While Benedict XVI is still Pope

The media and Vatican watchers are busy speculating about the recent past (what ‘really’ prompted this resignation) and the future (who is ‘most likely’ to replace him), I think it’s important to take the opportunity while he’s still in the Chair of Peter to recognize what is the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

There’s no use drumming up conspiracy theories about his motivation, I take him at his word in his declaration. And there’s time enough to cover the conclave when cardinal electors do their spiritual and temporal work of discerning who should succeed to the papacy to lead the church into the future.

Fr. Robert Barron, Rector of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, founder of Word on Fire media ministry, and creator and narrator of the magnificent Catholicism series, has done a number of media interviews since the announcement was made public last week and they’re always short and demand practically sound bites for answers (to questions not always well informed to begin with). So he put together this video on the WOF site to elaborate just a bit.

And he talked with me about it Monday in an interview. It was edifying.

The legacy of Pope Benedict XVI encompasses so much, it couldn’t fill a blog post, even with a bundle of hyperlinks. But Fr. Barron has a way of paring things down to the perfect essence, perfect for our short attention span these days, and with a message that’s easy to grasp. He sums up that legacy in three things, he told me, reflecting what you can see on that video.

Pope Benedict was an interpreter of Vatican II. Joseph Ratzinger was at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and “contributed mightily to the writing of many of its documents.” As opposed to the prevailing winds blowing after the Council that it had been about a revolution in the church, Ratzinger knew it was the evolution of the church to make it an apt vehicle to go out into the modern world and engage. ‘The intention of the Council was not to modernize the church,’ Fr. Barron said, ‘but to Christianize the world.’ Meaning…for modern sensibilities out of touch with that message…that it was a missionary council filled with zeal for doing with Christ commissioned the apostles to do, which was go out and be a witness to people in the world for the hope and joy you have.

Second, he said, Pope Benedict brought an “affirmative orthodoxy” to the church and the world watching it. Which very much countered the media portrayal of him at his election as the ‘doctrinal hardliner,’ the ‘Panzer Cardinale,’ or ‘God’s Rottweiler,’ among other slurs against the man. In his addresses, messages and writings, ‘the dominant word he used was “joy,” over and over,’ said Fr. Barron. “His stress was always on divine love.”

And third, Benedict’s legacy is all about Christocentrism, in everything he wrote and taught and said and lived. It’s so simple and basic, Catholics and Christians can easily overlook it for the longer, more wordy and complex message. But Benedict simplified it in a most eloquent, theologically brilliant and intellectually clear message: “It’s finally all about Jesus,” said Fr. Barron. “That’s what he leaves us with.”

Benedict did something unprecedented in history by producing a major theological work as pope, a three volume study of Jesus of Nazareth. In the masterpiece by Romano Guardini, The Lord, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote the Introduction in a later release of the work. It was a foreshadowing of what would become the centerpiece of his papacy one day. In it, he wrote this:

As we are taught by Guardini, the essence of Christianity is not an idea, not a aystem of thought, not a plan of action. The essence of Christianity is a Person: Jesus Christ Himself…

Our time is in many respects far different from that in which Romano Guardini lived and worked. But it is as true now as in his day that the peril of the Church, indeed of humanity, consists in bleaching out the image of Jesus Christ in an attempt to shape a Jesus according to our own standards, so that we do not follow Him in obedient discipleship but rather recreate Him in our own image.

And that is truer still today, many years after Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict wrote that Introduction. We are hardly able to even talk about these beliefs in public, hard enough to hang onto them in a world growing increasingly secularized and hostile to Christianity, where ‘tolerance’ has been elevated to the greatest virtue, though it’s terribly skewed.

There’s a very good piece reflecting on this at a Huffington Post blog, and good for them for posting such a good reflection.

Our culture’s complicated relationship with organized religion is closely tied to our culture’s complicated relationship with truth. We love our truth, all right, but we treat truth a lot like religion — it’s fine, so long as everyone else keeps their truth to themselves. Tolerance — which our culture values over all other virtues — consists in not imposing your truth on someone else.

The problem with this well-meaning attempt at tolerance is that it is unsustainable. It’s self-cannibalizing. If there is only your truth and my truth, but no Truth, then there is no common ground upon which to meet one another. Either I’m right, or you are, and since there’s no middle ground, the matter is only ever settled when one side wins and the other side loses. A world without truth isn’t a world liberated from conflict; it’s a world without the possibility of reconciliation.

