A Life Liturgical
Some Anglican reflections on the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict
Observant visitors to my office in Rikkyo University are sometimes struck by what might seem an eccentric choice of decoration. I work surrounded by icons, which is more unusual among Anglicans in Japan than elsewhere, but what really catches people’s eyes is that next to S Thomas, S Dionysius the Areopagite and a photo of Maximilian Kolbe is a little pseudo-icon of Pope Benedict XVI. I say “pseudo” because it is really just a photograph of his face superimposed on a gold background, and at any rate, he was very much alive when it was presumably mass-produced in some Italian idol factory, so it does not belong to the iconographic tradition.
But it is natural for visitors to wonder why an Anglican cleric should have even a photo of any “foreign prelate or pontiff” on display, and why this one in particular. Do I really have a horse in this race, whatever race that might be? Am I making some point of politics or churchmanship? Perhaps so, though only tangentially. My primary reason for displaying Pope Benedict is for theological and spiritual inspiration, though I cannot deny that this entails certain political consequences.
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Only last month, finally following up on a recommendation the former Bishop of Ebbsfleet made to me just before he left the Church of England for Rome, did I read the second volume of Peter Seewald’s admittedly somewhat hagiographical biography of Pope Benedict. As I did so, noting how close in age he was to my late sovereign Queen Elizabeth, I wondered how much longer he would live. The answer came from my wife as she browsed the internet on New Year’s Eve.
I cannot admit to being deeply saddened at Benedict’s death, as I was at the Queen’s. Not because I did not care for him: on the contrary, as I want to explain, he continues to exercise a formative influence on my spirituality and thought. Rather, it is because he has lived a full life of great achievement, and I find myself more thankful to God for his life and ministry and happier for heaven’s gain than sorrowful at his loss from this world. One might say the same about the Queen, I suppose, but while her death marked a sudden end to an epoch in the life of my country, Benedict’s epoch had already ended when he resigned the papacy in 2015. And of course, I was a subject of the Queen but not of the Pope. So, I write as an outsider, with both the limitations and liberation that such status implies. My only regret is that he was not born some twenty years later so that his papacy might have lasted longer - but were that so, he would not have been who he was, forged by the same forces into the fierce defender of liberty and justice and outspoken opponent of anti-human authoritarianism that he was.
If your view of Benedict has been shaped by the secular press, or for that matter by the progressive religious press, that last sentence might cause you a twitch of the eyebrow. Even as Pope Francis announced his successor’s illness and called the faithful to prayer, the BBC could not help itself from repeating the usual caricature: Benedict the arch-conservative, the traditionalist, his papacy marred by controversy over clerical sex abuse cover-ups and saber-rattling at Islam. There will no doubt be more of the same to come as soon as the incense has cleared from his requiem mass, along with some unpleasant nudging and winking about a certain German uniformed youth organisation into which he was coerced as a child (though I note that Prince Harry’s quondam adult sporting of said attire by choice, as an adult, is seldom mentioned now that he has been reborn on Netflix as a champion of “racial justice”). We won’t have to wait long for the spectre of Ratzinger, the reactionary inquisitor with a vague whiff of fascism to emerge, gaslit and looming, from the perpetual pea-souper of media malice. If Seewald’s biography is anything to go by, we might have expected Hans Küng to chime in with a suitable insinuation, had he not also died earlier this year: I must admit, I had not noticed until I Googled just now to check whether he was still alive. Still, there will doubtless be plenty of other theologians and not a few German bishops ready to stand in his stead.
If said reporters have read Seewald’s biography, or better still, the writing of Pope Benedict themselves, then they will ignore them for the sake of their preferred narrative. For in the mind of the modern political and religious activist, there are only two types of people: on the one hand, those who believe without qualification or cavil everything that they do, and on the other, the evil. The little world of the media (whether established or “social”) is one of sheep and goats, with no room in the pen for alpacas, llamas or other such rebellious ruminants. A certain line must be taken on a range of issues, including but not limited to human sexuality, clerical celibacy, contraception, abortion, state redistribution of wealth, and the salvific efficacy or otherwise of non-Christian religions. And this is true whichever one’s favoured flock. For critics of Benedict from both the left and the right, the slightest deviation on any one of these points from their own position was a mark of either bigotry (the calumny from the left) or heresy (from the right). But Benedict, however much the sheep might scapegoat or the goats scape sheep (?) him, was in fact of neither ovine fold. Hence, activists of both wings considered and consider it still their duty, by God or by Marx, to demolish his reputation by any means necessary. Truth is expendable in the pursuit of what they consider justice.
