A critic reflects on Pope Benedict

What happens when the political collides with the spiritual, the personal?

I’ve been reflecting on this question the past day or so as news broke that Pope Benedict would effectively retire at the end of the month. I’ve written more than my fair share criticizing the way that some bishops, the Pope included, communicate their messages, whether through employing overly harsh language, creating too cozy of a relationship with right-wing politicos, or turning a blind eye toward those living on the margins of church and world. But these injustices didn’t spring to mind yesterday. Something else entirely filled my thoughts.

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As the news broke and pundits typed away on their keyboards, each evaluating Benedict’s legacy and impact on the church and world, it would seem natural that I would shout “amen!” with those who slammed the Pontiff for his draconian views on women, gays, theological dissent, birth control, and so on and so on. But strangely, I found myself not filled with righteous indignation, but moved, instead, to defend Benedict against these attacks.

It’s not that I think these observations are wrong, necessarily; in fact, I’ve written similar posts myself. But it’s the recognition that the Catholic faith has formed me perhaps more than I sometimes realize, that I look to a spiritual shepherd, that I give the Pope the benefit of the doubt, and allow myself to be moved by his deeply effective theological writing and spiritual guidance.

These feelings brought to mind another set of emotions from last year, when nuns in the US were seemingly under assault from groups of bishops both at home and abroad. I remember some people would try to offer encouragement to them by dismissing the bishops, asking, Who needs them anyway?, and noting that they saw the true church in the good works of these women. Some may have found comfort in those sentiments, but I suspect a good many sisters were upset not just because of the attacks, but because these bishops, leaders who represent the institutional church to many, were so harsh in their criticism and were wounded on a personal level. Bishops, and the Pope, serve as the spiritual leaders to so many Catholics, and to find oneself in profound disagreement with them can be upsetting. It is not easily remedied by dismissing them or their office. It takes courage, and a fair bit of pain I would argue, for devout Catholics to question their leaders and their teachings. 

So when I read some rather hurtful and vitriolic posts about Benedict, it was hardly with a sense of glee. Rather, I was hurt. Many feel wronged by the church in general and Benedict in particular, and I understand that. But it’s difficult for me to join in on a day when an elderly and perhaps ailing man who has devoted his life and mind to an institution that has provided so much to me and the world. I do wonder if history will judge him for being on the wrong side of some important issues, but I also know that his writing has deepened my own faith. I read Jesus of Nazareth during Lent last year and found his reliance on the Gospel greatly moving. Salt of the Earth, his book-long interview with Peter Seewald, is one of the first texts I recommend to people when they express an interest in learning more about the church. None of that is to say that people shouldn’t consider Benedict’s actions and words with a critical and corrective eye, but if his job as pope was to lead Christians closer to Jesus, as Fr. Jim Martin suggested, I would say that, even for this skeptical and critical Catholic, he largely succeeded.

Michael J. O'Loughlin

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