POPE Benedict XVI is dead, succumbing to the frailty of his 95 years after almost a week of drifting in and out of consciousness. On Thursday he regained sufficient strength to celebrate Mass from his bed before declining for a final time and dying in Mater Ecclesiae monastery at the Vatican at 9.43am yesterday.
The Catholic Church is now mourning one of its greatest intellectual giants, an outstanding theologian who leaves a brilliant legacy, which grew from a life sometimes marred by trials and controversy.
Joseph Ratzinger overcame the obstacles in his way to emerge triumphant at the forefront of a small but distinguished band of faithful interpreters of authentic Christian teaching who were courageous and talented enough to confront the constant attempts by revolutionaries to redefine it. With Pope St John Paul II, whom he would later serve with distinction, the future Pope Benedict was present at the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, an event which sought to adapt the Catholic Church to the modern age, and like the Polish pope he understood clearly the parameters of the teaching of the council and how they were to be implemented. His rejection of a ‘year zero’ of new-fangled Christianity in favour of a hermeneutic of continuity with tradition inevitably pitched him against so-called progressives. Many of these were animated by what they called the ‘spirit of Vatican II’, a nebulous concept which strangely had more in common with the Zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s, but who seldom gave a damn about what the documentation of the council actually said.
Ratzinger had a critical role in facing down an internationally-concerted attempted hostile take-over of the Church by radical ideologues. It was in this context, and as Cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that he emerged in the popular imagination as a modern-day inquisitor, an enforcer, a right-wing reactionary, the ‘Panzerkardinal’ or ‘God’s Rottweiler’.
Yet when he came to Britain in 2010 to beatify – or declare Blessed – his great hero, St John Henry Newman, in a visit which he described as the ‘high point’ of his papacy, there were many among the British public who were surprised to find a man completely different from the ogre they were led to believe he was. Instead, they saw a gentle, shy, almost retiring figure, a softly-spoken teacher of great serenity, intelligence and conviction, preaching not right-wing maxims but genuine, recognisable Christian truth.
The lesson here is that to know the mind of Benedict, don’t listen to the propaganda of his enemies, both within and without the Catholic Church, but listen to what he said and read what he wrote. Go to the source.
For a number of years this was not that easy to do. In the 1970s his books were removed from shops in his native Germany, and students who dared to quote him in academic treatises risked being marked down.
He couldn’t be silenced or cancelled, and his teachings are now available and vast. They include three volumes about the life of Jesus Christ (countering many claims of sceptical and right-on scripture scholars), dozens of hagiographies, three major encyclicals and hundreds of essays and lectures, all of which are outstanding in their clarity and their depth.
For the British, if there is one speech worth examining time and again I’d say it is his address in Westminster Hall on September 17, 2010, in which he reminded MPs and peers of the necessity to inform reason with religious faith if corruption by ideologies or the loss of sight of human dignity is to be avoided.
He praised Britain’s achievements in the history of the world and especially our leading role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. This was a campaign, he said, which ‘was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law and . . . which made a contribution to civilisation of which this nation may be justly proud’. He went on to add that it was the ‘misuse of reason’ that ‘gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century’.
He warned MPs and peers of the risks inherent in the rejection of Britain’s Christian roots, saying that ‘social consensus’ alone was insufficient to determine policies with sound ethical foundations, and appealing to them to uphold freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of religion in particular.
Today, when under a Conservative government a woman can be arrested for praying silently outside a closed abortion facility, or when the leader of the Labour Party can’t say what a woman is, such words sound prescient indeed.
Benedict saw this kind of thing coming. He saw that the licence of the sexual revolution and those that followed it would lead to tyranny, to what he was already calling ‘the dictatorship of relativism’. Who can doubt that such a time has fully arrived? It is not unusual to hear people speak of ‘the madness’ in casual conversations about the state of the country and the way it is governed. One seldom hears people say Britain is ‘a free country’ any more, unless they are being ironic. Perhaps what many people do not yet realise, as Benedict did, is that ‘the madness’ won’t go away until true religion is once again permitted free expression in public as well as private life, and that people can once again build up individual and communal life around their religious faith without interference or harassment by a hostile state, or having to accept impositions of the latest ideology.
It wasn’t just because Benedict was a clever man with a knack of the reading the signs of the times that allowed him to perceive such challenges. He also had the benefit of experience to draw upon, having grown up in Nazi Germany. It is inevitable that this German pope will be tainted in the days and weeks to come by some vague and false association with Nazism given that he briefly an unwilling member of the Hitler Youth. Neither he nor his family ever had any sympathy for such ideologies, however. On the contrary, they were strongly opposed to them.
Throughout his life, Pope Benedict demonstrated his abhorrence at everything the Nazis had done, including making a visit in 2006 to Auschwitz. It was when he was beatifying Cardinal Newman, however, that he chose to praise Britain for standing firm against Hitler, remembering in his homily that his visit coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
He said: ‘For me as one who lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime in Germany, it is deeply moving to be here with you on this occasion, and to recall how many of your fellow citizens sacrificed their lives, courageously resisting the forces of that evil ideology.’
Pope Benedict’s legacy will be vast. It will include a spirit of resistance against all evil ideologies, embodied in teachings so rich and expansive that they may only come to be appreciated in full many years after his death. They are an important resource for the generations yet to come, and the challenges they will face.