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Trad Perspective on Benedict XVI

“I’m sorry about Benedict.”

I turned from my dog to my daughter.

“Did he die?” I asked my daughter.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Who died?” said my six-year-old son.

“Pope Benedict, the former pope.”

I was taking it in. It wasn’t hitting me yet.

I said to my son: “Now he goes to judgment. We pray that he may get into purgatory and go to heaven!”

My son went back to colouring.

I went back to tending the dog.

I had just spent over a week on a Christmas retreat from work and my phone. I hadn’t checked my email or social media in eight days. It was Saturday, December 31st at around 9am in the morning. The news struck me slowly. I remember seeing the Pope Emeritus in recent photos. He certainly looked elderly. A few days prior my friend had told me the Pope Emeritus was in poor health. My mind was in retreat mode, far from the politics and drama of the Vatican that I work in daily. In my heart I felt a peace and a sadness. There’s a peace when an old man dies in the Sacraments of Holy Church.

We can have a reasonable hope that he was welcomed into purgatory.

When an old man is graced with a Catholic death it is a peace because he has left this valley of tears and we hope that he has entered true life.

And I felt a sadness. The sadness that millions of faithful feel today, for whom Benedict was their spiritual Holy Father. But for me and for Trads, this loss may be felt somewhat differently.

From Orthodox to Rome

Years ago when I was Eastern Orthodox, I first encountered Joseph Ratzinger in his comments regarding the Eastern schisms and the east-west dialogue. To my mind, these comments showed the amount of erudition necessary to overcome centuries of bad blood and misunderstanding. I was also struck by his criticisms of the Protestant Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory (which Orthodox criticise) and his work for Biblical and Patristic models of atonement.

These sentiments made my Eastern Orthodox mind become more open to the claims of Rome. It was in particular his statements regarding the Papacy that struck a chord with me.

At the time I was dialoguing with a Roman Catholic and disputing with him about Orthodox critiques against Rome. I had in my mind the hyperpapalist view of the Papacy, which (then and now) seemed wholly contrary to the Patristic phronema on the episcopacy and the see of Rome. This Roman Catholic patiently explained to me that this hyperpapalist view was in error, and that “there was really only one authority in the Church: Tradition.”

That made sense to me.

If the Papacy were really in service to Tradition as its guardian, not its master, then I could accept Roman dogmas.

At the time I did not realise just how much this view was both articulated and embodied by Joseph Ratzinger. But let me return to that in a moment.

Benedict’s Resignation

I remember hearing the news about the resignation in early 2013. I was still Orthodox then, but spending my final Lent outside of communion with Rome. My close Catholic friends mourned the loss of Benedict as Pope, but for me I was never impacted closely by any modern pope in my conversion to Rome. Frankly I found the constant dwelling of Catholics on the person of the pope rather odd.

I would later find out how much Ratzinger/Benedict sought to place the focus on the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers, and stand out of the way to let the Faith speak. Again, he had already been articulating the things that I had come to believe in Rome for my salvation.

That spring the western Lent was about a month earlier than the Orthodox Lent. I remembered attending my local Tenebrae service in which Allegri’s Miserere Mei was chanted. I was moved in my heart and knew my home was Rome. Again, unbeknownst to me this sacred music had been preserved directly and indirectly by Ratzinger/Benedict.

Looking back, I see that I owe a lot to him, even if I didn’t know it at the time. For that I am thankful for his work in the Church. It was because of these things and others that I was later received into communion with Rome in May of 2013, shortly after Pope Francis was elected. After spending my whole Catholic life under Pope Francis, I still don’t regret this decision. I never have. And I’ve come to appreciate more over the years what Benedict did for the Church.

Ratzinger against Hyperpapalism

This, I think, is one of the enduring contributions of Ratzinger to the crisis of the 20th century. I would learn later that the basic articulation of the authority in the Church by my Roman Catholic interlocutor had been expressing Ratzinger’s words and deeds in his career. Years later I would learn the many examples of this:

In 1960 Ratzinger castigated Hans Küng who wanted to make the Council (Vatican II) into a parliament for changing doctrine. An ecumenical council, even if promulgated by the pope, was always at the service of the Tradition.

In the 1970s Ratzinger – who was then a world famous celebrity priest theologian – openly criticised the liturgical reform and the banning of the Latin Mass by Paul VI. Clearly he was not a hyperpapalist, who felt the need to blindly accept the Novus Ordo and all its implementation even though the pope signed it.

In the 1980s and 90s, Joseph Ratzinger slowly reintegrated the Latin Mass back into the liturgical life of the Church, putting into action his words under Paul VI.

With Summorum Pontificum, he articulated this principle of Tradition, this “hermeneutic of continuity,” that the pope was not above the liturgical tradition, but was its guardian and “gardener.”[1]

Thus I could see a consistency in Ratzinger the priest and pope – a constant return to Tradition as the one authority in the Church. Coming from Eastern Orthodoxy, this vision of the Papacy was one that I could accept because I knew it accorded with the First Millennium Papacy and all the oaths and confessions of Faith of popes and bishops.

Guard the Tradition.

That’s your job as pope.

