Pope Benedict has been a strong leader for a Catholic Church that has become destabilized. He’s reaffirmed with strong convictions the traditional morals and values of Catholicism at a time when those morals and values have been under attack.
Those in the liberal wing of the church, however, were not pleased with Pope Benedict’s conservatism and tended to be upset with Pope Benedict because they had a sense that he wanted to turn back the clock and undo the effects of Vatican II (that great conclave that changed the character and direction of Catholicism in dramatic ways).
To start with, liberals saw that Pope Benedict wasn’t particularly pleased that after Vatican II the Mass could be said in the vernacular. Today, if you go into a Catholic Church in North America or in the United Kingdom, in all probability, you will hear the Mass said in English. That was unheard of prior to Vatican II. Back then, every Mass was conducted in Latin. Whether you went to church in Hong Kong, London, or Paris on any given Sunday, you would have heard the Mass said with exactly the same liturgy and in exactly the same Latin language. This, in turn, had the effect of contributing to the unity and solidarity for the Church. As any sociologist will tell you, a regularly practiced ritual creates an intensive sense of oneness. There is little question that when Catholicism moved from the Mass being said in Latin into it being said in the vernacular, forces were set loose that inevitably affected the unity of the Roman Catholic community. Following Vatican II, various Catholic groups seemed to move in very different directions. Liberation Theology emerged in Latin America; certain views on marriage began to be questioned by progressive Catholics; and beliefs about the practice of contraception came under criticism by the liberals in the Church. Roman Catholicism no longer seemed to be the unified body that it had been prior to Vatican II. The exclusivity of Catholicism started to break down, with Christians outside of the Roman Catholic community, and especially Protestant Christians, finding spiritual fellowship with Catholics. Pope Benedict became concerned that this new religious openness was leading to the compromising of ancient Catholic faith and practices.
Among his critics were those who felt that Benedict did not effectively deal with the problem of pedophilia, which seemed to have become rampant throughout the Catholic priesthood. In one infamous case, here in the United States, there had been great upset in the city of Boston over Cardinal Law who, allegedly, covered up acts of pedophilia by priests serving churches in his diocese. Concerns had been growing that Cardinal Law should be brought to trial, and perhaps even put into jail. Benedict’s reaction to this was to promote Cardinal Law by bringing him to Rome and making him a high official in the Vatican hierarchy, thus removing him from prosecution by the legal authorities in the United States.
The questions remained: Did this Pope really deal sufficiently and with veracity in his dealing with the accusations of cover-ups of pedophilia? Was he guilty of allowing for the transfer of priests who allegedly had committed such acts from one parish to another? Such questions have remained unanswered, and as Benedict’s term of office ends, there are those who ask if this Pope was a co-conspirator in cover-ups.
There is a common acceptance of the fact that Pope Benedict held a conservative theology and, in some respects, it may have been that theology which led to him making some controversial statements about Judaism and Islam—much to the consternation of those both inside the Catholic church and those outside the Catholic Church. The Vatican seemed to have had to put out far too many apologies and reinterpretations of comments the Pope made about those in other religions.
On other controversial matters, there were those who believed that Pope Benedict should have moved forward on the issue of ordaining women to the priesthood, and also making the marriage of priests a possibility. More progressive Catholics often contended that Pope Benedict’s commitment to holding traditional beliefs about the roles that women could play in Church life and his commitment to a celibate clergy will be barriers to the growth of the Church in the next century.
Whatever the criticisms his detractors may have leveled against him, it must be affirmed that Pope Benedict held his Church together through a very, very difficult era. When he took up the office of the papacy, it looked as though the Catholic Church might decline at a rapid rate, especially in light of what was happening to the Church in Europe. He slowed that decline. Also, on the positive side, it must be noted that he presided during a period when there were dramatic evidences of growth for his Church in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. With his visits to these parts of the world, and with his appointment of cardinals from these growing churches, Pope Benedict encouraged this growth.
In addition, we have to point out that Pope Benedict has been one of the most scholarly popes that the Roman Catholic Church has ever had. He has been noted for his brilliant theological writings, and there is little doubt that he has represented some of the best of Catholic scholarship in modern times. It is not surprise that, prior to becoming Pope, he was acknowledged as the top theological adviser to his predecessor in the papacy, Pope John Paul II.
All in all, I believe that Pope Benedict did much good for Catholics inside the Roman church, as well as for those of us who live outside of that church. At a time when change has been occurring too fast for most of us to keep up, his has been a voice that has said, “Slow down! Let’s think about precious things that might easily be left behind, lest we abandon some precious beliefs and practices.” As we are hurled into the future, Pope Benedict wanted us to hold onto those things that must not be compromised. That’s good advice for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
As Roman Catholics look forward to a new pope, I am sure that most of them are praying for a leader who will enable Catholicism to effectively relate to the post-modern world in which we must live, and to deal adequately and comfortably with other religions that are prominent in our pluralistic society. All the rest of us Christians should be praying for a future pope who will help Catholicism to grow in faithfulness to Christ and to become effectively relevant to an increasingly troubled and complex world.
Tony Campolo is the Founder and President of EAPE and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University. Most recently he co-authored Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said with Shane Claiborne. Look for Tony in your area and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.