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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.

  • Markmangham

    My perception is not quite the same – I find my self wanting to have the next pope be more evidently god centred and spiritual; I am a liberal but was in no doubt about the conservative John paul 2′s evident spirituality; compassion and inclusion were and are powerful forces which I would hope to be more evident in his successor. Oh and being a liberal would be great too:-)

  • orapronobis

    The problem is that liberal Catholics move people way from the ultimate truths of Christ and in doing so move them away from their salvation. In other words they dice with their own salvation and the salvation of others.

  • Dan Aquinas

     I wish “liberals” were true to the word, and accepted that “conservatives” held a valid position, one to be tolerated, even accepted.  Regarding being “Catholic”:  there should be no adjectives placed in front of the word – you are either Catholic (or at least trying to achieve that taught so well in the CCC), or something else.  Saying an “Act of Faith”, believing its words, putting them into action in your daily life, and you will, I hope, understand what I mean.

  • Windfish

    Perhaps you could define for me what you think a “liberal Catholic” is – I have seen the term used often, but it seems to mean different things. One consistent similarity between them, though, seems to be a dislike and neglect of orthodox Catholic teaching, especially the Church’s moral teaching. But why would any Catholic desire that in a pope? That would be a disaster.

  • Kevin H

    I’ve had similar thoughts, Fr. Alexander.  Pope Benedict speaks and acts as though God really is there and truly speaks to the human race, in contrast to the notion that God is a malleable human construct and the Church’s job is to reflect conventional wisdom while allowing people to feel “spiritual.”  They rage because they have no coherent response.

  • AlanP

    You are correct that the term “liberal” is somewhat undefined.  I would be regarded as a “liberal Catholic”, in the sense that I need to think things through for myself and find the “official” explanation for certain doctrines unconvincing (example: the non-ordination of women).  One difference between “liberals” and”traditionalists” is that the former are happy for the latter to be part of the Church, while the latter, all too often, think that the former have no place in the Church.

  • AlanP

    As a “liberal” (not my label, but the way some would label me) I am perfectly happy to accept “conservatives” as fully belonging to the Church.  Even Hans Kung (much more “liberal” than myself!) has said in the past that the SSPX should be readmitted.  So I think your wish is actually a reality.

  • OldMeena

    I have still to receive my copy of The Spectator published since the Pope’s recent announcement (presumably the issue dated 16 Feb. referred to by Fr Alexander L-S.). But I note here, yet again, approval by a Catholic writer of articles printed in the British Right-Wing press. 
    The traditional C of E was once described as the (traditional) Tory party at prayer. 
    Has the RC Church “joined” the conservative Right in the Tory party? Or (even) more seriously: why do Catholics so often see matters from a Right-Wing point of view, and have sympathies with the traditional Right of the Conservative party?

  • OldMeena

    The “coherent response” is clear: the Pope is a believer of/in the RC Church’s traditional teachings. He actually believes them.

  • Justin

    I wish people would use the correct terminology. There is no such thing as a liberal Catholic, or a conservative Catholic, or a traditionalist.

    Within the Church, there are orthodox Catholics and there are heretics/heterodox. 

    Orthodox Catholics hold and believe all that the Church to be revealed by God. They believe what has always been believed and the primary foundation of their belief is in Christ and his promise that the Holy Spirit would guide his Church into all truth. 

    Heretics believe that only some of what the Church teaches is revealed by God. They believe that certain doctrines of the Church can and should be changed. The primary foundation of their belief is in themselves.

  • Cassandra

    Women have always had a place in the Church. As teachers and ministers to male part of the church. That is what our vocation is. St Monica is a good example, St Sylvia, St Theresa and all the Holy women mentioned in the new Testament.

  • Cassandra


  • AlanP

    I will agree with you in not liking labels (liberal, conservative, etc.).  But I do not accept that to doubt a particular doctrine (and I don’t mean anything fundamental such as the Nicene Creed etc.) makes one a heretic.  Church history shows that what is held as doctrinal orthodoxy in one age can be changed in another (“no salvation outside the Church” is an example, its meaning has been redefined).  Jesus’ teaching has very little to do with the holding of a list of doctrines as the key to salvation.

  • Alex

    I like what you said that is it is “all about the centrality of God” not primarily about us. The Christocentric way of life disturb our self-seeking centrality. Oh how hard it is to live with out grace.
    Remember me in your prayer. Thank you for such edifying article. God bless you.