Pope Benedict’s episcopal motto Cooperatores veritatis — “co-operators of the truth” — suggests a very different understanding of reality; one in which both faith and reason owe allegiance to the same reality, that is, to truth. And truth, at least as the Catholic Church understands it, is best demonstrated, not by carefully reasoned arguments (though those are important) and certainly not by violence, but by self-giving love. There is nothing more compelling, nothing more true, than sacrificial love.

(The central truth of Christian faith — God became man in Jesus Christ, through whose suffering and death we are redeemed — can be summed up like this: God got tired of telling us how to do it, so He decided to come down here and show us.)

Talk about that, Benedict exhorted the faithful. Witness that. You may be the only encounter with Christ people will ever have.

So at the end of the day, at the end of a papacy…

The pope is not a figurehead; he is an apostle. He is not a manager; he is a messenger. By announcing his resignation…Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that the Church of the 21st century will not be a Church of business as usual. It will not be a church of institutional maintenance, of isolation, or of longing for the past. The Church exists to spread the Gospel. And those who have inherited that mission by their baptism must be willing to sacrifice a great deal to answer that calling.

Dear media covering Pope Benedict:

Do your homework.

At the beginning of the week when the world was thunderstruck with the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI had submitted his ‘Declaratio‘ announcing his resignation, and therby vacating the Seat of Peter on February 28, 2013, there was so much breath-catching and jaw dropping and scrambling to get something out in the press…that I decided to focus on the good, right and true and leave the bad reporting alone. Some of my friends and colleagues in the Catholic media world were blogging and tweeting about the outburst of nastiness and venom aimed at the Pontiff and the Catholic Church in general, but I was all the more resolute not to pay attention to that because…sigh…there’s only so much time and space to devote to coverage and I wanted mine well spent.

That lasted a day.

By Tuesday, I couldn’t let nonsense pass without remark or challenge. Or, with fraternal charity, the exhortation to try harder to do better the task we journalists have to seek and report the truth. And seeking is easier these days with global digital access to archives and every thought and utterance expressed in some detectable form. So it’s just lazy journalism and tendentious reporting to let things like…say…the Tuesday, February 12 front page top of the fold headline news get reported as the New York Times did that day.

In the paper edition, the Times headline ‘Pope Resigns, With Church At Crossroads’ had a sub-head ‘Scandals and a Shift Away From Europe Pose Challenges’ sets you, the reader, up for plenty of loaded reporting. Take the lede:

Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement on Monday that he will resign on Feb. 28 sets the stage for a succession battle that is likely to determine the future course of a church troubled by scandal and declining faith in its traditional strongholds around the world.

No, it’s not a “succession battle,” and to put it in such terms is shaping the news purposely. It is a process by which the college of cardinals goes into seclusion, and whether or not this is comprehensible in today’s world, devote themselves to prayer that the Holy Spirit guides their process of discernment. There are politics involved in anything human, but it’s not a “battle.”

So the third paragraph opens with this sentence:

Saying he had examined his conscience “before God,” Benedict said he felt that he was not up to the challenge of guiding the world’s one billion Catholics.

Why the set-apart citation “before God”? To distance the reporting from actually acknowledging through an otherwise paraphrased summary that Benedict prayed about this before God? And, as he stated it in his Declaratio, “repeatedly.”

After listing the sins and struggles of the Church in the modern world, right up front, the piece says the pope’s resignation “sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mold, who advocated a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who feel the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like…loosening restrictions on condom use to prevent AIDS,” as if Church teaching were a matter of papal opinion than Church ethics and moral handed down from age to age.

It’s no surprise the Times sees these matters in political terms because everything is political these days. But this reaches:

Many Vatican watchers suspect the cardinals will choose…someome who can extend the church’s reach to new constituencies.

New constituencies? This is not politics.

Someone who will be “the church’s missionary in chief, a showman and salesman for the Catholic faith…”

The ‘missionary in chief’ is the only part of that statement that resembles a respectable description of the role the Catholic Church needs to fill when Benedict vacates the Chair of Peter.

Next to that piece, center of the front page under the large photo of Pope Benedict, was this ‘news analysis’ piece by Laurie Goodstien. For some reason, these news outlets change their headlines from print version to online, but it was titled ‘For Benedict, Clear Teachings and Many Crises.” She focuses on crises, starting with this for some inexplicable reason:

He inadvertently insulted Muslims on an early trip to Germany, which resulted in riots across the Islamic world…

That is a misrepresentation of the facts, a short and snappy summary of a deeper and intellectually challenging episode in Benedict’s pontificate. He did not ‘inadvertently insult Muslims.’ His deeply theological and scholarly address at Regensburg was treated by the media as most things are, when they plucked one line out of a longer engagement of ideas.

