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The pope entombed in the crypt under St. Peter’s Basilica on January 5, 2023 was without doubt an extraordinary man. As a friend observed, “We’re not likely to see anyone half as well-educated or a tenth as wise anytime soon.” I think he’s right. Ratzinger was a deeply learned man. Something of a theological wunderkind, he served as an advisor during the Second Vatican Council, a role that put him at the center of twentieth-century Catholicism’s defining event. As a young professor, he experienced firsthand the student uprisings of 1968 and glimpsed the nihilism that underlay the political idealism and ardent moralism of that time. Working closely with Pope John Paul II and then as John Paul’s successor, for decades Benedict XVI shaped Catholicism in the aftermath of Vatican II.

Others have written about his achievements as a theologian. I commend Christopher Ruddy’s survey for Commonweal, “Benedict’s Theological Legacy,” as well as Gerhard Cardinal Müller’s reflections in these ­pages (“Ratzinger and the Liberation Theologians”). It will be interesting to see which of this great man’s many publications find readers in future generations. In my opinion, his encyclicals, though theologically rich, are too diffuse and long-winded to endure as touchstones in the way that Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum has and as John Paul II’s ­Veritatis Splendor will. Fr. Robert Imbelli has written warmly about the young Ratzinger’s ­theological ­textbook, Introduction to Christianity. My students found it tough sledding when I assigned the book in my introductory classes. By contrast, The Spirit of the Liturgy sings, and I’m sure it will be read for decades to come, as will his essays and addresses, in which his vast learning is often ­synthesized and expressed in plain, accessible ­theological language.

All that said, I believe that when future ­historians look back and write about modern Catholicism, ­Benedict XVI will be remembered less for what he wrote (here I respectfully differ from Cardinal Müller) and more for two acts of ecclesiastical governance that will have consequences for a long time to come.

The first was the 2007 papal directive Summorum Pontificum, which liberalized rules concerning the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass. By this act of administrative fiat, Benedict XVI entrenched the celebration of a rite that had defined Catholicism for centuries before Vatican II. It was a concrete expression of his view that the Second Vatican Council must be interpreted and implemented with a “hermeneutic of continuity.”

The ongoing celebration of an ancient liturgy has no direct logical implications for our interpretation of Vatican II’s teaching on dogmatic topics, nor does it bear ­upon moral theology. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental truth often repeated by the Church Fathers: Lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of prayer is the law of belief, or more colloquially, as we pray, so we believe. Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum under the assumption that the regular celebration of the traditional Latin Mass could and should function in harmony with the new vernacular Mass. That assumption has been vindicated in numerous dioceses, where an upsurge of enthusiasm for the Latin Mass, often among the young, brings spiritual vitality to the whole church. These on-the-ground experiences put paid to any “hermeneutic of discontinuity.”

The present pontiff has issued his own executive order, Traditionis Custodes, which reverses Summorum Pontificum. Pope Francis backs up his new restrictions with the strong language of censure. But this pontificate has failed to curtail celebration of the old rite. The reason is simple: We live in an era that champions permission and ignores prohibition. The widespread ­noncompliance with Humanae Vitae, which reiterated the traditional Christian prohibition of artificial birth control, provides an obvious illustration.

In the age of permission, traditional strictures can be maintained. John Paul II and Benedict demonstrated this with respect to abortion, homosexuality, and the ­sexual revolution more broadly. They had to be careful; the slightest whisper of “yes” makes any future “no” largely ineffective. Pope Francis is being steamrolled by this very powerful social reality. He issued a “yes” when he intervened to ensure that a Vatican document on marriage and family life equivocated on the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion. ­Immediately afterwards, the German Church began a process designed to turn that narrow opening into a wide-open door to the many “yeses” of the sexual revolution. Unfortunately, short of a massive purge, it is likely impossible for Francis to stop what is afoot in Germany. Once the “yes” is said, a subsequent “no” will be an empty letter. Traditionis Custodes is suffering the same fate.

