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I hesitate to add to all that has been written about the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and to come in late to the discussion no less. I am even more hesitant to critique such a great and holy man at all. Who am I to do so? But, particularly after reading the excellent March issue of First Things, I think there is an aspect of his personality and pontificate that merits more attention, both as a good example . . . and as a warning.

Long before he became Pope, Joseph Ratzinger had gained a reputation as “God’s Rottweiler,” as strict and unrelenting in rooting out heterodoxy. Here is a typical and biased example of this viewpoint just after he retired. Now I would consider being dogged against error a good thing, but he was despised for that. Many liberal Catholics were not happy when he became Pope.

But what is more accurate is Benedict possessed a saintly gentleness which a number of those who knew him or only met him have remarked upon in recent days, including to me personally. Gerhard Cardinal Muller, in his must read piece for the latest First Things, noted he was gentle even with the liberation theologians. Yes, with them of all people. Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith perhaps most gained his scary reputation from his dealings with them. Leonardo Boff assisted by rather loudly playing the victim.

Yet Muller notes that Ratzinger could have revoked Boff’s teaching credentials but instead imposed only a year of silent sabbatical. As for the author of A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez, he “was never censured or commanded to recant.” In Muller’s telling — and he should know — Ratzinger had “admiring” friendships with several leading liberation theologians. Others of varying backgrounds have written warmly of Benedict’s gentle approachable nature.

He retained this gentleness and tolerance while putting in the decades of hard and scholarly work under John Paul II and as Pope himself to buttress the Faith both by his own teaching and by addressing errant teachings. And he thought he had succeeded to a significant extent in setting the RCC on the right course.

Benedict revealed that thinking in a speech three days after he announced his resignation, as Matthew Schmitz writes in the same First Things. Benedict had striven for the reforming “true council” of Vatican II against the “virtual council” of perpetual liberalization. This “virtual council” is more commonly known by both proponents and detractors as the “spirit of Vatican II.” In that speech, Benedict pronounced, “This virtual council is broken, is lost.”

Sadly, and as Schmitz immediately writes, “But he was wrong.” That virtual council had “champions at the highest levels of the church” and succeeded in electing Francis and then undoing much or most of the good John Paul II and Benedict XVI had done. The two led admirably from 1978 to 2013 – 35 years. Yet after just ten years under Francis we see a Church of Rome hurtling toward apostasy and oppressing the faithful, such as by suppressing the Latin Mass that Benedict revived.

How could this happen so quickly after the long faithful persistent leadership of “God’s Rottweiler”?

Before I begin to give my answer, I want to emphasize that I do not write to blame Benedict. The man gave so much of himself, of his brilliant mind, of his love of Christ, and also of his bodily well being. He worked under difficult health. Once he practically begged John Paul II to allow him to retire from his duties. But John Paul found him too indispensable. No, the blame belongs to the mix of evil and foolish and weak men who undermined Benedict then elected Francis and then enabled that Jesuit. Yes, a very few have stood up to Francis. But their power has been spiritual, not temporal.

Also, the Roman Catholic Church is structured in such a way that lasting change is hard to bring about even in a lifetime. That can be both a blessing and a curse. As much as LibCats might try, the RCC has not yet gone apostate as most mainline Protestant denominations have. Yet. On the other hand, even during the decades under John Paul and Benedict, the drift to apostasy had only been paused. A few centuries back, many faithful scholars, like the brilliant Erasmus, tried to nudge Rome toward needful reform. Luther was one of them. Early on, he did not intend to split the church. But Rome was stubborn and reactionary. So we got the Reformation for better or for worse. And even when Rome has managed to reform, prevailing currents often wash those reforms away. Pope Clement XIV suppressing the Jesuit order comes to mind.

Still, no man is perfect, not even a saintly one like Benedict. So, for the sake of both the study of church history and of avoiding error in the future, it must be asked if Benedict unknowingly enabled what is now happening to the RCC.

An obvious answer is yes: he resigned and allowed Francis and his backers to take over. I am among those who wished he had not resigned. But I cannot fault him. Although ten more years from death as it turned out, his health was far from strong. He felt overwhelmed by the office. And the poor man wanted to retire even before he became Pope. We can regret and even mourn his resignation. It would be mean indeed to cast blame on him for it.

