Saturday, December 31, 2022

Benedict XVI (1927-2022)

 Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died today, on the feast of Pope St. Silvester I. St. Silvester was the pope who confirmed and began the Western implementation of the First Council of Nicaea; Benedict XVI was a major figure in the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, first as a reformer participating in the council as a peritus, then as an academic in the thick of the debate over its interpretation and application afterward, then as its primary enforcer under St. John Paul II, then as pope himself from 2005 to 2013. 

He was, I think, first and foremost an academic intellectual, a highly competent one, although lacking the brilliance of John Paul II, who was also in many ways first and foremost an academic intellectual. As a pope, I think he largely failed to do both what he needed to do and what he hoped to be able to do. I remember reading a story in which someone was talking to him when he was a pope about some possible reform or other, and the person talking to him said that as pope he could now implement it; and, according to the story, he shrugged sadly and said that in reality his authority as pope ended at the door. I don't know how apocryphal that story is, but it very much fits both his behavior as a pope and advice he is said to have given to Pope Francis about the need to cooperate with the cardinals. Perhaps 'failure' is too strong, since he did have some important successes; but he was a very, very weak pope. This is, it should be said, probably true of most popes. It is very hard to be pope. I always think of it as playing chess with the devil; it doesn't really matter how talented you are, how clever you are, or even how holy you are, you are mostly going to lose, and the times you win will not be the ones you most want to win. The truly great popes are those like St. Leo the Great, or St. Gregory the Great, or Benedict XIV, or Leo XIII, who even in such a losing game manage to provide a great and useful heritage to the Church. Benedict XVI was not one of the truly great popes. But he did well enough, and that's really all a pope is required to do: hold the office, restrain some things, encourage some things, pray. It is God and not man who decides the ultimate result of that.

He seems to have handled it very well, but he always seems to me to have had a sad life. Ratzinger was a quiet academic who liked quiet academic things and was hated for it all his life, his little academic quirks like enjoying participating in some of the history of the papal office, precisely because it was part of the history, being often interpreted in highly malicious ways. He was a competent bishop who was basically used by John Paul II to do unpleasant things like tell other bishops 'No', deflecting criticism away from John Paul II to Ratzinger; because of this, despite a quiet and irenic temperament, he became a symbol in some parts of the Church for everything they disliked. As pope he seems to have hoped that he could now put his life as an enforcer behind him, but his reputation was already set, and everything he did was interpreted in that light. On the other hand, much of this was because he was not hesitant to spend his life defending others in the ways he best knew how, and because he was willing to do his duty, and very few of us could really say the same.