Edward Pentin reporting from Rome
Pope Benedict XVI met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at his private library in 2007. (Getty Images)
— Unlike Blessed Pope John Paul II, who will forever be remembered for visible triumphs such as helping to bring down Communism in the former Eastern bloc, Pope Benedict XVI’s leaves behind a legacy that lacks his predecessor’s conspicuousness but is no less profound.
Over his eight-year pontificate, the Pope produced three encyclicals, completed his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth and wrote thousands of addresses, papal documents and catecheses. Indeed, one might argue that everything about his papacy has been about teaching, including his actions, right up to his shocking resignation.
In his many addresses, he strove to remind the world that God in the person of Jesus Christ is an ever present reality, that he loves every person as the Gospel teaches, and that rejection of him can only lead to catastrophe. Benedict gave careful critiques of the secularism that afflicts so much of the Western world today, warning that societies risk becoming trapped in a “dictatorship of relativism” where there is no such thing as truth, everything is allowed and nothing has any meaning. In this sense, Benedict’s teaching was a continuation of his predecessor’s with whom he had worked so closely.
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But as a theology professor regarded as one of the Church’s most brilliant theologians, Benedict XVI had a way of teaching that made him better understood than his more philosophical and poetical predecessor. Benedict’s “September Addresses,” given at Regensburg, Germany, the United Nations in New York, Westminster Hall in London, the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, and the Bundestag in Berlin will probably be remembered as the hallmarks of his papacy.
They helped unravel prevailing problems confronting society and invariably centered around the Pope’s key theme: that faith needs reason, and reason needs faith. Without this balance and reference to the natural law inscribed on each person’s heart, he would often stress, justice is violated and human dignity is undermined.
The Pope’s first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” — God is Love — was considered a masterpiece in explaining the various themes of love and how they relate to God. It also took everyone by surprise, especially those used to believing the inaccurate media image of Benedict as a negative, authoritarian moralist. The joy of human love (eros or erotic love) leads us to a deeper, sacrificial love (agape), the Pope explained, that finds its true fulfilment in the love of Jesus Christ on the Cross.
In other words, the human and the divine are one and not in opposition.
His other two encyclicals were also well received and, rare for a Pope, Benedict weaved in references from secular writers and thinkers including Lenin, Dostoevsky and Adorno — often contrasting their views with his to help explain Christian thought. In his second encyclical “Spe Salvi,” Saved in Hope, he characteristically explained with simplicity how the Christian concept of hope is what makes man fully human.
“The capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity,” he wrote. “Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the hope that we bear within us and build upon.” The saints, he pointed out, were able to make “the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope.”
And in his final encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” Charity in Truth, the Pope reminded the world that both are essential for integral human development on an individual and national level. An awareness of God's love, he wrote, "gives us the courage to continue seeking and working for the benefit of all."
Within the Church, one of the Pope’s main legacies will probably be his efforts to bring unity, most notably by reaching out to the Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist breakaway group that cannot accept certain teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Although unity still hasn’t been achieved, he managed to bring the society closer than it has ever been to possible reconciliation with Rome.
And he helped bolster his firm belief that the council’s reforms, which sought to open the Church up to the modern world, were in continuity with tradition rather than a rupture with it.
With Anglicans, too, Benedict sought to foster unity by creating an ordinariate — a canonical structure through which disaffected Anglicans, many of whom have felt abandoned by their own liberal-leaning hierarchies, could become Catholic while retaining their own patrimony and liturgies. Although it initially caused some concern within the Anglican Communion, it’s now generally accepted.
Benedict XVI will also be remembered for advances in relations with the Orthodox Church, and with Islam and Judaism, though not without some serious clashes.
The most famous example occurred during his 2006 lectio magistralis at the University of Regensburg when Benedict XVI memorably quoted a medieval emperor who said Muhammad had only spread Islam through violence. His quotation, although aimed at showing how militant Western liberalism and Islamic fundamentalism have erroneous approaches to truth that set them on a collision course, set off a firestorm in the Islamic world.
And yet his comments struck a chord with many who were debating the problem of violence in Islam, but who were unwilling to articulate the issue publicly. It would initiate a deeper reflection among Muslim scholars on what it means to love God and love one’s neighbor, and it gave added urgency to Catholic-Muslim dialogue: No longer was it about mere niceties but more about genuine encounter.
Specifically, it led Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to make an historic visit to the Vatican in 2007 and launch his own foundation aimed at improving interreligious understanding last year.
At the same time, Benedict will be remembered for that rare thing: securing the support of both Israelis and Palestinians. His visit to the Holy Land in 2009 and good diplomatic relations with Israel led Israeli President Shimon Peres to recently describe Vatican-Israeli relations as “the best they have ever been,” while the Pope’s support for UN recognition of a Palestinian state and frequent calls for a two-state solution won him friends among the Palestinians.
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Again, his success there can be attributed to his teaching prowess, built on the strength of his convictions. Middle East leaders would frequently remark that it was easier to deal with Benedict because “you knew where you stood with him.”
Under Benedict’s watch, the Holy See also established full diplomatic relations with Russia, Botswana, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Montenegro, and most recently, South Sudan — bringing the total of countries with formal ties to the Vatican to 180.
But Benedict XVI won’t be remembered for any major diplomatic triumphs such as winning religious freedom for persecuted and oppressed Christians in China or Saudi Arabia. Nor are Church historians likely to give him high marks for his governance of the Roman Curia after the Vatileaks scandal and the series of communication gaffes that littered his pontificate.
His teaching, however, is different. Not only did he channel it through his writings, but also by means of his very actions and character. Benedict’s widely recognized humility, kindness, courage and even innocence — not often accurately conveyed in the mainstream media — tended to point others not to himself but to the truth of Christ, as did many of his actions.
His 24 trips outside Italy were a testimony to this — no matter what the threatened opposition, he placated many of his enemies by placing Christ at the center rather than himself. Many believe he also achieved this through his surprise resignation — deemed by some as “revolutionary” on account of it demystifying the papacy by eliminating the “personality cult” that had grown up around it.
Ultimately, however, it’ll be for history to decide whether Benedict XVI’s greatest legacy — his skill as a consummate teacher and brilliant theologian — will endure, possibly making him one of the Church’s greatest popes.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek, and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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