict well as he retires, and as his church selects a new leader. We can only pray that he will be a champion of Vatican II and true religious freedom.