Pope Benedict the Sixteenth

Pope Benedict has resigned. As a theologian he showed seeds of greatness. As a Pope, he wasn’t particularly successful,. Part of that was due to the times in which he reigned, but most of the responsibility falls on him. The real failure of his papacy was his inability to govern the church in a way that reflected the humbling conclusions of his scholarship. Benedict’s thinking was shaped, as everyone’s is, by his upbringing. Born amid the disillusionment of post-WWI Europe, he was raised in a regime that insisted that traditional conceptions of good and evil did not exist, and that Christian morality was a dangerous illusion. Although he outlived that regime, he spent the remainder of his career in a increasingly atheistic Europe that, while rejecting the tenets of Nazism and Stalinism, also rejected Christianity. What is most striking about Pope Benedict’s writings is that he acknowledged this rejection, and understood that the Church was in a period of decline. In 1995, he stated:

“We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.” [In Salz der Erde, Im Gespraech mit P Seewald (Christentum und katholische Kirche an der Jahrtausendwende Stuttgart, DVA Verlag, 1996]

Yet, in the end there was a yawning chasm between Benedict’s understanding of his times and his policies. His Papacy was noted for his defiant defense of traditional Church doctrine: a doctrine that had led to a shrinking of the church that continued on his watch. A policy more in tune with his writings might have led to a Church with more humility. He could have focused his energies on recruiting priests from among elder laymen, ensuring the continued existence of religious orders, and on religious education. Benedict had the opportunity to shape the Church and prepare it for the coming abeyance of influence he expected. He failed to do so. It seems a strange condemnation of him to say that he didn’t have the courage of his convictions, but, in the end, that must be my conclusion.

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