You know, there’s a saying: God always corrects one pope by presenting the world with another pope. I’d like to see my correction.—Pope Benedict, in the film The Two Popes, explaining his reasons for stepping down
Young Joseph Ratzinger, the gifted educator-priest from the University of Bonn, was called to Rome as a theological expert on the occasion of the Second Vatican Council, a historic gathering of nearly 2,500 bishops and thousands of laypeople, consisting of four sessions from 1962 to 1965. The purpose of Vatican II, as it came to be known, was to reconcile church doctrine with the vast changes in the world since the Second World War. Tectonic shifts in social mores, individual freedoms and liberal ideas had occurred within one generation—largely due to the influence of the United States and its victorious allies. The church, insulated unto itself for so many years, was to now engage outside of itself with other faiths and cultures while retaining its own practices and institutions. To that end, Ratzinger worked with another young theologian, an auxiliary bishop from Poland, Karol Wojtyla.
Wojtyla, now known as Pope Saint John Paul II, and Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI, exerted enormous influence over the direction of the Catholic Church for approximately half a century, from Vatican II through Pope Saint John Paul’s death in 2005 and Benedict XVI’s ascension to the papacy as his successor, to his own unusual retirement in 2013.
Benedict XVI, who died this week at 95, was among the trio along with the future Pope John Paul II and then-Pope John XXIII who surprised the world by using Vatican II and its ripples over the next three generations, not as a means to change or liberalize the Church, but to change the world by making the Church hold fast to its doctrines and institutions as the world continued its downward slide.
Four decades after Vatican II, Benedict reaffirmed the council’s legacy, saying “The church, both before and after the council, was and is the same church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time."
From 1978 with John Paul’s election to the papacy through 2013, every bishop in the world and every Catholic theologian licensed as a professor was approved by either John Paul II or by Benedict XVI. As a result, American Catholicism in particular and world Catholicism in general bear the legacy of those two popes.
The Catholic rejection of abortion, for example—one of the matters that observers thought would undergo a change because of Vatican II—remained the same, and was reflected in the Supreme Court’s decision to end Roe v. Wade abortion rights in the U.S. Five of the six deciding votes were from Roman Catholic Justices. (The sixth was from a Justice educated in Catholic legal philosophy.)
Benedict’s style, reflective and scholarly—Catholic theology professor Vincent Miller commented, “He never uttered a sound bite in his life.”—may have been a function of his conservatism, but he never allowed that conservatism to douse his passion for religious freedom, as he said in his 2011 World Peace message: “Religious freedom is not the exclusive patrimony of believers, but of the whole family of the Earth’s peoples. It is an essential element of a constitutional state; it cannot be denied without at the same time encroaching on all fundamental rights and freedoms, since it is their synthesis and keystone.”
Among the many tributes pouring in on the news of Benedict’s death, a telling one came from his successor, Pope Francis. Though the two often did not see eye to eye, and though Benedict insisted on staying in the Vatican post-retirement and donning the papal whites—the two were often referred to as “The Two Popes”—the current Pope regarded his predecessor as a trusted friend and confidant, saying “The thought goes spontaneously to the dearly beloved Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who left us this morning. With emotion we remember his person, so noble, so kind. Only God knows the value and strength of his intercession, of his sacrifices offered for the good of the Church.”
But it was Benedict himself who had the last word. On Saturday, December 31, 2022, the Vatican released what it called the late Pope’s “spiritual testament,” written in 2006 as a concise summary of his beliefs. After thanking his family and God and reminiscing about the beauty of life and his native Bavaria, the Pope gave a warning and an admonition: “Stay firm in the faith! Don’t let yourself be confused!”
Pope Benedict XVI, firm in the faith, holding sway over the faith of nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, never faltered in his commitment to the institutions of his church, while never forgetting that, in his words, “The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people.”
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