Pope reached out to increasingly secular West

It was clear, from the famous homily at the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II when he first spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism,” that Pope Benedict XVI was going to challenge the ideas gripping Western culture. But what surprised the media — who remained attached to the “Ratzinger the Rottweiler” myth long after it was exposed as a parody — was how gently and positively he went about it. His words were precise, and they could be sharp; but, like the pope himself, they were invariably positive, courteous and humble.

A positive approach

The distinctively Benedictine teaching style that soon emerged was labelled “affirmative orthodoxy”: a defense of the core elements of Catholic thought and practice in the most positive way possible.  

Thousands of young people watch Pope Benedict XVI on a giant screen outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2008. The pope was delivering a speech at the Collège des Bernardins. CNS

In a meeting with German journalists in 2006, a month after his visit to Spain, he was asked why, in his meeting with the then Spanish prime minister, he had never mentioned gay marriage, abortion or embryo research, all of which had been legalized by the notoriously anticlerical José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. “Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: It’s a positive option,” Pope Benedict said. “We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: We have a positive idea to offer.”  

Rather than denouncing abortion as killing, he said, it was better to assume that this was obvious and instead “always stress that the human person begins in the mother’s womb and remains a human person until his or her last breath.” All this is clearer, he said, “if you say it first in a positive way.” 

Pope Benedict’s papacy can be seen as one long argument against the exclusion of God and an attempt to demonstrate the price of that exclusion. In four cornerstone addresses — in Regensburg, Germany, in 2006; the Collège des Bernardins in Paris in 2008; Westminster Hall, London, 2010; and the Bundestag, Berlin, in 2011 — he made a series of appeals to rescue Western political thinking from the arid, self-enclosed box into which secularism had placed it (see sidebar). 

Pope Benedict also sought to engage culture through events staged in European cities known as the “Courtyard of the Gentiles.” The project was a response to the pope’s call for a space for dialogue “with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.” The first event, in Paris in 2010, staged conversations between Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and other Catholic leaders with leading atheist intellectuals; similar events have been held in Assisi, Italy, and Lisbon, Portugal.

Grounded in humility

But the pope spoke to ordinary people principally through his foreign visits, events that were massively televised and commented on in mainstream news. His charm, serenity and gentleness conquered hearts and minds and disposed people to listen to him; where they had been led to expect admonitions or preaching, they found only humility and courtesy. His meetings, whether with political or religious leaders, or visiting the elderly or the disabled, revealed him to be an attentive and gracious listener. Meetings with abuse victims became part of the itinerary of the visits; those who spoke later to the media described an encounter with a deeply pastoral priest, one who listened carefully and shared their suffering. His own evangelical simplicity and humility were profoundly, and compellingly, countercultural. 

Although naturally shy and cerebral, Pope Benedict turned out to be telegenic. And he was adept at modern media, using an iPad to turn on Christmas lights and taking to publishing 140-character tweets, quickly gaining 1.5 million followers on his @Pontifex Twitter account. He became the first pope to publish an intimate, insightful book-long interview, giving candid answers to questions posed by journalist Peter Seewald. “Light of the World” (Ignatius, $19.95), together with his triptych of books on Jesus, were best-sellers, bringing his words into millions of homes. 

Pope Benedict had no illusions about contemporary Western culture: “progress has increased our capabilities, but not our moral and human stature and capacity,” he told Seewald. He saw that reason, politics and the economy had become closed off from Christ, and he wanted to open them back up; hence his great encyclicals, on love, charity and hope. But he also knew that a culture that had turned its back on God could still see truth and goodness in beauty, especially in the liturgy. His first apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (“The Sacrament of Charity”), states that “everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty,” noting that this was “no mere aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us … drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love.”  

Pope Benedict’s main offer remained, however, the Church, centered on the Eucharist and relationship with God through Christ. He never imposed, always proposed, this gift; his papacy was a robust defense of freedom, above all the freedom to search for God, which is the foundation of all other rights and freedoms. He was untroubled by declining numbers in de-Christianized cultures: It was the quality, not quantity, of faith that mattered. He had long foreseen that the Church would need to become smaller and purer before it could grow in the West.  

The New Evangelization, embedded in the life of the Church by Pope Benedict through a synod and a new pontifical council, will be his main legacy, and on that gathering of energy and resources for mission his successor will chart the Church’s future. 

Austen Ivereigh is the author of “How to Defend the Faith without Raising your Voice” (OSV, $13.95).