The two popes and the mystery of the Church
By Roberto de Mattei | 4 January 2023
2023 conveys to future ages an absolutely unprecedented image: the funeral of one pope presided over by another pope. An image that touches upon the very essence of the papacy, which Jesus Christ meant to be one and indivisible.
In an interview given to Bruno Vespa on Good Friday of 2005, when he was still prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stated that “the pontificate is a unique responsibility given by the Lord, and one that the Lord alone can take back”. Eight years later, however, on 11 February 2013, came the announcement of his abdication — like “a bolt from the blue”, to use the words of the then dean of the college of cardinals, Angelo Sodano. There are those who are convinced that the cause of Benedict XVI’s resignation of the pontificate lies in various kinds of pressure thought to have been applied to him. But in an interview with Peter Seewald, published as his Last Testament, Benedict reiterated: “That’s all complete nonsense… no one has tried to blackmail me. If that had been attempted I would not have gone.” The decision, he always repeated, was taken in full and conscious freedom.
Does the origin of the abdication lie in the psychophysical exhaustion of the pontiff? But Benedict’s post-pontificate lasted ten years — longer than his pontificate — and, with his 95 years, he was the Church’s longest-lived pope. Moreover, Benedict retained an impressive lucidity up to the moment of his death, as is clear from one of his last documents: the letter of 6 February 2022 in which he writes that he is preparing to “pass confidently through the dark door of death”, issuing an appeal to “remain firm in the faith”, without letting oneself be confused by false science and false theology.
The resignation of the pontificate therefore remains inexplicable, but fraught with consequences. In the ten years following the election of Francis, Benedict used the title of “pope emeritus” and continued to wear white and to give the apostolic blessing, suggesting the idea of a pontifical diarchy. Then the retired pope dies and his successor presides over his funeral, but he too is ill, in a wheelchair, and his pontificate is drawing to an end. A light of dusk seems to be falling on the Church. How can one deny an objective weakening of the institution of the papacy, in the perception of the ordinary faithful?
Today, everything Benedict XVI did in the eight years of his reign is overlaid with the memory of what he did not do in the past decade, dominated by the image of two popes, presented by the mass media as being in almost symbiotic harmony. And yet, before, there was the pope of the hermeneutic of continuity and of non-negotiable principles, the restorer of the liturgy, the critic of the dictatorship of relativism and the defender of the West; after, the pope who cannot bear traditionalists and who esteems progressive theologians, the pope of openness to homosexuals and the divorced and remarried, the pope of the environment, immigration and the Third World. If these two different ways of presenting the Gospel to modern man have provoked doctrinal and even canonical controversies among the faithful, this has also been due to a cohabitation in the Vatican, which seemed to propose the choice between two banners, forgetting that, in the past, the history of the Church has seen divergences — even sharp ones — between pontificates, as happened with those of Leo XIII and Saint Pius X or with those of Pius XII and John XXIII. Popes are men, and their divergences should not be emphasised to the point of imagining that today there are two churches in opposition, that of Benedict and that of Francis, because, as there is only one Vicar of Christ, so also is there only one Church: Catholic, Apostolic and Roman.
The mystery nonetheless remains, and must be faced with reflection and prayer rather than with the uproar of the media. The true Christian philosopher possesses what Father Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange (1877–1964) defined as “the sense of mystery”, meaning the awareness of being unable to explain everything rigorously with reason. The Catholic faith is reasonable, but reason halts at the threshold of the incomprehensible. This is why the Catholic tradition, while rejecting fideism, which is the will to believe against reason, condemns that semi-rationalism which entrusts to reason the task of explaining the whole of the faith.
Another great theologian, Father Matthias Scheeben (1835–1888), in a famous work dedicated to The Mysteries of Christianity, states that “the greater, the more sublime, and the more divine Christianity is, the more inexhaustible, inscrutable, unfathomable, and mysterious its subject matter must be.” Nonetheless, he explains, if we are not able to penetrate the mystery, the cause is not in the mystery itself, which is an inherently luminous truth, but in the weakness of our mind. Mysteries are truths that slip from our gaze not because of their intrinsic obscurity, but rather because of an excess of sublimity and beauty, that not even the sharpest human eye can approach without being dazzled. Benedict XVI, in a speech of 21 November 2012, recalled that “mystery is not irrational, but a superabundance of meaning, of significance, of truth. If, in looking at the mystery, reason sees darkness, it is not because there is no light in the mystery, but rather because there is too much of it.”
Among the mysteries of Christianity, which are the object of theology, there is that of the Church: a mystery, Scheeben goes on to state, great and marvellous in its nature, in its structure, in its virtue and activity. And perhaps never as at this historical moment has mystery so enveloped the Mystical Body of Christ, a reality at once human and divine and therefore superior to the frailty of the human mind.
Benedict XVI, or more simply Joseph Ratzinger, died on 31 December, the last day of the year, on which the liturgy commemorates Saint Sylvester (314–336), the first pope of the Constantinian era. To Saint Sylvester, in this hour of apprehension and uncertainty, we address the words of Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805–1875):
“Pontiff of peace, from the tranquil dwelling in which you rest look upon the Church of God shaken by the most fearful storms, and beseech Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to put an end to such cruel turmoil. Turn your gaze to that Rome which you so love and which dearly guards your memory; protect and direct her pontiff. May she triumph over the cunning of politicians, the violence of tyrants, the snares of heretics, the perfidy of schismatics, the indifference of the worldly, the laxity of Christians. May she be honoured, loved and obeyed. May the majesty of the priesthood be re-established, spiritual power be emancipated, force and charity join hands, the kingdom of God begin on earth at last, and there no longer be but one sheepfold and one Shepherd. Watch, Sylvester, over the sacred deposit of faith that you so wholly guarded; let its light triumph over all those false and audacious systems which arise on every side, as the dreams of man in his pride. Let every created intellect submit to the yoke of the mysteries, without which human wisdom is but darkness; and may Jesus, Son of God, Son of Mary, reign at last, through his Church, over minds and hearts.”