Over the next few weeks and beyond we can expect to see a lot about the legacy of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. Indeed much is already emerging. For example, as noted here and here, the statements issued by Orthodox and Protestant leaders suggest a pontificate that has seen a strong development in authentic ecumenism. An article released by Vatican Radio highlights what so many of us see as one of the great marks of the Benedictine pontificate, his teaching on and celebration of the liturgy. After Benedict the liturgical cat is out of the bag and there will be no putting it back. Indeed, who can forget his last Ash Wednesday Mass, hard in the wake of his stunning announcement, when having briefly indulged spontaneous and heart-felt applause from the congregation, he reminded us all of what should always inform our liturgy – a focus on God not man: “Thank you.Now let us return to prayer”.
Another aspect largely unrecognised is Pope Benedict’s cleaning up of the episcopal college. He has sacked several bishops, most spectacularly the lamentable Bishop Morris of Toowoomba, Australia. But it seems he did a lot more behind the scenes, confronting bishops who were grossly mismanaging their dioceses and convincing them to resign. By the very nature of things, it is a legacy that will not be open to the public gaze, but it may prove real enough in time.
Yet it strikes me that there are two aspects of this pontificate that need to be more carefully examined by those more competent than I.
One emerges from the course of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, the other from its end, yet even the former has a clear marker in the days following the announcement of abdication. One is positive, the other negative (though it pains me to say so).
From the outset of his pontificate Pope Benedict signalled that the Second Vatican Council needed to be re-appraised. His comments did not arise from any deep-seated dissatisfaction with the Council itself, but with its subsequent interpretation and application. For Benedict, as for anyone who knows even a little about the Church the growth of its Christian life, the Council could never have marked a point at which it could be said “Everything has changed, it is a revolution in the Church, we are leaving behind all the outdated baggage and becoming relevant to the modern world”. This attitude, which so many of us have experienced, he saw as revealing an interpretation of the Council through the lens of radical change, or the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture“. But the Pope made it clear that this was not an only an inadequate interpretation of the Council; it was to misunderstand it. Instead, the only valid way to interpret and apply the texts of the Council (as opposed to the nebulous and shape-changing “spirit” of the Council) was through the “hermeneutic of reform, of renewal in …continuity”. The Council operated within the historical faith it had received, developing it organically according to the perceived needs of the day. It did not rewrite the Church’s constitution.
At the end of his pontificate Pope Benedict returned to the theme of the Council in his address to the clergy and seminarians of Rome on 14 February, a few days after his announcement. Extempore, he gave “a few thoughts on the Second Vatican Council, as I saw it.” He spoke of the “Rhine Alliance” that came to the Council with a clear agenda to be addressed: liturgy, ecclesiology, revelation and ecumenism. The liturgy was the starting point, the first document in fact, and Pope Benedict saw this is as exactly right:
I find now, looking back, that it was a very good idea to begin with the liturgy, because in this way the primacy of God could appear, the primacy of adoration. “Operi Dei nihil praeponatur“: this phrase from the Rule of Saint Benedict (cf. 43:3 [- "prefer nothing to the work of God"]) thus emerges as the supreme rule of the Council.
Here is not the place to examine his speech in great detail, though it must be and will be here. But suffice it to go to his closing remarks, in which we find the words which reveal his legacy as he sees it. He spoke of there being, in practice, two Councils: the Vatican “Council of the Fathers” that debated and enacted the conciliar documents, and the Vatican “Council of the media”.
I would now like to add yet a third point: there was the Council of the Fathers – the real Council – but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council apart, and the world perceived the Council through the latter, through the media. Thus, the Council that reached the people with immediate effect was that of the media, not that of the Fathers.
