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Let us begin with a clear and straightforward question: Was Benedict XVI’s pontificate a success or a failure? What does “success” or “failure” mean when it comes to a pontificate? It’s impossible to give a short, simple answer. I can only go back to an event that took place over a thousand years ago. 

Gregory VII, a zealous, reforming pope who confronted major crises in the Church in the eleventh century, died in exile in Salerno. His pontificate seemed to end in failure. And yet it was the most important pontificate of the entire second millennium. It gave later Christianity its character and left a permanent imprint on the exercise of church governance. Benedict XVI was not in exile, but he was hidden from the world.

It is from this perspective that we can think about Benedict XVI’s legacy. After his election in 2005, it seemed that Benedict was going to be a transitional pontiff because of his advanced age and the fact that he was unlikely to deviate from the general magisterial approach of his predecessor, John Paul II. Yet the reality at the moment of his resignation in 2013 did not conform with these initial expectations. His pontificate proved to be much more significant.

It was not the pontificate of “restoration,” which many feared—and others hoped—it would be. More than anything else, it was a pontificate of consolidation, one that also raised the stakes and took risks. Benedict XVI knew how to confront the sexual abuse crisis.

Benedict XVI’s pontificate was also one of ecclesial and papal reform. It was no coincidence that the pope coordinated a simultaneous, systematic reform on the liturgical and theological fronts through “ecumenical” initiatives (primarily with the Lefebvrites and the Anglicans), as well as on the canonical front (changing the 1983 Code with the creation of “personal ordinariates”).

Peter Seewald once asked Benedict: “Are you the end of the old or the beginning of the new?” He responded: “Both.” The question and the answer are short and concise. His pontificate eschews all rigid categories.

Benedict built on the foundation laid by John Paul II, who focused on the themes of anthropology and the defense of the human person, preparing the ground for a consistent teaching on politics and bioethics. The central themes that emerged from Benedict’s pontificate were human rights and religious freedom. These themes were addressed from a specifically theological, rather than philosophical or political, perspective. Benedict believed that, because the state can only ever be a civitas terrena and never a civitas Dei, authentic Christianity must avoid both theologizing politics and politicizing theology. 

The pontificate of Benedict XVI did not compromise with Western societies that rejected God’s truth. At the same time, Benedict XVI knew that it was important to recognize that the moral truths present in modernity come from Christianity. Modernity is not a monolith. Various elements of value are found within it. According to Benedict, however, only a theological vision can fully explain the basis of those values.

Benedict XVI’s general approach provoked many reactions in the intellectual world. While the radical neo-Enlightenment crowd never budged, figures such as Marcello Pera, an Italian philosopher and former president of the Italian Senate, decided to explore and compare his own thinking openly with Benedict’s. There was also an extraordinary conversation between Ratzinger and the philosopher Jürgen Habermas in 2004, as well as an exchange between Italian Marxist intellectuals and Ratzinger’s theology. 

Benedict XVI urged the Church to engage with an ever-growing number of cultural, political, and ethical phenomena. Without excessively worrying about reaching a perfect consensus, the pope launched processes that would lead to significant encounters and dialogues about man’s ultimate identity. In doing so, he roused up supporters and naysayers alike. His private deliberations about a possible resignation, however, may have stunted the natural development of these new pathways.

In the face of all this, the initial question returns: How are we to evaluate this pontificate? 

Only an immersion in Ratzinger’s point of view will help us arrive at a proper consideration of his legacy. For his gaze was fixed on Christ. In the end, it is “recognizing that the traditio of the faith is precisely a matter of the exchange of glances”—our responses to Christ’s loving gaze—“which taste of history, and which make history.”

Benedict himself gave an assessment of his pontificate on February 27, 2013, the day before the sede vacante

It has been a portion of the Church’s journey which has had moments of joy and light, but also moments which were not easy; I have felt like Saint Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us so many days of sun and of light winds, days when the catch was abundant; there were also moments when the waters were rough and the winds against us, as throughout Church history, and the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I have always known that the Lord is in the boat, and I have always known that the boat of the Church is not mine but his. Nor does the Lord let it sink; it is he who guides it, surely also through those whom he has chosen, because he so wished. This has been, and is, a certainty which nothing can shake.

Benedict XVI’s legacy is thus one of radical faith in God. Moreover, in a tired and self-destructive era that exalts man but, in the end, continuously humiliates him, Benedict XVI chose both faith in God and in man. He chose the harmony between faith and reason. This is his legacy. 

This article is adapted from the introduction to a conference, “Benedict XVI's Legacy: Unfinished Debates on Faith, Culture and Politics.”

Roberto Regoli is a historian. He writes on the history of the papacy, Roman Curia, and papal diplomacy.

Image by Ash Lux licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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