The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI - Macleans.ca

The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI

From evolution to safe sex, Benedict revealed himself to be a surprisingly activist Pope

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Max Rossi/Reuters

In this story first published in 2011, Brian Bethune considered the ways Pope Benedict XVI was changing the Catholic Church:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not according to confounded Vatican watchers. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was already 78 years old when he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. He was widely seen as the arch-conservative doctrinal enforcer, the sharp spear point wielded by his charismatic rock star predecessor—Joshua to Pope John Paul II’s Moses, in the words of one Jewish scholar. The consensus opinion was that Benedict would provide a quiet, business-as-usual continuance of John Paul’s 27-year reign and, given his age, a brief pontificate that would allow the 1.1 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church time to catch its breath and consider its future options.

No one, it seems, asked Benedict what he thought of the caretaker idea.

From inflaming the Islamic world by quoting medieval anti-Muhammad remarks to welcoming disaffected Anglicans into the Roman fold, becoming personally embroiled in the clerical sex-abuse scandal, endorsing the (sometimes) use of condoms, writing a passage in his newest book exonerating Jews from the charge of killing Christ, and a host of less headline-grabbing initiatives (including a casual acceptance of the theory of evolution), Benedict—as he celebrates his 84th birthday and sixth anniversary as Pope (April 16 and 19, respectively)—continues to be far more active, innovative, and outright newsworthy than expected.

The Pope clearly has goals, large and small, that he wants to see achieved during his pontificate, however short it might turn out to be. For many, inside and outside the Church, he will be judged on his response to the sexual abuse of children by clergy. If Benedict hasn’t gone as far as some would like—such as calling a council dedicated to the scandal—he has, for the most part, assuaged Catholic anger. After the initial shocks last year, when Benedict was accused of helping cover up the scandal, increasingly angry Catholic writers have rallied to his cause.

That includes Michael Coren, the often controversial Canadian broadcaster and author whose new book, Why Catholics Are Right (to be released on the Pope’s birthday), offers an uncompromising—to put it mildly—defence of both Catholic teaching and Catholic history. Coren, like other Catholic commentators including Michael Higgins, past president of St. Jerome’s and St. Thomas Catholic universities (in Waterloo, Ont., and Fredericton, respectively), and the American Vatican correspondent John Allen, argues that Benedict’s forthright response has made him a large part of the solution for the Church.

Far more than John Paul, the present Pope has been open about the scope of the abuse and the harm inflicted; he has met time and again with victims to express his personal sorrow; he has condemned bishops for their actions—and failures to act—as well as the criminal priests they ignored or sheltered; and he has made it clear that it is the welfare of children, not the reputation of the Church, that matters. And Catholic laity have responded to his efforts, realizing, too, that the cover-ups recently revealed were mostly old cases, indicating that steps taken by the Church from the 1980s on—including by Benedict when he was Cardinal Ratzinger and the Vatican’s chief disciplinarian—had borne fruit.

It was never Benedict’s plan to see his pontificate dedicated to coping with the disaster of the sex-abuse scandal. For the German-born Pope, observers like Higgins agree, the burning issue of the day will always be the spiritual state of his home continent. “I think he sees a destructive Robespierre moment in Europe,” says Higgins, referring to the French revolutionaries who signalled their complete break with the past and with tradition by declaring 1792 to be Year One. Europe’s advanced secularization—including the slow extirpation of religious symbols (the ongoing European Court of Human Rights case seeking to ban crucifixes from Italian schoolrooms deeply troubles the Vatican)—has cut it off from the roots of its own culture, the Pope believes. Drowning in spiritual anomie, unable to speak coherently about life, death and meaning, Europe can no longer define or even defend itself.

Reversing the expulsion of faith from the public square in Europe is Benedict’s overriding aim. And he has shown himself willing to take significant, if subtle, steps to do so. Benedict’s moves to shore up Catholic identity—overseeing the restoration of the old Latin mass as an alternative rite and otherwise reaching out to alienated traditionalists—have been overshadowed by those he has made to open his Catholic practice, however cautiously, to the modern world. He clearly believes that secular society, and especially Europe, needs an infusion of faith, but he also seems willing to inject some reason into his Church.

Faith and reason, for Benedict, are not only reconcilable, but must be reconciled for a viable human society to flourish. The Church, he told a group of Italian priests in 2007, was uniquely positioned to do that: Catholicism’s historical strength is its passion for synthesis, its rejection of either/or oppositions like faith or reason. In October, the Pope created a new Vatican department aimed at “re-evangelizing” the most secular regions of the globe, in particular areas of Europe that have become “de-Christianized” in his words.

And in March he addressed, by video hookup, one result of that effort: the first Courtyard of the Gentiles meeting, held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The name—taken from the outer space around the great Temple in ancient Jerusalem—is laden with symbolism: it was in the courtyard that Jews and gentiles could engage with each other. The Pope wants the faithful and atheists to have an ongoing series of such (literal) common-ground encounters to discuss what he called “the great human questions of our time” in his address. “Those of you who are non-believers want to take believers to task, demanding from them the witness of a life consistent with what they profess and rejecting any deviation that makes religion inhuman. You who are believers want to say that the question of God is not a threat to society, it does not threaten human life! You have much to say to each other. I profoundly believe that the meeting between the reality of faith and reason allows man to find himself.”

