Papa’s gone prayin’

Written originally at a friend’s request for consideration by a Protestant group blog.

Well, that was surprising.

I first heard about the resignation of “my pope,” Benedict XVI, when my church’s youth minister posted up an image on Facebook blazoned with the text, “For Lent, I gave up being Pope: What are you going to do?” I didn’t see how the joke could be especially funny, unless he really had–oh. I quickly confirmed the news, then went looking for official sources which would report the events in the words of those actually responsible.

Ah, papa!

Reactions to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, his ascent into the life of prayer, have been mixed. Some are scatological; others border on the hagiographic. For myself, I find it hard to differentiate the good this Pope has done from the good he may have left undone; I also find it hard to differentiate the good of Joseph Ratzinger’s teaching career from those acts specifically attributable to Benedict XVI in his role as Bishop of Rome.

Let’s start with the good he has not done. Pope Benedict XVI does not seem to have succeeded in repairing the damage that the Twentieth Century has done to the Roman Curia–the bureaucracy through which the burden St. Paul referred to as “my care for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28) is shared among the College of Bishops, today, as it was shared among Christ’s own hand-picked Apostles. This nerve center of the Church has been ravaged by successive waves of Modernism, which pressured the Vatican to adopt post-Enlightenment views of governance; by corruption in faith and morals wrought by widespread misinterpretation of Vatican II as a “revolutionary” Council; and by the caution, both commendable and lamentable, with which ecclesiastical authorities exercise their power to discipline those who defect from the Church’s teachings.

In his former office as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger did much to support Blessed John Paul II to reform the curia and ensure the interpretation of Vatican II in the spirit that animated it, the ad fontes approach which has driven the faithful to concentrate on the Biblical and Apostolic nature of the Church, and the continuity of the Spirit’s work amid the messiness of Church history. During the long senescence of John Paul the Great, though, parts of the Vatican bureaucracy, as well as seminaries and religious orders, became entrenched in resistance to his reforms; in some cases, this has led to corruption, conspiracy, and scandal. Under these conditions, offenders become insolent and defectors from the faith pose as its teachers. As Pope, Benedict XVI has worked to reform the Church; his resignation is an admission that this work is urgent, but also an admission that it has not been given to him to achieve what he rightly intended in that work. The faithful everywhere await the effects of his prayers, joined to ours.

Having said that, we find ourselves already reflecting on the good he has done: Pope Benedict XVI has solidified and clarified the teaching of Pope John Paul II about the true meaning of Vatican II, the importance of resisting secularism, and the need for an affirmative and orthodox proclamation of the Gospel in daily life. There are many sources for discussion of this, but suffice to say that Pope Benedict XVI carried forward into the post-Cold War world the teaching about the need for an expansive religious dimension in human affairs that some might have attributed to John Paul II’s efforts to rally the world to co-belligerence against the evils of Communism. Under Benedict XVI, the “council of the media” of Vatican II was finally overtaken by the actual conciliar teaching; the period of “rupture” met its answer in the “hermeneutic of continuity” that represents the real spirit of ressourcement.

One tangible evidence of this was in the revision of the Roman Missal so that its vernacular translations better reflect their Latin originals, leaving less room for confusion and doubt about the meaning of the Mass. Another is the creation of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, designed to allow those Anglo-Catholics who feel led to the unity of the Catholic Church to bring back with them the beauty of traditional Christianity in its English guise, derived from the old Sarum Missal and now restored to orthodoxy. This approach is typical of ressourcement thinking: recovering past expressions of the faith for their value to the faithful in the continuing life of the Body of Christ. In addition, it represents the best sort of ecumenism: the faithful seeking of unity, not by downgrading dogma, but by reconciling diverse usages with the continuity of the Spirit’s work in the Body of Christ. This approach to ecumenism, as broad as the world and as particular as Christ who decreed that “upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it,” typified the papacies of both John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI.

And so, when we turn to his engagement with the New Evangelization, we find ourselves talking about work which Joseph Ratzinger offered us, which he continued as Pope, and which continues in us, today. In my humble opinion, Joseph Ratzinger’s contributions to sound reasoning about faith, particularly his devotion to the life of Christ, will continue to influence the faithful long after the curial elements of his papacy have been overtaken by events. This work can, must, and will continue.  As a Christian and a scholar, and as a convert to Catholicism, I am especially grateful for the manner in which the Regensburg Address and other pronouncements, including his teaching on faith and reason during the Year of Faith, signally contributed to the work of Blessed John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio. I am even more grateful, however, for three volumes I have not yet finished reading, in which Joseph Ratzinger walks through the life of Christ, considering Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, the years of Christ’s incarnate ministry, and the Biblical accounts of Christ’s coming to Earth. In a world where Bart Ehrman’s increasingly painful evasions of the text of Scripture are mistaken for evangelical publications, where it is tempting to succumb to either fundamentalist or liberal variants of anti-intellectualism, Pope Benedict XVI was relentless in his belief that matters of faith and morality have intelligible, reasonable, and consequential content for people of every age and race.

People of every age and race.

Many of my friends may not realize that to be Catholic is not, essentially, to be Roman; it does not extend downward from the Pope, and was not called into being by the Pope. The Bishop of Rome is, in Gregory the Great‘s famous phrase, servus servorum Dei, the servant of the servants of God. Pope Benedict XVI has been faithful in pointing out the difference between sheep and wolves; he has been perhaps even more faithful in reminding us that good shepherds are, first and foremost and finally, good sheep always returning to Jesus Christ, “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”