Much of the current issue (Lent 2023) of The Lamp is devoted to Benedict XVI, to "the life and legacy of Joseph Ratzinger," which is to say that it looks not only at the pope but at the theologian and cardinal. Most of it is only available online to subscribers, but if you don't subscribe you can read the first article, by Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles, here. It's very good, and of the two dozen or so contributions there isn't one that I don't agree with, The Lamp being an orthodox and intelligent publication, though naturally I appreciate some more than others. The only possible exception is the essay by theologian John Milbank, and that's only because I can't understand most of it.
There is, however, from my point of view a noticeable lacuna in the array of tributes. Almost all the writers are prelates, priests, professors, or politicians. (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist the alliteration.) Those who are not actively engaged in ministry or theology or some other activity directly connected to the Church are public figures to at least some degree, like the British Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Christopher Caldwell of the Claremont Institute. It's not a criticism of the very fine contributions made by all these men (and, a bit surprisingly, they are all men) to note that the voice of the ordinary Catholic layman is missing.
By some oversight I was not asked to contribute to this symposium. But as it happens I am in a position to add that missing voice, or at least something closer to it: the truly ordinary Catholic layman probably does not much care who is pope or what he is doing, beyond acknowledging a certain deference to him. I am not exactly that person, as I'm more engaged than that, have written for a few Catholic publications over the years, and am in the twentieth year of this pretty Catholic blog. Still, I'm basically what is referred to, somewhat but perhaps not altogether dismissively, as a pew-sitter, or pew-warmer.
Returning to Christian belief as an adult in the late 1970s, after a not-untypical abandonment in adolescence, I was naively surprised to find that there was a whole contingent of Christians, mostly clergy and academics, who had ceased to take the fundamentals of the faith more or less as they had been understood for almost two thousand years, and instead were interpreting the whole business as a form of literature and/or psychology. I had joined the Episcopal Church and discovered that it was split roughly between those who did and those who did not believe the traditional doctrines in anything like the traditional way. I'll call those, for convenience, the orthodox and the modernists. In practice it was a three-way split: the orthodox, the modernists, and the more or less indifferent who just wanted to carry on as they always had. But of course all the noise was made by the first two.
I was troubled by this conflict, which was deeper than a conflict within a community really ought to be or safely can be--safely for the community, I mean--because it went to the heart of the reasons for the community's existence. More significant than the conflict itself was the absence of any authority which could resolve it. The division was not trivial; it was not a fine point of theology or an argument about the language and music of the liturgy. It represented conceptions of what the faith is which, if understood in their essentials, were fundamentally irreconcilable. Only a factional power struggle could resolve the conflict, and even in 1980 I thought it was pretty clear that the modernists would prevail, as in fact they have.
At the same time John Paul II had been elected to the papacy, and pretty soon it was pretty clear to me that I would have to become Catholic. The question of authority was a significant factor in that recognition.
Even before I entered the Church I was aware that the modernist-traditionalist conflict was very much alive there, but the institution seemed to possess the authority to settle the matter, or rather to clarify it: to state the authoritative teaching of the Church, and, if necessary, to name specific ideas that are contrary to that teaching. And in the person of John Paul II it seemed to have someone who was clearly orthodox. So it seemed that, no matter how many heretics were running around, an authoritative and clarifying judgment would be available. John Paul was obviously not the tyrant-inquisitor that progressives tried to portray him as. And neither was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who had been put in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, making him directly responsible for those judgments which always have been and always will be necessary.
At the beginning of my conversion I read a little theology and a little history, enough to reassure me that Rome was the right choice. But I realized fairly soon that I was not going to be a Catholic Intellectual. Even if I had had the brains I did not have the temperament, and even if I had had the brains and the temperament I did not have the time: I had a very demanding job and a growing family. I did not want to be wrapped up in intra-Church debates requiring expertise which I did not especially want to acquire and attention I did not want to spare. I did not care to be a close observer of the conflict, much less of Vatican or intra-Church politics of any sort. I did not want to be a liberal Catholic or a conservative Catholic, just a faithful Catholic layman. And I did not want to be in the state of suspicion which comes all too easily to those who are aware of the modernist-orthodox conflict.
The conflict was however in full swing, and I was always aware of it, far too often finding myself in precisely that state of suspicion and ready for combat. It is not a healthy spiritual condition. I'm tempted here to complain about the state of the Church over the forty years in which I have known it, but I long ago grew sick of the sound of my own complaining voice. Suffice to say that the conflict has been at the root of most of the complaining--both the conflict itself and my own reactions to it.
And now I can get to the point which makes this about the life and legacy of Joseph Ratzinger. I read the collection of interviews with him published in 1985 as The Ratzinger Report, and thought Here is a truly wise man, exactly the kind we need: orthodox without being reactionary, learned but not narrowly academic, both shrewd and generous about the currents agitating the Church and the world.
I can't separate John Paul II and Ratzinger/Benedict. The latter was an essential part of the papacy of the former, his own papacy essentially a continuation of it, and during that long period I felt that whatever might be going amiss in the Church at the moment the trajectory was toward clarification and stability, especially clarification of what Vatican II had really meant and really intended. I had always thought that if I had been an adult Catholic in the 1950s I would have agreed with both Wojtyla and Ratzinger about the need for the Council. I could never, obviously, have been convicted of nostalgia for a Church I had never experienced, though I was (and am) deeply sympathetic to those who regretted the loss of much that they had known and loved.
And when Ratzinger became pope in 2005 I thought the tide had really, definitively, permanently turned, that perhaps in another generation the amorphous thing that opposed the faith from within the Church would have largely passed into history. It might not be in my lifetime, but I was heartened by the belief that this would be the trajectory of the coming years, that the domination of the Church's life by factionalism was fading away. That would be the legacy of Joseph Ratzinger, of the long John Paul II-Benedict XVI papacy.
I was of course entirely wrong. The only coherent opinion I can express about Benedict's resignation is that I didn't understand it, and still don't. About the papacy which has followed I can say with assurance only one thing: that it has revivified the modernist movement and given it life that will surely continue for much longer than I had supposed. In the face of one of the greatest challenges in its history, the rush of Western civilization to embrace and establish as the undeclared but actual state religion a post-Christian anti-Christianity, the Church will continue to be divided and confused. God knows why this happened and how it will work out according to his will, but I can only see it as a tragedy.
I should mention here my deep gratitude for Benedict's creation in 2009 of the Ordinariates for the continuation of the Anglican liturgical and devotional heritage. That it came thirty years too late to have the effect it might have does not lessen my gratitude, or mean that it will have no good effects, though those will be less obvious than they might have been in the early 1980s. Bishop Lopes of the Ordinariate is currently the head of the USCCB's Committee on Divine Worship, i.e. liturgy, and the drabness of Catholic worship was one of the things that for a while held me back from leaving Anglicanism, and one of the things I spent far too much time complaining about in the following years.