Some thoughts on Pope Benedict's Legacy

Now the dust has begun to settle, people have naturally enough begun to try and make an assessment of Benedict's tenure and the state he now leaves the Church in.

Take for example this bon mot from the President of the National Secular Society, Terry Saunders:

Under Ratzinger the Vatican has become despised and resented throughout the world. He has played a major role in reducing the Catholic Church's popularity and its authority. Catholics have deserted the Church at an increasing rate, repelled by the inhumanity of Ratzinger's unbending adherence to what are perceived as cruel doctrines.

Whether his analysis is fair and balanced, it certainly show that Pope Benedict stirred up reactions, even from his earlier incarnation as Head of the CDF when he got the neat title of  'God's rottweiller'. Perhaps a more helpful assessment came from a very liberal Catholic friend of mine, who despite all the rhetoric about Ratzinger and heavy reservations about him when first elected, made the following summary:

I actually think Benedict  acquitted himself quite well. The occasional faux pas is inevitable. And I thought his Jesus of Nazareth books were first rate. I read the last one just before Christmas. Not as good as the first two, but still a wonderful compromise between theological learning and accessibility to non-theologians such as me. A bloody good read, in short.

Pope Benedict hasn't had an easy watch. The child clerical abuse scandal, which began in the 1990's, blew up in a phenomenal way across Europe, including in his former diocese in Germany with him being possibly, if tenuously, implicated. The power, wealth and sheer size of the Catholic community in countries such as Germany, Belgium, Ireland and the USA has made this a potent issue far beyond the walls of the church community, and as such caught up in wider issues. The Irish situation has been particularly disastrous and the handling of that poor to say the least, with the ejection of the Papal Nuncio and the closing of the diplomatic mission to the Vatican State as something unimaginable five years ago. 

Yet, despite bad handling on this and other fronts, Benedict made it completely clear that clerics abusing children is now totally unacceptable and excusable as the humiliation of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ made abundantly clear. The era of cover up was over. His strong negative line on homosexuals training for the priesthood also drew a pretty clear line in the sand about the sort of priestly culture the papacy was prepared to tolerate. This, and the emphasis on the older liturgy, will have a long lasting impact on the type of priests the church now produces and the sort of culture priests will be expected to adopt. The impact of this is potentially long lasting, for better or worse. 

In a way this is symbolic of the situation Benedict leaves behind - a tighter, more cohesive church but in a world where modernity marches relentlessly forward and is far less sympathetic than it was under JPII, who was able to connect with people both within and without the Church. We need only think of JP's funeral to understand the powerful influence he had nurtured over those way beyond the Church's walls. Benedict has,I feel, somewhat squandered that. He doesn't seem to have had the ability to read where those who didn't think like him were coming from, as for example Muslims and Jews, both of which groups he has managed to alienate and had to row backwards very strongly too many times. I am not saying that he was saying things that were wrong, or was deliberately being offensive, but simply that he was not good at working outside of the set framework of the kindly, intelligent theologian that he undoubtedly was. As a leading world statesman representing the world's largest religious group that is a serious shortcoming and the damage this lack of 'connection' has done will be something I hope the next pontiff will be able to address, and address quickly. 

The one exception has been with the Orthodox. Take this message from the Ecumenical Patriarch, which is fulsome, generous and brotherly:

Pope Benedict leaves an indelible mark on the life and history of the Roman Catholic Church, sealed not only by his brief papacy, but also by his broad and longstanding contribution as a theologian and hierarch of his Church, as well as his universally acknowledged prestige.
His writings will long speak of his deep theological understanding, through his knowledge of the Fathers of the undivided Church, his familiarity with contemporary reality, and his keen interest in the problems of humankind.
We Orthodox will always honor him as a friend of our Church and a faithful servant of the sacred proposition for the union of all. Moreover, we shall rejoice upon learning of his sound health and the productivity of his theological work.
Personally, we remember with emotion his visit to the See of the Ecumenical Patriarchate over six years ago, together with the numerous encounters and excellent cooperation, which we enjoyed throughout the duration of his primatial ministry.
From the Phanar, we pray that the Lord will manifest his worthy successor as the head of the sister Church of Rome, and that we may also continue with this successor on our common journey toward the unity of all unto the glory of God.

One of my Orthodox friends feels the abdication goes down badly as a sign of modernising tendencies which the more conservative Orthodox will feel is indicative of modern Catholicism since Vatican II, but the warmth of this message is genuine and strong. He managed to reach the Orthodox in a way which JPII never managed, despite his desire to. While some people will question the wisdom of reaching out to disaffected traditional Anglicans in setting up the Ordinariate, and the attempts to bridge the gap with the the Lefebvrists proved fruitless and at times embarrassing what with Bishop Williamsons denial of the Holocaust, but with the Orthodox Benedict has managed to make good headway. The Orthodox are not some minor schismatic group of disaffected Catholics, but the second largest Christian grouping in the world, and currently undergoing a resurgence in Russia and in the former Soviet republics. Even in the west they are pretty vibrant and a haven for those dissatisfied with modernity. Bringing Catholicism closer to Orthodoxy not only speaks of healing a 1000 yr scar of disunity but makes a pragmatic alliance between the forces of Christian traditionalism. This possibility is something Benedict has paved the way for.


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