Perhaps Pope Benedict’s problem — like his contemporary Archbishop of Canterbury — was that he was not such a party animal (I mean “party” in the sense of partisan, as I can vouch for the tabletop dancing prowess of neither great primate, though the Lord of Oystermouth recites Welsh epic poetry by heart, which would make quite a party trick, and I hear that the His emeritus Holiness was accomplished on the old Joanna, so there is a beerhall duo which might just have entertained those who like that sort of thing. But I digress). Both were academics of the older school, which is to say, the school that is committed to the pursuit of truth. This led them to voice unpopular opinions, one of which is that without truth, there can be no justice. Pope Benedict in particular insisted, following the words of the Divine Word, that it is the truth which sets us free. And this is why I can say quite plainly that Pope Benedict was, in fact, a proponent of justice and human freedom, and a foe of authoritarianism.
Yes, while Cardinal Ratzinger, he was somewhat reluctantly Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition, which admittedly lends him something of an authoritarian lustre. Yes it seems to me — again, as an outsider, and through his writings rather than through any direct experience of his rule — that while Benedict was a traditionalist, he was not an authoritarian. Rather, he saw tradition as precisely the safeguard against arbitrary authority. We might remember that he grew up under one authoritarian state and spent several decades supporting a pope who hailed from Soviet-ruled Poland. He was more aware than most of the dangers of authoritarianism.
Like Karl Barth, he saw (and I think rightly) the advent of both fascism and Communism as precisely the result of materialist modernism and the exorcism of God from the public square. Yet he was not, as the more extreme Roman Catholic anti-modernists are, exclusively critical of the Enlightenment. Despite such media caricatures, he struck a middle way, seeing the Enlightenment as proceeding in two broad currents, one largely negative but the other essential to human flourishing.
The former, exemplified by Rousseau and pursued by the French revolutionaries, Communists and Fascists, made use of the vacancy left by God to assert the entirely arbitrary will of the most powerful, treating people as expendable, justifiable collateral damage in the pursuit of a future, man-made utopia. The Catholic/Jew/disabled/homosexual/political dissident could be executed now for the greater good and peace of future generations in the new republic, Reich or Soviet.
Benedict saw first-hand where that mindset leads. But there was another, vital strand of the Enlightenment, which was grounded in Christian tradition and which Benedict thought could not survive without it. That is the tradition which led to the formulation of human rights, and fundamentally the right to life. It is grounded in the doctrine that humans are made in the image of God and therefore sacred. Remove God, and the Western doctrine of human rights becomes merely an act of political consent or assertion. But these prove foundations of sand. For if the right to life is a mere assertion, then any regime can quite legitimately refuse to subscribe to it. Why, say, should China or Iran subscribe to the invention of some mid-twentieth century Western secular academics? Consent may seem a stronger basis — rights as contract — but the twentieth century showed just how flimsy that contract proves, and how easily it can be manipulated. The twenty-first century shows that basis up as shakier still. If it is not simply, fundamentally true that life is sacred, and that the right to life is inalienable, then murder becomes justifiable whenever politically or economically expedient. Yet it is difficult to see how one can assert the sanctity of life without appeal either to the Divine Will or an essentially good nature to the cosmos (no time for this here, but for reasons I’ve gone some way to explaining in the Lost Way to the Good, since Nietzsche, appeals to the Divine Will are less convincing, but if it can be reconciled in a broadly Platonic way with the fundamental goodness of the Divine nature, there is still hope… without either, it seems to me, there is nothing but the horrific scenario of the triumph of the most powerful human will. That said, I’m going to nuance this with reference to Shinran and Nishitani in a book coming out next year, so watch this space if such things interest you).