Father of Trads

Joseph Ratzinger was not a Trad. His school of thought was Communio, “ressourcement,” and he joined with the opponents of the Trad godfathers at the Council. Because of this, he accepted and defended various novelties and ambiguities promulgated by the Council.

Nevertheless, he acted as a father to Trads.

In the 1970s he was willing to stand (with Trads) on the principle of Tradition in opposition to the papal positivism that would command blind obedience to the Novus Ordo. His subsequent actions show (at least) that he agreed with this fundamental principle of Tradition which would cause him to liberalise the Latin Mass out of faithfulness to Tradition. It was a subordination of the Papacy itself to Tradition. These various liturgical acts were acts of a true traditionis custos. For more on this, read the compilation by Kwasniewski at New Liturgical MovementBest Quotes on the Liturgy by Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI.”

For this, as a Trad, I thank Benedict for acting on this eternal principle of Holy Church.

Of course, he can receive justified criticism for any errors or imperfections in his statements, judgments or decisions. But the Church is still mourning the death of the pontiff, and this is not the time for those criticisms. And I believe that the whole Trad movement owes a debt of gratitude to this body of work in which the man helped establish the liturgical tradition as Trads have argued for decades. Ratzinger helped the fundamental principle argued by Trads to become truly a mainstream proposition, not a fringe theory.

Ratzinger Down the Memory Hole

And so it seems that the new regime of iconoclasm under Traditionis Custodes seeks to send these fundamental Ratzingerian doctrines down the memory hole. As I wrote a year ago on this:

The entire justification given in Traditionis Custodes was explicitly proposed to Benedict XVI after Summorum Pontificum. Peter Seewald told Benedict in 2017 what Francis would say about Benedict’s work in 2021. How did Benedict respond?

[Peter Seewald:] The reauthorization of the Tridentine Mass is often interpreted primarily as a concession to the Society of St Pius X.

[Benedict XVI Emeritus:] That is just absolutely false! It was important for me that the Church is one with herself inwardly, with her own past; that what was previously holy to her is not somehow wrong now. The rite must develop. In that sense reform is appropriate. But the continuity must not be ruptured. The Society of St Pius X is based on the fact that people felt the Church was renouncing itself. That must not be. But as I said, my intentions were not of a tactical nature, they were about the substance of the matter itself. Of course it is also the case that, the moment one sees a Church schism looming, the Pope is obliged to do whatever is possible to prevent it happening. This also includes the attempt to lead these people back into unity with the Church, if possible.[2]

[My comments]: It is fallacious to claim, as Pope Francis did, that Summorum Ponitificum was “primarily” about the SSPX. Benedict says clearly “this is just absolutely false!” It is, rather, “about the substance of the matter itself.” It is quite clear to anyone who studies Ratzinger’s thought that he condemned Paul VI’s suppression of the Latin Mass in 1969, without any consideration of what the SSPX was or was not doing.[3] That’s why His Eminence Cardinal Sarah, the greatest living exponent of Ratzinger’s thought (whom Benedict appointed to implement his “reform of the reform”) condemned Traditionis Custodes on the basis of the reform itself, regardless of the SSPX. (His Eminence’s text is also found in From Benedict’s Peace to Francis’s War, pp. 295-297.)[4] Reconciling with the SSPX, as Benedict says above, was of secondary importance. In other words, Summorum Pontificum would have been necessary even if SSPX never existed.

It was about the substance of the matter itself.

This is the type of doctrine from Ratzinger that our enemies fear. They fear it because as Kwasniewski recently said regarding Vatican II, this is not some fringe theologian talking. I believe that Trads need to appreciate this aspect of Benedict. He is in some sense a “hostile witness” for the Trad movement. He himself is not a Trad, yet he articulates in numerous places important talking points for Trads to raise. It seems that one of the tactics of our enemies is to label us as “fringe” and “dissenters” who are more or less crazy. By going to Benedict, we can help bring our enemies to a more reasonable understanding of our position. Those of good will among them who will not be convinced by quotations from Archbishop Lefebvre may be convinced by quotations from Ratzinger.

We may see the storm increase now that Benedict is dead, as our contributing editor Kennedy Hall argues. If so (and I think this is likely), they will only increase their efforts at sending Benedict down the memory hole. Learning something of Benedict helps us counter this for the sake of Tradition.

Let us pray for his soul, and prepare for battle.


T. S. Flanders
Octave of St. John
Tenth Day of Christmas


[1] As he had described the Papacy in his preface to Reid’s Organic Development of the Liturgy.

[2] Benedict XVI, Last Testament: In His Own Words, trans. Jacob Philips (Bloomsbury, 2016), 201-202.

[3] “The prohibition of the missal that was now decreed [in 1969], a missal that had known continuous growth over the centuries, starting with the sacramentaries of the ancient Church, introduced a breach into the history of the liturgy whose consequences could only be tragic.” Joseph Ratinzger, Milestones, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (Ignatius, 1998), 146-148.

[4] Cardinal Sarah: “What is at stake is therefore much more serious than a simple question of discipline. If she were to claim a reversal of her faith or of her liturgy, in what name would the Church dare address the world? Her only legitimacy is her consistency in her continuity.”

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