  • Joe B.

     Who’s raging? I don’t see anyone raging.

  • Sue Korlan

     Actually, the correct term for those of us who believe what the Catholic Church holds and teaches is not Orthodox, but faithful. The Orthodox are our Eastern brothers and sisters who are temporarily separated from us.

  • Frank

    A very good article. A pleasure to read such a well-balanced appraisal and a good reminder of how blessed we are. 
    I would like to second Kevin H comment 

  • couissent

     Clarified, not redefined.  Holy Mother Church does not change her teaching.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thanks! Oremus pro invicem,

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    You have no evidence whatever that i am in any way aligned with the Tory party. I approve of what Miss McDonagh wrote and what Mr O’Sullivan wrote… from that you make this incredible leap that I am somehow a Tory. Please show a little responsibility in making your comments and do not defame me.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    You have no evidence whatever that i am in any way aligned with the Tory party. I approve of what Miss McDonagh wrote and what Mr O’Sullivan wrote… from that you make this incredible leap that I am somehow a Tory. Please show a little responsibility in making your comments and do not defame me.

  • Justin

    Orthodox simply means right belief. 

    There are exists other variations of Christianity who are not in full visible ecclesial communion with the Petrine See. Some of these communities call themselves the Orthodox Church – these tend to be communities who can trace their succession to the early Church, but there are also other groups who call themselves Episcopalians, Anglicans, Presbyterians, etc. 

    This does not mean that the Catholic Church is not orthodox (small ‘o’), or is not the *true* Church of England, or does not have an episcopate, or priests.

  • OldMeena

    “You have no evidence whatever that i am in any way aligned with the Tory party.”

    I did not mean to suggest that you were so-aligned – I offer my sincere apologies. If I had to guess (without, of course, knowing the truth) from the many posts and responses of yours that I’ve read, I would guess that you are not a traditional conservative Conservative. I would further guess (and it’s only a guess again of course) that you (although still quite young, from your remark about being a teenager in the 1970s) have seen too much of the world to make you one.

    But nobody can fail to note the continuous stream of references to the traditional Conservative press in the articles posted on this website. These invariably approve of various articles published in this press and, to me, indicate a sympathetic view across a range of ideas.

    I think it probable that others have come to the same view, and the question I posed asks for suggestions as to why this should be so.

  • mollysdad

    “God is dead.” (Nietzsche)
    “Nietzsche is dead. PS: So is Claire Rayner.” (God).

  • OldMeena

    I recall that scrawled on walls on the London Underground some 30 years or more ago.
    (Except, that is, for the mention of the recently deceased Claire Rayner)

  • maxmarley

    Fr Alexander, I see references in the comments to the ordination of women priests.
    Is this a recent phenomenon since say the sixties or has it been an issue for much longer?

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    The subject of this article is probably the silliest issue I’ve read in weeks…OK…The Republicans and FOX News are a constant supply of silliness…But, seriously? Non-believers are disturbed by Benedict ‘because God is the center of everything’ to him?  Why would that be the least bit interesting to an atheist? Somebody needs to get out more and mingle with real humans and not cloister themselves and dream up nonexistent issues to dispute.

  • Justin

    “Non-believers are disturbed by Benedict ‘because God is the center of everything’ to him? Why would that be the least bit interesting to an atheist?”

    I don’t know. Why has Richard Dawkins spent his whole life trying to disprove something he claims does not exist?? Perhaps Dawkins, Rayner, et al do need to get out more eh…..

  • Justin

    Isn’t it more to do with the fact that the left wing press actually hate and are revolted by the Church?? Why  then would this website bother to comment on the monthly screeds against religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, that comes from The Guardian and The Independent?

  • majorcalamity

    The Pope does not disturb me, and I am a non believer. I am sure he is a sincere man, who truly believes what he does. It is the RC Church which disturbs me, and the fact that it’s leadership lives the life that they do, and says what they say in the way that they say it. I have a suspicion that Benedict knows this and that it is impossible for him, at his age, to make the changes which are needed. When you reflect upon the fact that the Church is growing in Africa, South America and Asia, but is in decline in the developed world, you have to ask why. I think I have worked it out, but doubt if too many Catholics would agree. I don’t think, if I am right, that the longer term future for the Church is too bright. 

