The ‘Rottweiler’ Who Wouldn’t Bark

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI ails, questions arise about his legacy as a conservative champion.

FILE - Pope Francis, left, embraces Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, at the Vatican, June 28, 2017. Pope Francis on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022, said his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is “very sick," and he asked the faithful to pray for the retired pontiff so God will comfort him “to the very end.” (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP, File)

The call by Pope Francis for prayers for Pope Benedict, who is said to be failing fast, invites reflections on what will be Benedict’s legacy. One cannot help but think of  Nerva, who earned his place among the Good Emperors with a felicitous choice of successor. It’s not clear that Benedict XVI will be such a man. 

Born Josef Ratzinger in 1927, Benedict was nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler” during his time as the head of the Church’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He insisted on taking a conservative, anti-revolutionary approach to Church history and teaching — a “hermeneutic of continuity.”

Benedict has lived for nearly a decade in retirement following his shocking resignation from the Throne of Peter in 2013. He has, to all appearances, enjoyed perfect mental clarity and a gentle decline into frailty. He thus has an even greater responsibility for what followed his reign than most: He could have continued. So what have the past nine years yielded?

Lingering questions about the validity of Benedict’s resignation shook the heart of the counter-reformation Church: the unquestionable, immovable, imperial papacy. Francis, who likes “making a mess” and decentralized administration, has failed to allay doubts about whether Rome’s word is final on either the Church’s internal affairs or its foreign policy.

Confusion on established and long-standing points of Church teaching on the topic of divorce and remarriage followed the 2016 Synod on the Family. The Synod’s summary document, Amoris Laetitia, provoked formal questions from several leading churchmen. Francis also invited confusion about the Church’s teaching on the death penalty.

North of the Alps, the German bishops are actively agitating to make changes to Catholic doctrine and practice that have been repeatedly rejected by the papacy and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — including the blessing of homosexual unions, the ordination of women to the priesthood, and the opening of communion to non-Catholics.

Francis has curried favor with politicians who are politically in opposition to Catholic teaching, like Speaker Pelosi or Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada. Yet he has declined to champion the Church’s interests or personnel in Communist China. Meanwhile, he has reversed Benedict’s signature expansion of the traditional Latin liturgy.

What are the fruits of Francis’s vaunted reforms at Rome? George Cardinal Pell’s audit of the Vatican Bank ended after he returned to his native Australia to face an apparently spurious sexual assault charge. Financial and administrative irregularities continue. Francis’s cardinals seem no less inclined to sexual misconduct than his predecessors’ princes.

Benedict’s ultimate fault was the failure to cultivate a party. His successor has swelled the college of cardinals with his own men, from whom it is probable the next pope will come. Policy can survive its progenitors in the ecclesiastical gerontocracy. The last living cardinal elevated by Paul VI, Benedict is a testament to that fact.

A frequent defense of the late John Paul II is that he was unaware of the administrative abuses that plagued his papacy. Benedict, who resigned in the face of fresh disclosures about ecclesiastical malfeasance, has no such excuse. Whether his legacy is due to an inherent gentleness or something more blameworthy is for posterity to decide, but the legacy itself is clear.

The New York Sun

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