Virtually everything Benedict says or does can be linked to furthering this central goal. After a shaky start, he has become fully aware that whatever a pope signals is parsed by Vatican watchers as detail-obsessed as the Kremlinologists of old. In December 2005, during his first Christmas season as Pope, when Benedict wore a camauro, a fur-trimmed hat popular among 17th-century pontiffs, it was cited as proof he favoured a more traditional—meaning authoritarian—papal monarchy. (He later said his head was cold, and he never wore the hat again.) But the Pope still at times allows one arresting statement to deflect attention from another.

His November comments about condoms were surprising both in substance and in timing: the clerical sexual abuse issue had made 2010 Benedict’s personal annus horribilis, and a pope in less of a hurry might well have responded by deliberately fading from the news cycle. Instead, he gave a lengthy interview in which he stated that the use of condoms in the age of HIV could at times be morally right. He gave the startling (for a pope) example of a male prostitute wearing one for a client’s sake. His meaning—as a Vatican spokesman later confirmed—was that the use of condoms by people infected with HIV, female or male, could be “the first step of responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom there are relations.”

Although his statement did nothing to alter Church opposition to contraceptives, Benedict’s words still angered conservative Catholics adhering to a hard and fast position on the immorality of condom use, even as they were welcomed by many clerics and health care workers in the developing world. The media uproar, however, acted to obscure another comment in the interview. After years of persistent rumours over his health—past strokes and possible current heart disease—Benedict also asserted that resignation for reasons of health was a viable papal option, a remark that went almost unnoticed.

It’s noteworthy that Michael Coren’s robust apologia for Catholic teaching devotes several pages to Benedict and condom use in AIDS-ravaged Africa, but not to the Pope’s newer comments. Instead, Why Catholics Are Right defends Benedict’s 2009 remark to journalists that AIDS was “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms.” Coren points out that Benedict was correct to note that condoms have not worked as a public health intervention in reducing HIV infections at what scientists call the “level of population,” whatever difference they might make in an individual’s life. (This is a conclusion shared by Edward Green, director of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project, who added, “This is hard for a liberal like me to admit, but yes, the best evidence we have supports the Pope’s comments—I first put emphasis on fidelity instead of condoms in Africa in 1988.”)

The absence from Coren’s book of this particular instance of Benedict backing away from absolutist thinking marks the author as more Catholic than the Pope. Coren’s entire book is a line in the sand separating true Catholicism from everything else, including other branches of Christianity and cultural Catholicism—the practices and beliefs of those raised Catholic and still (occasionally) attending mass, but not following Church doctrine. Among orthodox traditionalists, Benedict’s reputation for doctrinal conservatism serves him as well as it condemns him in among their liberal co-religionists, while ultra-conservatives think he flirts with liberal heresy. In short, Benedict is in a relatively strong Nixon-goes-to-China position to open leftwards. But his room to do so is far from infinite: pontiffs, clearly, have right as well as left flanks to consider.

Benedict’s most recent foray into the headlines—occasioned by the early March release of excerpts from his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two (released a week later)—likewise saw one of the most intriguing passages ignored. Benedict quotes Francis Collins, the devout evangelical Protestant who led the Human Genome Project, that “the language of God was revealed” when the genome was unveiled. “In the magnificent mathematics of creation,” Benedict continues, “which today we can read in the human genetic code, we do recognize the language of God. The functional truth about man has been discovered.” As Collins notes in his own book, The Language of God, to understand the genome is to grasp the inescapable fact of evolution, the “functional truth” of creation, and there can be little doubt that Benedict—however obliquely he states it—does so as well. In the same way he dealt with the condom issue—rejecting either/or thinking to reconcile faith (opposition to birth control) and reason (care for the health of a partner)—Benedict bridged his Church’s belief about humanity’s true spiritual nature with science’s revelations about our physical nature.

What understandably obscured the evolution passage was Benedict’s exoneration of Jews from the ancient accusation of being Christ-killers—the heart of two millennia of at times murderous Catholic antagonism toward them. “Now we must ask,” the Pope wrote, “Who exactly were Jesus’s accusers? Who insisted that he be condemned to death? According to [the Gospel of] John it was simply ‘the Jews.’ But John’s use of this expression does not in any way indicate—as the modern reader might suppose—the people of Israel in general, even less is it ‘racist’ in character. In John’s Gospel this word has a precise and clearly defined meaning: the Temple aristocracy.” The words caused an immediate stir because a Pope wrote them, because he identified the roots of his theology in specific Gospel passages—thereby essentially instructing the faithful in how to read those verses—and because the media (not to mention numerous Catholics) seemed to have forgotten that the Church as a whole said much the same, in much the same words, 46 years ago at the Second Vatican Council.

