The Vatican

Benedict XVI: the great discernment about the Council

The pontificate of Benedict XVI leaves as a mark the unusual depth of a Christian faith that evangelizes by seeking dialogue with the modern world.

Juan Luis Lorda-December 31, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes
Ratzinger Benedict XVI

Eight years are few compared to the almost twenty-seven years of the previous pontificate. St. John Paul II was the Pope -and perhaps the most visible and mediatic human being in history. He also had a lot of good stage presence, a long experience as a bishop and a special sensitivity in dealing with the media. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, at 78 years of age, had to learn how to greet the crowds.

Iras of Islam

Since the famous Regensburg Speech it became clear that the new Pope was not a "media man". Although it was a speech of great intellectual quality, a marginal quote on religious intolerance focused attention because it aroused the wrath of Islamism.

But it also produced the unexpected and unusual offer of dialogue from an important group of Muslim intellectuals. The anecdote reflects some of the characteristics of the Pontificate. A certain administrative solitude, because any astute communicator who had read the speech could have warned him of what was about to happen. A certain disagreement with the uses and criteria of the media, which need simple profiles, phrases for headlines and gestures for photos. But also an unusual depth that places the Christian faith in dialogue with the sciences, with politics, with religions. And this depth of a faith that evangelizes by seeking dialogue will probably be the mark left by the Pontificate of Benedict XVI.

He came to the Pontificate with the wisdom of so many years of theological reflection, with an enormous experience of the situation of the Church, with some issues that seemed to him to have been poorly resolved and with full awareness of the limitations imposed by his age. In a short time, without adopting any pose, he adjusted to his exhausting ministry and his personality became transparent: serene, simple and kind. At the same time, he never lost a certain academic seriousness when he delivered his speeches, because he was convinced of what he was saying.

Keynote speeches

To his three important encyclicals, where ancient concerns can be easily discovered, we must add his ordinary magisterium, with some very important speeches in his travels (Regensburg, UN, Westminster), and above all with many "minor" interventions, which have his stamp: especially the audiences and the brief Angelus. In the audiences, he traced the history of theology and Christian thought from the first figures of the Gospel. And, lately, he has offered us precious considerations on faith.

His mind has expressed itself with particular vitality in smaller and more informal contexts, perhaps because they allowed him more freedom. Paradoxically, one of the most important texts of his Pontificate is his first address to the Curia (December 22, 2005). It was a simple meeting to congratulate Christmas. But there he made a profound diagnosis of the meaning of the Second Vatican Council, and its true interpretation as a reform and not as a rupture in the tradition of the Church. And he added an accurate discernment on religious freedom, a great theme of the political culture of modernity. He thus responded to the Lefevbrians, for whom the Council is heretical precisely because it changed the position of the Church on this point. 

Curiously, in its farewell to the clergy of Rome, February 14, 2010returned to the meaning of the Council. Once again he made a clear-sighted assessment of its achievements, of its actuality, and also of the post-conciliar deviations and their causes.

We do not know to what extent he will want to live in retirement, but it would be wonderful if his ecclesial and theological wisdom could be collected in new works.

Three major issues

In his famous Christmas 2005 address, Benedict XVI said that the Council wanted to re-establish dialogue with the modern world and that it had posed three circles of questions. It does not take much insight to see that there have also been three major questions for Benedict XVI as a theologian, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as Pope. They are the relationship of faith with the human sciences (including biblical exegesis); the situation of the Church in a democratic context, especially in the former Christian countries; and dialogue with other religions.

It is in this context that we must place his three books on Jesus of Nazareth, an old project, cherished for years, planned as an occupation for his desired retirement, and written in the free time of an exhausting schedule. For many years before, he had been concerned about an interpretation of Scripture that, in its effort to be scientific, seemed to forget faith. In the three books he tries to make a believing reading, which, at the same time, respects the scientific demands of exegesis. The prologues are particularly interesting.

Tests and challenges

When he came to the Pontificate, he was aware of the very difficult issues he had faced as Prefect. In particular the scandal of some priests and some religious institutions. He immediately ordered disciplinary measures and revitalized the canonical processes, quite forgotten by a certain post-conciliar "good will". He did not mind recognizing that this was what had made him suffer the most.

For other reasons, the Lefevbre schism has been an uncomfortable topic. But Benedict XVI did not want the schism to solidify. He has done everything possible to bring the traditionalists closer, overcoming any kind of outbursts of tone from some tense and difficult interlocutors, and fierce criticism from others who needed to feel progressive. It has advanced without being able to reach a conclusion.

Partly in response to the criticisms of one or the other, but above all for reasons of liturgical criteria, Benedict XVI has put an end to the post-conciliar dialectic between the "old" and the "new" liturgy. It makes no sense to oppose them, because the same Church and with the same authority has made one and the other. Disregarding labels, Benedict XVI wanted to make it clear that the Church has legitimately reformed its liturgy, but that the previous rite has never been officially abolished; for this reason, he has provided that it can be celebrated as an extraordinary form. 

Benedict XVI loves the liturgy. He declares it in his biography. At his express wish, the volume dedicated to the liturgy was the first of his complete works to be published. Apart from his personal piety in the celebration, we have contemplated his interest in the style and beauty of liturgical vestments and objects, his attention to chant and sacred music and his recommendation to preserve Latin in the common parts of the liturgy, especially in mass celebrations. In addition, he has promoted the study of some particular questions (the "pro omnes-pro multis",  the place of the gesture of peace, etc.).

Curial issues

Benedict XVI is a man of thought and not a man of management. As Prefect he had lived concentrated on his work and relatively isolated. For this reason, he has relied from the beginning on the people who constituted his circle of trust in the Congregation. In particular, his Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone.

It is notorious how much the Pope has disliked the curial "moves", the difficulties to put order in economic matters or the surprising case of the steward and the leakage of documents. It is difficult to assess, without more information, how much all this may have influenced his decision to retire. However, from the reasons he himself gave, it can be deduced that he feels he needs someone with more energy than he has left to face the current challenges of Church governance; and that he considers that this should not wait.  

As we contemplate with eyes of faith the problems that the Church has always faced, we can see how much we have to thank the Lord for the extraordinary list of Popes who have steered the barque of Peter in the last two centuries. All have been men of faith and each has given the best of himself. It is a list almost as good as that of the Popes of the first centuries, most of whom were martyrs. And much better than in other difficult centuries, such as the tenth or fifteenth, where even unworthy people reached the Pontificate. Difficult times purify the faith, while easy times gentrify it.

To Benedict XVI we owe many things, but especially his witness of faith, and a great discernment about the Council and about the evangelizing dialogue that the Church has to carry out with the modern world.

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