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On April 16, 1783, the holy vagabond Benoit Joseph Labre died in Rome, where he was beloved. He could neither read nor write. He had tramped through the length and breadth of the entire European continent, seldom sleeping in a bed. On Labre’s feast day in 1927, in the town of Marktl am Inn in Upper Bavaria, Germany, Joseph Ratzinger was born. Following venerable custom, he was named after the saint of the day.

Later, as pope, he also took the name Benedict after his patron saint. Thus Ratzinger, one of the most significant theologians ever to occupy the throne of Saint Peter, deliberately placed himself under the patronage of a saint for whom theology was nothing—and prayer everything. This is one of the contradictions that Benedict XVI united in his own person. He did not see the Church’s tradition as negotiable, something to be exploited by the politics of the day—which is why he was denigrated as the leader of a reactionary party. Forever this cautious, gentle priest will be remembered by some as “God’s Rottweiler” and the “Panzer Cardinal”—simply because he insisted that the fullness of power was not given to him in order to alter the Church’s teaching.

The medieval German popes had been expected to keep their ears open for matters that concerned German emperors; by contrast, this German pope saw it as his duty to urge German bishops and theologians (who had belatedly succumbed to the influence of Protestantism) to preserve unity with the universal Church. The German media cultivated an aversion, which he himself described as “trigger-happy,” to his pontificate. At the same time this pope, decried as “elitist,” initiated a wave of conversions and vocations to the priesthood. His friends frequently failed to understand why he was reluctant to use the power concentrated in his office; but he deliberately did not rule by command. He wanted to trust in the “gentle power of truth,” without which any reform in the Church would be built on sand. Was this idealism out of touch with the world—or is it the attitude that most befits a priest?

The Second Vatican Council was intended by John XXIII to render the Church’s message more intelligible to contemporary man. He who was to become Benedict XVI had a distinctive relationship to Vatican II because of his work as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; in this role, he worked closely with Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger, a young peritus, had once been one of the driving forces of the Council. As an adviser to Cardinal Frings, he succeeded in having the Vatican’s “prepared” decisions pushed aside by the Council Fathers, to be replaced by free discussion and free voting. As a result, the Council became more difficult to govern, as can be seen in the influence of some theologians who, until then, had been obliged to act with circumspection; now they emerged from hiding. At that time practically all the demands of today’s progressivist block began to surface in the Church, though mostly it was possible to keep them out of the constitutions themselves. The leaders of the revolt of 1968 triggered a profound crisis of authority in the entire world. Now they fell upon the postconciliar Church as well. This period saw the rise of the legend of a “Spirit of the Council” that supposedly rejected the conciliar enactments and had broken with the traditions of millennia. We began to hear of a “New Pentecost” that had given birth to a “New Church.”

From his years as a cardinal, therefore, Pope Benedict saw it as his duty to refute the notion that Vatican II was a “super-Council” overruling all prior councils. Cardinal Ratzinger countered this idea of a “hermeneutic of rupture” with a “hermeneutic of continuity”—not because he was a troubled conservative but because he saw the Church as bound to a once-for-all revelation, to the tradition of the early martyrs and Church fathers. The Church was constantly to be reformed: For him this did not mean that it must measure itself continually against the social standards of the day, but that it must always take its measure from its Founder. As a historian, he knew only too well that the Church would have a heavy price to pay for having aligned itself too closely with “the spirit of the times.”

Accordingly, he was less concerned with revising Vatican II than with seeing it in the context of history, that is, locating it in the series of antecedent councils. So his view of the papal teaching office meant that, where Vatican II’s documents turned out to be ambiguous, they should be interpreted in the spirit of tradition. He did not intend to compel acceptance of such corrections; but, observing in his opponents a certain lack of both religious fervor and  intellectual acumen, he felt confirmed in his hope that the Church would one day overcome its postconciliar crisis—even if it had to dwindle to the small body it had been two thousand years ago.

The “hermeneutic of continuity” might have remained on the level of theory, had Benedict XVI not drawn from it one practical consequence that initially had a small effect on the life of the universal Church but eventually attracted bitter opposition. This was the renewed permission for the old liturgy that had been celebrated for more than fifteen hundred years. This attack on the liturgy, an attack unique in Church history that had not been foreseen by Vatican II, was devastating. Holy Mass, the most important feature of the visible Church, had forfeited the sacredness of the sacrificial mystery and was reduced to a sober, Protestant meal. The Church’s teaching office had not altered the theology of the Mass, but nonetheless a large part of the faithful had lost their belief in the physical presence of Jesus in the transformed sacrificial gifts of bread and wine. In religion, forms can be more important than doctrinal assertions; this anthropological insight was lost on the majority of bishops.

