Pope Benedict makes moves to secure his legacy
Cardinal Dolan
Pope Benedict XVI presents a ring to new U.S. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan during a consistory in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 18. CNS photo

Late last year, as 2011 was giving way to 2012, a wave of speculation rippled through the media concerning Pope Benedict XVI’s health and longevity. For the most part, the speculation didn’t add up to much. 

Pope Benedict turns 85 in April. Not surprisingly, he’s slowing down. His schedule has been reduced to husband his strength, and other adjustments have been made for the same purpose — for example, a rolling platform now carries him down the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica when he presides at ceremonies there. 

But his basic health appears good for a man his age. He isn’t known to suffer from a chronic disease comparable to the Parkinsonism that dogged Pope John Paul II in his last decade. And he keeps up a schedule that many men 15 or 20 years younger would find daunting. 

In March, Pope Benedict will travel to Mexico and Cuba. Later he goes to Lebanon and perhaps Ukraine. For three weeks in October he will preside at a world Synod of Bishops in Rome. That month, too, he launches a Year of Faith for the universal Church. Week in, week out he meets people, holds audiences, gives talks, conducts taxing public liturgies, and, when he gets time, writes. If this is failing health, what would good health look like? 

Important themes

Recent news from the Vatican has focused on leaked documents and agitation against the Secretary of State, suggesting a bureaucracy in disarray. But Pope Benedict, for better or worse, appears largely detached from such things, his attention fixed instead on the legacy he will leave the Church.  

Three ideas appear to be central to his thinking about his legacy: continuity, change, reform. 

Continuity means the Church must remain in living touch with tradition. Change signifies adaptation in response to new needs. Reform is the process in which, as the Pope sees it, continuity and change should come together to serve the Church. 

Benedict’s beloved ‘new evangelization’ embraces all three.

New Evangelization

New evangelization is perhaps the largest single item in the legacy Pope Benedict hopes to leave. It seeks a resurgence of faith in regions where faith is threatened by secularism — Western Europe, certainly, but also North America and other places. 

Beyond speaking frequently of new evangelization, Benedict has used the power of his office to give it a practical boost. Among other steps, he set up an office for new evangelization as part of the Curia and entrusted its direction to an archbishop who’s considered one of the Vatican’s rising stars. 

Then he announced that next October’s assembly of the Synod of Bishops would focus on new evangelization — in moving the issue to the national and local levels. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, one of the comparatively few bishops to write and speak much about new evangelization up to now, was assigned the key role of synod secretary. 

Pope Benedict links new evangelization to the Year of Faith that begins next October during the synod. He’s likely to publish an encyclical on faith late this year or in early 2013, joining earlier encyclicals on hope and faith. 

Year of Faith

In another symbolic move, Benedict designated Oct. 11 as the start of the Year of Faith. Not coincidentally, that’s the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Promoting the correct understanding of Vatican II as embodied in the Catechism is another key element of the Pope’s program. 

For years he has been engaged in a running argument with Church progressives over the epochal council of 1962-1965. The progressives say its significance isn’t in the its documents and decisions but in a supposedly sharp break with the Church’s past opening the door to radical change. This often is called “the spirit of Vatican II.” 

In a famous 2005 speech to the Curia, the pope contrasted two conflicting “hermeneutics” — interpretive systems — regarding the meaning of Vatican II. One, which he rejected, he called a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” The other, which he endorsed, he called “the hermeneutic of reform, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church.” 

This “hermeneutic of reform” — change in continuity with tradition — is fundamental to his legacy. It helps explain things like his efforts to reconcile the ultra-conservative Lefebvrist movement with the Church on mutually acceptable terms and his steps to recover elements of the liturgical tradition shunted aside after Vatican II, which include expanded authorization for the celebration of Mass in its pre-Council form. 

Succession plan

There is little serious doubt that things like these are on Pope Benedict’s mind these days as he mulls another question — one he naturally avoids discussing in public — namely, who will succeed him. 

The pope is generally thought to have signaled his own preference last year when he transferred Cardinal Angelo Scola from Venice to Milan, the most important diocese in Italy outside Rome itself. Very likely, too, he would not be unhappy if the choice were someone like Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former archbishop of Quebec who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. Both cardinals are considered close to Benedict in their thinking. 

So far as anyone can tell now, though, his departure from the chair of Peter isn’t imminent. However much time is left to him, Pope Benedict is likely to keep working to leave the Church a legacy along these lines. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.