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Pope Benedict disturbs non-believers because for him God is the centre of everything

He shows that humility is the hallmark of authentic Christianity

By on Thursday, 14 February 2013

Benedict XVI prays in St Peter's Basilica (Photo: PA)

Benedict XVI prays in St Peter's Basilica (Photo: PA)

Amidst the huge amount of comment generated by the Pope’s decision to retire, two pieces stood out from the rest for me. They were both published in the Spectator, and are both worth reading. The first was by Melanie McDonagh and the second by John O’Donnell. Both of them seemed to understand what it was that Benedict XVI was trying to do, and both seem to see him as a great Pope. This is in happy contrast to much of the rest of the comment stream, which is too often not only simply ill-informed, but irrational and vitriolic. None of that requires a link from me.

Given that Benedict XVI is a scholar in the German tradition (as Melanie McDonagh pointed out), it seems especially ironic that so many of the reactions to him were completely devoid of the careful thoughtfulness of the German and scholarly approach. This Pope has perhaps been the target of more polemical abuse than any other. Consider the words of Claire Rayner, now deceased, who had this to say at the time of the papal visit: “I have no language with which to adequately describe Joseph Alois Ratzinger, AKA the Pope. In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature. His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him.”

While Miss Rayner’s words leave us in no doubt about what she feels, they are hardly rational, for she does not engage with what the Pope has said on any matter. We can assume she disagrees with the Pope, but she has advanced no rational basis for this apart from vitriolic dislike. It is odd to think that she advocates getting rid of the Pope when one assumes that she believes in the founding values of a liberal society, such as free speech and freedom of expression and association.

What was it about Benedict XVI that so infuriated Miss Rayner and those who thought like her? A clue can perhaps be found in the last liturgy the Pope conducted in public which was the Ash Wednesday Mass. During the homily the Pope remarked that Jesus “denounced religious hypocrisy, behaviour that wants to show off, attitudes that seek applause and approval. The true disciple does not serve himself or his public, but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity.” The Holy Father was referring to the passage in the Gospel which had just been read, which speaks of people performing their religious devotions at street corners. Ironically, at the end of the Mass, Benedict received a one minute standing ovation, to which he said: “Thank you, but let us return to prayer.”

These words speak for themselves. For Benedict XVI the centre of everything has always been God and His Church; he has not sought the approval of the crowd and what he has said and taught has been done in the light of the universal revelation that comes from God. Because revelation represents a truth for all time, Benedict has not felt the need to “get with the programme” as represented by Claire Rayner and others. For him the programme has been set not by mankind but by God, and it is our job as human beings to meditate on what God has said to us and find the appropriate response. There is a huge difference between the Pope, a believer in the Almighty, and those who like Claire Rayner see problems as something that can be solved by human ingenuity unaided by grace. For these people the humility of Benedict XVI is something almost morbid. But for those who believe, it is clear that humility is the hallmark of authentic Christianity.

For the last eight years we have been lucky to have had a humble Pope, one who has listened to the Lord and followed where the Lord has led. His decision to retire is one made in conscience, before the Lord. The Pope’s humility underlines to us the grandeur and goodness of God, the God who calls us into question. In the end so much of the comment about the Pope’s retirement misses this essential point. All of this is about God, not about any of us, and not about Benedict himself. The process of losing one Pope, and the election of another, should serve to remind us all that it is God that reigns at the heart of the Church and to Him we must look. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us all about the centrality of God and that is comforting and perhaps disturbing in equal measure.

  • Sweetjae

    Justin you hit right on the mark. But sometimes we call the opposing extremes (interpretative- like the Feeneyism vs. Salvation for all or Papolatrists vs. Old Catholics) as the Left and Right, anyways both are considered heresy. We just do it for labeling purposes ;-).

  • Sweetjae

    Although what Justin said is true that there is only Orthodoxy and heresy, but heresy has many forms, whether from the interpretive Left or Right. Examples of Feeneyism vs. Universal Salvation, Papolatrists vs. Old Catholics. They are both opposing extremes and both are heresies.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

     Well..the ‘Mothers of Mercy’ was meant to be ironic…But I appreciate what your father went through…I had a taste of that in a Welsh military school. Never been so cold in my life. ;=)

  • Popewatch

    Interesting point. Now consider this please:
    I feel a need to think things through myself and found the “official” explanation for certain doctrines (though other examples than yours would spring to my mind first) quite CONVINCING. Now what strange beast does that make me?

    Besides, if you allow: I am not sure at all that the so called “liberals” are happy to see the so called “traditionalists” as members of the Church. Perhaps you could kindly introduce me to one?

  • JabbaPapa

    It certainly doesn’t show in your article that you have

    Reading such criticisms does not require strict adherence to your blinkered strategy of believing them wholesale as if they were holy truths of necessary atheistic anti-Catholicism.

    So try answering the accusations that he colluded in hiding the abuse of children by priests from the authorities.

    OK — those accusations are LIES, and I see no reason whatsoever to start believing them unless and until PROOF (not just stories from 3rd party atheistic bigots) of it has been presented to public opinion.

    You might at the same time attempt to explain why you appear to believe that he is a very deep thinker.

    Most likely this belief is caused by Joseph Ratzinger’s fine intellect, extensive rationality, and very high education.

    These are evidenced by the high quality of the philosophical and theological and spiritual and pastoral contents of his personal writings.

    Comments such as ‘atheism caused Nazism’ are not exactly correct


    Nazism was an overtly atheistic ideology. This ideology was created by atheists and propagandised by atheists for atheistic reasons.

    The comment is exactly correct.

    Your leader appears to have forgotten that Nazism was a construct of a certain Adolf Hitler

    Godwin — also WRONG.

    Hitler was neither the founder nor the philosophical ideologue of Nazism — notwithstanding that he was its foremost propagandist and public political apologist.

    it isn’t because of any belief

    This statement is simultaneously irrational, naïve, and just plain old foolish.

    It seems like an idea by a callow teenager or first year undergraduate.

  • JabbaPapa

    I’m not your research assistant — nevertheless, Pope Gelasius I forbade the priestly ordination of women on 13th March 494.

    His encyclical to that effect is far more lively in the original Latin than in English translation …

  • JabbaPapa

    All people are sinners.