Benedict XVI: “Putting the Smackdown on Heresy since 1981.” So goes the motto of the Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger fan club. Needless to say, the club made a number of emendations to their website in the past two weeks; for their part, ones happily effected.
Of course, this new reality scarcely harbingers halcyon days for everyone. For some, Benedict XVI’s former life as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes him none other than the scion of Dostoyevski’s Grand Inquisitor. So says one of the ‘heretics’ Ratzinger put the Smackdown on, namely Matthew Fox, now become an Episcopalian gone a-whoring after Gnosticism. Fox and 23 others were censured, admonished or stripped of their orders as Catholic clergy for doctrinal reasons under Ratzinger’s watch.
However much Ratzinger’s reputation as the Panzerkardinal comes from his life as Prefect of the C.D.F., for many of his critics, his real infamy flows from his pen.
Enjoying the life of a scholar, having taught Theology at the Universities of Bonn, Tubingen, and Regensburg, Benedict XVI wrote more than 30 books, and coauthored a number of others. He has written on Augustine, systematic theology, ethics, liturgics, the history of the Liturgy, devotion and piety and the dangers of relativism.
Beyond his literary output, he is an accomplished pianist who loves Mozart and may be the most humanist pope (i.e., a Renaissance man) since Pius II.
I am not Roman Catholic. In fact, being Orthodox, my communion has had a standing beef with the bishop of Rome longer than any other claimant, tacitly going back to the year 1009 (or 1014 when the filioque first appears in the Roman Mass, or even to 879 if you like). Thus the elevation of a doctrinaire, conservative pope, one who seems more bent on maintaining Trent than Vatican II, who praises the Tridentine liturgy and criticizes the novus ordo Mass, at best would seem for an Orthodox a choice between death and hell on the one hand and Satan on the other, hardly a candidate for ecumenical dialogue.
Nothing is further from the truth, and this for two reasons. The Orthodox are not looking for someone to smooth over differences in Creed, but to debate them. Ecumenism can only work if we are first honest to what we believe and, if doctrine has but an ambivalent place in one’s constitution, the Orthodox have no use for it.
Indeed, retrenchment as regards the Liturgy is something we find refreshing in Catholics. More than this, Orthodoxy maintains that Benedict XVI has rightly divined the great threats to the Faith: modern secularism in all its guises, and Islam.
As Ratzinger, Benedict XVI harshly criticized the hedonism and death culture of Europe and the West, noting that it was aborting and birth-controlling itself into oblivion. Any culture that would make the sating of its passions the chief end of life had embraced a death wish, and thus would adopt anything to maintain its quest.
Consequently the West has largely turned a blind eye to Islam, with Europe trying to ameliorate its decadent birth rate by allowing a massive Muslim immigration to keep its economies afloat. The pluralism and relativism of the West have collided with Islam while unable to comprehend Jihad.
For the Orthodox, the greater part of whom have labored of late under both Muslim rule and the western ideology of dialectical materialism, Benedict XVI marks not so much a return to the Catholicism of the past, but a renewed stand against the common enemies of the Christian Faith. His stated wish to stand with Orthodoxy against these has been happily noted by the Orthodox Metropolitan of Vienna, Hilarion, who at Benedict’s consecration gave voice to many Orthodox when he essentially noted that standing back to back with Catholics in this fight may lead finally to us standing shoulder to shoulder in the Faith.
Dr. Gary Jenkins is the Grace F. Kea Professor of History.