No doubt the Bavarian pope, who coined the memorable phrase “dictatorship of relativism,” knew that in the twenty-first century permissions granted cannot easily be rescinded. Benedict granted capacious permission to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass, in all likelihood knowing that once the “yes” gained a foothold, only Herculean efforts by ecclesiastical authorities would eliminate the new freedom. The consequences are wonderful. Benedict’s “liberalization” of rules concerning the Latin Mass has created and will continue to create a barrier to theological, moral, and liturgical programs of discontinuity, which means that liberal Catholic dreams of reinventing the faith to make it more congenial to our present age will not succeed. Benedict XVI was a church politician of greater wile than he let on.

Benedict’s resignation stands as the second act of governance that will go down in history. For all intents and purposes, Benedict XVI invented the office of pope emeritus. In itself, this new office is innocuous, since the single requirement of the holder of this position seems to be to remain silent and invisible. But the implications are significant for the present pope and future popes.

Resignation was Benedict’s choice. It will be so for other occupants of the papal office. But choices do not take place in a vacuum, especially not the choices of a pope—who, although nominally possessed of supreme authority, is subject to countless pressures. Is it impossible to imagine an embassy of influential cardinals meeting with a future pope to convey an informal vote of no confidence? Am I being too Machiavellian if I predict that a future pope will be induced to resign when a group of cardinals guarantee that they will vote for a particular man in the ensuing conclave, promises that would amount to allowing a sitting pope to choose his successor?

I admired Joseph Ratzinger the theologian. It was always foolish to call him “conservative.” He participated in the deep transformations of Catholic theology that took place in the mid-twentieth century. He was in that regard an “innovator,” always to the end of enriching the Church’s constant teachings. I can now see that as supreme pontiff, Pope Benedict ruled in a similarly innovative way. He “liberalized” liturgical strictures in order to buttress the Church’s conviction that what is fitting and new for Catholic witness in our age is entirely in accord with that which came before. And he pioneered a new way to bring a pontificate to an end, a novelty that the Holy Spirit may use in unexpected ways.

The Imperial Papacy Redux

Whereas Benedict was innovative, ­Francis is a throwback. In 1870, at the First Vatican Council, Pope Pius IX secured the passage of Pastor Aeternus, which defined the doctrine of papal primacy and papal infallibility. This solemn occasion inaugurated a string of imperial pontificates that concentrated power in Rome. Allies were promoted and dissenters censured. The centralizing and authoritarian style of governance was overturned by Vatican II, which put renewed emphasis on episcopal collegiality. And the tumultuous aftermath did a great deal to weaken papal power. However, ultramontanism and papal autocracy returned with the election of Jorge Mario ­Bergoglio, S.J. Today’s Vatican has more in common with the era of Pius XII than with that of John Paul II.

The Catholic Church operates on a system of patronage. A good bishop cultivates talented men, giving them opportunities to demonstrate evangelical zeal and administrative aptitude. An informal but powerful network of influential churchmen recommends for high office those who use these opportunities well. John Paul II let it be known that he disfavored liberation theology, which in the early years of his pontificate played a major role in some sectors of the Church in Latin America. He promulgated encyclicals that made strong doctrinal claims that unsettled liberal theologians, a handful of whom were disciplined. Following a season of “anything goes” in the 1970s, John Paul II’s right-hand man, Joseph Ratzinger, established clear theological boundaries. But by and large, John Paul II left the Church’s ancient system of patronage intact, which meant that men with a variety of theological views rose to positions of power and prominence.

John Paul II rarely intervened in routine matters of governance, because he trusted the spiritual achievement of the Second Vatican Council. He believed that the council provided a theologically sound and capacious foundation for the modern Catholic Church, one that did not require him to micromanage appointments or compel cardinals and bishops to agree with him. Although at times he exercised his authority, for the most part he encouraged new initiatives rather than meddling in existing institutions. Looking back on his long pontificate, we can say that John Paul II was the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt: He spoke loudly, but carried a small stick.

