When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope, I was deeply disappointed. His reputation as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican’s “watchdog” agency, preceded him, and he received an icy reception in the press. The new pope was categorized as an ultra-conservative who wanted to take the Church back to before the reforms of Vatican II. I was grateful for the Council and wanted a Church that was open to dialogue and reform.
In the weeks and months following his election I read that Pope Benedict was a Nazi who had colluded with pedophile priests and wanted to overturn Vatican II. Horrified, I started reading more about his life in order to examine these and other accusations. I discovered, for example, that he had played an instrumental role in Vatican II, and that he had been only 5 years old when the Nazis came to power in his native Germany. The horrors of the Holocaust deeply informed his criticisms of statism, nationalism, utopianism and relativism, and deepened his commitment to gospel nonviolence.
I discovered that Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, had not been the Vatican’s “point man” on the sex abuse crisis until 2001, at which point he had committed the Vatican and the CDF to getting directly involved in every case of clerical sex abuse, essentially acknowledging the seriousness of the problem, albeit much too late, for the first time. He said, “The greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside, but is born from sin inside.”
Over time I came to respect and revere this complicated and humble man whose views transcended American political categories. Although I still disagreed with many of the positions he took, for example, on same-sex marriage, I nevertheless found him to be a profound and humble voice in a world dominated by secularism and fundamentalism. He surprised me with humility, compassion and scholarship. Here was an academic who had not wanted to be pope but who nevertheless rose to the task in his 80s and tried to make the Church’s teachings accessible to a world that no longer knew if they were needed. Perhaps he deserves a parting glance.
1. He was the green pope. He made the Vatican the world’s only carbon-neutral state. He was critical of the world’s leaders for not doing enough to halt climate change, which disproportionately impacts the poor, and he named “polluting the environment” as a sin that required repentance. He called global warming a grave moral issue and spoke of ecology as key to teaching young people about morality and natural law. He said, “Young people [have] come to realize that something is wrong in our relationship with nature, that matter is not just raw material for us to shape at will, but that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives.”
2. He was a defender of the rights of animals. He had two cats, one of which was a stray he rescued, and said in an interview before he was pope, “At any rate, we can see that animals are given into our care, that we cannot just do whatever we want with them. Animals, too, are God’s creatures. . . . Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.” This criticism of factory farming is consistent with Benedict’s belief that the world was created as an act of love by a God who is love, and that all of creation has inherent dignity.
3. He appreciated modern art and music. A musician himself, he met with 250 contemporary artists, architects, writers and musicians at the Vatican in order to encourage them in their work. Just as he saw the natural world as a window into the sacred, so too did he value art, saying, “Art is like an open doorway to the infinite, toward a beauty and truth that go beyond everyday reality.” He appreciated abstract and nonrepresentational visual art as well as the work of more classical trained artists, and he praised the work of many non-religious and non-Catholic artists, such as the German realist and atheist Michael Triegel and the Russian artist Natalia Tsarkova. He also hoped to commission modern art for churches and public spaces and wished to renew an interest in the connection between aesthetics and ethics.
4. He stood for peace. In a time of illegal warfare, terrorism, torture, nuclear weapons, drone strikes and indefinite detention, Benedict made it clear that Christ and the Church are on the side of peace and nonviolence. He noted “with great shame” the Church’s use of force over the centuries, and in one his final addresses on Ash Wednesday spoke admiringly of the American soon-to-be-saint and pacifist Dorothy Day. He went so far as to question the possibility of a “just war” in our day due to changes in military technology. He condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq, pre-emptive war and torture, and spoke in defense of international human rights, conscientious objection and nuclear disarmament. “The very name Benedict, which I chose on the day of my election, . . . is a sign of my personal commitment to peace,” he said. “I wanted to evoke both the Patron Saint of Europe, who inspired a civilization of peace on the whole continent, and Pope Benedict XV, who condemned the First World War as a ‘useless slaughter’ and worked for a universal acknowledgment of the lofty demands of peace.”
“It is thus understood that nonviolence, for Christians, is not a mere tactical behavior but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is convinced of God’s love and power, who is not afraid to confront evil with the weapons of love and truth alone. Loving the enemy is the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution.’”
5. He was the first pope to meet with victims of clerical sex abuse. He met with them in private and wept. He also may have done more than anyone else to put an end to sex abusers in active ministry. According to John Allen, “In 2001, when he was cardinal he urged Pope John Paul II to create a central system to further the Vatican’s investigations of sexual abuse by priests. He shifted control of the disposition of the cases from the Congregation for the Clergy, where little action had been taken, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” He could have possibly done more, but he spoke out about the sinfulness within the Church saying, “The church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice."
6. He defended the poor and questioned the role of unfettered capitalism. In his first encyclical, God is Love, he stepped away from hot-button issues and returned to the basic tenets of Christianity: Christians have a duty to share with others the love and gifts that they have received and it is impossible to love God and at the same time hate your neighbor. “The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them,” he wrote.
7. He maintained the Church’s teachings, including its prohibitions on the use of artificial contraception and abortion, while also emerging as a more pastoral voice. When asked by Peter Seewald about the use of artificial contraception, he said, “We ought to look less at the casuistry of individual cases . . . and more at the major objectives that the Church has in mind.” Those objectives, he said, were emphasizing the idea of the child as blessing rather than as a burden, not separating sexuality from procreation, being open to children as gifts, and not simply turning to technology for a quick fix. Seewald asked him, “The question remains whether you can reproach someone, say a couple who already have several children, for not having a positive attitude toward children.” Ratzinger replied, “No, of course not, and that shouldn’t happen either.” Seewald continued, “But must these people nevertheless have the idea that they are living in some sort of sin if they…” Ratzinger cut him off saying, “I would say that those are questions that ought to be discussed with one’s spiritual director . . . because they can’t be projected into the abstract.”
8. He was the atheist’s pope. “Both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief . . . It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one, it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever; for the other, the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him.” He was a pope who was interested in having conversations with some of his greatest detractors in an attempt to heal division. He rarely succeeded but often tried.
9. He stepped down out of love for the Church. How many people are humble enough to relinquish power or to admit that they are no longer the best person for the job? By stepping down he set a precedent for future popes that being able to perform the office is crucial, and that even the pope must continually discern God’s will in his life.
10. He insisted on Christ as the measure. He had seen in his own lifetime the folly of separating justice from charity, for example, or attributing to the state a kind of political messianism, which in turn can lead to totalitarianism. For Benedict, it is Jesus who is the measure and who in turn inspires communities rooted in love, which can be a check to the state in giving voice to the voiceless.
When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was introduced to the world as Pope Francis on March 13, 2013, he bowed to the people and asked for their blessing. It was a moving display of solidarity and humility, which gave hope to the Church. Perhaps this is a good time to reflect on Pope Benedict XVI’s own gesture of humility — his resignation — and to pray that this time around we can move beyond caricatures and American political categories and get to know Pope Francis as the complex, humble and, of course, imperfect thinker and servant that he is."
Anna Nussbaum Keating ’06 is the co-author of the forthcoming blog and book The Catholic Catalogue. Her essays have appeared in America, Salon and Commonweal. She and her husband co-own “Keating Woodworks”: http://geoffreykeating.com/, a handmade furniture studio in Colorado Springs.