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What Pope Francis Can Learn from Pope Benedict about Humility

Which pope, long before being raised to the papal office, criticized “the all-too-predetermined dogmatic reading” [1] of the Bible, and later, having exercised that office, continued promoting this belief “that theology obviously has its own freedom and task, that it cannot be completely servile to the Magisterium” [2]?

Many people today would be surprised to learn that these words came not from Pope Francis, but rather from Pope Benedict XVI. After all, most of the American media and pop culture consider such openness to questioning Church doctrine to be aligned with the former’s supposedly “flexible” mentality and opposed to the latter’s supposedly “rigid” one. However, they fail to remember that Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was actually considered to be progressive before the Second Vatican Council due to his attempts to de-emphasize the mainstream, traditional theology of Neo-Scholasticism – the study of natural law and the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, “whose crystal-clear logic seemed to [him] to be too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made” [3]. Benedict thus made the then-progressive decision to focus instead on Personalism – the method of approaching theological knowledge through contemplation of the things closest to the human heart: desire, dialogue, relationship, and love. In short, Ratzinger, as he would later say after his resignation from the papacy, “wanted to renew theology from the ground up, and thereby form the Church in newness and vitality” [4].

This may sound like the same goal as that promoted by “progressive” Catholics today, but it had one massive difference: it remained obedient to the Church. While Ratzinger certainly encouraged critical thinking about Catholic teachings, he also believed that obedience to the Magisterium is necessary and praiseworthy. For example, he praised one of his professors, Gottlieb Söhngen, for giving the following response when someone asked him what he would do if the Assumption – a not yet defined teaching he vehemently opposed – were dogmatically defined: “If the dogma comes, then I will remember that the Church is wiser than I and that I must trust her more than my own erudition” [5].

This shows a profound sense of humility too often lacking in the faith of “progressive” Catholics today, who frequently hold their own judgments to be more authoritative than the Magisterium’s (especially on moral issues in which the Church disagrees with secular culture). Moreover, as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger similarly extolled the obedience of Peter Abelard, the renowned but sometimes heretical theologian who eventually “showed humility in recognizing his errors” and “died in full communion with the Church, submitting to her authority with a spirit of faith.”

Yet Pope Benedict XVI simultaneously commended Abelard for “submitt[ing] the truths of faith to the critical examination of the intellect,” revealing that theology should be approached “both critically and with faith” [6]. After all, theology is defined (in the words of Saint Anselm of Canterbury) as “faith seeking understanding”: the former entails a trusting attitude, and the latter a critical one; the former inspires assent based on others’ trustworthiness even when we do not completely understand, and the pursuit of the latter inspires questioning our beliefs – even the ones to which we have given the definitive assent of faith – in order to gain deeper insight into them.

Ratzinger himself displayed this interplay between critical thinking and obedience, being adventurous enough in his questioning to present in a 1972 essay an argument for Communion being given to the divorced and invalidly remarried – an immoral act (though he did not yet know it to be immoral, of course) – yet humble enough in his faith to later retract it in submission to the Magisterium. Concerning his essay’s suggestions about this immoral act, he explained in 1991, “Their implementation in pastoral practice would of course necessarily depend on their corroboration by an official act of the Magisterium to whose judgment I would submit[.] … Now the Magisterium subsequently spoke decisively on this question in the person of [Pope John Paul II] in Familiaris Consortio” – and it spoke against Ratzinger’s 1972 argument, which he consequently edited out of future editions of the essay and consistently condemned in his future statements.

And now, the current pope has tacitly allowed this same immoral act through his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and a few courageous cardinals have challenged him on it by submitting dubia – yes-or-no questions meant to clarify disputed doctrine – to him. So he now faces a choice: he can continue to remain silent (his current course of action), or, in obedience to the consistent teaching of the Church, he can respond by retracting his exhortation’s purposefully ambiguous language, language that intentionally leaves itself open not only to orthodox interpretations, but also to heretical ones.

The former course of action would ultimately prove Ratzinger’s wise words: “I would not say that the Holy Spirit chooses any particular pope, because there is plenty of evidence to the contrary – there have been many whom the Holy Spirit quite obviously would not have chosen!” (words that gain even more power coming from a man who would later become pope). The latter choice would beautifully confirm the current pope’s reputation for humility, placing him in the same saintly ranks as his predecessor, the pope who was humble enough not only to walk away from the papacy – a nearly unprecedented act requiring him to courageously admit his limitations – but also to admit his mistakes.

[1] Ratzinger, Joseph. Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998. Kindle Edition.

[2] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Last Testament: In His Own Words. London: Bloomsbury, 2016. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ratzinger, Joseph. Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998. Kindle Edition.

[4] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Last Testament: In His Own Words. London: Bloomsbury, 2016. Kindle Edition.

[5] Ratzinger, Joseph. Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998. Kindle Edition.

[6] Ibid.

26 thoughts on “What Pope Francis Can Learn from Pope Benedict about Humility”

  1. I hope Benedict is humble enough to admit his unprecedented act of renouncing the Papacy and allowing this liberal monstrosity to run rampant has caused an enormous crisis in the Church and maybe he should do the right thing and send the nut job from Argentina packing.