  • Michaela and Joseph

    Maybe the best article about the Holy Father I have read, so far. Yes, pope Benedict is so incredibly humble, a humility that really SHINES LIKE A STAR! Absolutely nothing in him has looked for applause or appreciation, no, only God is the very center of his life.
    In our view, pope Benedict is INCREDIBLY CHARISMATIC. What is charisma, by the way? Most people seem to think that it is synonymous with someone laughing, joking, talking quite a lot, being “entertaining” in one’s conversation etc. We strongly disagree; a very quiet and meditative man, like pope Benedict, can be extremely charismatic, simply through this very gneuine and simple smile, a smile which is  not just “put on” to please others, but only comes out in a most natural and charming way. And just LOOK at his face, when in deep prayer; if THAT’S not charismatic, what then is?!
    We have met many people who were “entertaining”, chatting, joking, by many considered charismatic, but they were not!
    We imahine the pope being somewhat shy, and we find that very appealing, as well. A total lack of shyness is usually not very attractive, since it often makes people seem insensitive and too assured of themselves. 
    The truth is that too many people today are afraid of silence- especially non believers and the like, but also many catholics, who just want to go comfortably along with the crowd.
    Pope Benedict is and will always remain our most beloved pope, to be loved and admired. no wonder many scholars consider him the most brilliant pope since pope Gregory.
    This, combined with his striking and wonderful humility, is sth we will never, ever, forget.

    Michaela and Joseph

  • GratefulCatholic

    Very good Justin; the point exactly.

  • Maccabeus

    Unfortunately, the Church does change her teaching – and since Vatican II it has been teaching a version of Christianity that would be unrecognisable to the generations preceding that debacle in terms of liturgy, ethics, moral content and emphasis, down to the description of God, which is now modelled on man and man’s needs and not God and God’s glory i.e. we now have a man-centred gospel and not, as previously, a God-centred gospel, and the Church has not only failed to evangelise the secular world, but has been evangelised by the secular world, absorbing many of its trends and values, not least the feminization of the faith, hence the absence of men between the ages of 18 and 60 at mass. A religion that fails to attract men is a dying religion. 

  • Fr. Thomas Poovathinkal


    TAKE whatever is good from anywhere and everywhere. It glorifies GOD who alone is GOOD.


  • scary goat

     Good job Mr Carter isn’t around!  He might have something to say to that!

    Where are you, by the way, Mr. C?  Haven’t seen much of you lately.

  • Fr. Thomas Poovathinkal

    TRUTH HURTS to heal and to save. TRUTH SEEKERS are bound to offend knowingly or unknowingly for they discover in their search aspects of TRUTH which may make others  who have fixed ideas and interests uncomfortable or insecure. This requires that we remain humble and open with all. Was not Pope Benedict XVI such?

  • scary goat

     1.  I doubt very much whether the type of changes you have in mind are needed and I doubt if Pope Benedict would agree with you.

    2.  You are correct to doubt whether Catholics would agree with you.  You are looking at things from the perspective of “the developed world” which I am guessing you think is “the best of all possible worlds”.  It is not. Yes, we have the technology (which in many ways is a good thing) but it’s not the be all and end all.  There are so many down-sides to life in the “developed world”.  And no, I’m not being “spoilt”.  I have lived for many years in a “developing” country and know very well what I am comparing with.

  • scary goat

     I had one of those silly, non-existent issues not so long ago.  My mother (an avowed atheist) was singing the praises of my kids’ Catholic school and how it is so much better in every way…..but finished her sentence with “I just wish they wouldn’t worship God though!”

    ummmm ?????

  • Parasum

    No more so than (many of) their  conservative critics – the two groups mirror one another, acting  as as an irritant to the other. Each makes some valuable points, while overlooking the value of what the other group emphasises (& tends in some ways to over-emphasise).

    Conservatism & liberalism are relative terms, not absolute qualities. Hans Kueng is a liberal by some standards – but so, by some, was JP2. Neither position is uniquely virtuous, over against the uniquely vicious character of the other; both are flawed, & both are needed, if the Church is not to be a partisan clique.

  • Parasum

    “There is no such thing as a liberal Catholic, or a conservative Catholic, or a traditionalist.”

    ## Orthodoxy and heterodoxy are two further groups. They are not the same as (though they may in practice overlap with) any of the first three. 

    “Heretics believe that only some of what the Church teaches is revealed by God.”

    ## And they are accurate in their theology in believing that. What the Church teaches, and what God has revealed, are two distinct over-lapping sets – not the same one. (I’m assuming – wrongly perhaps – that you are treating that belief as an example of heresy on the part of that group. If you weren’t, my apologies.)

