Benedict XVI: The Professor Pope
Pope Benedict XVI has often been affectionately called the “professor pope”, and his papacy has no doubt been a great teaching papacy. Perhaps Benedict himself knew, being elected at the age of 78 and in the shadow of his saintly and long-reigning predecessor, his own papacy would not be remembered so much for specific events or actions. Nonetheless, it seems fairly clear that Pope Benedict’s papacy will be recognised by future generations as being valuable for its ideas. What were some key points of Benedict’s teaching legacy? Michael Cyssel Wee takes a look at three broad themes.
Estimated reading time: 14 mins
In April 2005, perhaps we were all afraid. Pope John Paul II’s phenomenal 26-year papacy had come to an end, and the cardinals had turned to a seemingly frail, soft-spoken and professorial old man to lead the Catholic Church. But how reassured we were when we heard the beautiful words from Pope Benedict’s inauguration homily, continuing John Paul II’s favourite theme, “Be not afraid!”
He said, “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to Him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us?… No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed… Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ—and you will find true life.”
These were not the words of a cold, intellectual theology professor but that of a gentle pastor and a man deeply in love with Jesus Christ. If we felt afraid when John Paul II died, what we were really afraid of was placing our trust in Jesus more completely. But “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and Pope Benedict reminded us that perfect love and friendship is found in Jesus Christ alone.
Friendship with Jesus Christ
Indeed, friendship with Christ was to become the main theme of Pope Benedict’s papacy. Whereas sceptics might view religion as being merely a philosophical consolation when times get tough, or just an ethical system for becoming a better person, Pope Benedict tirelessly reiterated that in Christianity, God is not an abstract idea or principle, but is a living person and incarnate as man in Jesus Christ. In the introduction to his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), he wrote, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”. The Christian faith, then, is a constant encounter with the mystery of God made Man.
The need to radically rediscover the person of Christ and our friendship with Him is apparent from the way we often think about the Christian faith and interpret biblical stories. Christianity often means nothing more to people than a vague notion of being a good person. There is a tendency today to reduce Jesus to some kind of teller of Jewish Aesop’s fables, where all that is important is to know the “moral of the story”. But Pope Benedict insisted that we must first know the teller of the story; as St Thomas Aquinas put it, we must not simply encounter grace but also the author of grace. Christ Himself wants to enter into intimate communion with us and to transform us in the newness of heart and mind (cf. Romans 12:2) with His love.
In Pope Benedict’s three-volume work, Jesus of Nazareth, which he described as his “personal search for the face of the Lord”, one particularly striking passage is the explanation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We are all familiar with the “moral of the story”, which is to do good to anyone, even strangers, without expecting any reward. But Pope Benedict explained that, in fact, the Good Samaritan is an image of Christ Himself, who comes down to earth like a foreigner in the way the Samaritan is to the Jews, and who sees humanity lying by the wayside, bruised and laid to waste by sin. Like the Samaritan seeing the injured man—who is all of us—Christ’s heart is “wrenched” with compassion and He comes to bind up our wounds (cf. Psalm 147:3).
In Christianity, we love only because we were first loved by God (cf. 1 John 4:19); we do good only because God has first done the supreme good for us by dying and rising to save us from sin. If we do not focus on Christ, the true Good Samaritan, then the parable loses its meaning; we have failed to grasp the true “moral of the story”, which is to open ourselves to Christ’s love who comes to heal us from our sins. As Pope Francis recently warned the Church, if we do not preach Christ and reduce Christianity to good works without faith, then the Church risks becoming a “pathetic NGO”.
It would scarcely matter which religion we follow if all there is to Christianity is a vague notion of being good. But friendship with Jesus Christ must be at the centre of our faith; He alone shows us the real path of goodness if we follow His commands. When our focus is first on Christ and becoming more like Him, then a life of true Christian charity naturally overflows from our interior relationship with Christ. In this light, we are called to confront the greatest poverty of the world today, which is spiritual rather than material in nature. As Pope Benedict remarks after analysing the parable, “we always give too little when we just give material things”. More than ever, the spiritual darkness of today’s world needs the unadulterated preaching of Christ Crucified (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23).