    • He would first have to admit that Bergoglio is causing this damage. I’m not sure he can. He’s either suffering from dementia, under some kind of mind control, or is in the most extreme state of denial.

    • I hope you are humble enough to consider that being such a prayerful and humble person, he would have discerned this course of action with much prayer. If so, then his action would have been guided by the Holy Spirit no matter the crisis and muck that we are in now.

      For all you know, this might have actually been the decision of the Holy Spirit – to allow that which has been prophesied by Akita and other apparitions to play out.

      • God allows evil but such things are not His “decision.” Anne Catherine Emmerich has a prophecy where she begged the pope not to flee Rome because of the evils that would result. But he did. And the evils are obvious to anyone with real faith. As the Church goes to Calvary, the Apostles, for the most part, ran away, including the first pope St. Peter. Ditto today.

        • In allowing the evil, it was HIS DECISION to allow it. What makes you think that you know better? What makes you think that you are hollier and more prayerful than Pope Benedict that you can decide that his discernment of the situation and what action to take is wrong? Are you better guided by the Holy Spirit?

          • The way you said it sounds like that God commands evil to occur, rather than merely allow it. It is ambiguous and confusing – just like Francis’ words.

            I quoted prophecy, which is the WORD OF GOD, not my opinion. Go look it up, as you can find much of her prophecy on the internet, or get a cheap Kindle book and find it there.

            Who are you to argue against the Word of God?

          • The way you said it sounds like that God commands evil to occur,

            The way I said it is PRECISELY WHAT I SAID : “In ALLOWING evil, it was HIS DECISION to allow it”.
            Do not distort what I write.

            Furthermore, you quoted from Blessed Anne Emmerich. That is not the Word of God.

            This is the problem with some Catholics : they start equating extra Biblical revelation with the Bible.

    • At the end of day we can say all the nice things about PB16, brilliance, gentle manner, etc, etc. But he will be remembered for three things: (1) Dereliction of Duty; (2) Personal Cowardice both moral and actual; (3) Continuing the charade of playing “Lets Pretend to be Pope” while abandoning the faithful to the wolves. The one word description is: “Traitor”

  2. I wonder if it would really be an act of humility, on Benedict’s part, to admit he acted rashly, considering that his resignation from the Papacy has proven so devastating to the Church, and in fact has the Church on the doorstep of Schism, or if it would in fact be a sign of the deep remorse and a necessary act of public penance, needed for the forgiveness of his unprecedented sin and full reconciliation to the God his actions have offended. Benedict’s quotes from the article above call into question whether he loves Academic musings more than he loves Unchanging Truth. A very disturbing uncertainty arises regarding Benedict. Perhaps he had cause to obscure the unflattering, and yet unrevealed, content of the third secret of Fatima. Speak now, or forever face the consequence of your silence, Benedict.

  3. It was a pity that Fr. Ratzinger didn’t heed the Church’s Magisterium when it taught the importance of St.Thomas Aquinas’s role in guiding Catholic thinkers. Maybe we wouldn’t be in the present “crisis” if he and others of his generation hadn’t been as quick to try and re-invent theology along the mistaken lines laid out by Fr. de Lubac’s errors concerning man’s natural desire for God. The creeping universalism of today was never countered by either the Concilium or Communio thinkers. If fact, most of them pushed ahead in that direction; and so they have no theological response to the dual-pope monstrosity. People talk of Joseph Ratzinger as being a great theologian (and there are many fine things that he teaches) but the idea of thinking the Angelic Doctor’s thought was “…too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made” seems to be a major mistake. Dear Fr. Ratzinger was surrounded by many who had an anti-Thomas agenda. Indeed, as Professor De Mattei points out in his work on the Second Vatican Council, and the young Fr. Ratzinger’s contribution, he seems to have encouraged the intellectual anarchy in the Church before then trying as the head of the CDF to counter the errors he had exacerbated. Yes, those around the young Ratzinger said Thomism was the problem and not St. Thomas, but that was because they were up against the formidable Fr. Reginal Garrigou-Lagrange who rightly smelt modernism in much of what they were saying. If the Magisterium had been fully accepted then Pope St. Pius X’s contribution to fighting the contemporary difficulties would have at least found a footnote in the CCC. Alas, the head of the CDF didn’t seem to find any help from that former pontiff. Modernism however, was not and is not some ‘side issue’ as it has been claimed. Instead, it was the major error of the twentieth century that destoyed much of the Church’s intellectual vigor. It is now crippling many Catholics who unknowingly have become neo-Lutherites because of its self-centred principles. How Fr. Ratzinger missed tackling this with his German genius seems strange, but maybe it was his German intellectual training that pushed him away from St.Thomas in the first place. Oh, for a St. Albert the Great from that dear and great land again! God bless Fr. Ratzinger, may he – with Pope Francis – receive his eternal reward sooner rather than later, and may a restoration of St. Thomas and his major theses be found in every Catholic place of learning once more!

      • It seems he did. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Life after earth matters far more than life on earth. And this is an unprecedented and tragic situation. Perhaps it would be best. Perhaps not. But that’s in Our Lord’s hands.