The scholar-pope himself stands as much an exponent of the German intellectual tradition as a critic. In the final analysis, it was not Christianity or the Church really that was harmed by the edgy, skeptical, and even – at times – hostile German guild. Rather, it was reason itself that suffered when scholarship excluded from its purview the investigation of the highest order truth claims about God.

Benedict did not echo the well-worn traditionalist critique by arguing that Christian scholarship had failed because the scholars slew too many sacred cows or had the wrong attitude when slaying them. On the contrary, the scholars stopped asking questions at all concerning the rationality of faith – relegating it to the realm of subjective opinion. This was paradoxically subversive of the central conceit of the Enlightenment itself, to say nothing of faith, which is intrinsically joined to reason.

But what has all this to do with Islam? His point was this: Though Christian scholars might have taken a long sabbatical from fundamental questions of truth, Christianity has always opened its sources and truth claims to friendly criticism from within and even to hostile criticism from without. Unfriendly external criticism is one of Providence’s main tools to help the Church forge more precise understandings of revealed things. But there is no tradition of either kind of criticism in Islam, and indeed no basic recognition among Muslims that Islam and its sacred text are suitable objects for such rational analysis. Such recognition is the sine qua non of real dialogue with Islam.

Top Vatican watcher and journalist Sandro Magister was one of the few who pointed out the fruit of the Regensburg experience, the scholars who did engage.

One month after his lecture at the University of Regensburg, Benedict XVI received an “open letter” signed by 38 Muslim personalities from various countries and of different outlooks, which discusses point by point the views on Islam expressed by the pope in that lecture.

The authors of the letter welcome and appreciate without reservation the clarifications made by Benedict XVI after the wave of protests that issued from the Muslim world a few days after the lecture in Regensburg, and in particular the speech that the pope addressed to ambassadors from Muslim countries on September 25, and also the reference made by cardinal secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone, in a note issued on September 16, to the conciliar document “Nostra Aetate.”…

The authors of the letter appreciate Benedict XVI’s desire for dialogue and take very seriously his theses. “Applaud” pope’s “efforts to oppose the dominance of positivism and materialism in human life,” while contest him on other points, adding their reasons for their opposition.

In this sense, the letter signed by the 38…goes towards what the pope meant to accomplish with his audacious lecture in Regensburg: to encourage, within the Muslim world as well, public reflection that would separate faith from violence and link it to reason instead. Because, in the pope’s view, it is precisely the “reasonableness” of the faith that is the natural terrain of encounter between Christianity and the various other religions and cultures.

And on it goes, well worth reading. It’s worth bringing up again with more time and reflection, but seeing that snip on the front page of the New York Times irresponsibly thrown in there without context or apparent background knowledge required some attention.

On that same day, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed Opinion piece by Andrew Nagorski opens with a rather stunning statement from the former rome bureau chief for Newsweek:

Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy has not been known for stellar moments, yet he is ending it with a stellar action.

This would be a startling opening statement from anyone penning an analysis on Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy who garnered space on the WSJ op-ed page. But a former Rome bureau chief for Newsweek? I read that opening sentence to a highly-respected American priest theologian whose opinion is often sought in media, and his response was respectful amazement. ‘Whoever wrote that obviously didn’t know or pay attention to Pope Benedict,’ he said.

Not known for stellar moments?

How about releasing his firs encyclical Deus Caritas Est? Or Spe Salvi? Any thoughts about the exquisite trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, finishing with the ‘Infant Narratives,’ a treasure in three volumes?

Anybody in the media remember Benedict’s Apostolic Journey to America in April 2008 and his addresses at every venue here? The address to the United Nations General Assembly alone is an elegant reminder of what that body’s original purpose was in drafting and serving the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The visit and prayer at Ground Zero. And what really threw the press was his unannounced and private meeting – which Benedict called – with victims of clergy abuse. The meeting out of which victims tearfully spoke of the healing they felt after meeting with the profoundly apologetic and pastoral pontiff.

His Apostolic visit to Britain, an open hostile landscape if press coverage covered it all  in advance, yet one that wound up as a highly successful and joyful occasion. His Apostolic journey to Australia, World Youth Days, the tremendous outpouring of zeal and outburts of joy at seeing and hearing him and the love fest that greeted him.

Remember any of that, anyone assigned to cover him while those stellar moments were taking place in real time?

Enough. For now. I’m not even going to get into CNN and HuffPo and all the other outlets who have been hammering His Holiness. They don’t deserve the attention.

But he does. And in the coming weeks, I’ll be among those who work to bring it, as fully and truthfully as possible. I know those media outlets are struggling with diminished resources and manpower. But they’re also struggling with diminished journalistic values and powers of reason. I’m just one person. But I’m on it.