A ‘small’ pope


Even the most generous-spirited praise for Pope Benedict XVI cannot avoid making comparisons. Here, for example, is theology professor Vincent Miller, in a deeply sympathetic essay published in the Jesuit magazine America. “From the beginning of his papacy, in the shadow of John Paul—then called ‘the Great’—Benedict has struck a lower profile. Of course he lacked his predecessor’s charisma, but his gestures were so often intentional.”

Even an editorial critical of the charismatic John Paul II, in the weekly Tablet, slides easily into comparative-speak: “Pope Benedict’s legacy is largely spiritual and intellectual rather than public and spectacular, like that of his predecessor.” (The Tablet’s leanings can be guessed from the nickname, a play on another meaning of “tablet,” that its critics have bestowed on it: The Pill or, for emphasis, The Bitter Pill.)

Even when someone like Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, the 82-year-old former archbishop of Washington, responds to a specific question from the National Catholic Reporter’s incomparable John Allen, about whether it’s easier to come to a more balanced assessment of Benedict’s legacy, the answer can get lost in the compare-and-contrast. “That definitely could be. In 2005, we were lost in the grief of the death of a great man. Now, we feel sad in the departure of a very good man, but it’s not the same.”

No, it isn’t, but I suspect Benedict himself not only would appreciate the difference, but welcome it.

In Miller’s view, the renunciation of the Petrine office (the first in 600 years) is “a final act of papal teaching”—in large part because it is a deliberate gesture. “I recall a conversation with a European scholar who criticized Benedict for making the papacy ‘small,’” Miller writes. “In some ways, I suspect that was his intent. Benedict is carefully refining the definition of the papacy even as he leaves it.”

Making the papacy small in this sense is characteristic of Benedict, Miller suggests. “His resignation continues this strand of his papacy—a reduction of the office in a way, subordinating it to tradition. His encyclicals were noteworthy for subordinating his own authorial voice to the broad witnesses of the tradition. He continued to write his own theology, but published his christology [the three books on Jesus] with a secular press, scrupulously avoiding assigning magisterial authority to his personal theology.”

(I have a small quibble to make about the notion of authorial voice. I found the pope’s three encyclicals to be distinctly his own, in terms of style; they are, as many others have already said, real teaching documents, written with clarity in mind—not something one would readily say about John Paul II’s encyclicals.)

The resignation, the reduction of the office, has plunged the Church into some confusion. Rachel Donadio’s round-up in the New York Times yesterday surveys the suddenly altered landscape. “In transforming an office with an aura of divinity into something far more human, Benedict’s decision has sent shock waves through the Vatican hierarchy… But it has also puzzled the faithful and scholars, who wonder how a pope can be infallible one day and fallible again the next—and whether that might undermine the authority of church teaching.”

It is possible, however, that Benedict’s act of renunciation will end up strengthening the Petrine office instead, precisely because of the distinction it makes between minister and ministry. That could be his real legacy.

In humanizing the papacy—and thus going against the relatively new traditions of a celebrity pope (since the middle of the 20th century) and of a religious icon (since the middle of the 19th)—Benedict may have emboldened more Catholics to think small.

The prophetic voice of a young Ratzinger can be heard through Nathaniel Campbell’s Fides Quaerens Intellectum blog; an excerpt of a radio address from 1969 or 1970 has him saying:

“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. It will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. It will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices it built in its palmy days. As the number of its adherents diminishes, so will it lose many of its social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.”

Some 30 years later, when he was already the feared “panzer Cardinal,” he was able to expand on his thesis, in his second book-length interview with the journalist Peter Seewald (“God and the World”):

“The mass Church may be something lovely, but it is not necessarily the Church’s only way of being. The Church of the first three centuries was small, without being, by this fact, a sectarian community. On the contrary, it was not closed in on itself, but felt a great responsibility in regard to the poor, the sick—in regard to all. There was room in its heart for all those nourished by a monotheist faith, in search of a promise.”

This is a radical idea, and perhaps it takes a Benedict to put it into action.

“By and large, radical changes of structure are not the province of consensus liberals but of self-confident conservatives,” writes the nun Gemma Simmonds in Thinking Faith, the online journal of the British Jesuits, “and the announcement of his resignation from the papacy is nothing if not radical. At one stroke he has demystified the office of pope and made it possible for subsequent popes to resign when old age and infirmity take their toll without fearing that the Church will collapse or the sky fall in.”

Now that’s big.

* * *


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