Pope Benedict’s most important contributions these past five years are expressive of his position as one of the Church’s great teachers of the faith and a public intellectual, a role that preceded his time as pontiff.
Given this fact, I would note four themes that seem to stand out. The first is articulated in his book Jesus of Nazareth, which I would define as a clarification of the relationship between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history, a relationship that has been presented in the culture as being in opposition to one another. The Pope masterfully demonstrates how the two are actually one, and that to sever the relationship between them inevitably presents a distorted vision of both.
The second great contribution is discerned in the Pope’s controversial address to the University of Regensburg. While many presumed that this talk concerned the relationship of Christianity to Islam, its real emphasis was in regard to the issue and problem of theological voluntarism that has plagued modernity and distorted our conception of the relationship of God’s will to his nature. This point, rather than being merely theological abstraction, has profound cultural impact, as can readily be seen in the emergence not only of the co-opting of religious faith to further violence, but also the rise of the so-called “new atheists” and their objections to God’s existence and the positive contributions of faith to culture.
Along with these, I would identify the Holy Father’s insistence of what has been termed a “hermeneutic of continuity” in regards to our interpretation and reception of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. The understanding of this council as somehow being at odds with the apostolic faith as it has been presented throughout the centuries of the Church’s life has rendered the council virtually unintelligible and mitigated its full application. The invitation to view Vatican II as being in continuity with the Church’s tradition, rather than in opposition to it, has the positive benefit of presenting its unique perspective as something greater and more important than the neuralgic debates that have polarized the Church in the decades since the council.
Lastly, I would identify Pope Benedict’s generous resourcing of the Church Fathers as a privileged source for understanding the meaning of Christian spirituality. The Fathers speak to us in a language that is not only radically rooted in the Gospel, but in voices that are both ancient and new. The Pope has demonstrated in his emphasis on patristics that we are heirs to a tremendously rich theological legacy that has the power to renew the Church and the culture in spirit and in truth.
Father Robert Barron is the founder of WordOnFire.org and the writer and host of “The Catholicism Project,” an epic 10-part documentary series about the Catholic faith.
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