The Legacy of Benedict XVI

On his African trip, the furor over Pope Benedict XVI’s statement on the serious limitations of condoms was just one in a long line of “storms” that he had to weather during his pontificate. There was the refusal of the students at La Sapienza University to have him speak there in January 2008. There was the anger over his speech in Regensburg in September 2006, anger about his statements concerning indigenous peoples in South America in June 2007, and so on. But the first thing to note is that none of this angst was new. 

For years, various interest groups had been getting agitated over the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ever since 1981, when he was appointed Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope John Paul II. What various groups inside and outside the Church did not like about the man is something that has to be asserted again and again. As Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and as Pope Benedict XVI, he worked with a concept of the Catholic Church in which some things are actually true and so they cannot be relatively true. If they are true, they do not change. They are not true temporarily or only for the West or when they are socially acceptable or whatever. In other words he was an advocate of objective truth.

Guerilla Version of Vatican II

When, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he signed off on Dominus Iesus in 2000, there was a firestorm of criticism. There were claims that he was diminishing other religions, that he was not being “sensitive” toward religions, that he was being dogmatic, and so on and so on. In fact, all it did was to repeat the teaching of Vatican II, but by the time Dominus Iesus came along with its restatement of the unique role of Jesus Christ, a guerilla version of what Vatican II had taught was already firmly entrenched in people’s minds. 

According to this version, Vatican II had “changed” Catholic teaching to make it more socially acceptable. According to this version it had said that “all religions and all savior figures are equivalent” and so on. This version is of course a myth, but it has been surprisingly resilient because of the modern western idea that if we want to be “religious” then we make up a religion to suit ourselves. But Joseph Ratzinger wrote a great line that could serve as the foundation of an answer and that is: “A faith that we make up is not a faith at all” (Truth and Tolerance, p. 129). 

As Joseph Ratzinger and as Benedict XVI, all he did showed that truckloads of popular ideas about what Catholicism is really have nothing to do with the Catholic faith. This is timely because right now we are in the midst of a swirl of people making it up as they go along. We have politicians “explaining” what Catholicism is when there is nothing in their explanations that is remotely Catholic. We have universities doing the same thing. We are in a period when “making it up” to satisfy the prejudices of our audience — and to give us some leverage with them — is common. 

But let us get back to the storm of criticism: At bottom, some people and some newspapers and TV commentators treated the pope more and more as a screen on which they project what they think. Often they do not want to learn what he had to say or why he says it, hence the phenomenon that we have seen again and again over the last almost 30 years. Obviously this behavior happens in other situations that have nothing to do with any pope. People complain about Chinese products or, going back a few years, Japanese products. They protest Alar on apples or French policies on Iraq — pick a topic — and once the wave gathers momentum then it becomes quite unreasoning. (Which is not to say that there are not some fragments of truth in each story!) This is a scary phenomenon. It is very strange in modern life that, with more and more accurate information available to us, literally at our fingertips, fewer people are taking the time to find out what they as grownups should know in order to make an informed decision. Going with the wave seems easier. 

In contrast with this often arbitrary turmoil, the papacy is a marvelous source of calm unity for the faithful. As Vatican II put it: “For our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock and the bearer of the keys of the Church, and made him shepherd of the whole flock” (Constitution on the Church, No. 22). The image of the rock is not an accidental metaphor! Or again: “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful” (Constitution on the Church, No. 23). This is not the role of a politician. The pope does not seek popularity or mirror the policy aspirations of his people. Quite simply, popes restates Tradition to bring people into one truth. 

There is something so rich here that it needs to be spelled out. If we go back to the first article of the Constitution on the Church, we find the council saying: “The present-day conditions of the world add greater urgency to this work of the Church so that all men, joined more closely today by various social, technical and cultural ties, might also attain fuller unity in Christ” (Constitution on the Church, No. 1). The Holy Father leads the Church so that more and more men and women attain unity in Christ. The pope’s job is to do this. 

Did the criticism over the handling of the Society of Pius X help the image of Benedict XVI? Probably not, but there was another side to that story. Pope Benedict was doing what he could and should do to reunite the Church after the splits resulting from objections to the Second Vatican Council and its teachings. The problem is that, in today’s world, there is less an inside and an outside to the Church. What would have been internal and pastoral actions a hundred years ago now are inescapably played out in the full glare of the media who took great glee in trumpeting the “mistakes” of the pontiff. Adversarial positions make for quick easy stories! Many Catholics were not shy about commenting either. But controversy does not serve the objective of unity.

A Spiritual Reality

The situation still is complicated by the fact that unity in Christ is fundamentally a spiritual reality. The Church is not a collection of rival factions in a country. This situation makes very different demands on us from the demands on citizens supporting a political party. Bringing people to unity in Christ is for the purpose of joining His offering of himself to the Divine Father. We see this in the prayers of the Eucharist. For example, on Passion Sunday the Prayer over the Gifts says: “Lord, may the suffering and death of Jesus, your only Son, make us pleasing to you. Alone we can do nothing, but may this perfect sacrifice win us your mercy and love. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord.” 

