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The Benedict XVI generation

How his “dynamic fidelity” responded to the needs of a changing world

Shortly after the election of Pope Francis in 2013, I was talking with someone still deeply upset by Pope Benedict’s resignation. Her reason for being so upset, she said, was that his papacy had been so short — a mere eight years compared to John Paul II’s remarkable twenty-six. She worried Benedict would not have a “generation” in the way his predecessor did, presumably meaning an entire wave of people born into the faith and schooled in the sacramental life under the aegis of one and the same Pope. A friend of mine immediately interjected at this moment and sharply corrected her: “Benedict XVI does have a generation, he said. 

Usually to speak of a generation one would be thinking in segments of roughly twenty-one years. Someone born and baptised around the time of Benedict’s enthronement in 2005 is unlikely even to have been confirmed by 2013, and at eight years old can hardly be expected to have a personality too deeply formed by a particular pontificate. My friend didn’t mean this — he wasn’t talking about people eight years old and younger in 2013 — he was talking about people like himself (and like me) who did then (and do now) feel they are deeply informed by the life and writings of Benedict XVI. We both converted to the faith in the middle of that eight year pontificate. 

One of Benedict XVI’s prime concerns was the re-evangelisation of formerly Catholic countries. Two Englishmen converts could thus feel particularly at home with the then Holy Father. Benedict XVI was also a prophet for the secular age, and his work is premised perhaps more than any other theologian on the reality that the Church is being thrust into a position like that of its earliest years in the pagan Roman Empire. Lest we forget, the Church of the Apostles was once composed exclusively of converts. There is a particular relationship between Benedict’s pontificate and the phenomenon of post-secular conversion. The Benedict XVI generation are those who converted in the midst of modernity’s travails.

The era in which we live now is an age of amnesia

Benedict’s intellectual legacy is one of “dynamic fidelity”. Fidelity points to his deep and intransigent loyalty to Catholic tradition — no surprise there. The word dynamic, however, points to how Benedict XVI’s work is never without a responsive contemporaneity, an attentiveness to the questions and needs of the contemporary world. This makes his theology quite unique, in that he draws deeply on the yearnings and desires of the world, yet responds faithfully with aspects of tradition. These aspects of tradition are often seemingly “made new” after decades of being wrongfully neglected or misappropriated. Moreover, his return to the fountainhead of tradition is never what we might term a retrograde reaction, which means he doesn’t just want us to return to some bygone era. This can be seen in comments he made when accused of “restorationism”; he responded by saying that he was fighting “not for a turning back” to the past, but “a newly found balance of orientation and values”

Memory is a theme which crops up repeatedly in his writing, but memory is not merely about the past. When one remembers, something from the past is made present in the here-and-now. If our memories belonged only to the past, they wouldn’t be memories; they’d be things we’d forgotten. When something is committed to memory, then, something from the past is made presently available for the contemporary moment. Benedict XVI’s “dynamic fidelity” is similar to memory: a making present, dynamically, in the here-and-now, of aspects of historical experience and wisdom hitherto lying dormant in the mind of the Church. 

By contrast, the era in which we live now is an age of amnesia, a hi-octane epoch in which individual and collective forgetting and reinvention are encouraged and normalised. The Benedict XVI Generation thus tends to question and challenge the many forms of rupture and discontinuity assailing Western civilisation on various fronts. 

It is oft-repeated that Cardinal Ratzinger’s concern for Europe led him to adopt the name Benedict — for he had long been concerned with the amnesia affecting the self-understanding of European nations. Immediately after the 1960s, it was commonly held that any culture can function for Christianity in the way the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome had once done, becoming part and parcel of the faith itself. To try to somehow politely edit the history of Christian teaching, to reapply it haphazardly in different contexts, requires significant forgetting, however; it exhibits amnesia about the faith’s origins and roots. Christianity didn’t flower in European contexts purely by accident, says Benedict. Classical civilisation was not just an accidental, external clothing for the Church, but was prepared by God’s providence to ensure its flowering and perpetuation. 

For this reason, Benedict XVI follows St John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, which states “the Church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought”. There is fidelity here, of course, but it is also dynamic. He doesn’t just remind us of the distinctive patrimony of Christianity; he also highlights aspects of it which are markedly pertinent for today’s world. 

Let us take an element of the ancient thought Benedict XVI held to be central to the development of Christianity and to be rooted in Ancient Greek philosophy: the notion of a shared human nature or essence. The ethical consequences of undermining the concept of human nature are dire. When a universal human nature is not ascribed to all people without exception, some persons need not be treated with the same ethical gravity as others. If human nature is not the common property of all, certain persons can be classified as somehow differently human, even sub-human, which the young Ratzinger saw first-hand in Nazi Germany. Coming from a very different setting, race theorists like Kimberlè Crenshaw have more recently argued for a racialised ontology — an approach to human nature as something always indelibly marked by ethnic identity. Then there are all the ways today’s society finds to soften the boundaries of human dignity so certain persons don’t have full ethical significance — being unborn, for example, or chronically infirm. 

A concern for the distinctive cultural patrimony of Catholic teaching, the intellectual legacy of Europe, is not triumphalism or eurocentricity. Nor should it be seen as in any way undermining the wonderfully rich variety of global Catholicism — but it does mean holding firm to memory, to history, in which context is always vitally important. 

He maintained a dynamic responsiveness to the contemporary moment

Another example of Benedict XVI’s concern for memory comes from his writings on liturgy. After the motu proprio Traditiones Custodes restricted celebration of the traditional Latin Mass in 2021, Benedict XVI’s earlier move in the opposite direction was commonly presented as just a hearkening back to some bygone era, an attempted escape from the present. Nothing could be further from the truth. Benedict XVI was always attentive and responsive to the needs of the present day. His own motu proprio on this issue states that young persons … have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist, particularly suited to them”. 

His contemporary moment presented a need for a more widespread celebration of this ancient liturgy. This was no attempt to get people running back to the past, but a response to the needs of the present. The modus operandi was to undo the rupture and discontinuity at work in the fact that, for many, the Church seemed to be alienated from its own past by restricting the ancient form of the Mass. He writes, “in the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

One chapter of the book Spirit of the Liturgy explains some of the deeper features of Benedict’s dynamic fidelity. He reminds us that we are not currently living in heaven, nor in a new heavens and a new earth after the end times, but in a period he calls the “in-between”. Something of eternity has “entered” the world in Jesus Christ. During the liturgy, he argues that we are similarly “in-between” — the actions, words and prayers all take place in the earthly present, recalling and re-enacting foundational events from the past. In eternity, those foundational events are ongoing and ever-present — the self-offering of the Son to the Father is a perpetual heavenly event, but through memory relived in the present, events within time can be joined with it. 

It is that bringing “again and again”, through perpetual recollection, particularly in the liturgy, that lies at the heart of Benedict XVI’s thinking. He maintained a dynamic responsiveness to the contemporary moment, grounded on and drawing vitality from fidelity to history and tradition, thereby reminding us that this world is graced by the touch of eternity. The easier option is to withdraw from this difficult tension; to surrender to the age of amnesia and be pulled this way and that by the shifting sands of the dominant culture, or to escape the difficulties of the present world by retreating to an idealised and unsustainable past. 

Benedict XVI shows us that neither of these discontinuities are inevitable. The fact that this seemingly most retrograde of Popes is so enduringly popular among the young surely proves my point. The Benedict XVI generation includes those charged with bearing witness to the memory of history and tradition. In an age of amnesia, such things are not only sorely needed, but serve as vehicles of the abiding mystery of that eternal present for which Benedict XVI himself had always yearned.

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