Benedict XVI (1927-2022)

Last New Year’s Eve, I read the news of Pope Benedict XVI’s death about two hours after it occurred. I was struck by the date being the very last day of the year 2022 in which Queen Elizabeth II died, as did my own father. I listened to an old recording in the car this morning of an interview with Dr Francis Jackson who was organist of York Minister from the day he succeeded Sir Edward Bairstow in 1946. He too died in 2022 at a very advanced age. These three men – Pope Benedict XVI, Dr Francis Jackson and my father who was a northern English veterinary surgeon – were first and foremost gentlemen. They were reserved in their speech and judgement of the things around them and were slow to judge and condemn. They were noble and highly competent in their respective fields, theology, English cathedral music and veterinary medicine.

Concerning Pope Benedict XVI, I followed the news of his Pontificate for the entire time since 2005, the year when I joined the Traditional Anglican Communion from being a more or less “retired” vagus cleric. I was already out of the Roman Catholic Church when John Paul II was still reigning. My problem was not the Pope but my immediate situation, my mental health, the fragility of my faith and inability to deal with some of the more narcissistic and toxic of the clergy I had to deal with.

I was familiar with Cardinal Ratzinger’s career and theological reflections. I never met him, but I always heard of him as a gentleman, a profound scholar, kind in his pastoral duties. However, he would have been no walk-over and there were theological positions that were unacceptable even with room for interpretation and dialogue. I wrote in a Facebook posting:

What will happen now in the RC Church is not my problem, though I have my fears. There will no longer be that “ghost” in the closet to resist the “onward” movement of secularism and nihilism. Now the “progressives” can have their way and the spirit of Synod will do the same thing as years ago in Lambeth Palace and that big building behind Westminster Abbey. The years go by without pity except for the blissfully ignorant youth. I have been inspired reading many of Ratzinger’s reflections and serious theological writings. He was a man of intellectual integrity and a true Romantic and Idealist in his discreet way as a Roman Catholic cleric, something unusual for Vatican functionaries and big bosses. May he rest in peace, and may his spiritual and intellectual legacy continue to inspire us all. Ruhe in Frieden, Eure Heiligkeit.

Benedict XVI and the present Pope came from different cultures and experiences of life. It is often assumed that all Germans who lived from that period between the wars were Nazis, authoritarians and “Rottweilers”, nasty snarling dogs defending their property. The very word “dog” implies “dogmatic”. Most people consider “being dogmatic” as bullying and unwilling to dialogue and interpret where things were not binary and either true or false. This image of the Nazi authoritarian was entirely the creation of the media and the disciples of “relativism”, cultural deconstruction and atheism.

Our dualist and binary contemporaries would see Ratzinger as a traditionalist or a so-called Modernist. Both views are wrong. This is something I can understand through having read theology at Fribourg University and in a very ressourcement kind of faculty rather than the strict Scholasticism of traditionalist seminaries. I had contact with Germanic culture and its piety of a very different kind from French, Spanish or Italian popular religion. I did not meet the man, but I had some contact with the kind of mould that made him. I visited Bavaria and Munich in 1999 and immediately felt at home, of course with the exception of the Dachau concentration camp which I also visited, that horrifying and heart-breaking monument of man’s inhumanity to man.

I went a little far calling Ratzinger an Idealist and a Romantic. In both notions, I refer to Germans like Goethe, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Hölderlin and Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis). For these men, truth was the Blue Flower, the transcendent, for which we yearned but never entirely possessed. I detest the attitude that claims to possess the truth and to be the way every person must follow on pain of damnation! The Platonic foundation of philosophy and theological thought is far more profound than Aristotle’s seemingly heartless rationalism. Ratzinger was more of a Platonist through St Augustine than a Scholastic or Thomist. In Romanticism, it is the highest spiritual faculty of man that gives reality and truth rather than being simply an abstraction from some external being. It is almost quantum science from a period that predated our modern science. Things are what we make of them. Transcendence and mystery are higher than we are in our rationalism. The transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness were far more important to Ratzinger the Platonist than to the presently triumphant Jesuits. Ratzinger was no Nazi snarling guard dog!

My main message in this posting is that neither the progressives nor the traditionalists have got it right. This struck me as I read some of the comments to my little epitaph of a posting.

I think your fears are unfounded. It’s important to remember that Ratzinger was an architect of the reforms, and while very systematic and cautious, he trusted the Holy Spirit enough to resign and for Pope Francis to be appointed. He was never a ghost to resist change, he was a faithful servant of God who prayed earnestly for Holy Mother Church. That’s it.

