Sunday, April 19, 2009, marks the fourth anniversary of the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. Although he is now 82, a career theologian, and a former professor, Benedict’s pontificate has been anything but dull. His decisions have brought joy to conservatives and consternation to liberals. He has inspired young people and the faithful on five continents, yet he has prompted the wrath of Muslims and some Jewish groups. He has taught and he has asked for forgiveness. He has attracted record crowds both in Rome and around the world, yet he has been accused of being a prisoner of the Vatican.
For all the triumphs and tensions, Benedict’s four-year-old pontificate can be summarized in a single word: unity. With courage and deliberation, Benedict has labored for unity — not uniformity — in belief and in charity; not an easy feat, when, as John Zmirak quipped, the pope is “trying to run a Church that makes room for [Los Angeles Cardinal] Roger Mahony . . . and [traditionalist Bishop] Richard Williamson.”That Benedict’s definition of unity does not include superficial agreements or heart-warming affirmations makes his efforts and successes even more impressive. For Benedict, authentic unity is a genuine communion of all human beings — both inside and outside the Catholic Church — with “the God who speaks in the Bible.”
Benedict has pursued and cultivated unity in several different dimensions. First, and most prominently, he has labored to reestablish unity with the Church’s past, particularly in light of the Second Vatican Council. As he recently reminded those who believe that the council officially replaced all previous belief, law, and ritual, “Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.”
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The legitimacy of Vatican II and its intended reforms depend upon its organic, continuous growth from the Church’s 2,000-year-old living tradition. In this vein, Benedict has concentrated especially on reorienting the new liturgy, Vatican II’s most noticeable reform, toward the roots from which it draws life. To do this, he has consciously accentuated the solemnity and beauty of his public Masses, and in July 2007 he also approved the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass. By freeing the older liturgy, the pope explained that he hopes for “an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church”; that is, he desires unity in the Church’s current and past forms of worship, because the Church’s worship both exhibits and influences her identity and belief. As Rev. John Zuhlsdorf has argued, the liturgy properly celebrated is “the tip of the spear” in Benedict’s “Marshall Plan” to reinvigorate Catholic identity.
Second, Benedict has sought unity — not in the sense of uniform belief, but of “consensus around the truth concerning particular values or goals” — with non-Catholics and non-Christians throughout the world. All of his trips abroad, including his April 2008 visit to the United States, have included cordial and genuine meetings that have built upon truths mutually shared by leaders of different religions, including Jewish and Muslim groups.
Twice, however, Benedict’s message of interreligious unity has been lost in the delivery — first to Muslims in his famous address at Regensburg in 2006, and second to Jews when he recently remitted the excommunication of a bishop who had previously denied the Nazi gas chambers.
While Benedict could have made these same points in a smoother and less confrontational manner, it does not follow, as has been alleged, that the pope’s focus on internal affairs makes him coldly indifferent to global solidarity. Such a statement overlooks the significance of his continued emphasis on ecumenism and dialogue, including his visit to Turkey in November 2006, and his decades-long work with the Jewish people.
Benedict’s third effort at unity — with suffering or marginalized Catholics and non-Catholics alike — further shows his real concern for all people, regardless of creed or status. In the first months of his pontificate, he had lunch with both Hans Küng, dean of the world’s dissident liberal theologians, and Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the irregular Catholic traditionalist group the Society of St. Pius X. He visited Auschwitz in May 2006, where he movingly asked God why He remained silent during the Holocaust, a question which he acknowledged he could not answer. During his visit to Washington, D.C., Benedict requested an unscheduled meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse to promote healing. Recently, he sought to bring hope to the poor and suffering of Africa, where he noted that the Church’s approach to fighting the AIDS epidemic — affirming the human dimension of sexuality, comforting the suffering, and forbidding prophylactics — is the only solution that truly respects human dignity.
Finally, contrary to those who see him as an out-of-touch academic, Benedict, through his appearances, speeches, and writings, has sought the union of humanity with God. It seems obvious that the pope should do this, yet this aspect of his papacy has been the most overlooked. Even in the midst of the global economic crisis, Benedict maintains that union with God is the ultimate solution to the world’s problems. He brilliantly summarized this on his flight to Africa in a statement that conveys his own understanding of his mission as pope:
I am not going to Africa with a political or economic agenda, which would lie outside my competence. I am going with a programme that is religious, to do with faith and morals, but this too has an essential contribution to make to the problem of the current economic crisis. We all know that a fundamental element of the crisis is the ethical deficit in economic structures. It has been understood that ethics is not something “outside” the economy, but “inside”, and that the economy does not function if it does not include the ethical element. Therefore, speaking of God and speaking of the great spiritual values that constitute the Christian life, I will try to make my own contribution, which should also help to overcome the present crisis, and to renew the economic system from within, which is where the real crisis lies.
By contrast, Benedict’s detractors categorically deny that he is the pope of unity; rather, they see him as dividing the Church by moving it rightward. In fact, his efforts at unity with the past and with the lost Catholics of Europe have prompted one critic to claim that the pope “is neglecting both the billion Catholics outside Europe and the commands of Jesus Christ.” Moreover, even a few of Benedict’s own bishops have questioned his recent decision to remit the excommunications of the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X because of the group’s hostility toward certain aspects of Vatican II. Thus the pope’s gesture of unity toward a conservative group was followed by a rebellion of those resolved to ensure disunity between the preconciliar and postconciliar Church. The ensuing media storm was not quelled until Benedict himself wrote a humble letter explaining his rationale.
The letter intimately conveyed Benedict’s vision of unity of all members of the Church — liberal and conservative alike — founded on charity and truth. The truth, as Benedict never tires of pointing out, is found in the person of Jesus Christ and in the Catholic Church that preserves unbroken Jesus’ teaching. The pope’s proclamation of this truth without genuflecting to the demands of political correctness has maddened his critics, who want Benedict to soften his message to fit their own narrow ideology of what the Church should be. In doing so, they undermine genuine unity within the Church and with other religions — since, as Benedict understands so well, respect for others requires understanding who they are and what they believe.
But as a good father, Benedict has shown open arms to all — Catholic or not, faithful or not — and he has himself exhibited the unity he desires for his flock. His pursuit of unity — with the past, with other religions, with the suffering, with God — encapsulates four years of leadership, often courageous and controversial, to reinvigorate Catholic identity. The pope’s letter to the bishops included his desire to push forward in his quest for authentic unity. In this we can be assured that the old professor will keep us hanging on the edge of our seats.