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Preparing the Obituaries – Pope Benedict XVI has died

The sad announcement that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has died is world news. Although he no longer occupied the See of Peter, the man who led the Catholic Church for 8 years from 2005 to 2013 remained an important figure for those within the Church and outside.  

At the same time, his death is a cause for confusion both within and without. Were he the sitting Pope, his passing would prompt much more than passing commentary. It would be a major geopolitical moment outside the Church and point toward the changing of the guard inside.

As a Pope Emeritus, a retired Pope so to speak, his successor is already in place since he resigned in 2013 citing old age, he became the first pope in 600 years to step down from the role. With that, there is none of the speculation as to who will take over one of the most important – and powerful – positions in the world. In that respect, the world and the commentariat, can rest easy.

Right now, many will be preparing obituaries. At this stage, they are probably already written. Joseph Ratzinger’s story, after 95 years in the mortal realm, is already written. How that story will be presented, possibly in the coming days or weeks, will vary wildly.

Characterised when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor to the Holy Office), as the Pope’s Rottweiller, or the Panzer Cardinal, despite eight years as Pope and the last nine as Pope Emeritus, he has largely failed to shake that perception, although perception is all that it is. Will the press be kind, will they resist the temptation to roll out old tropes and truisms that were commonplace throughout his Papacy and before?

For those closer to the Pope, or those that have taken the time to look beyond the lazy typecasting, the picture is much different. An erudite scholar, a deep thinking theologian, a philosopher and an extremely sensitive and caring individual, this reality is hard for many to reconcile with is presented in the popular media. There has been very little interest in the man behind the roles that he has fulfilled and an incessant fascination with his role as Pope John Paul II’s enforcer in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some have acknowledged, somewhat grudgingly, that his time as Pope was not what was expected – he was gentle, thoughtful, inclusive and rarely, if ever, showed the teeth of the Rottweiler.

When the obituaries start to come, they will be framed in a particular way, some will be overtly hostile and true to form, others will be kinder but will be couched in caveats about his apparent failings, his mistakes and even his calumny.

Those that fell foul of the Prefect’s responsibility for ensuring adherence to the doctrine of the faith will be rolled out to tell their story ahead of all of those that did not. Accusations directed towards him as Bishop of Munich regarding alleged failings in relation to the sexual abuse crisis will be rehashed with little context or elaboration of his defence but will be left to linger, hanging in mid-air as a necessary shadow lest the eulogies be too effusive. That he was the leading Catholic personality in tackling the abuse crisis when handed the remit belatedly in the 1980s will hardly be mentioned.

If he is lucky, the work that he did as Prefect and as Pope to respond to and address the abuse crisis will get a summary mention, though will be framed as him not having done enough, if he avoids the accusations of outright failing or even complicity. His Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, with his fulsome apology along with berating the Bishops of Ireland for their failings may get a mention, but without acknowledging the significance of it.

His brilliance as a theologian may be mentioned in passing, it may even be his most significant attribute, or it may be perceived as a failing – being too erudite, too academic, too much of a philosopher and not enough of a pastor.  There may be mention of the hundreds of books, even more academic papers, and even the groundbreaking Jesus of Nazareth trilogy written while Pope, but again, this will be presented as a failing in comparison, perhaps, to his charismatic predecessor Saint John Paul II, or his personable successor, Pope Francis.

There will be many that will be unable to resist referring to his time spent in the Hitler Youth as evidence of his fascistic tendencies, with scant reference to the compulsory, forced aspect of this, nor how he absconded at risk of execution, towards the wars end. Will this desertion may be reframed as a character flaw?

His role as a Peritus to the Cardinal Frings at the Second Vatican Council, conspiring to change the trajectory of the Council and opening it up as a more inclusive and conciliatory proceeding, will likely be overlooked, replaced by his apparent conversion to conservatism in the aftermath of the council, apparently objecting to its many reforms, opposing the spirit of the Council if not the letter of it.

Those that dig a little deeper will refer to his missteps as Pope such as the Regensberg Address where he quoted a passage about Islam from a 14th century scholar which was presented as an insult to that faith by the leader of the Catholic Church. The exaggeration and hate-mongering that accompanied that event has meant it is a defining moment of his Papacy for many. Little will be said about the ecumenical strides made throughout his Papacy, with the Jewish faith, Islam, other Christian denominations as well as schismatic Catholic groups. This progress will be ignored to refer to the issue of Bishop Williamson or even harking back to the CDF document, Dominus Iesus in 2000, which was construed as causing division rather than bridging divides.

His liturgical legacy will be presented as a step backwards in his support for the Latin form of the Mass and reworking of the wording of the English vernacular of the Mass. Little will be said about his returning of the liturgy towards beauty and the sacred and away from the banal. His love for the piano may be mentioned without fully expressing his love of classical music and his desire to see the sacrifice of the Mass elevated toward God rather than dragged down toward man.

He will be presented as a man of unwavering dogmatism, of certainty beyond reason, aloof and cold. What will be said about the man that can be read in his long, book-length interviews with Peter Seewald, where he reveals his humanity, his doubts, his deliberations, and the challenges he has faced with his reluctant calling to the various roles required of him?

Most clearly, this comes with his final decision, his final calling, to resign, to retire, as Pope, torn between responsibility to continue and responsibility to step aside.

“Of course it was not entirely easy.  No Pope has stood down for a thousand years; it was still an exception in the first thousand years of the papacy.  It is a decision which was not taken easily, and which had to be mulled over again and again.  On the other hand, the evidence was so great that there was no internal struggle.”

As late as the day of his resignation he was torn between certainty and doubt

“I wasn’t fearful because I had an inner certainty that it had to be done, and that isn’t something you can be talked out of … But I had wrestled with it inwardly the whole time, so my inward self was to some extent already weathered.  In this sense it was not a day of particular suffering for … I knew that I could no longer manage it.”

Even death offers a glimpse into the humanity of the Pope Emeritus torn between doubt and faith:

“Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my ‘Paraclete.’

And like us all, the narrative often forgets that the Pope, the Cardinal, the Bishop, the Priest, remains simply a man: ‘In an entirely human perspective, I look forward to being reunited with my parents, my siblings, my friends, and I imagine it will be as lovely as it was at our family home.”

While some will embarrass themselves in a similar way to the ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ approach to Margaret Thatcher’s passing, presenting the Pope Emeritus as a uni-dimensional character, no obituary and no narrative will tell you that the Pope was also a complex man, even one who does not rule out the existence of aliens:

“It seems somehow obvious to suppose that we cannot be alone in this great immeasurable ocean of stars. We cannot absolutely exclude this hypothesis, because we have no cognizance of the whole breadth of God’s thought and his creative work. Yet it is a fact that thus far all attempts to discover anything of this kind have failed … What we can say is simply: We do not know. But thus far there are no serious grounds for thinking that similar beings exist elsewhere.”

On his passing, on New Year’s Eve 2022, Joseph Ratzinger may be reunited with his family and friends, have found out whether we are alone in the Universe and, hopefully, be united with God in heaven, with no more fear and trembling. He may not have been to everyone’s taste, but his legacy as the theologian Pope will live on for a long time through his own words, beyond the obituaries that will quickly fade into the past.


Dualta Roughneen


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