I don’t mean to say that the saintly pope was weak. No doubt the ghost of Yuri Andropov would remind us that speaking the truth in the face of lies can have a greater effect than whacking away with a club. But in the affairs of the Church, the Polish pope urged and exhorted more often than he commanded and disciplined. His encyclical Veritatis Splendor was a case in point. John Paul II was largely satisfied to respond to widespread error with clear teaching. He rarely used the power of his office to discipline those who opposed him. And when he did, his critics were not silenced. After Hans Küng’s license to teach seminarians was revoked, the German theologian carried on as loudly as ever.

To an even greater degree, Pope Benedict XVI accommodated himself to the theological pluralism of the postconciliar Church. He respected theological intelligence, and although he disagreed with the theology of fellow German Walter Kasper, he did not work to destroy Kasper’s influence, which he could have done during the final years of John Paul II’s pontificate. After his election, Benedict confirmed Kasper as the head of the Vatican’s ecumenical office. The decision was typical. Benedict XVI tolerated high Vatican officials who opposed him—opposed him not openly perhaps, but in bureaucratic ways evident to seasoned Vatican watchers.

The most remarkable aspect of Benedict XVI’s leadership was his effort to establish a lasting framework for a pluralistic Church. He provided canonical status to a non-Roman liturgical tradition, the Anglican Ordinariate, and as I note above, he promulgated Summorum Pontificum, which regularized the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass. These were actions diametrically opposed to the centralizing tendency of the preconciliar Church, which demanded uniformity.

Neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI championed “pluralism,” a progressive shibboleth. Both men wished for the Church to reconsolidate around an interpretation of the Second Vatican Council that adhered to a “hermeneutic of continuity.” But they recognized reality: The Church after the council was fragmented. Therefore, John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought to shepherd the faithful in ways that would not worsen the fragmentation, which meant tolerating ­dissent, even when it manifested itself against papal teaching.

The existence of the St. Gallen Group, the informal conclave of powerful cardinals who were instrumental in the election of Bergoglio in 2013, indicates how capacious was the approach taken by John Paul and Benedict. These cardinals, who opposed many aspects of John Paul’s and Benedict’s pontificates, were able to exert influence and exercise patronage in their spheres without countermeasures emanating from Rome.

Francis operates differently. He is often at war with postconciliar pluralism. He has snubbed archbishops in prominent dioceses that traditionally see their leaders elevated to the College of Cardinals. This very deliberate measure is meant to disrupt “business as usual,” and it opens the way for Francis to appoint men clearly allied with his program. His approach is novel. The imperial popes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries respected the rights of traditionally prominent sees. Francis seems determined to exercise maximal control.

He exercises power elsewhere as well. John Paul II rattled his saber by suspending the ordinary governance of the Society of Jesus in 1981 and appointing a papal delegate to oversee the election of a new superior general. But he stopped short of using his authority to remake the Jesuits, as some conservatives had hoped. By contrast, Pope Francis has plunged into the affairs of the Knights of Malta. Criticisms of Amoris Laetitia and of Francis’s equivocations on the indissolubility of marriage led him to “re-launch” the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family—a delicate way of saying that he fired his critics. Similarly, Gerhard Cardinal Müller saw his mandate as head of what was then called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith terminated for the crime of criticizing the pope’s favored courses of action. On numerous occasions, Pope Francis has deployed proxies to denounce critics. It’s an open secret in Rome that Pope Francis is a ruthless operator, not to be crossed if one hopes to survive in the Curia.

The return of the imperial papacy is an irony of history. Francis claims to recover the true Vatican II, a council that is “open to the Spirit,” not hidebound and narrow. His statements and those of his allies often employ progressivism’s liturgical language of diversity, pluralism, and inclusion. These feel-good words are meant to signal an open society that has eschewed old methods of imposing authority and demanding conformity. In practice, they signal a this-­worldly political agenda that is aggressive, not conciliatory.

The irony of authoritarian liberalism was baked ­into Catholic progressivism from the beginning. Catholic progressivism urged experiments in “doing Church” with the confidence that none would lead to anything dogmatic and traditional. As I learned early in my career as a professor at a liberal Jesuit university, “diversity” means everyone agrees that guitar masses are wonderful, sexual sins aren’t really a big deal, and authority is bad—unless you happen to possess it, in which case it must be used to silence anyone who isn’t committed to “progress.”

