“If you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One that loves you.” —Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict)
“Evil draws its power from indecision and concern for what other people think.” —Ratzinger
Pope Benedict XVI has died at the age of 95. My theology professor once described him as the last great renaissance theologian; that is, the last theologian who was able to speak competently and articulately on theology as a whole, and various branches of it. We are living in a world with increased specialization, when most people are not competent even at their own area of expertise, let alone anything outside those extremely narrow limits. Benedict XVI was truly from a different era, an era where deep knowledge in many different areas was not only praised but expected. He also lacked the extreme arrogance of modernity—he understood that humility was essential for a Christian in the midst of the self-esteem movement, a movement that encouraged arrogance without merit. He reminded us unconsciously of how much the modern world has lost in rejecting religion, classical education, merit-based honor, and traditional societal pillars.
This quote is attributed to him, though it unclear when he said it, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” Whether those are the exact words he spoke or not, I think they perfectly capture Pope Benedict’s life. He constantly sacrificed his own safety and comfort throughout his life to do what he believed was his duty, and thus became one of the greatest of modern popes.
Someone said to me recently that his death would not cause the firestorm the death of a pope normally would, simply because he had already retired. To some extent that is true and to some extent it is false. True, there will not immediately be an election for a new pope. But the reality is that Pope Benedict XVI was the last pope who stood for continuity with Catholic doctrine, and reform instead of revolution. As Pope Francis increasingly shows disrespect to unchangeable Catholic doctrines and targets the traditional Mass of over 1000 years, Pope Emeritus Benedict stood as a living contradiction to the modernism, political irresponsibility, and worldly silliness of his successor. As Benedict once said, “Whenever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine, but demonic.” He will be deeply missed, and I hope that his sins are forgiven, and that he has gone to his eternal reward.
Pope Benedict undoubtedly made mistakes in his life. There were times as pope when he was too lenient to grievous offenders like Cardinal McCarrick, although he also did dismiss hundreds of priests from the priesthood in an attempt to cleanse the Church after the sex scandals his predecessor John Paul II unfortunately did little to stop. Benedict also occasionally caved to demands that he engage in supposedly ecumenical ceremonies, and he sometimes tried to defend parts of Vatican II as being in clear continuity with the past when reading them was enough to know that was not true. But Benedict also did so much that was good. As a cardinal, he worked to make Vatican II stay in continuity with the past as well as provide help to a modern world, and after the council he continued to stick to the truth, even when it was unpopular with and condemned by his former colleagues. From his youth when he deserted the German army because of anti-Nazi convictions to his papal restoration of the Latin Mass, Benedict XVI believed truth was more important than safety and popularity.
As Benedict XVI, he was a much needed reformer at the time. He worked hard to identify and dismiss the priests who were sex offenders, his motu proprio restored the ancient Latin Mass, he wrote three encyclicals and the beginning of a fourth, fought modernism and the “dictatorship of relativism,” and wrote more books (82 altogether are in print). It was once said of him that he went to confession every day because he so ardently desired to live up to Jesus’s command in the gospel of Matthew (5:48), “Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
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