    FWIW, plenty of people are liberal in some respects, conservative in others, orthodox in many respects, and in some respects not orthodox, traditionalist in others. One person can easily have features of all five groups – in different respects.

  • Justin

    If the Church has changed her doctrine, it means one of two things – that (i) the Holy Spirt has decided to take a holiday, or that (ii) Christ is a liar.

    So which is it Maccabeus? Is the Holy Spirit on annual leave? Or is Christ a false prophet?

  • Parasum

    But there is far more to Catholicism – if it is Christian in fact and not in words alone -  than orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is important, as is having a spine: but the human body would not be the human body, if it were no more than a spine. The spine is for the sake of things other than itself – so is orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy by itself tends to fossilise into a lifeless “orthodoxism”. Right belief is not enough. 

  • Matthew_Roth

    Pater, I thought you had rejected the Tories completely after the SSM debacle.

  • Parasum

    It has changed its teaching several times. That on religious liberty may have been clarified, but not w/o alteration of teaching as well.  Supersessionism is a bad word these days – it used to be Catholic doctrine. Usury used to be forbidden – but not since after 1745. And so on. The CC is always changing – even in doctrine.

    Even though there is also clarification w/o change.

  • Jess

    I see you wrote “god” with a small g.  If it was intentional, then you’re not going to get what you want.  Our new pope, whoever it will be, will certainly be “God,” capital G, centered and spiritual.

  • Parasum

     Damian Thompson is always worth reading – & he is far from the only Catholic writing the Speccie.  Dot Wordsworth, Melissa Kite, Paul Johnson, Piers Paul Read, Charles Moore, all write for it; several of them fairly regularly.

    “Or (even) more seriously: why do Catholics so often see matters from a
    Right-Wing point of view, and have sympathies with the traditional Right
    of the Conservative party?”

    ## Catholic political tradition is traditionally conservative, with a tendency to set the community above the individual. A Church which emphasises tradition, precedent, law, order, & conformity, rather than freedom or individual rights is likely to be politically conservative. And there is the enormous influence of Roman culture, in which order was of great importance: religion was a way of squaring matters with the gods, and of finding what they wanted: but it has no moral content. Unlike OT religion, in which righteous behaviour & being a righteous person become immensely important. If Catholicism were more Hebraic, its political priorities might be considerably different; and perhaps more Christian.  

  • Randy

     You are right on. Real atheists wouldn’t even be interested in this type of stuff, unless they hold some type of grudge or something against the Church.

  • Parasum

     The CH frequently comments on those screeds – why not ?

    FWIW, “left-wing” does not, & need not, automatically = “CC-hating”. And also FWIW, hating some of the activities of the CC, or of Catholics, can be a healthy – though dangerous – re-action to some of those activities. When the CC, or members of it, does what is evil, hated of that evil is wholly appropriate. Being hated, and being hated without cause, are not the same thing by a long way. There is nothing wrong in blaming Christians – Catholics included – for the blameworthy things they do. To find fault with what is blameworthy, is (as far as it goes) evidence of a healthy moral sense. Not to  find fault with what is blameworthy would be worrying.

    If non-Catholics hate what is worthy of hate, even if the CC does what is worthy of hate – then thank goodness for that. STM Catholics should be grateful that non-Catholics have a functioning sense of morals. Either the Church believes in the moral doctrines it teaches, or it is does not. If it does, then it must expect to be criticised when it gives an impression of denying in practice what it teaches in words. It can’t expect people to suppose it does not take seriously the doctrines it claims to take seriously, & says it wants taken seriously. For people to criticise it for its sins and crimes, is therefore something of a (back-handed) compliment.    

  • Parasum

     But what does the OP have in mind ?

    1. He hasn’t said

    2. Even if CC doesn’t want to make certain specified changes, that does not mean they are not needed. What the CC wants shouldn’t be a consideration – what matters is what God wants. If God were to want the CC to shut up shop: then that is what the CC ought to do. If individuals have to change, no matter what the inconvenience and discomfort, then it’s far from clear that the Church is meant to be exempt from this.

    If the Church has to fall into the ground, and die, in order to live – then that is no more than Christ did, and required of His followers.   

  • Ano. N. Ymous

    If the Roman Catholic Church were “modernized” to the point it was indistinguishable from, say, the CoE, then what would Protestants have to protest against?