As the dust starts to settle on the controversies of Pope Benedict XVI’s departure from this life, many of those controversies, it has to be admitted, are inside baseball for Catholics: the funeral ceremonies, the lack of state delegations in attendance, Pope Francis’ brief (some say too brief) homily, and so forth. These will surely become chaff in the settlements of history.
What I think will be the core achievement in Benedict’s life for years to come will be his attempts to teach us how to see. The range of his emphasis on seeing (perceiving the real) reaches from politics to ethics to the arts to the sacred liturgy of the Church. For example, his The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000) explores the deformations of right worship of God and how they are corrected by, among other things, a renewal of sacred music based on an orientation of adoration of the Risen Lord, creator and redeemer of the cosmos. Benedict’s “Dictatorship of Relativism” homily in 2005 also encompasses his concerns for liturgy, where a proper diversity only flourishes in a Christological setting that gathers in unity the riches of human culture for precisely the purpose of adoration of God, the ultimate purpose of everything that exists.
Benedict knew the way forward should enlist what some Catholics call the “way of beauty,” particularly in the liturgy. In Benedict’s words, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too.” Hence the emphasis not on show tunes for Mass (one of my sons calls them “boomer musicals”), but on Gregorian chant, that timeless, angelic music that the Fathers of Vatican II said should be given “pride of place in the liturgy.”
In terms of culture, it is something of a paradox that though the Church isn’t simply a place to enjoy art and sacred music, when the Church herself fosters the arts for her worship, it often elevates art in society as a whole. Benedict, when a cardinal, reminded us that two of the greatest witnesses for the Church are her saints and the art that has, so to speak, flourished in her womb. Anyone teaching or studying literature can see this. From the rich homiletics of Beowulf, to the liturgical structure of Shakespeare’s tragedies, or in our own age, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sacramental “green light” in The Great Gatsby to Hemingway’s protagonists suffering Christ-like agonies for the world, the liturgy’s formative influence is clear. Even Bruce Springsteen has admitted how much he owes to his Catholic upbringing for his music.
Benedict XVI knew well the ruinous metaphysics that underwrote the political catastrophes of the 20th century. Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Benedict also realized that of the traditional transcendentals—truth, goodness, and beauty—maybe the last one best reaches the heart amid the squalor and cynicism of our air-conditioned deserts of post-modernity.
His speech as pope to the German Bundestag in 2011 is a brief but remarkable reflection on the foundations of western jurisprudence. In this address to the lawmakers of his native land, Benedict chose Solomon (1 Kings 3:9) as the paradigm of a wise leader, who, when offered the riches of the world, asked the Lord only for a “listening heart,” or as Benedict explains, “reason open to the language of being.” His address reveals how positivism blinds humanity from perceiving the world as it is, impressed with divine wisdom, thereby emptying it of meaning to the degree that it banishes God in the fruitless search for majoritarian bases of society that will only shift as power shifts from one group to another. Benedict’s major speeches often deal with this proper alignment of Church and state. True tolerance, he often said, is Christianity’s legacy to the world as the Faith recognizes the limits of political power even as it renews reason’s sense of human dignity, a goal and restraint of temporal structures entrusted with the common good.
Is this at all relevant to non-Catholics? I would definitely say yes. In the political realm, we can see how bereft politics has become when it banishes faith. Faith itself then becomes distorted into an enemy of human freedom, and relegated to the subjective, having nothing to do with public life. But as Benedict said to the Bundestag, “Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.” Benedict also rescues science from itself because while realizing the benefits of scientific reason, he invites us to avoid reason’s constriction by positivist criteria. Indeed, he asks with a simplicity that has great persuasive force: “Is it really pointless to wonder whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason, a Creator Spiritus?” In other words, if everything is ultimately arbitrary, how does our technology work so well?
There’s little doubt that a church rich in beauty is a school for the soul where seeing becomes contemplating, and contemplating becomes adoration of the Lord God who loves Mozart as much as he loves the poor among us. No saint that I’m aware of was ever indifferent to the beauty of the Lord’s house or the obligations we have to help those in need. They come from the same desire to love and serve. This is a major theme of Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (2005). Here Benedict distinguishes the various meanings of the word “love”, and with the light of faith and reason explores how the purifications of love bring us closer to love of God and neighbor: “No longer is it a question, then, of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love.”
Josef Pieper, a German philosopher who was a favorite of Benedict’s, once wrote that our ability to see was in decline. It’s more than a little unnerving to remember he wrote that a half-century ago. Benedict knew over his long life that the spirit is weakened in superficiality and strengthened in the awe called forth by great art. Is this mere romanticism about the role of beauty in our lives? While the romantics of the nineteenth century certainly overstated the power of beauty alone to save us, Benedict does nothing of the sort.
Benedict understood that by nature humanity lives a “porous” life, made to be open to the calls of grace. Truth, goodness, beauty: they lead us to God when we do not deceive ourselves about their essential interrelation with each other, and in turn, with being itself. The Incarnation has changed everything. So when art and politics seal us into a bunker of our own making, closed to transcendence, we live a disenchanted life, which, despite its comforts or conveniences, is without hope. Perhaps nowhere does Benedict XVI offer a more persuasive counterclaim to post-modern hopelessness than in his great encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi (2007), where he explicates a famous passage from the Letter to the Hebrews:
“Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for a “proof” of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a “not yet.” The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future.”
Pope Benedict XVI has a book coming out posthumously, with four previously unpublished essays: “Che cos’è il Cristianesimo” (“What Christianity Is”). Stay tuned for the English edition. I’m sure it’s a book in which there will be a lot to see.