A man of contradictions. A Pope of centuries in conflict. It’s as if Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who is being buried Thursday in Vatican City, has two legacies instead of one.
Theologian Joseph Ratzinger was a major architect of the theology that inspired the doctrines of the Second Vatican Council, a reform effort in the 1960s that brought fresh air to the church by encouraging outreach to other religions, the use of local languages in Latin’s place in Mass, support for religious freedom and much more.
Despite this promise and the potential for transparency, Benedict continued the church’s centuries-old preference to handle abuse cases in private.
Ratzinger was considered one of the influential progressives at the council, but as cardinal from 1977 and then pope from 2005 to 2013, he sought to filter fresh air from the windows opened by the council. However, that fresh air, including the recognition that the church is the God’s people rather than the hierarchical structure alone, it is what paved the way for ordinary lay Catholics to speak out and fully participate in our faith in this century.
Like Pope, Ratzinger declared in 2008 that Christians should promote a culture that gives women, “in law and in everyday life, the dignity that is theirs by right.” But she apparently ignored that ideal by investigating American nuns for doctrinal purity (the investigations ultimately failed), warned women against feminism because it could blur their maternal vocation and said repeatedly women could never be priests. That collision of the ages arose ironically from an institution that elevates motherhood to sainthood while insisting that only celibate men (presumably not aspiring to fatherhood) can be worthy to represent Christ as priests.
The contradictions and clash of ancient (or at least medieval) and modern points of view did not stop there. Benedict, for example, was the first pope to recognize the crimes of sexual abuse of the clergy and attempted institutional reparation. He removed, in the estimate of a few, hundreds of priests who had abused children. He too we met face to face with some of the abused in the US during his 2008 visit, a visit after which he spoke of the need to a more transparent catholic churchwhich (coincidentally, I suppose) echoed the call for transparency and accountability that my own organization, La Voz de los Fieles, published in an ad greeting him on that visit.
Voice of the Faithful was organized in 2002 in response to shocking revelations of child sexual abuse by clergy in the Diocese of Boston. We quickly grew to a global presence as the scope of the clergy abuse problem became apparent. Standing on the White House lawn when Benedict XVI visited in 2008 and listening to his words throughout the visit to the United States gave us hope that someone in the Vatican “got it” at last, that the abuse would now be addressed. directly in the entire world Catholic Church. .
But despite this promise and the potential for transparency, Benedict continued the church’s centuries-old preference to handle abuse cases in private. stopping far from reforms that could indeed protect against future abuse — reforms like ordering bishops to publish lists of abusers, requiring all dioceses to establish and implement clear reporting channels for those who have been abused, and requiring “safe environment” committees in each diocese and parish. he failed in hold bishops publicly accountable (and perhaps not entirely) for covering up these crimes. Worse yet, it seems that as a diocesan bishop, he too did not protect the children of further abuse, a fault for which he apologized shortly before his death.
Unfortunately, I was not surprised that, as a bishop, he has covered up some of the same crimes that other bishops have not addressed. The propensity to try to protect the institution at all costs, even when that cost is an abused child, has too often governed the actions of bishops. Even with recently declared policies mandating bishops to report all abuse, there are huge gaps.
During his papacy, Benedict also tried to bring extremist traditionalists and schismatics closer to the center by relaxing certain restrictions: allowing greater freedom to say Mass in Latin, for example, and striving to bring the sect lefevrista return to fellowship with the church. This openness allowed for more divisions that even today translate into attacks by Catholics against other Catholics.
The contradictions and collisions are perhaps intrinsically Catholic. We are often reminded that as Catholics our perspective should not be “either/or” but rather “both/and”. Both faith and reason. Both doctrinal teachings and individual conscience. Both community worship and private prayer. So perhaps the contradictions in Benedict’s life are simply his version of both/and in action.
As a woman who grew up primarily in the church before Vatican II but has spent her adult life learning and living her faith after Vatican II, I can thank Benedict XVI for the theology he contributed to those reforms. I can appreciate his spiritual writings and recognize that for many he was a valued and honored teacher.
The contradictions and collisions are perhaps intrinsically Catholic. We are often reminded that as Catholics our perspective should not be “either/or” but rather “both/and”.
I can also decry his failure to fully address clergy sexual abuse of children, wonder why no one gave him a good recent book on gender, and ask how a scholar like him could ignore the case of female deacons. Numerous books and articles by Biblical scholars and researchers find evidence that women deacons were ordered well into the 12th century. Their history is one of being gradually withdrawn from diaconal duties, not never having been ordained. Surely a scholar like Benedict knew of these works.
Most of all, however, I will appreciate the path we can now follow because Benedict served the church at the Second Vatican Council, helping to open our minds and hearts to a path for all God’s People: laity, religious, and clergy. My voice is now raised with that of other lay people to engage, guide, admonish, seek counsel, follow Christ in my own unique path, which is just as sacred (and just as mundane) as the paths of all the rest of God’s People.
Perhaps, using the contradictions and collisions of Benedict’s work, the Spirit has set in motion the 21st century path of the Catholic Church, which Pope Francis is calling us to embrace: synodality. The antithesis of the embedded hierarchical institution that Benedict XVI sought to protect, a synodal church recaptures the way of being a church modeled for us by Jesus and the apostles. The both andthe contradictions and collisions of Benedict’s papacy blazed trails he may not have seen, but which are as much a part of his legacy as the ones he intentionally tried to leave behind.
Perhaps that is one last contradiction, that a figure seen as traditionalist and conservative more than 50 years ago has laid the stones for the current path towards synodality and a Catholic Church for the 21st century.