Papst im Widerspruch: Benedikt XVI und seine Kirche 2005-2013
By Alexander Kissler
(Pattloch Verlag, Munich, 2013)
Poor Pope Benedict! Every day, it seems we hear more about his inadequacies and “failures.” He was a “renaissance prince,” he was remote, aloof, rigid, “intellectual,” interested only in propounding dogma and seeing “that the rules are followed.” .And now Rolling Stone declares Freddy Krueger to be his lookalike. What a contrast to Pope Francis! He is Jesus Christ, he is St Francis (Andrea Tornielli has already published the Fioretti of Bergoglio), he is Superman, a healer, merciful, caring, pragmatic and so on. Rumors of a Nobel peace prize already have surfaced. Pope Francis and his pals over the last year haven’t distanced themselves at all from this myth of a Bergoglian revolution breaking with the dark regime of his predecessor– at least not until Rolling Stone found that Benedict was best qualified to be a movie serial killer. But it’s a little too late for such objections now!
Among the first to try and assess the reality of Benedict’s pontificate is Alexander Kissler. His Papst im Widerspruch appeared in March 2013 – just after the abdication of Benedict! This work is not, however, a chronological history of Benedict’s reign. Rather, it is an exposition of selected issues or aspects of Benedict’s papacy, organized according to what Kissler thinks are the great themes: his travels, his actions regarding the FSSPX, his relationship with Germany, his encyclicals, his positions on the Jews, on ecology etc. This arrangement of the book is acceptable but does require some time to get used to. The book is clearly written and the author seems to have spent a lot of time considering some of Benedict’s words. I admit, though, that when Kissler writes that Bishop Williamson’s father was killed in Sonnenburg prison in 1944 – it was actually Archbishop Lefebvre’s father – it does create some worries…
Now Kissler concentrates very heavily on what Benedict wrote or said – as opposed to what he did. Only the action lifting the excommunication of the FSSPX bishops is thoroughly examined. And even here the emphasis is upon extensive citations of what Benedict said, what Fellay or Schmidberger said, what Merkel said – and especially what the German press said.
In this matter and elsewhere Kissler acts as an advocate for Benedict: defending him against the endless attacks from the German press – and from the “German Catholic Church.” Kissler seeks to prove that Benedict is not at all the authoritarian, anti-modern, reactionary, anti-Semitic and anti–ecumenical character the pope was made out to be in his own country. Indeed, this extreme vituperation is only comprehensible in the context of the poisonous, quasi-totalitarian intellectual and political culture of contemporary Germany. It is tragic to compare the respect the Poles had for their countryman on the papal throne compared with the consistently contemptuous and treasonous actions of the representatives of the German press and Church in regard to Benedict.
Yet, we have to ask: why were these negative forces so quickly and totally aligned against Benedict? And what of the long series of missteps: the Regensburg speech, the implementation of the lifting of the FSSPX excommunications, Vatileaks, the “pedophilia” scandals, etc.? The facts suggest that Benedict XVI did indeed pose a threat to various vested interests in the Church and in the civil society of the Western world. And they further lead us to the conclusion that Benedict’s inability to rule played a great role in exacerbating the conflicts which the attempted implementation of his principles would have provoked in any case.
This does not emerge clearly in Klssler’s work. In fact, it is amazing that the most salient feature of Benedict’s thought, as it was actually applied, even if in an incomplete way, during his papacy – the restoration to prominence of Catholic tradition – is given short shrift in this book. The full significance of the “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” is not considered; Summorum Pontificum is mentioned only as an adjunct to Benedict’s attempt to reintegrate the FSSPX; and the new organizational structure for former Anglicans established by Benedict is not discussed. Thus, Kissler does not give Benedict’s most epochal accomplishments the consideration they deserve. And Benedict’s initiatives regarding the FSSPX thus appear to be unmotivated and isolated acts of grace – instead of fitting into a coherent pattern. Nor do Benedict’s other, far less effective, actions as governor of the Church: his appointments, his management of the Maciel and pedophilia scandals, receive the attention I would have expected.
In fact, I feel that Kissler devotes too much of his book to Benedict at his least effective: his Wojtylian series of travels and the official presentations delivered during them. What kind of sense does it make to discourse about natural law – such as in his speech to the German parliament – in societies that are in the process of implementing homosexual marriage? Pope Ratzinger did have fondness for speaking as the “pope of all mankind” instead of the Pope of the Catholic Church – the resulting highly abstract and dechristianized statements did not, I submit, make much a lasting impression. Moreover, especially where Benedict had no immediate interest in the subject matter, he easily fell into the kind of platitudes that prevail in the Western European Church.
Kissler indeed does set out some of the more dramatic aspects of Benedict’s thought both before and during his pontificate: his sense of the eschatological, his understanding of the dramatic situation of the Church, his awareness of the role of evil and even of the devil. In such considerations Pope Benedict could express himself with poetic force. For Benedict – in contrast to most Catholic hierarchs – is a spiritual man; Kissler even calls him a mystic. And as the title of this book indicates he was a sign of contradiction – a man who understood that the role of a Christian must be that of a nonconformist.
Yet it must be acknowledged that this understanding starkly contrasts with Benedict’s apparent serene confidence in “reason” and the ability of Christian and non – Christian to work together. At times – such as in some of his addresses on his apostolic journeys – Benedict sounds more like a figure of the late 18th century Enlightenment in Germany that a Christian bishop. The thought of Ratzinger would thus appear to exhibit unresolved conflicts: on the one hand the sense of an apocalyptic conflict, on the other, a truly “Conciliar” confidence in the modern world.
Benedict also seemed to exhibit reluctance to deal with the concrete and specific. Yes, the Vatileaks scandal does ultimately spring from the “mystery of iniquity”, as Kissler writes, but much more immediate causes existed: Benedict’s poor choice of associates, his refusal to govern or discipline the curia, and the corruption of decades of mismanagement sand subversion.
The reader will find some valuable information in this book. Kissler provides a blow-by blow account of the Williamson affair – as seen from the German press. He interpolates here a lengthy and in many respects sympathetic description of the ordination of priests by the FSSPX at their seminary. The reader thereby gains a very vivid impression of the unbridgeable hostility between Catholic tradition and the “German Catholic Church,” the German government and German civil society.
What would our author think of developments so far in the reign of Francis? The Vatican now at times covertly, at times openly, adopts or tolerates many of the accusations Kissler is so anxious to defend Benedict against. Perhaps the author had a foreboding of all this – Kissler clearly has reservations regarding the wisdom of Benedict’s resignation.
Papst im Widerspruch may serve as the start of the evaluation of Benedict’s reign. It is clear, though, that the actions of a Pope, who was most active in the realm of the spiritual, the intellectual and also the liturgical,will only manifest their true effects in the coming decades or generations. Only in a subsequent generation can the history of a pontificate such as Benedict’s be written.