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A Year Later, the Pope Benedict Most People Forget

February 11, 2014, 12:32 pm | Posted by John Gehring

A year ago today, the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI paved the way for the unexpected Pope Francis revolution now shaking up the Catholic Church.

It’s an understatement to say a cerebral theologian more at home in the quiet of his study than on the global stage never became a defining figure in the way his predecessor did or his successor is quickly becoming. Many Catholics grateful that Pope Francis is emphasizing a more merciful and less doctrinaire vision of church had a hard time warming to Joseph Ratzinger, who as a cardinal made his most distinctive mark during his time at the Vatican’s doctrine office blowing the whistle on theologians, nuns and others deemed afoul of orthodoxy.

But the Benedict legacy often forgotten today amid the understandable euphoria over Pope Francis is a significant contribution to the Church’s social justice tradition. A pope largely viewed through the prism of popular media and culture as a staunch conservative for his opposition to gay marriage and abortion also trumpeted views to the left of most Democrats in Congress when it came to economic justice and the environment.

In his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict denounced the “scandal of glaring inequalities” and called for a more just distribution of global wealth. A defining theme of Benedict’s papacy – especially after the 2008 global financial crisis – was an uncompromising critique of economic systems that subjugate the human person to the demands of profit. In his 2013 World Day of Peace message, he lamented “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” Along with “terrorism” and “international crime,” the pope named unfettered markets as a threat to stability and peace.

You’re unlikely to hear that kind of talk even from most liberal politicians. While free-market fundamentalists lobby for greater deregulation of markets and corporations, the Vatican’s justice and peace council during the Benedict era called for a “minimum, shared body of rules to manage the global financial market” and a “world reserve fund” to support countries hard hit by the economic crisis. He was no Catholic outlier, of course, and just as Pope Francis today Benedict inherits and articulates anew a centuries-old Catholic social tradition that defends the rights of workers and puts human dignity at the center of just economic systems.

Benedict also earned the title of “Green Pope” for defining environmental stewardship in stark moral terms, and his frequent warnings about climate change. More than any of his predecessors, he articulated a clear theology behind what he calls the “covenant between human beings and the environment.” In his 2010 World Day of Peace message, Benedict asked: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifiers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?”

These are bracing words for conservatives in position of power today who prefer denying the reality of climate change than proposing practical solutions. In 2011, the day before world leaders from 194 countries meet in Durban, South Africa to chart out next steps to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gases, Benedict urged the international community to “agree on a responsible, credible and supportive response to this worrisome and complex phenomenon, keeping in mind the needs of the poorest populations and of future generations.”

Historians will debate the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI for centuries, but we should not overlook his unambiguous teachings when it came to economic and social justice. In the end, of course, Benedict may be best remembered for his unexpected departure and the still unknown ways that seismic decision could reshape the Catholic Church.

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