As we approach the fifth anniversary of Benedict XVI’s abdication and Francis’s election, we face a strange situation in reflecting on the Church’s trajectory: We must consider the actions of two men, both of whom are still alive. There will be a natural tendency to reduce Benedict’s pontificate to a few highlights, including his stunning decision to retire from the papacy. Likewise, there will be a tendency to consider 2013–2018 as Francis’s age. However, it would be unjust to disregard Benedict’s actions—or lack thereof—since laying down the Petrine office. It would be unjust to disregard Benedict’s profound silence.
Benedict has aptly referred to himself as a “cloistered monk” since he resigned. Residing in the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae monastery (founded in the early 1990s for cloistered nuns, but vacated in 2012 to make way for renovations), he gives the impression of one preparing for the end of his life with prayer and study. Of course, he has some visitors, so he is by no means the anchorite of St. Peter’s. Rather, the way in which Benedict has most clearly cloistered himself is his speech. Throughout Francis’s pontificate, the former pope has remained remarkably silent on the subject of his successor and the current state of the Church.
Benedict’s silence is especially extraordinary in view of the issues rocking the Church today. It is true that Benedict has made various public remarks—an afterword to Robert Cardinal Sarah’s book and a message for Carlo Cardinal Caffarra’s funeral—and some of his critics have whipped themselves into a frenzy over these statements. Benedict, they say, was supposed to maintain absolute silence in retirement, though it is unclear who, other than perhaps Francis himself, could impose such a rule on him. Nevertheless, at this moment in the life of the Church—indeed, at the instigation of the Supreme Pontiff, who has called for parrhesia on numerous occasions—there is much to say, and many prelates are speaking out. But not Benedict.
He has, for one, remained essentially silent on the debate over communion for the civilly divorced and remarried. He did revise an essay that Walter Cardinal Kasper liked to cite in support of Kasper’s preferred resolution of the question. But otherwise, the very man who once issued Sacramentum Caritatis and who previously served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when John Paul II issued Familiaris Consortio has not intervened in the debate. Joseph Ratzinger, a bishop recognized as one of the most intelligent and influential theologians of the age, has remained silent on a question that brings together several of the most vexing theological questions of recent years. Who better to talk about the possibility of following God’s law in all cases or the viability of situation ethics? Who better to discuss the development of doctrine in the Church than the man who assisted at the Second Vatican Council as a peritus?
Benedict could, in parliamentary terms, rise on a point of personal privilege. The major debate in the Church today is not exclusively the controversy over Amoris Laetitia, but the question of whether John Paul’s legacy is to be dismantled. On every front, the consensus John Paul forged is being reconsidered and often discarded. As one of John Paul’s closest collaborators for the bulk of the saint’s lengthy pontificate, it is unimaginable that Benedict does not feel some personal connection to that legacy. Benedict continued, albeit with some modifications, the broad trajectory John Paul marked out. To wipe away John Paul’s magisterium is to wipe away Benedict’s magisterium. As the forces mount to undermine the truly prophetic act of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, one might also remember that Benedict was named archbishop of Munich by Paul and created a cardinal in Paul’s final consistory in 1977.
Despite his tremendous expertise and his personal connection to the Church’s current debates, Benedict remains silent in his Roman cloister. No doubt he does so from the conviction that it would do more harm than good if he were to speak. On one hand, one is inclined to second-guess him. At this moment, does not the Church need the wisdom of a bishop and theologian who has been at the heart of the Church since the Second Vatican Council? On the other hand, whose conscience is better formed than Joseph Ratzinger’s? If even an erring but earnest conscience is inviolable, how inviolable is a conscience that is not especially likely to err? As much as we might want one of Benedict’s limpid, logical interventions on the questions convulsing the Church, we must respect Benedict’s decision to keep silence.
What is more extraordinary is that Benedict has kept silence at a moment when silence is not getting good press. There is more noise today than ever before, with little regard for the consequences. Cable news has devolved into shouting matches punctuated by commercial breaks, and whether or not viewers learn anything is secondary to the entertainment value of CNN or Fox or MSNBC. What are they shouting about? Donald Trump’s tweets, often as not.
The more the present day is marked by noise—deafening noise—about ephemera, the more Benedict’s silence about eternal things becomes profound in contrast.
P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.