Many years ago, when visiting my brother, I attended a famously progressive parish in suburban Chicago. The liturgy was not celebrated in accord with required rubrics. Among other things, the creed was modified to echo progressive pieties. In other words, not kosher. Nevertheless, I could easily recognize the Catholic Church in that hour of worship. This congregation represented one of the many strands that emerged after the Second Vatican Council. I was not mistaken in my judgment that, though wayward, the parish was very much a part of the Church. A few years later, I went again, and the liturgy was not quite so irregular; the Nicene Creed had been restored.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI were right. Vatican II triggered many experiments that courted discontinuity, even to the point of heresy. But the council possessed integrity and evangelical power, which, over time, have woven many misguided threads back into the tapestry of the apostolic tradition.

Progressive Catholics say that the Church is imperiled by young people who don’t accept the authority of Vatican II. Perhaps this sort of churchgoer exists, although I doubt their tribe is large. In my estimation, the much more significant and dangerous phenomenon is this: After many decades of steady governance by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, progressive Catholics make the extraordinary claim that Vatican II failed to take hold and the last few decades have been an unfortunate interlude. Only now, they say, with Pope Francis at the helm, exercising iron control, will the genius of the council finally be installed in the life of the Church as the obligatory, commanding truth that all must obey. Paradoxically, for all the talk of honoring Vatican II, this mentality reveals a lack of trust in the council. The contrast with the mentality of the two popes who played signal roles in those remarkable sessions in Rome in the early 1960s could not be more striking.

Sexual Revolution by Design

Matthew Crawford has penned a brief history of the rise of the techno-therapeutic state for UnHerd (“Was the sexual revolution a government ­psy-op?”). Postwar programs and initiatives, ­many ­funded by the U.S. government and establishment foundations, facilitated its emergence. Driven by what I call the “Never Again” imperative, progressive social ­scientists purported to explain fascism by tracing it back to the “authoritarian personality.” Traditional views of sexual morality and of roles for men and women, or the strict disciplining of children, were deemed clear signs of a proto-fascist mentality.

Earlier progressives had described conservative reservations about their political programs as stemming from ignorance, superstition, and intolerance. In the postwar years, liberals were unified in their conviction that anyone who disagreed with them suffered from one or another pathology associated with fascism. After World War II, psychotherapy enjoyed great prestige, and many believed that traditional forms of repression, especially those rooted in paternal authority, were not merely sources of personal unhappiness. They also fed the authoritarian impulse in politics.

These convictions motivated an all-out effort to change the “personality structure” of the average American. Parents should refrain from imposing strict rules backed by corporal punishment and adopt more easy-­going methods of child rearing. This would spare their children the trauma of an overbearing super-ego and its attendant personality disorders. Society as a whole would improve as it became less repressive and more accepting. A similar, more relaxed attitude was encouraged for sex roles and sexual morality. Experts promised that a more fluid and inclusive outlook would prevent the development of the “authoritarian personality” and forestall the emergence of a right-wing tyranny in the United States.

In the popular imagination, the sexual revolution was a spontaneous outburst. The “kids” weren’t going to take their repressive medicine any longer, and they hitchhiked to San Francisco for the Summer of Love. But, as Crawford documents, the sexual revolution was always intertwined with the anti-fascist political agenda, which predates the 1960s. Beginning almost immediately after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and ­Nagasaki, our cultural elites used the power of government, educational institutions, and mass media to promote various forms of “liberation,” and they did so in the conviction that we must provide more amplitude for the expression of our instincts if we wished to save civilization.

Crawford cites the publication of the first Kinsey ­Report on American sexual practices in 1948. Its author, Alfred Kinsey, was an entomologist who, like the social scientists who framed the notion of the “authoritarian personality,” was practiced in the rhetoric of ­disinterested science. But that rhetoric was ­disingenuous. Kinsey saw himself as a social reformer, someone whose “­science” would deliver a repressed country from the dangers of sexual moralism.

