On The Death of His Holiness Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

On the Death of His Holiness, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Photo credit Tadeusz Górny, Public Domain

Following the death of His Holiness, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the Rev’d Dr John Bradbury, General Secretary of the United Reformed Church said:

“The papacy has been one of the causes of deep division within the western churches but the fruits of the ecumenical movement are many. Today we mourn the loss of a baptised brother in Christ. We lament the remaining divisions between the churches as we respond to Christ’s call to seek unity. We also celebrate moments when the Bishop of Rome speaks with a voice on the world stage out of our common faith for justice, peace, and the flourishing of all creation. In such moments we catch a glimpse of what it means that the Bishop of Rome is a focus of unity of the whole Church. We give thanks for the faithful way Benedict XVI exercised that ministry and uphold all who mourn him in our prayers. May he rest in peace and rise in glory”.
 

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The United Reformed Church offers the following reflection and prayer which may be useful as we contemplate the life and ministry of Benedict XVI.

On the death of Joseph Ratzinger,
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

The ministry of oversight in the Church is both necessary and difficult; those who are called to exercise such a ministry – in councils or as individuals – deserve our prayers and gratitude as well as critical scrutiny.  Today the Church mourns Joseph Ratzinger who served in this oversight ministry as Pope Benedict XVI between April 2005 and February 2013.

Ratzinger was born in Bavaria on Holy Saturday 1927.  In 1941, following his 14th birthday, Ratzinger was forced to join the Hitler Youth as required by law.  He was an unenthusiastic member – a cousin with Downs Syndrome was murdered by the Nazis in their compulsory euthanasia programme.  Towards the end of the War, Ratzinger was conscripted into the German Army but he deserted and surrendered to the Americans.  In November 1945 Raztinger, and his brother Georg, entered a seminary to train for the priesthood and were ordained together in 1951.  Raztinger’s doctoral dissertation was on St Augustine of Hippo with postdoctoral research on St Bonaventure.  Ratzinger spent a few years in parish ministry before becoming a professor in 1958 at Freising College, then, in 1959, at the University of Bonn and in 1963 at the University of Münster.  

Cardinal Frings of Cologne took Raztinger to the Second Vatican Council as his theological expert.  There Ratzinger mixed with various other reform-minded experts such as Fr Hans Küng and Fr Edward Schillebeeckx.  He became an admirer of German reform-minded theologian Fr Karl Rahner.  Vatican II radicalised Catholic thinking making it more open to other religions and non-Catholic churches; it became a proponent of religious liberty.  The Council reformed the liturgy so it could be celebrated in the language of the people – not just in Latin.

Following the Council, Ratzinger was appointed to a chair in dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen, where he was a colleague of Hans Küng. In his 1968 book Introduction to Christianity, he wrote that the pope has a duty to hear differing voices within the Church before making a decision and downplayed the centrality of the papacy.  However, his time at Tübingen marked a transition to more conservative theological positions as he became alarmed by Maxist thought in student circles at the time coupled with student-led riots across Europe.  

In 1977 Pope Paul VI appointed Ratzinger Archbishop of Munich and Freising – a surprising appointment given his lack of pastoral experience.  Four years later the new pope, John Paul II, appointed Raztinger as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – the Vatican’s doctrinal guardian.  In this role Ratzinger defended traditional Catholic doctrine – especially condemning birth control and homosexuality.  Lesbian and gay people, he wrote, “…confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent…” Ratzinger also blamed campaigns for civil rights as causing violence towards LGBT people.*  Prominent theologians such as Matthew Fox and Leonardo Boff –  as well as Raztinger’s former colleague Hans Küng – were investigated and prohibited from writing and teaching.

In 2000 Ratzinger released the CDF declaration Dominus Iesus which seemed to backtrack on some of the reforms of Vatican II denying, for instance, that Protestant Chrisians were gathered in real churches and interfaith relations were seen in similar, cool, ways.  This was surprising given that, in 1976, Ratzinger had suggested the (Lutheran) Augsburg Confession of Faith was in agreement with Catholic theological positions.  

Ratzinger, aged 78, was elected Pope in 2005 taking the regnal name Benedict XVI.  His concern as pope was to counter the “dictatorship of relativism”  which he saw as a danger to society.  Moral relativism saw itself, he argued, as a form of liberation but which, in fact, was a type of prison which locked each person to their own ego.  This moral relativism led, for Benedict, to many contemporary moral evils – amongst them, of course, he listed homosexuality and birth control.   Given Benedict’s views on Protestants it was not surprising he made an easier route for Anglican clergy to become Catholic priests allowing them to follow, some, forms of Anglican worship.  Ironically, given the shortage of priests in the West, Benedict opened the celibate Catholic priesthood to married men – provided they were former Anglican clergy.  Benedict liberalised the use of the pre-Vatican II liturgy which annoyed many bishops around the world and drew criticism from the Jewish community alarmed by the Good Friday prayers in the old mass which asked God to lift “the veil” on Jewish hearts and to “deliver them from their darkness.”   Benedict ordered new vernacular translations of the mass which more neatly conformed to the feel and syntax of Latin than Paul VI’s mass; the result is loved by traditionalist Catholics but annoys more liberal ones.  

Benedict’s ministry of oversight, however, will be forever stained with serious safeguarding failures.   As Prefect of the CDF he clarified earlier rulings that internal Church investigations were confidential – for 20 years he enforced this rule damaging the Church’s reputation around sex abuse claims.  The letter is perceived as promoting a cover up culture. As Pope, Benedict claimed diplomatic immunity from liability in a case of three boys in Texas who had been abused and wished to claim damages against him.  In retirement he admitted his ministry as Archbishop of Munich and Freising had significant safeguarding failures in dealing with abusive priests.  Benedict’s ministry as Pope coincided with many revelations of clerical abuse and, worse, the covering up of such claims for decades.  Exhausted by these revelations and the demands of his office, Benedict made history by being the first pope since the middle ages to freely resign. In retirement, in a refurbished monastery in Vatican City, Benedict sometimes seemed to criticise his successor who is reversing many of his policies.  These retirement years were devoted to rest and study as his health declined.

Benedict lived a life of contradiction.  A committed Catholic conscripted to serve the Nazi war machine.  A thoughtful scholar ill suited to parish ministry,  yet made a bishop and then pope.  A liberal turned conservative.  An anti-gay aesthete.  A polymath – his collected writings cover 16 volumes, averaging some 1,000 pages each, on every conceivable topic in theology, philosophy, science, literature, and politics – yet his papacy is best remembered for his resignation.  No wonder that many think the ministry of oversight is best served in shared accountable leadership rather than entrusted to any single individual no matter how learned or godly they are.  Today we commend Benedict XVI to God’s gentle mercy praying he will rest in peace and rise in glory.

Eternal Majesty,
we give thanks for all who exercise oversight in Your Church,
today we thank you for the ministry of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,
and ask you to give him rest.

Embodied Word,
we pray for all who are wounded by Your Church,
those for whom the shepherds turned out to be wolves,
that You bring healing, light, and justice.

Enlivening Spirit,
remind us of Your insistent call reform,
to challenge our strictures and structures,
that Your people might be saved,
and our world renewed.

Amen.

*LETTER TO THE BISHOPS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ON THE PASTORAL CARE OF HOMOSEXUAL PERSONS n 7 & 11

 

 

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