One of the most striking features of Benedict’s time in office is how frequently he has been assailed and disparaged by certain members of the “Catholic left” (for want of a better term)—often harshly and bitterly. But misery loves company, and the left is constantly on the lookout to see if they can find someone—anyone—on the “Catholic right” voicing criticism against Benedict, even if for entirely different reasons.
The latest example comes from David Gibson, author of The Rule of Benedict, a largely negative biography of the pope emeritus. In a recent article for the Religion News Service entitled “Conservatives Vent Disappointment Over Benedict’s Papacy,” Gibson comments:
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, the surprising choice cast a pall over the liberal wing of the flock and left conservatives giddy with the prospect of total victory. . . . Now, however, with Benedict set to leave office eight years later in an unprecedented departure, many on the Catholic right are counting up the ways that Benedict failed them, and wondering how their favorite watchdog turned into a papal pussycat.
Gibson’s claim that “many” conservative Catholics now judge Benedict’s pontificate a disappointment is backed up by citing exactly three conservative Catholic voices, including Ross Douthat, who criticized the papal resignation and wrote that Benedict’s send-off will be “marked by sourness and shrugs.”
But a handful of conservative Catholics, however well-intentioned, do not a consensus make. Since Benedict’s announcement to resign, faithful conservative Catholics have expressed overwhelming support for his pontificate through EWTN, First Things, Inside the Vatican, Crisis, Catholic World Report, The Wanderer, and countless Catholic blogs and news agencies like Zenit and the Catholic News Agency. Columns with titles like “Thank you, Benedict XVI” have become the norm.
This is not even to mention the countless tributes from non-Catholics and world leaders; the news that U.S. vocations have strengthened under Benedict; and the latest polling revealing that more Americans now have a high opinion of the Catholic Church under Benedict (62 percent) than they did even under the well-loved and justly honored Blessed John Paul II (56 percent). That doesn’t mesh with what Douthat calls “a Church in disarray.”
Yes, there are Catholic critics of Benedict whose criticisms of Benedict’s prudential errors—not to mention the dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy—are often fair and valid.
What I question is the idea that these human failings define his pontificate, in its totality, and outweigh or obscure his undeniable accomplishments: his brilliant encyclicals and trilogy on Christ; his expositions of Church teachings on life and human sexuality, and why they are inseparable from Catholic social justice; his document reforming seminaries; his appointment of outstanding bishops; his synthesis of faith and reason; his outreach to the young; his fruitful dialogues with non-Catholics, including atheists; his defense of religious freedom; his bravery in standing up to religious extremists; his re-sacralization of the liturgy, and elevation of its beauty; his reverence for Catholic tradition and teaching that the reforms of Vatican Council II are rooted in the Church’s dynamic history; his willingness to go against the Curia and deal with the sex abuse crisis; and his inspiring sermons on the saints and other public addresses, which have drawn even larger audiences than those of Blessed John Paul II. Assessing his legacy, Dr. Tracy Rowland, a leading authority on Joseph Ratzinger, writes, “a future pope may well declare Benedict XVI a ‘Doctor of the Church.’”
Benedict’s impressive pontificate was short, but all the more remarkable because of its brevity. Not only did he help revive the liturgical treasures of the past, by stressing the importance of Catholic tradition; he brought forth a transcendent sense of mystery, imbued with the reality of the supernatural, to a heavily secularized culture in desperate need of it. He also highlighted the inner joy and authentic freedom Christianity brings. This gift can only be explained by Benedict’s very deep prayer life and an abundance of divine graces.
What critics of Joseph Ratzinger miss is how profoundly his work has affected the personal lives of Catholics across the globe, revitalizing their faith—which is far more significant than transient Vatican mishaps sensationalized by the media.
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.