Up until just a few months ago, it seemed clear what Benedict’s legacy was shaping up to be.
In his very first homily after his election, he invoked the legacy of John Paul II and promised that as “the Successor of Peter, I also wish to confirm my determination to continue to put the Second Vatican Council into practice, following in the footsteps of my predecessors and in faithful continuity with the 2,000-year tradition of the Church.”
It may look like there are two elements here, council and Tradition. But in fact there is only one: a dynamic tradition, ever ancient, ever new. And it may seem that all this is just what popes are supposed to say.
But as the past five years have shown, one thing we can say about Benedict XVI is that he is a holy risk taker.
His major initiatives need to be understood in this context, even though they have also provoked controversy. The address at the University of Regensburg is remembered in secular circles primarily for a few phrases that seemed to criticize Muslims.
But in fact, the whole thrust of that lecture was to place squarely in front of Europe and the rest of the Christian world the large challenge of rediscovering faith and restoring the full meaning of reason in the spiritual journey — or acceptance of certain decline.
As he did earlier as a theologian, Pope Benedict has been one of the most sophisticated and profound commentators on European and world culture — so much so that it is not enough to have heard some of his addresses; they also need to be read and studied.
At the same time, he has shown a gentle pastoral manner — witness the way his demeanor had the American press, remarkably, eating out of his hand during his 2008 visit.
His bold moves in reforming the liturgy and permitting the use of the old Latin form have led some to regard him as merely backward looking. But in fact he’s gathering up the experience of the half century since the council and seeking to establish liturgical forms both appropriate and deepened for the third millennium.
Contrary to the common view, his approach to the Society of St. Pius X has been careful, except for the unfortunate oversight about the extremism of that group’s Bishop Richard Williamson, which even SSPX has repudiated.
Benedict’s bold outreach to Anglicans and Orthodox as well shows an ambitious intention to gather together as large a swath as possible of the living forces of Christianity in order to make a new effort at evangelization in a narrowing world that desperately needs fresh air.
But as we all know, the last few months have put all this in jeopardy and may eclipse Benedict’s real achievements for some time to come. For all the unfair attempts to tar him with responsibility for one or another instance of priestly child abuse, the evidence is flimsy to nonexistent to nonsensical.
In fact, as the scrutiny continues, he will emerge, as has already begun to happen, not as one who should resign, but as the one who has done most within the Church to clean out the priestly “filth” that he courageously went out of his way to mention five years ago, just before he became Pope.
The rest of his pontificate may be spent atoning for the sins of others in public, but in a less public way, the initiatives he has set in motion will be a blessing to our generation and many more to come.
Many thanks, bold-hearted Benedict!
Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.
About This Series
Now more than ever, we need to be reminded of what a Pope is. On the rock of Peter our Church is built. To him and his successors — Christ’s vicars — have been entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Christ prayed for him that his faith might not fail, that he might strengthen his brethren.
The untold story right now in the media is how much God has worked through Pope Benedict XVI in his first five years as Pope. That’s why we began to commission short essays to honor him for his anniversary just a few weeks ago.
As the media tries in vain to pin the lion’s share of the blame for the developing abuse scandal on him, those essays are now taking on a meaning and depth we couldn’t have imagined. We’re fortunate to have this man leading us, and these tributes tell why.
We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.
— The Editors