Benedict was a traditionalist in that he saw the vital importance of continuity with the past, where the modernisers and revolutionaries see the past as something to be demolished and superseded. This is partly the fruit of his persisting theological interest in liturgy. His decision as Pope to permit priests to celebrate the historical liturgies of the Western Church is portrayed by the ignorant and, I fear, also certain ill-meaning cognoscenti alike as an act of reactionary conservatism against the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Yet it was not so. He was influential in the Council itself, and saw its proper interpretation as one of continuity with the historic faith, rather than as rupture from it (for which he earned the ire of many conservative Catholics). He supported the addition to the patrimony of new rites in vernacular languages, but critically, he did not see the need for this to eclipse and effectively outlaw the older rites, which is of course what happened. He was certainly very wary of committees of specialists deciding that they knew better than the received wisdom of two thousand years. Hence, he was anti-authoritarian precisely because he was liturgically formed and recognised the formative power of the liturgy. He saw the liturgy not as the property of a clerical and academic cadre to be reformed as they pleased, but as the inheritance of the whole people of God, offered with the communion of saints, whose faith is preserved in the ancient prayers of the Church, and which continues to form the Church at prayer. Despite this, he never aimed to replace the modern rites. He saw the recovery of the older inheritance of the Church as complementary to the newer rites, something which would enrich and deepen the understanding of the clergy and faithful in their celebration of these new liturgies derived from ancient precedent. He wanted the beauty and mystery of the old mass to penetrate the new, and in particular to prevent certain abuses of the latter (alas, on visiting Roman Catholic parishes, I have seen a few such instances, in the worst cases with clergy appearing pretty much just to make up the liturgy as they go along). Nonetheless, this left him open to condemnation from those on the right of the Church who see anything short of the complete abolition of the Novus Ordo as a betrayal of the ancient faith, as well as from those on the left who see anything pre-1968 as a betrayal of the Church’s commitment to progressive modernity. His offer of a liturgical ceasefire sadly ended up being used as ammunition by the hawks on both sides, for whom any compromise meant betrayal.
Here, I will say, is where my equus Anglicanus comes into the race. When I wrote of Benedict’s recovery of historic Western rites in the plural, it was not a typo. The Pope emeritus championed not only the recovery of the Latin Tridentine liturgy, but also of the rehabilitation of what it truly Catholic within the patrimony of my own Anglican tradition. I speak here of the Ordinariates, Benedict’s offer to Anglicans to join the communion of Rome while retaining certain aspects of our traditional worship and practice.
The fruits of this are evident in the splendid Ordinariate liturgical texts, based largely on the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Sarum rite. The beauty that was lost in the undignified paraphrase of the first English translations of the new Roman liturgy, and compromised by the more literal recent edition, is now restored, not in clumsy mock-Tudor, but for the most part in genuine Cranmerian cadence or at the very least, its sympathetic reconstruction. Again, this was presented by the liberal media in an overwhelmingly negative light: the Pope was making a backdoor into the Catholic Church for the misogynist dinosaurs that the Anglicans want to get rid of. That’s certainly not how I see it. Rather, Benedict saw in our traditional practice, more than many of our own brethren do, several members of the liturgical commission included, the enduring patrimony of the Western church. Perhaps he also saw how the Church of England, even while developing new liturgies on Vatican II lines, never rescinded the old Book of Common Prayer, but rather retained alongside the new it as normative for the formulation of doctrine. The Anglican spirit at its best was and remains the very principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, the very spirit which Benedict was so keen to restore in his own Church. He sought a recovery of liturgy which was not verbose and didactic, the tedious spoken verse-and-response reading from weekly changing pew sheets intended for the short-term edification of the once a year attender, but memorable, sung to enduring words which penetrate the conscience and form the soul. My brothers and sisters in the Prayer Book Society will certainly find much worth pondering in Pope Benedict’s ruminations on the liturgy.
Hence my insistence that Benedict’s liturgical reforms, of which I highlight the two of most relevance to me, were anti-authoritarian. They were attempts to recover the Church from the ground up, not by the will of experts, but from the prayerful desire of the people. It is not so evident that his successor has followed in his example. And here too, my equus Anglicanus rears and churns its hooves at the startline. For despite his media darling status it is Francis, not Benedict, who comes across to this outsider as the more authoritarian. While Benedict wanted to permit, Francis’s instinct is to forbid. He has made it as difficult as possible for clergy to celebrate the Tridentine Latin mass, requiring explicit permission from their bishops, many of whom are dead against it. He expresses little interest in the flourishing of the Anglican Ordinariates. He makes snide remarks about cassocks and “granny’s lace,” despite being older than most lace-clad priests’ grannies’ himself. And for all the temptation I often feel to seek solace in Rome, faced with the increasing infidelity of my own church, the present pope is frankly a significant obstacle. All the Protestant fears of the abuse of papal authority seem all too realistic under him. If, at a single stroke, one man can abolish the faith of the ages, on what rock exactly is the Church of Rome built?