The Dictatorship of Relativism
The spiritual crisis of the world today can be most obviously seen from what Pope Benedict famously termed the “dictatorship of relativism”. Pope John Paul II had earlier warned in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”) that while faith without reason leads to superstition, reason without faith leads to relativism and nihilism. And it is precisely the latter that has happened in secular society today, with the rejection of Christian values and moral teaching. We have probably all experienced our friends or family members telling us “it’s all relative” or “subjective” when we try to speak firmly about morality. Tolerance rather than fraternal correction has become the new virtue and faith has been relegated to the private sphere; we must not offend others with our values because “it’s all relative”.
The paradox of relativism is that it is, in actual fact, an assault on reason itself. Relativism asserts that there are no absolute truths, but has made the statement “it’s all relative” itself a kind of absolute truth. Tolerance of all viewpoints becomes some kind of absolute moral value, even though moral relativism contends that there are no absolute values. In the end, all relativism proves is that there are different viewpoints and values, but it does not prove that therefore all are equally right to each person or culture.
In the end, relativism only descends into the fulfilment of individual desires, which cannot be judged as right or wrong by any standard. Moral relativists like to say that something (e.g. abortion or polygamy) is right or wrong relative to one’s culture or society. But who decides what is right and wrong in that culture? Cultural and societal norms change over time and are often affected by the norms of other societies, so culture and society are shaky ground on which to base morality. The relativist can then only say that rightness or wrongness is relative to oneself, and if I can decide for myself what is right and wrong, and amend it to suit myself at will, then such a moral standard is useless.
As Pope Benedict observed, while still a cardinal, in a homily to his fellow cardinal electors before the start of the 2005 Conclave, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s ego and desires.”
But for us Christians who follow the words of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church, there is no relativism for we have definitive moral values. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger continued in the same homily that “we, however, have a different goal: the Son of God… An ‘adult’ faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth”. Pope Benedict continued this theme in Deus Caritas Est, writing that faith purifies reason and “liberates reason from its blind spots”, enabling it “to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly”.
We must therefore counter the “dictatorship of relativism” by unashamedly proclaiming to the world a mature faith in Jesus Christ. Only a lively faith in harmony with reason can help the world rediscover objective moral values. This begins with our personal discovery of God whose very nature is creative reason. Pope Benedict drew attention to this in his lecture at Regensburg University (where he was once a professor), explaining that the word “logos” used in the beginning of the Gospel of John, which we often translate as “word” (“In the beginning was the Word…”), also means reason—“a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication”.
Thus, God never acts unreasonably, which is why in offering us His love, He respects our freedom and does not use violence or compulsion. His will for us is always harmonious with reason; even the teachings of the Church that modern man finds most difficult to accept, such as those relating to sexual morality, are entirely rational. So we must use reason to discover God, reason that is purified by faith.
The harmony of faith and reason is the best antidote to positivist trends in current thinking, which seek to limit reason to what is purely functional or practical. In this view, only that which is quantifiable in a “scientific” way can be considered reasonable. In the same lecture, Pope Benedict argued that as a result, it is not reason that is limited, but “man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by ‘science’, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective”.
The irony in this positivist trend is that “modern scientific reason… points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology” because it has to accept, for no apparent reason, “the rational structure of matter” —that nature is not just a series of brute facts, but something intrinsically understandable by we who are rational beings. So reason must not limit itself to only questions of calculation but must confront the bigger questions of life’s purpose and meaning, with the help of faith. Only in God, who is Truth, will we find that such matters are not all relative and subjective.
The Liturgy, A School of Prayer
Few know that on the day before Pope John Paul II died, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had delivered a lecture on precisely the same theme of relativism and reason, which he concluded by saying that in today’s crisis of culture, “we need men like St Benedict of Nursia” to bring God’s light to a darkened world. It is no surprise, then, that Pope Benedict chose the name he did, and the name reflects another major theme of his papacy: the liturgy, which is central to the form of monastic life that St Benedict founded. The sacred liturgy is our ordinary encounter with the person of Jesus Christ and the supreme expression of the faith that purifies our reason.