As I argue in Return of the Strong Gods, the student radicals of the 1960s were always self-deceived about their imagined rebellions. No doubt many came from backgrounds in which new permissions were ­blended with older prohibitions, but Crawford illuminates the extent to which their cultural program—“Let it all hang out”—was a script written by progressive elites of an older generation, a script funded by governmental agencies and establishment foundations and backed up by pseudo-scientific studies produced at elite universities. A young Baby Boomer at Berkeley could take LSD and sleep with his girlfriend while convincing himself that his actions advanced the great cause of freedom—a self-image similar to the one cherished by Alfred Kinsey, who was born in the nineteenth century.

Following Christopher Lasch, Crawford identifies a link between the anti-fascist agenda and the rise of consumer capitalism. Sophisticated advertising techniques evolved alongside equally sophisticated methods of political propaganda. The effectiveness of both bolstered the confidence of elites that they could outsource governance to “experts” while guiding mass opinion and thus maintaining democratic legitimacy. This ambition created incentives for cultural policies that made ordinary citizens more vulnerable to their appetites, leaving them with fewer resources for self-command, thus rendering them more available for manipulation.

In the postwar era, the political utility of a sybaritic populace amenable to the ministrations of the “helping professions” dovetailed with economic incentives to promote a post-traditional society. The sexual revolution dissolved old restrictions, including those that steered men and women into marriage and family responsibilities. The removal of traditional constraints made men, and especially women, far more available as workers. It also cleared the way for “consumer” to become a person’s primary identity. The fact that corporations have departments of human resources is telling. A post-traditional world unties the cords of moral duty and social convention that bind us to particular roles and identities, making us more “universal.” ­Unburdened, we are like minerals, timber, and capital, resources to be deployed in the productive process.

Crawford begins his essay by noting a peculiar internet phenomenon: men pledging to abstain from masturbation. The reasons for this pledge bruited online are wide-ranging, but none are moral in the traditional sense. Yet many on the left have reacted with concern. Is this call for self-imposed discipline a sign of resurgent political conservatism, or even—dare we say the word—fascism?

We’ve seen this reaction before. In the 1990s, the Promise Keepers movement, founded by University of Colorado Boulder football coach Bill McCartney, sought to encourage men to be faithful husbands. At the movement’s peak, tens of thousands of men filled stadiums to hear inspirational speakers and recite ­pledges. A half-­million men gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for a Promise Keepers rally. At every stage, progressives expressed dismay, convinced that the movement represented a backsliding into the old, ­patriarchal mores that fuel authoritarianism. The National Organization for Women warned that the Promise Keeper posed a threat to women’s rights. Feminist authors denounced the movement’s “muscular ­Christianity” as an effort to reassert male power and privilege.

Crawford predicts more of the same. “The politics of anti-fascism have proven highly elastic, adaptable to the needs of an expanding, therapeutic para-state that has not hesitated to substitute morally cognate terms such as racism and sexism for the original. These too are expressions of dark irrationality, and cunningly increase in society precisely by appearing to decrease.” Anyone who dissents from the sexual revolution will be denounced as Hitler’s accomplice. Forewarned forearmed.


♦ Yiddish proverb: Truth never dies, but it leads a miserable life.

♦ Over the last few years, Canada has rolled out a program of doctor-assisted suicide. Originally restricted to those facing “reasonably foreseeable” natural death, in 2021 it was expanded to those whose illnesses need not be terminal. The Canadian government is considering an expansion of this program to cover “mature minors,” including those as young as twelve, who are deemed “fit” to make a decision to end their lives. These policies are widely popular. Polling suggests that 86 percent of Canadians approve of a “right” to die. We should not be surprised. As Leila Mechoui explains in Compact magazine (“Euthanasia Is Liberalism’s Endgame”), “State-administered euthanasia on-demand is the logical endpoint of a society built on secular humanism and utilitarianism. These frameworks preclude any appeal to an absolute authority beyond the individual. The ultimate expression is as a state-protected ‘right’ to a ‘dignified’ death.” The future of the West: a culture of death under the sign of choice.

