However history remembers Pope Benedict, one thing is assured: his reign will be remembered as one of the great teaching pontificates. Even those who question other aspects of it, praise it for that. “Where the Church has emerged especially strong under Benedict,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “is in its intellectual discourse, elevated by a professorial pope who dedicated considerable time and energy to a series of highly regarded encyclicals and three books on the life of Jesus.”
The Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg hails Benedict as “Reason’s Revolutionary,” and John Allen notes his intellectual achievements, too:
Many observers believe four cornerstone speeches delivered by Benedict XVI—at Regensburg, Germany, in 2006; at the College des Bernardins in Paris in 2008; at Westminster Hall in London in 2010; and at the Bundestag in Germany in 2011—will be remembered as masterpieces laying out the basis for a symbiosis among faith, reason and modernity.
George Weigel believes Benedict’s rich insights have “turned the Church definitively toward the New Evangelization—the evangelical Catholicism of the future,” and thus placed Catholic orthodoxy in a far stronger position than his critics realize.
Given his reputation, it is fitting that Benedict’s decision to abdicate has served as an extraordinary teaching moment itself. The decision is at once humble, wise, and courageous. It is humble because it reveals Benedict cares more about the strength of the Church than he does about his own personal position or privilege (unlike numerous other prelates). It is wise because it shows that he understands that the current demands of the office are better served by someone in vibrant health. And it is courageous because, as the first pope to step down from the papacy in six centuries, he is bringing true reform to the contemporary Church, making it easier for future pontiffs to follow suit, should they, too, believe that is the best course to follow.
But the greatest lesson to take away from Benedict’s momentous act is its fearlessness and expression of freedom—above all, the freedom to follow one’s conscience as the Lord leads it, regardless of secular expectations.
In today’s world, there are tremendous pressures—political, cultural and religious—to change one’s convictions, and conform to certain mass patterns of thought and behavior. We also face an attack on religious freedom throughout the world—and now, to a lesser extent, even in our own country. Benedict has met both challenges with firm resistance, and a clarion call for freedom.
Pope Benedict’s belief in the fundamental dignity and freedom of every human being is at the heart of his papacy, and yet it is usually either overlooked or contested by critics. They accuse him of being inconsistent—preaching about tolerance, while supposedly acting as an “authoritarian” and “oppressor” of those seeking more freedom in the Church.
This is to profoundly misunderstand the true nature of freedom, as the Church expounds it. True freedom is not the freedom to do whatever we please, but the freedom to abandon sin and error, and pursue objective truth, and commit ourselves to Christ unreservedly in the service of that truth.
The charge that the Catholic Church inhibits authentic freedom is unjust. Catholic orthodoxy holds that membership in the Church is an entirely free act, i.e., completely voluntary, not mandatory, and that anyone in the Church is perfectly free to leave it, who objects to its essential teachings and beliefs. Benedict is the first to proclaim this: the Catholic Church proposes; it does not impose. Further, when people freely enter or retains their membership in the Church, they simultaneously accept and understand—if they are knowledgeable and faithful Catholics—that the role of a pope is precisely to uphold, preserve, and develop the Deposit of Faith—but never contradict or undermine it in any fundamental way.
If there is one area where Pope Benedict’s “holy freedom” can be found, it is in his teachings on the liturgy, and his commitment to its renewal. In her book, Ratzinger’s Faith, Dr. Tracy Rowland explains Benedict’s understanding of the liturgy as a priceless treasure to be cherished and revered—and reformed only with painstaking care, not with endless experimentation:
Ratzinger believes that showing respect for faithfully transmitting the Liturgy to the next generation has the effect of guaranteeing the true freedom of the faithful. It makes sure that members of the laity are not victims of something fabricated by an individual or group, it guarantees that laity are sharing in the same liturgy that binds the priest, the bishop, and the pope.
If liturgical innovators or dissenters are allowed to violate sacred boundaries, warns Benedict, an unholy “dominion” will overtake and offend the faithful, and bring harm to the Church. Real Christian liberation must always be rooted in humility, and obedience to the timeless truths of the magisterium.
The pope’s decision to retire, rooted in this genuine concept of Christian liberty, is widely said to have “shocked the world,” and even much of the Church. But it really is not that shocking to anyone who has followed the life and beliefs of Joseph Ratzinger. For both before and after he became pontiff, he has always marched to the beat of his heart and inner conscience, guided by total devotion to Christ and His Church. For faithful Catholics (and not only them), Benedict’s last major papal act, like his beautiful teachings, are a source of profound inspiration.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
R.R. Reno, Benedict: Last of the Heroic Generation
Russell D. Moore, An Evangelical Looks at Pope Benedict XVI
David Novak, A Rabbi Remembers Pope Benedict
Johann Christoph Arnold, Pope Benedict: An Anabaptist Appreciation
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.