Pope Benedict explained in one of his weekly catecheses that the liturgy is “a source of living water… a privileged context in which God speaks to each one of us, here and now, and awaits our answer”. So liturgical prayer, being true Christian prayer, is a dialogue with God, formed and shaped by His own Word—the creative, self-communicating reason of God we spoke of earlier. This is possible because Christian liturgy is rooted deeply in Scripture, the Word of God. In an address to French intellectuals, Pope Benedict observed that “we ourselves are brought into conversation with God by the Word of God. The God who speaks in the Bible teaches us how to speak with Him ourselves. Particularly in the book of Psalms, He gives us the words with which we can address Him, with which we can bring our life, with all its high points and low points, into conversation with Him, so that life itself thereby becomes a movement towards Him”.
The liturgy, then, is truly a school of prayer for us. Not only is it a place for dialogue with God, through which we nurture our precious friendship with Christ, but it is also where we participate most fully in the life and mystery of God. As a cardinal Pope, Benedict had previously criticised liturgy that is celebrated “as if God is not given”, where all that happens is “a community… celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless”. Pope Benedict thus reinforced in his catechesis on liturgy that the celebration of liturgy is fundamentally the “action of Christ” and not of man: “And where does the Mystery of the death and Resurrection of Christ that brings salvation become real for us, for me, today? The answer is: in Christ’s action through the Church, in the liturgy, and, especially, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, which makes present the sacrificial offering of the Son of God who has redeemed us; in the sacrament of Reconciliation, in which one moves from the death of sin to new life; and in the other sacramental acts that sanctify us.”
It is the failure to recognise this sacred reality that has, unfortunately, led to either very politicised celebrations of the liturgy or a lax attitude towards the Church’s liturgical life. On the one hand, there is a tendency to turn the liturgy into a show and a form of entertainment, or as a means of furthering some political agenda (such as the recently-stopped “gay Masses” in London). On the other hand, many have falsely interpreted the “spirit of Vatican II” as demanding a stripping down of the liturgy, robbing it of its beauty, its rich symbolism and its tradition of sacred music, justifying this apathy towards liturgy with “pastoral” reasons. But liturgy is a genuine pastoral issue because it is where the Church’s faithful daily encounter Jesus Christ. Liturgy cannot adequately point towards God unless it is beautiful because God is beauty itself. So there is no dichotomy between good, beautiful liturgy and pastoral care of the faithful. As Pope Benedict reminded us in another general audience, “Faith is love and therefore creates poetry and music. Faith is joy, therefore it creates beauty”.
Hence, Pope Benedict has constantly spoken of the need to interpret the Second Vatican Council, particularly the liturgical reforms that followed from it, with a “hermeneutic of continuity” rather than a “hermeneutic of rupture”. In the area of liturgy, Pope Benedict has no doubt led by example, such as by allowing more widespread celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (the so-called “Tridentine Mass”), arranging the altar at all papal Masses with a tall crucifix in the centre flanked by six candles and a seventh behind it, and giving Communion on the tongue to communicants kneeling. All these remind us that the liturgy of today is in continuity with the liturgy of the past and that Christ is at the centre of every liturgical celebration.
If the liturgy is to serve as a school of prayer and a privileged place of encounter with the love of God, then we cannot impose our own interpretations, agendas and desires on the liturgy. When liturgy is beautiful, celebrated with care and oriented towards adoration of Christ the living God, then we can truly lift up our hearts to the Lord, as the priest calls us to do at every Mass. Pope Benedict thus reflected in his homily in London’s Westminster Cathedral, that in the Eucharist, “Christ, our eternal high priest, daily unites our own sacrifices, our own sufferings, our own needs, hopes and aspirations, to the infinite merits of His sacrifice. Through Him, with Him, and in Him, we lift up our own bodies as a sacrifice holy and acceptable to God (cf. Romans 12:1)” and are “caught up in His eternal oblation”.
Surprised by Joy
But perhaps, we are still afraid—still afraid to open ourselves completely to God in the liturgy, to challenge the dictatorship of relativism with faith and reason, and to call Jesus Christ our friend, we who are so unworthy. Then we have closed ourselves to true life, to the truth that sets us free (cf. John 8:32) and to the only friendship that gives lasting joy. It is worth returning to Pope Benedict’s inauguration homily again, in which he spoke in such plain and simple terms of what it means to know Christ:
“And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.”
Perhaps Pope Benedict’s greatest legacy has been simply to remind us, time and again, “Be not afraid!”