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Witness Under Cross-Examination

On Pope Benedict XVI and Church history.

Assessing Joseph Ratzinger’s life as a man of the Church, including his eight-year papal reign as Benedict XVI, we would do well to consider the sea of opinion in which his Catholic generation swam. When Benedict visited England in 2010, several prominent citizens—the biologist Richard Dawkins, the lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, and the gay activist Peter Tatchell, egged on by the writer Christopher Hitchens—urged that he be arrested. In a letter to the Guardian, several dozen British authors and actors laid out the reasons for denying him an official visit, and these were the same as the ones for throwing him in the hoosegow. There was “segregated” (i.e., by sex) religious education, priestly sexual misbehavior, the failure to provide birth control in poor countries, opposition to abortion, and homophobia.

Barely a decade later, many of these charges look preposterous. How many condoms was the British Actors’ Guild handing out in the Third World at the time? At the height of the AIDS epidemic, when the “homophobic” Church was changing the bed sheets and cleaning the bedpans of a quarter of the world’s sufferers, how many was the Guardian taking care of? Even the grave problem of priestly abuse has receded, if the damage has not. There was one seriously wayward generation of priests—the bulk of the cases involved priests who came of age between 1955 and 1975. In our own century, Roman clerics have done a better job of respecting their wards than Hollywood producers have.

The problems of the Church in recent decades have been problems of transition. That is not to say they are passing problems, though, because the transition, which centered on the Second Vatican Council, failed. Had all priests been like Benedict it would have succeeded. Vatican II was a recognition that, if things were to remain the same, everything must change. Benedict was an exemplar: He had the cultural tradition of priests formed before the Council, and the interpersonal humility that the Church expected of those formed after it. More often, though, things worked the other way: priests were granted their privileges and absolved from imparting anything. With Vatican II the Church built an ark that parishioners decided they would rather drown than board.

Benedict saw that, for more and more people, the Church’s “model for life is apparently unconvincing … It seems to have been surpassed by ‘science’ and to be out-of-step with the rationalism of the modern era.” But only apparently. Showing that the Church was not as irrelevant as it looked required making sophisticated arguments about history and civilization, about being and seeming.

That was Benedict’s gift. Blunt, brilliant, humble, he was a bridge between simplicity and complexity. His four volumes of interviews with the German journalist Peter Seewald will be read for a very long time. Seewald, Catholic by upbringing, had left the church, less through “lapsing” or “drifting” than out of skepticism and cynicism. Although these conversations would draw Seewald back into the church, his questions can be probing and snide. (“But anyone can see that the wine remains wine …”) Here the “simplicity” of Benedict is not that of an intellectual who has succeeded in making his theories intelligible to a dim layman. It is that of a witness under cross-examination whose story is holding up.

The time is approaching when all direct memory of the Church as it existed before Vatican II will have disappeared, bringing a need for the Church to look back as well as forward. The week Benedict resigned in early 2013, the aged Spanish cardinal Julián Herranz Casado compared him to the early Christians, and said that coming popes ought to be in Benedict’s mold. “The church fathers did two basic things,” said Cardinal Herranz. “They knew and loved Christ and they taught the first Christians to live fully as their baptism required, amidst a pagan society.” He added: “The circumstances of today’s world are not very different.”

This article is excerpted from a symposium on the life and legacy of Joseph Ratzinger that appears in the Lent 2023 issue of The Lamp.