So Joseph Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI has left us. It's an odd and not really very relevant association, but seeing his obituaries in the press makes me think of a remark by a non-Catholic friend of mine early in the pontificate of Pope Francis. His view was based on the appearance of the two popes, mostly as they were seen on television, and my friend admitted that it was superficial. He thought Benedict looked (I don't remember his exact words) stern and vaguely mean, and all too much like the Emperor Palpatine. That latter resemblance was enjoyed by some of Benedict's detractors, and "superficial" is probably too generous a word for any conclusion drawn from it. (Of course you know that Palpatine is the super-evil Sith Lord in Star Wars.)
Francis, on the other hand, struck my friend as open, generous, etc. I think it's pretty clear now which of the two is more likely to speak maliciously. Well, impressions based on television news are apparently as accurate as one might suppose. As far as I know Benedict was never snide or cruel in his public speech. Nor was his concern for preserving the inheritance of the Church--not just his concern of course but his duty--exercised in a brutal way, though I know that for some any resistance to post-Vatican-II progressivism is intrinsically brutal. I have never read anything by Benedict that was not carefully and generously worded, even when it contained stark criticisms and firm directives.
But I suppose millions of people have my friend's image of Benedict as the closed-in, introverted, cruel authoritarian, and can never be persuaded out of it.
As for his actual thought, one of the first things that comes to my mind is a remark quoted in a book-length collection of interviews with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, published in the 1980s as The Ratzinger Report:
It must be clearly stated that a real reform of the Church presupposes an unequivocal turning away from the erroneous paths whose catastrophic consequences are already incontestable.
That's true as an abstract principle: if you're headed in the wrong direction you can only correct yourself by changing direction, not by going faster or pumping up your commitment. And it's as true as a description of the state of the Church as it was almost forty years ago. As I've written more than once here, the internal conflict within the Church between what I will call, tendentiously, the drive toward acceptance of the faith as a species of the therapeutic (see this post) and the determination to preserve it as itself is not going to be resolved in my lifetime, and probably not within yours, no matter how young you are.
I can at least tentatively agree in general with this obituary by Michael Brendan Dougherty, Why Future Generations Will Celebrate Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and with its conclusion:
Benedict XVI was the greatest mind to reach the papacy in a millennium. I write his obituary now. But centuries hence, he will be recognized as the man who buried the dictatorship of relativism — and the doubts of the 20th century.
I take Dougherty to mean in that last sentence a philosophical, theological, and just plain logical burial. Obviously the thing is still very much alive. Is it, as a cultural force, a dead man walking, mortally wounded and soon to totter and fall? Or is it about to rule the world for a time? I don't know. And I have to admit that I haven't read enough of Benedict's theological writings to judge whether "burial" is too strong a term. But he was a great man of the Church, and I put it that way because I think his importance, influence, and achievement are greater than his papacy alone.
I long ago lost what little inclination I ever had to make a big celebration of New Year's Eve. I believe it was a New Year's Eve party back when I was in college that played a role in dampening my enthusiasm for the custom. I drank at least an entire bottle of cheap Chianti, and though I don't remember for sure it may have been most of two bottles. It's possible that I smoked something besides tobacco as well; I don't remember that, either. At any rate, the next day was by far the worst hangover I've ever had. I recall waking up with a terrible headache and a dire thirst, going into the kitchen and drinking a big glass of water, and immediately throwing up. I staggered back to bed and slept, not very comfortably, for the rest of the day. Later in life, as a more prudent adult, I just never felt much excitement about marking the stroke of midnight. Ok, well, that's that, here we are, good night. And I'm lucky in that although I very much enjoy a drink and a mild buzz, I have no inclination at all to go much beyond that. Perhaps cheap Chianti was an influence there.
Just when I'm finally ready to enjoy the Christmas lights, most people have taken them down. There were still a few last night when I went to my usual Friday night Adoration hour. And in a development that seems providential I was asked several days ago if I could substitute for someone in the 11-till-midnight hour tonight. This seems a good, maybe the best, way to mark the turn of the year. I hope there will still be some Christmas lights to be seen on my drive home afterwards.
Last night I had an opportunity to explain Eucharistic Adoration to a non-Catholic. I don't think I did very well. It is a really weird thing, isn't it?
Happy New Year to all.