So apparently this unity is not initially about us, about our being heard or our getting our two cents in or our 15 minutes of fame. Suddenly, in the light of this prayer, the righteousness, the claims of victimhood, the easy judgments about the pope and all the rest can look rather paltry and even petty, not to say naive. They certainly distract people from the real point of our existence. The whole purpose of unifying mankind under Christ is to worship the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. There is no mention in this part of the theology of the Church of our self-assertion being a priority when we consider the unity of the Church and participate in it as we are called to do. 

The Council spoke of unity first of all by saying that the Church is a “sign and instrument. . .of community with God and unity with all men” (Constitution on the Church, No. 1). Then it gets much more specific: “the universal Church is seen to be ‘a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’” (Constitution on the Church, No. 4). (The Council is citing the words of St. Cyprian here!) 

Getting caught up in the social and political turmoil massively distracts from the business of serving God. It is shallow, noisy and exciting, but it seems to shed more heat than light. Bear in mind that, in the case of the Pius X Society, a bishop, who in January 2009 said he thinks that the Holocaust did not happen is more to be pitied than anything else. The actual teaching of the Church has been very clear on the reality and horror of the Holocaust. This is a message that will have to be repeated to each generation, but realistically speaking, who is this guy going to reach? It is like people believing that the earth is flat trying to recruit supporters. Maybe you get a few but. . . . Proportionate responses to issues are critical for serving the cause of unity. 

The unity of the Church is crucial not initially because it is more convincing as a unity. That does follow, but the unity is vital because of the focus on the divine Father to whom all of our prayers are ultimately addressed. We cannot be united if we each take our own stance on moral issues, for example, any more than a people drenched in vice can genuinely participate in the offering of the Eucharist. If we are not of one mind, then we do publicly fracture the presence of the one Word God spoke in Jesus Christ. 

The Council explains that the Church community is “a communion of life, charity and truth” (Constitution on the Church, No. 9). A communion of truth can carry forward only one truth. Otherwise, the words of the Council become meaningless. Bear in mind here that we are not discussing something at the level of supporting the Red Sox or the Chicago Bulls. The Council is saying that, in matters of faith and morals, we are to be of one mind. 

In the very next paragraph, the Council speaks of Church as “a visible and social union” (Constitution on the Church, No. 9). The Church cannot be a visible and social union if it is visibly and socially fragmented. It is only visibly and socially united if it is actually formed of people who have one mind and one heart. 

The Eucharist is one of the great signs of unity in the Church and is always the sacrifice of Christ, but the spiritual unity of the participants very much depends on their individual interior states. External appearances such as standing together at Mass are one thing, but what is really going on in people’s hearts — especially when they don’t respect the one teaching of the Church?

Organic Unity of the Church

Participation in the unity of the Church is served in a number of ways. The truth and real love are a big part of it. There is one truth that we have all at least heard, but do we choose to adhere to it and make every one of our choices in its light? The Constitution on the Church again and again refers to the organic unity of the Church. This unity is maintained first of all by the Unity of the One Word of God. 

Our participation in His presence in the world depends on His grace and our simple actions, such as people getting the facts from the Church as well as being aware of what calumny and detraction are. Unity is sustained by taking a great deal of care in forming our views. In important cases, such as the nature of marriage and the immorality of abortion and so on, we will simply make the Church’s teaching the truth of our life. 

Now these are very personal actions, so being of one mind and heart guided by the pope does not mean that we are being diminished in some way. We are fully involved as persons with minds and hearts. We do not have to make up the truth ourselves in order to protect our humanity. Put differently, we have not lost anything by being of one mind and heart. We have gained because we have affirmed THE truth that God spoke into the world. This enhances our humanity because according to the Council: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (Constitution on the Church and the World, No. 22). 

The role of the pope is described by the title “Vicar of Christ.” As such the First Vatican Council stated that he is there so “that they may be taught and guided by him in the way of salvation” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Chapter three). The day-to-day existence of the pope means that the unity of the Church is not just an idea but an actual following, right here and now, on the way to Christ himself. A pope is simply the servant of the Word who said to His Father: “that they may be one as we are one” (Jn 17:11). This unity has a profound meaning! This unity is a result of really believing in Christ, not in some vague and wishy-washy way, but rather believing in all of the daily implications of that belief. 

So obedience is not demeaning. In fact it puts us into ever-deeper contact with our salvation which only comes about in association with the Word Incarnate. Let me close with a quotation from Cardinal Henry de Lubac, the famous advisor at the Second Vatican Council. He pulls together the different threads of the spirituality of obedience that I have been working through in this article: “This living truth and this true life find foothold in us only by dispossessing us of ourselves; and that dispossession and death are not only the initial conditions of our salvation, they are the permanent aspect of our life as renewed in God” (Splendor of the Church, 1999, p. 258). TP 

FATHER BRAMWELL, O.M.I., is the Undergraduate Dean, resident theologian, and instructor for Catholic Distance University. He has been a professor and spiritual director in high schools, research schools, seminaries and universities.