Pope Benedict Was No Conservative.

But it would be absurd to suggest that he was some kind of traditionalist. To the end of his days he did not question the significance of the Second Vatican Council, out of which the liturgical reforms and other changes in Catholic discipline emerged, or even doubt its prudence. While Benedict felt that celebrations of the new Mass were frequently unedifying and even banal and argued that liturgical change should be slow and organic, his reasons were fundamentally different from those of critics who opposed change for its own sake. For Benedict, one great failure of the new Mass as it is typically celebrated was its neglect of what he called the “cosmic” dimension of the liturgy — a groovy-sounding concept drawn from the writings of the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which were at one time condemned as heretical.

Benedict himself was considered suspect in the 1960s, by no less an authority than Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the leader of the anti-progressive faction at the Second Vatican Council and the last cardinal to oversee the fabled Index of Prohibited Books. For Ottaviani and his allies, part of the problem was the language of the new theology. In the past, church councils had issued long series of condemned propositions that the Catholic faithful must abjure under penalty of excommunication; the style of these announcements was technical and precise, leaving no room for ambiguity about what must be believed. By contrast the documents of Vatican II contain little — indeed, arguably no — dogmatic material, and in place of the precise terminology derived from Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas they substitute phenomenological jargon typical of midcentury continental philosophy.

The young Ratzinger was very much at home in this new world, one in which Edmund Husserl and Jean-Paul Sartre were treated as authorities on the same level as the early church fathers, and grandmotherly devotions centered on the Virgin Mary (such as the Miraculous Medal and the brown scapular) were regarded as embarrassments. In the decades to come, his orientation and interests did not shift; his thought would remain, in the words of Father Aidan Nichols, “alien to the philosophical and theological tradition which has provided the customary idiom” of the church before the 1960s.

This is why for many of his younger admirers today, those for whom Benedict is simply the pope who liberalized the old Mass, his published works can be discomfiting. These books are full of observations that on first glance seem astonishing, even scandalous — for example, his claim that “the real heart of faith in resurrection does not consist at all in the idea of the restoration of bodies, to which we have reduced it in our thinking,” which seems to cast doubt on the idea that the resurrection of the dead at the end of time will be a literal, corporeal phenomenon.

For conservative Catholics of my generation, the existence of hell as a place of eternal torment is about as controversial as the existence of gravity. Yet in his “Introduction to Christianity” (widely considered his rebuke to the revolutionary spirit of 1968, the year in which it was published) the future pope describes hell as “real, total loneliness and dreadfulness,” a willed state beyond the reach of love, a definition he arrives at by way of Hermann Hesse. In “Eschatology,” he writes, “No quibbling helps here,” before admitting that hell “has a firm place in the teachings of Jesus.” Not exactly fire and brimstone.


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