A less obvious answer is that Ratzinger, both as Prefect and as Pope, led much more in a gentle, collegial manner than as the supposed “God’s Rottweiler.” Both R. R. Reno and Schmitz note this. Even in a structure in which change is slow and difficult, the length of his power may have given him opportunity to utterly defeat the liberal forces of the “virtual council” so that they could not rise up again any time soon. He did not do so, probably by choice and temperament.

For Benedict sought continuity, not disruption, in the church. Therefore he and John Paul II did not disrupt the collegial manner of governance in the RCC. R. R. Reno points this out as the reason both John Paul II and Benedict appointed men who opposed them and who desired the RCC to go down the well worn liberal road the two popes were striving to lead the church away from.

Now collegiality always has boundaries. And Ratzinger hardened those boundaries of orthodoxy and acceptable teaching for a time. But he barely moved the boundaries. So unfaithful men, such as those in the infamous St. Gallen Group, were for the most part allowed to remain in their positions of power, to gain appointments of other unfaithful men, to undermine, and to prepare. And they were well prepared to seize the papacy when Benedict retired.

And once they seized the papacy, they and Francis virtually tore apart the collegial model. John Paul II and Benedict did not stack the College of Cardinals with like-minded allies (which is a big reason we got Francis), but Francis has so stacked the College that it would now take a miracle for the next pope to be genuinely orthodox. Muller noted that Benedict engaged in frequent, often friendly, discussions with errant opponents. Francis is notorious for stonewalling orthodox opponents. JP2 and Benedict tolerated a lot of liturgical enormities, but Francis and his hatchet man Arthur Roche are ruthlessly suppressing the Latin Mass. This attack on the traditional mass is said to have broken Benedict’s heart. Reno opined Francis is a throwback to imperial popes. Francis famously likes to wear a faux modesty, but his heart and governance wears a tall triple tiara.

In church governance, as in secular politics, collegiality is like tolerance to predatory men — useful when seeking power, to be cast aside once power is gained.

Again, one should not blame Benedict for the predations of the evil men who followed him. That would be akin to blaming Jesus for Judas Iscariot. That evil men take advantage of the gentleness and patient tolerance of good men does not mean these godly traits should be cast aside. One should instead be thankful for Benedict’s decades of faithful service and mournful for the suffering he and faithful Catholics have endured since he retired.

Nonetheless what has transpired since Benedict’s resignation should serve as a warning. It must serve as a warning.

Unfaithful men, unfaithful in either orthodoxy or orthopraxy, must not be allowed to gain critical mass in a church. And that no matter what model of church governance is used. But, although they have their commendable traits, collegial methods of governance are particularly prone to being hijacked by unscrupulous men as has now occurred in the Roman Catholic Church.

That is not at all to say that collegiality should be cast aside. Again, good will always be abused by errant men. That does not mean we cast good aside! But collegiality must have wise and enforced limits. While desiring to be gentle and “innocent as doves,” one must be ready to strike and be “wise as serpents” in protecting the church from those “simply not concerned with either the Church or Christ” but with power. (That is how Cardinal Muller and Clodovis Boff, brother of Leonardo, described many who pushed liberation theology.) And one can see today in the Roman Catholic Church what can happen to both collegiality and orthodoxy if such men are not adequately suppressed.

The House of Bishops and all clergy in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) would do well to take note. For the House makes a point to work together according to collegiality. Personally, I have become more confident in recent months that they are doing so wisely and am thankful.

Still there remains in ACNA clergy who are more concerned with furthering wokeness, which is obsessed with power, and “social justice,” than with the Book of Common Prayer, the Vincentian Canon, and the 39 Articles. Should wokeness die out such will surely find another trendy toxic ideology to bring into the church. The Church of What’s Happening Now never goes away; it just changes form. While it may not be wise, practical, or even doable to root out all such men, their power must be reduced, not increased, at all levels of ACNA governance.

If even the wise Benedict XVI can err by thinking error defeated when in fact it is ready to pounce and hijack a church, even the Roman Catholic Church, our good bishops can so err, too. We must support them, pray for them, and exhort them as they seek to lead us in proclaiming the Faith with love and to keep error and errant men in their place.

Nonetheless in all things let us follow the gentle and good example of Benedict XVI who died with these words on his heart and on his lips: “Lord, I love you.” Such love of Christ and faithfulness to Him will prevail in the end.

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