Friday, March 8, 2013
A Few Thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI
It has been quite awhile since my last post. With the recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the fast approaching papal conclave, I thought this would be an opportunity to return to the blogosphere. There have been many comments regarding Pope Benedict XVI and his pontificate, and the effects he has had, and will have on the Church. Everyone has their opinions, and for those who are interested, I offer mine here. This is my first post of the new year, so I may as well make it a controversial one!
First off I will begin on a positive note in regard to Pope Benedict XVI. I think that when he took to the Chair of Peter, it was a nice change to the face of papacy we had been used to. This is regarding his appearance and stature as the Vicar of Christ. He quickly did away with the more low quality vestments and the poor liturgical stature that John Paul II often publicly displayed. In my opinion, he brought back some tradition to the Chair of Saint Peter. He sported more traditional vestments and looked quite regal when he replaced John Paul II's cozier with an older one from one of an earlier predecessor. This in my opinion was a welcome change.
In 2007 he released his Motu Proprio which gave new life to the Latin Mass throughout the Church. This was in my opinion, a bold move, being that a majority of the bishops throughout the world were either against his decision, or apathetic to it. This move has helped to begin turning the ship back in the right direction in regard to the liturgy. In his final year as pope, he also made another bold move that has been overlooked by most people in the Church. He dared to criticize the text of the Second Vatican Council. Until this point, it was taboo to speak about the ambiguous or lacking text of these documents. Although he did not elaborate too much on this point, he did in fact open a door that a future pontiff can easily pass through to further criticism and eventual restoration. These are some of the most significant high notes that I see as I reflect on his pontificate.
Now I will be so bold as to make a few criticisms, which I do not make lightly. Again, this is my opinion, nothing more. My first criticism takes aim at his theological writings, which I find to be at times quite cryptic. Many of his writings are very hard to understand, being that he often combines different lines of thought in them, which in my opinion do not easily blend. A priest theologian that I know quite well, who went to seminary before the Second Vatican Council also feels the same way. We both agree, most of the modern theologians are not speaking the same language that the Church spoke 50 years ago. Those well versed in Saint Thomas will find his reasoning at times quite confusing. This is a problem, being that his theology is not going to be of any significant help to the Church in the long run. The new theology which is rooted in modern philosophy will not stand the test of time. Pope Pius X and his immediate successors told us that this would be the case with those mixing in new philosophical thought into theological pronouncements rooted in scholastic principles. For example, there is no way to improve the dogmatic pronouncement made concerning transubstantiation. It cannot be improved upon by modern philosophy.
Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Ratzinger), along with many other modern theologians such as De Lubac, von Balthasar, Congar and the like, have in my opinion, in large part done nothing but muddy the waters of Catholic theology over the past 50 years. I cringed when I recently heard Father Joseph Fessio in an interview say, "I lived through the golden age of theologians—people like Congar, Bouyer, de Lubac, von Balthasar, Ratzinger, Rahner. Those are real giants…we don’t have real successors for them." My reply to him is this. Thank God! I hope that there are no real successors to their modern style of theology. To be perfectly blunt, these men are not theologians of any "golden age." What has this "golden age" given us? Confusion! Few Catholics have any idea of even the basic tenets of their faith. Most of these "giants" would not even make a third string team of bench warmers when compared to real theological heavyweights like Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, or even the more recent theologians such as Fr. Lagrange, Cardinal Mercier, or Cardinal Manning. Their "new theology" has not done anything to increase the Church's understanding or love of Catholic doctrine or dogma.
This is not to say that Pope Benedict XVI is not a brilliant man. I would say that he is indeed one of the most brilliant minds to fill the papal chair in recent history. But brilliance of mind and theological wisdom are not synonymous. Having said this, I am by no means implying that Pope Benedict XVI has not demonstrated any wisdom during his papacy, nor that all of his theological writings are useless. That would be a gross overstatement. I have certainly read and enjoyed some of his books. I am saying however that he is not even in the same league with an Aquinas. It would be like comparing a high school baseball player to a Hank Aaron. All in all I would say that his pontificate has been a relatively positive one. But it is one that I believe will measured more in his actions as pope than in his extensive corpus theological writings, which will in time be forgotten. They will be replaced by those who are going to come in the near future, who will bring back the Thomistic revival that has been called for by the many popes before him. I know there are many who disagree with me, and that is fine.
I think a pope should not only be measured by theological writings, but how he has governed the Church. Most people will readily admit that Pope Benedict XVI has been a better governor of the Church than his predecessor John Paul II, whose pontificate was quite a disaster in this area. While John Paul II was great at public events and reaching out to the world, he was not much in the way of enforcing doctrinal policy, canon law, or weeding out the abuse problems in the Church. His overall appointments of bishops and cardinals were lackluster at best. Pope Benedict XVI has started to bring this area of governance back under control a bit. There is certainly much more to be done, and not all of his appointments seemed to make sense. The very fact that there is a Cardinal Wuerl in Rome right now preparing to vote for the next pope should be a cause of concern for all of us! Yet, Benedict did begin the process of examining the quality of the Church's seminaries, as well as beginning to seriously address the abuse crisis in the Church. Beginnings are good, but he did not bring these critical problems to resolution. In fact, he may not have had the ability to resolve these issues. The next pope will unfortunately inherit this mess, and will be forced to deal with it head on.
In regard to the liturgy, while I am grateful for his promotion of the Latin Mass, I must say that I am quite disappointed that he did not return the Novus Ordo liturgy to ad orientem. Before he became pope he published a book titled, 'The Spirit of the Liturgy' in which he forcefully called for a return to ad orientem in the new liturgy. Yet, during his pontificate there was little said or demonstrated by him to further this restoration. This is certainly one area of his pontificate in which I have been baffled by to say the least.
Finally, what should we think of the "resignation" of his pontificate? There have been many opinions floating around the internet regarding his decision. Some think it is the greatest act of humility while others feel that he has abandoned them. After much reflection, I don't think that there is any one who can truly answer this question but Pope Benedict XVI himself. Ultimately this is a decision that he has made after much prayer and thought. I must say that Pope Benedict XVI has always come across to me a peaceful and prayerful man, and I admire his quiet and contemplative demeanor. Despite my criticism of his theological leanings, I would never call into question his quest to be close to God in prayer and holiness. Yes, perhaps his idea of what a pope for this modern age should be is different from our own, or even different from his predecessors. Will his resignation set a new precedence for future popes? I doubt it. I think the papacy will live on, and I think that most popes in the future will most likely end their pontificates with their death. Certainly new medical technology may prove me wrong. I just do not see this as being a trend setter.
What is quite clear is that the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI is now over, and he will be judged for it in eternity. We pray for him and we should appreciate the great things he has done for the Church. Now we must turn our attention to the future pontiff, and also offer our prayers for him, so that he may take a more drastic course of action to get the ship back on course. There is much work to be done in the Church. We have a serious crisis of faith, a gross lack of evangelization, a scandalous abuse crisis, a new low in theological scholarship, an ignorance of liturgical reverence, and the list goes on and on. Yet, we know that the Church, even with all of these problems is still moving on, making Saints, and saving souls. Despite the many obstacles that need to be overcome, the Catholic Church does something that no counterfeit "church" can do, and that is bring people to an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ! May our future pontiff aid in making the Church more effective in preaching the gospel!