I am by mo means crowing, for Anglicanism has of late fallen further from the apostolic tree than Rome, but perhaps a little personal background might help explain why I am reluctant to swim the Tiber. I came to faith not by birth but by calling in my mid-twenties. To keep the story short, experience of Buddhism during a brief sojourn in Japan freed me from the desert of atheist materialism. Returning to Britain to teach in an Anglican cathedral school, I found the small Anglo-Catholic church of St Michael’s, Mount Dinham in Exeter, offering solemn vespers and meditation. I had no idea what this was, but the “m” word flirted with my vaguely Buddhist inclination, and I found myself carried quite unexpectedly into the Christian faith on clouds of incense accompanied by plainsong refrains. The traditional language of the liturgy, the smells and bells, the beauty of the place and the music, the profundity of the preaching, and the sheer power of the Blessed Sacrament raised over us in Benediction: it was the liturgical life of the Church, well-taught, that drew me fully from convinced atheist humanist to the rich, sacramental, deified humanism in which I believe Christianity consists. At the time, Rowan Williams was in Canterbury and Benedict in Rome. Between the two of them, they presented an intellectually, spiritually and aesthetically convincing account of the faith which is nowadays rather less obvious. It never seemed to me then, as it often does now, that I was joining a failing NGO. The voices of the “activists” were already loud, but were not then the only ones in the room.
My own position has moved far closer towards Benedict’s over the years than when I started my first tentative steps in the faith, when I was more drawn to the arguments of the secular left. I find myself heedful of his scepticism towards purely human efforts at creating worldly utopias by force of arms, and his warnings against the tendency of Liberation Theology, for all its laudable prioritisation of the poor, to be complicit in these endeavours. As far as ethical matters go, I am certainly supportive of his hard line on priests who have betrayed the trust of their flock, especially children, by committing sexual abuse — and on this line, he was quite properly authoritative, arguably rather more so than his successor — but I also find myself agreeing with him that such abuse is more a symptom of secular hedonism than of celibacy per se. I do not think, as I am after all a married priest, that all clergy should be held to celibacy, but for reasons which are consistent with Benedict’s own: clerical marriage is part of the ancient tradition of the church, a case easily made by appeal to both Scripture and the practice of all the Eastern churches. This notwithstanding, one can demonstrate empirically that marriage is no antidote to sexual abuse (according to Seewald, 0.01% of sexual abuse cases in the US and 0.03% in Germany during Benedict’s term of office were committed by Catholic priests), and it would demean marriage to suggest that it function as such. It also demeans the overwhelming majority of clergy and religious who are celibate and have never committed any form of sexual abuse. I also agree with Benedict’s cautious approval of contraception within married couples under some circumstances, an announcement denounced by the Catholic right and hardly trumpeted by the leftist media, but at the same time, with his commonsensical assertion that people who follow the church’s prohibition on extra-marital sex largely have little to fear about sexually transmitted diseases: I find it hard to see the sense in the claims that such diseases spread because of a commitment to Church teaching. I also share Benedict’s concern, along with that of his successor, about eugenics creeping in through the backdoor of abortion policy, and his understandable awareness of the danger that comes with labelling some people as “non-human” because, say, of their sex or disability, for as we know, a great many foetuses are aborted simply because they are female or have Down’s Syndrome. Space prevents a fuller exploration of these complex ethical matters here, but I raise these briefly to suggest that Benedict’s position on each is rather more nuanced than his journalistic detractors will allow. You can read more for yourself in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, a readily available collection of his essays.
Clerical readers will also find great solace and encouragement in Priests of Jesus Christ, an anthology mostly of sermons given to clergy and ordinands over Benedict’s pontificate. Moving away from the contemptible image of the priest as a poor man’s social worker or maverick therapist, Benedict calls us back into the rhythms and the silence of the cosmic liturgy of which Our Lord has made us, albeit unworthy, celebrants, guardians and teachers. It is not cheap, but worth buying to read and reread — perhaps in time for every Maundy Thursday.
Time to wrap up what has become a longer essay than I intended. Since we Anglicans have yet to catch up with the latest innovations of Rome, we continue to mark the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Christ on New Year’s Day, and in my last post, my sermon for that day, I made some of my typical anti-nominalist broadsides about the importance of names. Admittedly, I had been rereading Earthsea on my post-Christmas holidays. But it strikes me that there was indeed something to both of the Pope Emeritus’s names. As Joseph, he was a surrogate father to the Body of Christ, and its faithful guardian, a true apostolicae fidei cultor. And like Joseph, he faithfully vanished from the picture when his work was done. As Benedict, he both embodied the liturgical spirituality of the founder of Western monasticism, and in his insistence that the best of Enlightenment modernity depends on Christian theology, was a channel for his namesake’s prayers as Patron Saint of Europe. These reasons are enough and more for his place among this Anglican’s collection of icons.
May he pray for us and we for him.
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