Pope Benedict strove to be a healer of divisions

In an Ash Wednesday homily that was one of his last public events before stepping down from the papacy, Pope Benedict XVI deplored things he said had sometimes “disfigured” the face of the Church. “I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the Church, of the divisions in the body of the Church,” he said. 

How did Pope Benedict go about trying to heal those divisions? To appreciate the answer, it’s necessary to understand the two real-world options for a pope.

Fidelity to Christ

One is to let dissenting opinions flourish. In that case, division hardly exists because everything, or nearly everything, is allowed. It’s a situation that recalls British playwright Oscar Wilde’s famous quip that his approach to getting rid of temptation was to give in to it. 

unity
Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the Society of St. Pius X, is pictured near a photo of Pope Benedict XVI. CNS

The other option is to seek unity in the Christian tradition. Divisions are averted or healed by adhering to a body of doctrine rooted in revelation, elaborated by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and transmitted by the magisterium of the Church as it’s expressed in the teaching of popes, bishops and ecumenical councils. 

Long before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger opted for the second way. That was a decision for which his critics have never forgiven him. It lies behind much of the verbal abuse aimed his way over the years, including now. If he’d gone the first, permissive route, the left would very likely have hailed him for having a “pastoral” style. 

The rationale for Benedict-Ratzinger’s preferred approach was sketched out in “The Ratzinger Report,” a book-length interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori that was published in 1985 (Ignatius Press, $12.95). The Church, he said there, is not “our” Church — “which we could dispose of as we please” — but “his” Church, the Church of Christ, which must be faithful to what Christ asks of it. 

This fidelity to Christ, he made clear, is both the source and the norm of authentic unity in the Church. Unity that was based on anything else would be a pseudo-unity that compromised the Church’s integrity. 

That naturally raises the question of where Christ’s teaching and his will for the Church are to be found. Before and since becoming pope, Benedict’s answer has never been in doubt: These things are found in the authentic doctrine and discipline of the Catholic Church and, during the last several decades, in a special way in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), where young Father Ratzinger served as a peritus, or theological adviser.

Two examples

Here, then, is the context for understanding Benedict’s efforts as a healer of divisions. His overtures to traditionalist Anglicans and to the Lefebvrist Society of St. Pius X are clear illustrations of how that works. 

In October 2009, the Vatican announced that the pope had approved a new process allowing groups of Anglicans — Episcopalians, in the United States — who wished to be in communion with Rome to come into the Catholic Church while retaining significant elements of their Anglican liturgical tradition. Critics called this an un-ecumenical move on Pope Benedict’s part, but the Anglicans affected by it welcomed it as a generous concession. New ecclesiastical jurisdictions called “ordinariates” have been established to receive these people and are now operating in the U.S., Great Britain, and Australia, with others likely. 

In a similar manner, the Vatican through theological discussions under Pope Benedict has labored to find agreement with the separatist Society of St. Pius X, an ultra-traditionalist body composed of followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. 

In January 2009 the Pope took the dramatic step of lifting the excommunications of four SSPX bishops — a move that boomeranged on Pope Benedict when it came out that, unbeknownst to him, one of the men was a Holocaust denier. Even so, the negotiations now appear stalled due to SSPX refusal to accept Vatican II.

Reform and renewal

Rejection of the council is one thing the pontiff won’t accept. The special place it occupies in his thinking about the unity of the Church was evident in farewell remarks to the priests of the diocese of Rome three days after he announced his resignation. 

Speaking without a text, he described two very different versions of Vatican II — “the council of the media” and “the true council” — and insisted on the second as the one that counts. 

According to Pope Benedict, the “media” council was a distortion depicting the great event as “a political struggle, a power struggle” pitting decentralizers and democratizers against reactionaries. This caricature dominated popular thinking for the last 50 years, causing “calamity … problems … misery.” Only now, he suggested, is it dying out. 

And as it dies, he said, “the true council is appearing with all of its spiritual power.” He challenged the priests to promote the real Vatican II “that the Church may really be renewed.” 

For people familiar with Pope Benedict’s ideas about reform and renewal, this was hardly new. Repeatedly, it has led him to defend the Church’s tradition in opposition to secular sacred cows — women’s ordination and same-sex marriage are good examples. 

Here is the heart of Pope Benedict’s famous program of “restoration” — which in the 1985 “Ratzinger Report” he equated with “reform” and defined as “a recovery of lost values, within a new totality.” Plainly, as he leaves the highest office in the Church, that remains his prescription for healing divisions in the Church. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.