    • In casting aside St. Thomas’ systematic theology , no one has been found as brilliant to take his place, and today we sorely need a brilliant theologian who is also a Saint as St. Thomas was! So God gave us St. Thomas around 1200 years into Christianity so we’ve just got a little bit longer to wait for the second genius-Saint to appear!!

  4. In retrospect, after Vatican2 is when I believe the Catholic church began her downward spiral. Yes, John XXIII, Paul VI, JP2, & Benedict XVI were good popes, but they too were a product of the Pre -Vatican era. Why they promoted ‘Ecumenism,’ was the worst thing they could have done, praying with Muslims, pagans, atheists, Hindus and everything else that considered themselves to be religious. Respecting one person’s ‘so called’ religion is one thing, but praying with them as if to say, “Catholicism is equal to Islam, Hindu’s or the rest of them, is blasphemy in the eyes of the one True God of Christianity especially the Catholic faith. In a sense I believe, the pre-vatican popes do play a role in the blame that the Catholic church finds itself today. In the passed Century, the Catholic church wanted to “fit in and be accepted” by the mainline Protestants so they gradually began watering down our Catholic faith thinking most Catholic’s wouldn’t notice. (remember the frog that began simmering in a pot of water?) So now we find ourselves with the end product, the end result, Bergoglio! Even though Benedict XVI tried bringing back some of the thing’s from the post vatican era, it was too late. So now, we must fight with all our might to get our holy mother church back just like we’re fighting to get our country back on course, its not going to be easy because of the madness coming from the American Socialist party and the media. Now, we must pray and pray daily especially the rosary. Penance & Prayer are the only thing that’s going to say our Church..!

  5. Pope’s don’t quit. Peter didn’t and neither should his successors.

    Feeling tired is not a valid reason to throw in the towel.

  6. “Concerning his essay’s suggestions about this immoral act, he explained in 1991, “Their implementation in pastoral practice would of course necessarily depend on their corroboration by an official act of the Magisterium to whose judgment I would submit[.] … Now the Magisterium subsequently spoke decisively on this question in the person of [Pope John Paul II] in Familiaris Consortio” ”

    Whoa there, wait one freakin minute!!! Are you seriously suggesting that the Magisterium had never previously spoken definitively on this issue and that when Ratzinger proposed this blasphemous repudiation of Dominical doctrine that the matter was open to discussion???

    Methinks that Tristan Macdonald has been drinking of the Vatican II Koolaid if he thinks that JPII was the first Pope to teach definitively on this matter. All that JPII did was reiterate the perennial teaching of the Church – just as Pius XI did in Casti connubii in 1930 BEFORE THE COUNCIL. Ratzinger’s SIN was to propose the sacrilege in the first place. The fact that he did so shows that he really isn’t so different from Bergoglio as it might appear. Even though he rowed back in the end, to get to where he got to he did exactly the same thing that Bergoglio did – he rejected the clear teaching of Jesus Christ.

    What is the merit in saying: “I will submit my speculations to the judgment of the Magisterium” when in the process of making those speculations he had to start from the premise that the doctrine of Christ was up for grabs and that the Church had never been clear on this before? He was not concerned whether what he was teaching was moral or immoral according to the Law of Christ, but only how the Magisterium would view his teaching. Just another example of how Catholics commit a cardinal sin when they put the word of the Pope above the Word of God.

    Ratzinger has always been struggling with his inner modernist and while he might have appeared to offer some temporary relief it was only superficial. He must be very glad that the conflict is now over and he can let his modernist urges have their head with the blessing of a thoroughly modernist “successor”.

    • That is not a very charitable reading of either Pope Benedict’s words or my own! See Saint Ignatius of Loyola: “[One] ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.”

      I have little doubt that the pope emeritus privately disapproves of Pope Francis’ novelties, but is honoring his promise to keep out of Church administration (to prevent the confusion that would arise from a clash between a former pope and a current one–though, honestly, I do wish he would speak up, since that confusion can’t be worse than the confusion Pope Francis is currently unleashing!).

      And I am well aware that the ban on Communion for the divorced and invalidly remarried was definitively taught well before Pope Saint John Paul II. However, considering Pope Benedict’s humility, obedience, and willingness to admit his own errors, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt in writing this (see the following excellent blog post by Edward Feser on other instances in which Pope Benedict/Cardinal Ratzinger humbly admitted his errors: ). He may have fallen prey to the sophistry of his time when he argued for Communion for the divorced and invalidly remarried, but what matters–and what shows that his error wasn’t based on malice, arrogance, or obstinate disobedience–was that he ultimately retracted that error in humility and reverence to the Magisterium. That’s my charitable reading of the situation, anyway.

  7. The motivations, humane and divine, for Holy Father Benedict’s resignation we don’t know. We can only speculate about them, and probably we would miss which was the real cause, because reality is much richer than imagination. Even if it was a mistake, what is certain for me is that I would buy an used car from Benedict, and I wouldn’t buy an used car from JB. There is something called good faith and something called bad faith. That makes a lot of difference.


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