Pope Benedict found it unbearable that a rite that had constituted the Church’s identity for the entirety of Church history and that had proved its apostolic power in the worldwide mission should now be under suspicion. If it is true that the Church remains faithful to herself through all possible historical developments and can never contradict itself, the “mutilation” of the Church’s received liturgy had inflicted a wound on the body of the Church, suggesting that in the wake of Vatican II the Church had actually broken with its past. This the pope could not permit. Even if, in the minds of some Western prelates and theologians, the “hermeneutic of rupture” had won, Pope Benedict wanted to try to prevent the newly crafted Rite of Mass, with all its ambiguity, from being interpreted in a “progressive” manner. With an emphasis that otherwise he never allowed himself, he proclaimed that the traditional liturgy was in principle beyond the jurisdiction of popes and was to be considered part of the untouchable deposit of the Church’s tradition. So the “old Mass” was never actually abolished because it could not be abolished. Resistance to this act of legislation on Benedict’s part was particularly severe, culminating in his abdication and the graceless determination of his follower, Pope Francis, to persist, with all force, with the hermeneutic of rupture. Nonetheless the reinstatement of the old Mass (notwithstanding its abolition by Pope Francis) will no doubt remain the outstanding memory of Benedict’s pontificate. 

One of the distortions imposed upon the pontificate of Benedict XVI in the media and by theologians is the suggestion that he sympathized with the clerical anti-Jewishness found in the past. On the contrary, Benedict is the pope who, regarding the Church’s relationship with the Jewish world, went far beyond his predecessor in asking for forgiveness and making gestures of reconciliation. He not only regarded hostility to Jews as a blemish on the part of the Church: He held it to be an attack on the Church’s very foundation. A large part of his academic work was concerned with the Jewish identity of Jesus Christ. He was tireless in showing that the New Testament is connected, sentence by sentence, with Jewish revelation. For him, the Old Testament and the New Testament constitute one single book. The famous definition in Pascal’s Memorial—“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob; not the God of the philosophers and scholars”—was, for Benedict, the protecting wall that guarded the Christian religion from speculations and a false spiritualism. It was in the Chosen People that God became man, and the fact that most Jews were not able to follow him does not change the reality: The Church will remain bound to Judaism until the end of days. At the same time, in his relationship with the Jews he had nothing in common with that superficial harmony envisaged by today’s indifferentism. Not everything can be reconciled on Earth.

It was reserved for Benedict XVI, this sworn enemy of all revolution, to carry out a revolutionary act by resigning his papal office. (Of course  there was Pope Celestine V, who, says Dante, “through cowardice, made the great refusal” in 1294; then there were the abdications of the rival popes during the Great Schism from 1378 to 1417. But these were exceptions, accompanied by considerable social upheavals.) To his friends, Pope Benedict’s abdication came as a great shock. His citing of physical weakness was not convincing, particularly after the profoundly moving suffering of John Paul II, which had all the force of a living sermon. It was to be expected, therefore, that this abdication aroused all kinds of suspicions. There were now two white soutanes in the Vatican; an office that can only be conceived as solitary was now visibly and confusingly twofold. As an abdicated pope, Benedict XVI had to endure the cruel fate of seeing his most important intentions pushed aside and his most faithful collaborators ostracized. He who had been the first to take serious action in the matter of priestly abuse against children, now found himself accused, by his German enemies, of having covered up such offenses. He had to realize that his well-known weakness of judgment had caused him to raise to the German prelacy people who unwaveringly took the path toward schism by establishing a “national church” on the Protestant model.

He failed to become as “invisible” as he himself had promised to be; he remained present and took part in intelligent and important debates on the Church—contributions that would have been effective if they had been uttered from the papal throne. This pope, opposed in his own homeland, had the bitter fate of having brought about his own greatest defeat. But not forever will these things characterize his pontificate: It will remain true that he was the best candidate who could have been elected as a successor to John Paul II. 

Martin Mosebach is the author of The 21.

This essay was translated from the German by Graham Harrison. It is slightly adapted from an article originally published in Die Welt

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