Pope watchers, who hadn’t forgotten, therefore obsessed over the question, why draw attention to those particular passages at this particular time? Judaism is Catholicism’s most important theological relationship, even if Islam is its most geopolitically significant. After the 2006 speech in which Benedict quoted the anti-Muhammad remarks of a Byzantine emperor, setting off violent protests in the Islamic world, he devoted considerable time to mending fences with Muslims. He travelled to Turkey and Jordan and has constantly expressed his openness to Islam as an anti-secular “friend speaking from within a shared space of common religious concern,” in John Allen’s words. That increased attention may, suggest some observers, have contributed to recent bumps in the road in the Jewish relationship.

Even so, in part those bumps were inevitable: for the Jewish world, John Paul II was the most highly regarded pope it ever encountered, or is likely to. “His personal biography, his enduring friendship with Jews from his earliest childhood, his wartime record, on occasion risking his life to save Jews,” sums up Joseph Weiler, a New York University Law School professor and an Orthodox Jew. All that, Weiler adds, “gave huge credibility to John Paul’s outstretched hand to his ‘elder brothers,’ as he memorably explained in his historic visit to the Rome synagogue when he, personally blameless, had no hesitation in expressing profound regret and apology for Christian wrongdoing toward the Jews.” Any successor would have a hard time following that; Benedict, cool and cerebral in temperament, and, not to forget, a one-time (if unwilling) member of the Hitler Youth, is not just any successor.

Then there is the controversy over wartime pope Pius XII, a half-century-old canker that won’t heal. Immediately after the Second World War, Pius was praised by many Jewish leaders for his efforts on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust, but since Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play, The Deputy, debate has raged over whether he did enough, given his failure to openly denounce the Nazi genocide. Many liberal Catholics feel the same unease as most Jewish commentators about Pius’s inexorable canonization process. The official Church, however, which venerates Pius for his “heroic virtues” as a Christian, is far more inclined to believe the pontiff did more than could be expected under Nazi occupation. Coren calls him “a righteous Gentile, a righteous Pope, a righteous Roman Catholic, a righteous man.” In this, author and Pope are on the same page: a year after he raised Pius to the status of venerable in late 2009—the first stop on the road to sainthood—Benedict stated that Pius was “one of the great righteous men who saved more Jews than anyone.”

If Pius is an old sore, Benedict’s restoration—from a schismatic order of traditionalist Catholics—of a Holocaust-denying bishop has been a flashpoint. Richard Williamson is one of four men consecrated as bishops in 1988 by breakaway archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who objected to the reforms of Vatican II. The “bishops,” along with Lefebvre (who died in 1991), were all automatically excommunicated for ordaining without papal permission. Benedict, who has long wanted to mend fences with the traditionalists, lifted the excommunications on Jan. 21, 2009—a welcoming hand extended to prodigal sons much like the one he offered Anglican communities unhappy with their Church’s ordination of women and openness to same-sex unions. On the same day, however, a Swedish TV show broadcast an interview in which Williamson stated, “I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, none of them in gas chambers.”

Benedict felt blindsided amid the immediate uproar. Prosecutors in Germany, where the interview was recorded and Holocaust denial is a crime, announced an investigation (Williamson was later fined $20,000), and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel suspended contacts with the Church. The Vatican responded forcefully, declaring that, if he wished to be a functioning bishop within the Church, Williamson “will have to take his distance, in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion, from his position on the Shoah, which the Holy Father was not aware of when the excommunication was lifted.” So far, the papacy has rejected Williamson’s half-hearted apologies and he has not reconciled with Benedict.

A final factor colouring Catholic-Jewish relations is that Jewish disquiet is starting to be matched by Catholic exasperation. In the wake of the excerpts, some angry posters to Jewish websites denounced Benedict for having the chutzpah, so to speak, to “forgive” Jews for killing Christ. (An understandable reaction, if that was what Benedict had actually done, but to state that the Jews are innocent of the charge of murdering Jesus is not the same as pardoning them for their non-existent crime.) And after Benedict, following in John Paul’s footsteps, visited the Israeli Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem, the Pope drew loud criticism when his speech did not express regret over Williamson, even though he had done so many other times. Some Church leaders, John Allen reported in his 2009 book, The Future Church, resent that their overtures are not “matched by a similar spirit” on the Jewish side. After Yad Vashem, Cardinal Walter Kasper, chief Vatican official for Jewish relations, said, “There seems to be an attitude of, ‘That’s good, but it’s not enough.’ ”

Still, Benedict has every reason to be pleased with the generally positive Jewish response to the deicide passage, including a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing appreciation for the Pope’s “clarity and courage.” It would be only the smallest of ironies if a passage Benedict wrote, in all probability, before becoming head of the Church does more to cement Catholic-Jewish relations than anything since John Paul’s moving visit to the synagogue in Rome.

Allen recalls in his wide-ranging survey of future trends in the Church that many Catholics used to joke that the 1967 Beatles tune, The Fool on the Hill, perfectly captured the irrelevance of Pope Paul VI in the 1970s, with its lines, “Nobody ever hears him / or the sound he appears to make / and he never seems to notice…” No one would have dreamed of saying that after John Paul II’s 1978 arrival on Vatican Hill. And whatever might have been expected of the surprising Benedict XVI, it can’t be said now.