♦ Moderate statements about the importance of renewing patriotic bonds and reconsolidating our country’s unity have earned me accusations of promoting “blood and soil” nationalism, or at least of failing to be sufficiently ardent in opposition. I’m not surprised. Anyone who fails to cheer “diversity” and other multicultural slogans eventually gets denounced as a racist, as I note above in my discussion of Matthew Crawford’s analysis. The accusations are surreal. Land acknowledgements, so favored by those who adhere to multiculturalism and its platitudes, seem to be pure expressions of “blood and soil” nationalism. Here’s an example: “The Denver City Council honors and acknowledges that the land on which we reside is the traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Peoples.” Blood has mixed with the soil, and it makes metaphysical demands.

♦ I was saddened to hear of George Cardinal Pell’s death in January. George Weigel, who knew him well, penned a wonderful tribute (“Cardinal George Pell: The Encourager”). “He was a courageous man who ‘­en-couraged’ others—who gave others courage, or, perhaps better, drew out of others the courage they did not know lay within them.” May he rest in peace.

♦ The Pillar asked Archbishop Charles Chaput why Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Pell were seen as polarizing figures. His answer: “Speaking the truth is polarizing. It got Jesus killed. Bad people with bad ideas dislike good people trying to do good things. And that accounts for the contempt, resentment, and outright lying directed at both men over the years, including from people who describe themselves as Christians; people within the Church herself.”

♦ National Review writer Nate Hochman reported on the ways in which powerful progressive business interests in South Dakota have succeeded in blocking socially conservative legislation in that state. One moral of the story: Big Business is the enemy of socially conservative voters. The other moral: It does not cost very much to buy the South Dakota governor and state legislature.

♦ The Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP) is a society of apostolic life that seeks, among other things, to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass. It is interesting to note that during a fundraising campaign launched by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, St. Vitus in San ­Fernando, an FSSP parish, was the largest source of donations, outstripping larger and wealthier parishes. A mid-November report on the campaign’s progress shows that the parish had donated more than three times the parish goal set for it by the archdiocese. In view of this generosity, a tangible sign of vitality, it is not hard to see why so many American bishops are less than enthusiastic about implementing Pope Francis’s strictures to limit the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass.

♦ The Huns are invading! Florida governor Ron ­DeSantis has appointed six new board members at New College, a small, quirky liberal arts school founded in 1960 that is part of the Florida university system, and the new appointees are—gasp—“conservative.” Among the barbarians is First Things contributing editor Mark Bauerlein, who holds the dangerous view that education ought not be a course of study in how to be a social justice warrior.

♦ New College is troubled. Student enrollments are disappointingly low. Which is why the uproar over Mark’s appointment sent me back to C. P. Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians.” The poem depicts a city’s elite preparing for the arrival of rough marauders. But the barbarians do not come, and their non-arrival creates a despairing confusion that is perhaps worse than the previous dread. “Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? / Those people were a kind of solution.”

♦ More than one thousand subscribers receive First Things on their Kindles. They do so by subscribing through Amazon. Unfortunately, the e-commerce behemoth is dropping First Things (and many other publications). No new subscriptions or renewals will be allowed after March 1, and the monthly subscription service will be shut down by September 2023. The company wants customers to pay a monthly fee for Kindle ­Unlimited, which provides access to its entire library. We’re not sure that First Things will be invited to be on the menu. Therefore, if you are a Kindle reader, please secure access directly through

♦ Last month, I spoke of Christmas as the feast of the Incarnation. A reader sent an incredulous note: “Does Rusty Reno believe that the Incarnation of our Lord took place at the birth of Christ?” Your humble scribe is properly shamed, doubly so because he has an advanced degree in theology and should not be making basic mistakes of this sort. Christmas celebrates the nativity of our Lord, and though we “see” the Incarnation for the first time in the swaddled Christ Child, the Word becomes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary at the ­Annunciation.

♦ Robert Todd and Lester Prosper of Bloomington, Indiana, would like to form a ROFTERS group. You can join by getting in touch with Mr. Todd at

♦ Clyde Taylor is the new leader of the Chicago ROFTERS group, which is always eager to welcome new members. You can reach him at

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things. 

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