Pope Benedict XVI has announced his resignation, citing frailty of mind and body as the reason. Considering that the last resignation from the Holy See occurred almost 600 years ago, the announcement came out of the blue – or purple, if you’d rather.
Is this the kind of job one resigns from? His Holiness is in a much better position to judge that than anyone else, but comparisons with his predecessor are hard to escape. For John Paul II continued his ministry until his dying breath, even though he had clearly been moribund for a long time.
Perhaps one could argue, proceeding from an orthodox Catholic position, that since a man is called to occupy the throne of St Peter by God himself, only God can divest him of his office. Generally the deity serves the termination notice by calling on the pontiff to join him in heaven. Then again, Benedict XVI may have received a different message – that’s between him and God.
Christians of all denominations or none, adherents of other religions and even the more intelligent non-believers will miss Joseph Ratzinger, possibly the last conservative Pope of our lifetime. His conservatism was different from his predecessor’s in that Benedict clearly set out to reverse the worst excesses of the Second Vatican Council.
In particular, he paved the way to the return of the Tridentine Mass, which is sorely missed in such traditionally Catholic countries as France. Having lost Latin as their liturgical language, they have replaced it with a rather demotic, freshly minted French, which lacks both poetry and grandeur. British Catholics too have to rely on modern translations of liturgical texts, and they eye enviously the glorious scripture of the traditional Anglican rite.
His Holiness’s generous offer of the Ordinature has struck an important blow for ecumenism by inviting Anglo-Catholics into communion with Rome, but without abandoning the beauty of the Anglican mass. He was of course aware of the obstacles in the way of any unification of the English and Roman churches, and these may yet prove insurmountable. But the attempt to find an accommodation came from a noble heart and first-rate intellect.
To a greater extent than John Paul II, Benedict XVI was blessed with the mind of a philosopher, and in that he was a true disciple of St Thomas Aquinas and the earlier Fathers of the Church. For they knew that Christianity isn’t a matter of blind faith. To put it in simple terms, Christianity makes sense – it’s a religion of reason fertilised by faith.
It can’t be otherwise, for if a believer accepts that in the beginning was Logos, which could mean either Word or Reason, then he has to see his own mind as a particle of God’s. While his heart reaches out to God through prayer, his mind remains active too, rushing towards Logos and getting as far along that road as God allows.
This intellectual exertion requires essential philosophical tools, and Christianity only became a world religion when intuitive faith in Jesus Christ fused with the philosophical apparatus of Hellenic antiquity. Thereby Jerusalem and Athens came together in a simulacrum of Christ and his dual nature. By offering itself to the service of faith, the mind soared to heights it had never reached before.
If faith is an act of self-sacrifice at God’s altar, then the mind is perhaps the greatest offering, especially for people with the greatest minds. But giving one’s mind to God doesn’t mean that the believer becomes mindless as a result. Quite the contrary: God accepts the sacrifice and rewards the donor by giving him his mind back, having first cleansed it of everything extraneous, scoured it of everything dreary. Thus purified, the mind acquires the freedom it never had before, because, just as no content is possible without its form, no freedom is possible without discipline. The greater the mind, and the more sincere its original sacrifice, the greater God’s reward, the higher the mind can soar.
In the absence of such a sacrifice, the mind remains for ever shackled to the earth with its mundane concerns – the mind itself remains mundane. Thus prideful refusal to submit one’s reason to God’s is punished by a diminished power of the reason. For, when looking at the world, the mind can see so much more by rising above quotidian problems than by staying mired in their midst.
Seeking empirical proof of this, observe how otherwise intelligent people turn into blithering idiots the moment they try to argue against God. Logic comes from Logos not only semantically but also in substance – and in his own ministry Benedict XVI has given us all an invaluable lesson in how to use a particle of Logos to make intellectual mincemeat out of those who dare fight it.
His Holiness understood and preached the true nature of morality as a derivative of Logos. Even the most strident atheists will accept that moral behaviour makes sense. But this is so not because God teaches it, but because He exists. Morality only makes sense because God does. Remove God as the framework and you won’t find morality anywhere else – especially not, as Kant believed, within yourself. Looking for God inside you, you’ll find only yourself there – effectively you’ll become your own God, with tragic results not only for yourself but for society.
Benedict XVI taught this, and his poignant words will forever remain his legacy:
‘Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognising nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own ego.’
Good-bye, Your Holiness. Sorry you couldn’t stay.