Benedict XVI: an anomaly

By Artchil B. Fernandez

In the dying hours of 2022, the year of the tiger had one last surprise – the death of Pope Benedict XVI. His departure ended the “era of two popes,” a rather unusual if not bizarre situation of the Church in the modern era.

The passing of Pope Benedict XVI or Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger brought into sharp focus his life as prince of the Church and later as its supreme pontiff. Benedict XVI was a controversial as well as an enigmatic figure. He was a paradox, an anomaly.

Pope John Paul II in 1981 appointed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was in this role where he gained notoriety or celebrity status depending on which side of the fence one is standing. To conservatives, he was their darling for enforcing Church orthodoxy. To progressives and liberals, he was “God’s Rottweiler” or the “Panzer Cardinal” who marginalized, condemned and suppressed their ideas and views.

It was under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s watchful eye that “Liberation Theology” was condemned twice and many liberation theologians, particularly Leonardo Boff were silenced through censure, sanction and prohibition from expressing their views. A new form of inquisition was launched by the Church.

Upon the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, it was not unexpected that his hatchet man Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger succeeded him. Both share the same ideological perspectives and Benedict XVI’s papacy was seen as an extension of John Paul II.  To the surprise of everyone, Benedict XVI proved he was his own person.

In 2013 Benedict XVI made a radical decision unheard of in 600 years. He gave up his position, the first voluntary resignation since the 13th century. In 1294, Pope Celestine V resigned after only five months in office realizing Church administration did not suit his hermitic life. It is worth noting that months prior to his resignation, Benedict XVI visited the tomb of Celestine V and left his papal pallium. Only later the significance of his act became clear. (Pope Gregory XII’s 1415 resignation was decided by the Council of Constance to end the Great Schism and was not voluntary).

Benedict XVI’s resignation was earthshaking. It was an astonishing decision. Coming from an archconservative who is supposed to uphold tradition, it was truly a revolutionary act, perhaps one of the greatest novelties in the Church. Benedict XVI has forever altered the Petrine Office in the modern times.

The resignation rankled conservatives who cling to the tradition that popes stay in office until death. By breaking long held and sacred tradition, Benedict XVI reminded not just future popes but present Church leaders to treat their office with great humility, that it is not their personal property. The resignation was a drastic move, a final departure from John Paul II who despite his deteriorating health stayed in office until the end. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, recognized his “lack of strength of mind and body” to continue to hold office and gave it up.

By his historic resignation, Benedict XVI had demonstrated he is an anomaly in the Church, a man of paradox. As a young theologian in Vatican II, he was on the side of the progressives but later swung to conservatism and became a chief enforcer of orthodoxy as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As pope, he overturned centuries of tradition and opened a new path for the papacy in the 21st century.

But Benedict XVI’s greatest legacy is in the intellectual arena. He was a superb theologian and was considered as one of the best and important thinkers of our age. His battle against post-modernism has far reaching influence going beyond theological circles.Benedict XVI coined the term “dictatorship of relativism” to describe post-modern thought and directed his intellectual arsenal against it.

Dictatorship of relativism according to Benedict XVI is “recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires.” He warned that today “we are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” Benedict XVI said these back in 2005 when fake news and alternative facts were not yet in fashion. Now the world is battling the scourge of fake news and the words of Benedict XVI proved to be prophetic.

The ideological foundation and theoretical justification of fake news, alternative facts and historical distortion is post-modern thinking, the dictatorship of relativism. Truth is relative, situational, and contingent. Truth is a matter of perspective. Truth is fluid and is what one thinks and is not based on fact, standard or something eternal.

Benedict XVI attacked the view that truth is relative. For him there is always the Truth. He argues that the “truth in charity [is the] fundamental formula for Christian existence.” Truth for Benedict XVI is anchored in the Logos, in Christ, the eternal word of God from whom all things come.  “Truth and love coincide in Christ.”

Fake news cannot be truth since they are not fact. Trolls and entrepreneurs of lies using post-modern thinking packaged falsehoods as “truth” by claiming that truth is relative and fluid. Expanding Benedict XVI’s argument outside theology, there is always the truth, the facts. Truth and fact cannot be relative or a matter of opinion. In Benedict XVI’s theological vocabulary, truth is Christ; in secular lingua franca, truth is fact. Truth/fact is now under sieged by merchants of fake news.

“Either [relativism] becomes nihilism or else it expands positivism into the power that dominates everything,” Benedict XVI forewarned. Fake news now pollutes the digital world, shapes events and outcomes of elections. What he feared 15 years ago is becoming a reality. Providing the intellectual tools to combat fake news by dismantling its theoretical root is perhaps the most significant legacy of the anomaly pope – Benedict XVI.