That’s it. What? The tin lid is slammed down and there is no appeal. My commenter upbraids me for my seemingly traditionalist view, and that Benedict XVI was simply a man of the institution, the mainstream. His outreach to the traditionalists was a failure, but the whole issue is unimportant to the mainstream majority. Perhaps… The commenter admitted having a personal issue with “Rottweiler”-style bullying by priests who apparently neglected their “true” pastoral duties. He represents the point of view shown by Andrea Grillo (he mentions Cardinal Arthur Roche), the well-known liturgy professor with what seems to me to be quite an arrogant attitude. I did make the point (or implied it) that the consequence of prohibition (alcohol, drugs, etc.) is the black market and murderous cartels. Does a country impose a ban on Muslims practicing their religion because terrorist acts and atrocities have been committed? Abusus non tollit usum. Some people misusing and abusing something that is not bad in itself does not warrant its complete abolition and repression. Such repression is a direct cause of radicalisation, what happened with the traditionalists under Paul VI. The present pogrom seems to be more sectarian than the measures implemented in the 1970’s by Paul VI.

After my criticism of arrogant bureaucrats of the mainstream, I have been quite shocked by some opinions expressed by traditionalists. This one in particular:

The hermeneutic of continuity has died with its author. The fact that continuity had to be constructed was itself proof that it did not exist. Ironically, traditionalists and progressives are now free to agree: Vatican II was an unprecedented rupture and revolution. The more radical phase of that revolution will presently be propelled forward more violently by Francis and the St. Gallen Mafia that put him into power. The death of Benedict XVI is a dark omen indeed.

Priggish Catholic commentators are insisting that no one say anything negative about Benedict, yet they themselves incongruously call for his immediate canonization and publish obsequious praises so disproportionate that they reek of self-adulation for discerning Benedict’s supposed saintliness. These commentators seem to have forgotten that this pope lived almost ten years after resigning–allegedly for lack of strength of mind and body–thereby leaving the faithful to be ravaged and devoured by the wolves that he himself, as shepherd, told us were there. Benedict, who abandoned his post to the detriment of the universal Church, needs our prayers, not our praises.

I have always understood Ratzinger’s hermeneutic of continuity as an expression to mean something similar to John Henry Newman’s development of doctrine. A book I recommend is Owen Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman, Cambridge 1957. It contrasts the attitude that made Protestantism: there should only be what was in the “Primitive Church” – and the idea that things that were unknown in the very early history of the Church can be legitimate today because they are are understood to have been implicit then. Ratzinger wanted to contrast the understanding of Vatican II continuing the Church in its prior history to the idea of destroying everything and building something new – the hermeneutic of rupture. Hermeneutics is a method or theory of interpretation, especially of biblical texts. All ideas are subject to interpretation, including what I am writing here. Do traditionalists generally accept interpretation of Vatican II? Not usually, because they would take the choice of cancelling it to restore the status quo of the Church under Pius XII. Ratzinger, as a theologian, archbishop and Pope was considered as a Modernist by the traditionalists.

Did Pope Benedict betray the Church by abdicating? The writer of this comment represents a very severe and judgemental opinion. Different reasons were given for this abdication. I suspect that he could not handle conflict, even though he did when in charge of the former Holy Office. He had become more of a public figure, and was a reluctant Pope from the beginning. I suspect. There are conspiracy theories. There are allegations that he mishandled child abuse in his archdiocese all those years ago. Did someone dig up enough dirt to make him abdicate on pain of the whole Papal office to be taken to the cleaners? On the other hand, I would not be encouraging people to ask for his canonisation. The Papacy is banalised as are canonisations, like the ringing coin in the coffer and the soul springing from Purgatory.

Is Christianity all bunk? I don’t think so, but I wonder if institutional Christianity has any credibility left. Christianity survives in individual persons. The social or community dimension is secondary. I would be unable to handle being Pope, but I’m not ever going to be elected! That is certain. Perhaps he should have stood and fought without regard to his own safety, but that might not have been the issue. We outsiders are too simplistic. What I saw in Ratzinger was a timid and introverted intellectual who wanted to keep to a via media position and allow traditionalists to remain in the official Church and be free from repression. He occasionally celebrated a Tridentine rite Mass for the Fraternity of St Peter in Germany, and did it very well and exactly. Again, he was a gentleman, not a militant, and did not even believe himself to be apt for the Papacy – but he was the one to be elected in April 2005. I too reject santo subito (make him a Saint quickly) but I would not accuse him of cowardice or betrayal.