So while the Fathers concentrated on issues for a particular, ecclesial reason, using the hermeneutic of reform and continuity, this was largely lost in the reporting of the media, which presented its own version of the Council according to a “political hermeneutic”:
… the Council of the journalists, naturally, was not conducted within the faith, but within the categories of today’s media, namely apart from faith, with a different hermeneutic. It was a political hermeneutic: for the media, the Council was a political struggle, a power struggle between different trends in the Church. It was obvious that the media would take the side of those who seemed to them more closely allied with their world… We know that this Council of the media was accessible to everyone. Therefore, this was the dominant one, the more effective one, and it created so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal liturgy … and the real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council.
This is sit-up-and-take-note stuff! Such is the power of the media, and was even then – perhaps more so given there were no Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc – that even ordinary Catholics only heard of the Council through the distorted and highly politicized lens of the media. What the media said was happening is what people thought was happening. So, while the Church is making great strides in getting its voice heard through the modern media, it is still crude in some of its attempts, naive and often ineffectual. If the Church is to get its true message to the world, and to its own members, then it needs to embrace and master the modern media and wield them effectively in the New Evangelization. But underpinning this is the need to reclaim the Council for what it was, not what it has been made out to be. Its nebulous, politicized “spirit” must give way to the reality of what it actually taught. The “virtual council” must yield to the real Council. This Pope Benedict finally declared to be the mission of the Year of Faith which initiates the New Evangelization:
It seems to me that, 50 years after the Council, we see that this virtual Council is broken, is lost, and there now appears the true Council with all its spiritual force. And it is our task, especially in this Year of Faith, on the basis of this Year of Faith, to work so that the true Council, with its power of the Holy Spirit, be accomplished and the Church be truly renewed.
This is Benedict’s legacy as he sees it: reclaiming Vatican II in its integrity, according to a valid interpretation that accords with the continuity and tradition of the Church and not the fads of a particular time. All his acts regarding liturgy, episcopacy, ecumenism and the like were expressions of his desire, announced at the beginning and at the end of his pontificate, to prosper the real Council, and silence the the media’s virtual one.
Alas, there is perhaps another legacy, arising from his abdication that perhaps he has not foreseen, or at least not in all its potential force.
Surely he must have thought of it. My first reaction on hearing of his impending abdication, after the shock and the horror, was to worry for the future of the papacy itself: if one pope can retire so easily, what pressures might be brought to bear on future popes who are unpopular with the media or the curia. How might they be coerced into retiring “for the good of the Church”. One of the great strengths of the papacy was its enduring till death. One had to deal with a pope as he was, because one was stuck with him. Of course, some popes were too annoying to various factions in time past and so were murdered or illegally deposed or exiled. But that itself is sobering for the Church, emboldening true reformers; and of course, it is a sin of such gravity that the perpetrators were revealed for what they were.
But to retire seems to set a precedent inviting the removal of inconvenient popes. And now it seems I am not so silly in my fears. Cardinal Pell has given voice to exactly these worries himself in an interview. And he is right to worry. Now that no leader is immune from the immense pressure that can be brought to be by a vociferous media (however small the minority it represents), can we really expect a pope to remain psychologically immune from those same pressures?
Sadly Cardinal Pell seems to have turned on Benedict, damning him with faint praise for his theology and clear disdain at his abilities in government. Cardinal Pell, not without some justification perhaps, prefers a pope who is a master politician and power player… much like himself. He could have at least waited till after Benedict’s pontificate had officially ended.
It is not only Cardinal Pell expressing such worries. In fact a Google search will show that many are expressing fears for future popes and the pressures that might be brought to bear on them when they become ill, unpopular or inconvenient. We can only pray that Pope Benedict – no fool and no vacillating servant of God, a fine theologian with a spirituality and personal integrity beyond reproach – has done what was right for him and that it will be possible for future popes to serve until death. Let his retirement not become a precedent, and not be a part of his otherwise rich legacy to the Church. Pope Benedict has surprised us before, and wonderfully. Maybe his decision is a vehicle for another wonderful surprise, from God himself.
Whatever happens, we have so much to give thanks for in Pope Benedict XVI. But I am still dreading tomorrow night.