There are things I have not understood well like his continuing to live in the Vatican or have himself styled as Pope Emeritus. In his place, I would have gone back to Germany in the style of a simple priest and found a monastery willing to let me retire there and protect me from the press, etc. As I have said, I was “through with” the Roman Catholic Church when John Paul II was still alive and my own life became very unstable until I found my tiny niche in Continuing Anglicanism. Marriage broke me, and I am slowly recovering because every aspect of my life was poisoned. Perhaps I should be silent now, but what good would that do?

When he abdicated, I wrote a few reflections at the time. Views on Benedict XVI. Like many others, I was confused and had mixed feelings. I tried to get some understanding from informed sources like Damian Thompson and Rod Dreher. As now, I lived remotely and no longer had anything to do with the bustling clerical world of the Institute of Christ the King. I too was “retired” but I had never been in charge of anything. I cast my mind back to April 2005 when a friend from my days at the Angelicum in Rome was with me in the Vendée. We all had become frustrated with the way things had become with the increasingly frail and infirm John Paul II. It made no difference to me personally, but I am concerned for others as a member of the human race and a priest. Benedict XVI represented a degree of hope for the traditionalists, those who needed hope for themselves but denied it to others as I found around the Ordinariates in 2009 to late 2012.

It is certainly the definitive end of an era of “two Popes”, but Francis will continue to be marked for a time until he in his turn dies and the Conclave rigmarole begins again with this or that new rule. Roman Catholicism in the future will follow the trajectory of the Anglican Communion, above all the stifling bureaucracy and suppression of individual creativity. It will be collective and corporate without the professionalism of business corporations. Inclusion of minorities will be a figure of speech to promote the ideology of something resembling Chinese Communism. It is no longer a church and is Christian only in name.

Some of the comments on this posting were quite toxic. I have the advantage of being more or less forgotten, though the blog statistics show a fairly constant level of traffic. There are traditionalists who would like to revive the Inquisition’s torture chamber and garrote vil. None will ever have the authority to do anything or stage a failed putsch like neo-Nazis in Germany. I remain  influenced by Dostoevsky‘s Grand Inquisitor and the message of human freedom at a spiritual and noble level. Like Churchill said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

Secular government (like the French Republic) seems to offer the best balance between the tolerance of religions and a social contract. It isn’t perfect, but what is?

Pope Benedict XVI is abdicating was another one of my articles from 2013. We were all sedevacantists!!! We had no idea who would be elected to replace Benedict XVI. This “end of an era” seems to reflect that of 2013. Normally the death of the Pope precedes the Conclave to elect his successor. If Benedict XVI was wrong to abdicate, he suffered his Karma by watching his work undone and being “cancelled”. I don’t really believe that, but realise that the real explanation is above my pay-grade.

Between the positions of the traditionalists and men like Grillo and Roche, something like what I encountered at Fribourg in the 1980’s, I see no sense in Roman Catholicism. People will continue to throw money at it, but decreasingly. I am anxious about the future, some kind of Orwellian dystopia, darkness that will continue longer than the time we have left to live. Maybe Benedict XVI shared this foreboding and became aware that he could do nothing about it, even in that extremely influential position and office. What I don’t know, I can imagine and conjecture, compare with my own experience. He has died and has either ceased to exist or is experiencing something that was beyond his wildest imagination. I prefer to believe the latter without any evidence I can directly experience.

I end this reflection with a quote from Novalis (Hymnen an die Nacht 1):

Abwärts wend’ ich mich zu der heiligen, unaussprechlichen, geheimnisvollen Nacht. Fernab liegt die Welt — in eine tiefe Gruft versenkt — wüst und einsam ist ihre Stelle. In den Saiten der Brust weht tiefe Wehmut. In Tautropfen will ich hinuntersinken und mit der Asche mich vermischen. — Fernen der Erinnerung, Wünsche der Jugend, der Kindheit Träume, des ganzen langen Lebens kurze Freuden und vergebliche Hoffnungen kommen in grauen Kleidern, wie Abendnebel nach der Sonne Untergang. In andern Räumen schlug die lustigen Gezelte das Licht auf. Sollte es nie zu seinen Kindern wiederkommen, die mit der Unschuld Glauben seiner harren?

Aside I turn to the holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night. Afar lies the world — sunk in a deep grave — waste and lonely is its place. In the chords of the bosom blows a deep sadness. I am ready to sink away in drops of dew, and mingle with the ashes. — The distances of memory, the wishes of youth, the dreams of childhood, the brief joys and vain hopes of a whole long life, arise in grey garments, like an evening vapour after the sunset. In other regions the light has pitched its joyous tents. What if it should never return to its children, who wait for it with the faith of innocence?

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