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How Pope Benedict’s wisdom was often lost in translation

13 February 2013

10:31 PM

13 February 2013

10:31 PM

The pope made his first public appearance since his resignation today, before putting ashes on the foreheads of pilgrims for Ash Wednesday. It’s one of those jos which isn’t itself particularly demanding but which amounts, together with the running of a global church and a mini state, to a role that would tax a younger man.

He got a standing ovation reaction from the crowd at his audience. Rather different, then, from the pundits’ judgement here on his pontificate. If you take the BBC/Guardian/Independent as standard, the judgement is that this was a pontificate that failed and, as an editorial in the Independent put it yesterday, was bound to fail, given that ‘a Church that refuses to countenance a married priesthood, or women priests, or same-sex partnerships, or whose ban on “artificial” birth control is widely flouted, is a Church doomed to continue to decline’.

The pope’s supporters as well as detractors acknowledged the catastrophic consequences of the clerical abuse scandals, even after 2001 when he took on the issue.  But the bleak reductionism that measures  the pope against a short checklist of contemporary preoccupations, almost all to do with sex, honestly doesn’t do justice to the man.


Benedict is an academic, belonging to the grand tradition of German scholarship. He’s used to proper debate of serious ideas, to the careful consideration of arguments before they’re advanced and answered. And bluntly, our age isn’t used to dealing with extended argument. Twitter may be suited to the lapidary succinctness of Latin, the language of his first tweet, but the pope didn’t really think in terms of 140 characters.

His encylicals were barely mentioned in the summaries that dismissed his pontificate, but they were substantial and significant. The one that Coffeehousers might like best is Caritas in Veritate, which is to do, among other things, with social justice and human economics. It’s profoundly Aristotelian, if you’re that way inclined, in the insistence on the social nature of man and his obligations – and conservatives may balk at the sympathy for trades unions. But his notion that ‘the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man’ sums up everything you might want to say about Christian capitalism.

Most of the controversies he was caught up in amounted to precisely a failure to read or listen to what he said. That famous row about Islam was a quote – carefully described in his text as ‘harsh to us’ – from a Byzantine emperor on the subject of Islam and violence, but it was in the context of a discussion of the value of the Hellenic (as opposed to the Hebrew) element in scripture. It was addressed to academics in Regensburg, but it was parsed by people who didn’t even try to convey the argument before passing judgement on it.

Then there was that aside – delivered in passing – about condoms sometimes aggravating the problem of AIDS: it was extraordinary how it dominated his trip to Africa, and all his speeches on the roots of conflict, against violence toward women and his reflections on the nature of African spirituality. None of it counted for anything at our end; we just wanted to talk condoms.

Actually, the worst case I can think of was one Christmas address to cardinals, in which he talked about gender as something intrinsic to us, not contingent, which was taken up that morning on the BBC news as a condemnation of homosexuality. But it didn’t actually mention gay people, though I suppose the transgender lobby was entitled to get upset. Trouble was, the text wasn’t available from the outset in English; by the time it was, the damage was done.

Benedict is a pope who wasn’t cut out for our own time, and I don’t just mean the shyness. We have a narrow prism when it comes to those issues we are prepared to think about, and his views were too large for it. If he’s being held to account for his record on women priests, gay rights, contraception and abortion and found wanting, it says more about us than about him.

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Show comments
  • Transenter

    I suppose that the evident proof of his wisdom is than when he felt is not stron enough to serve to the church he resigned

  • Lazy Jay

    “the transgender lobby was entitled to get upset”

    It wouldn’t occur to you to use the word “people” instead of “lobby”? You’re implying only political activists reacted to that horrendously dehumanising view of a perfectly well-established & documented phenomenon?

    Seriously, irrespective of their gender, that sppech – which I read – callously and ignorantly defined everybody’s role in life by their genitals. It’s insulting enough for both cis and trans gender people; what of those who are born intersex?

  • fergalf

    Good article. The media focus has been too often been excessively sensationalist.

  • alabenn

    clerical abuse scandals,
    That sounds like bible bashing, not as it actually was, child rape.
    Give it ten years and people will be blaming Maggie.

    • fergalf

      It is a very serious issue. Generally I think the siltation was handled moderately well. His reaction to the Irish scandals was what was asked for but it was still criticised. On the other hand his actions before being Pope on the issue are more cloudy and I’m reserving judgement on that. I’m not saying they were wrong but I get the impression things were dealt differently.

  • Tom Tom

    Read his books in German and carefully. The language is that of a profound philosopher beautifully expressed. The precision is lacking in most writing today but the educated are beleagured in the modern soundbite world of celebrity and gossip. Ratzinger stands head and shoulders above other world figures – a rational thinker in a world of sentimental twaddle and self-delusion

    • Colonel Mustard

      And a world of propaganda. Vested interests too ready to re-write for effect are everywhere, even here.

    • Ilana Walsh

      I have trouble reconciling the idea of a rational thinker with someone who was defined by his religious belief.

      • daldred

        Religion is entirely rational: it is based on ratio (reason). Rational thinkers are those who use reason to reach conclusions and develop insights. That is exactly what religious thinkers do; they use reason to develop understanding. So why do you have difficulty reconciling the two?

      • Colonel Mustard

        Well, I think I’d rather have my world defined by his religious belief than the religious belief of socialists and their devout faith in an absolute fantasy of which we have more than a century of empirical evidence to prove it doesn’t bring heaven but rather the other place. I have trouble reconciling the idea of a rational thinker with someone (like telemachus) who was defined by THAT religious belief.

      • Tom Tom

        Really ? Then you must have a very limited bookshelf of Philosophy books – but i suspect you do but for reasons of illiteracy rather than cognition

  • Daniel Maris

    Whatever you think about the issues, one sure way to destroy the Catholic Church as a united institution would be to bring in female priests, gay marriage and artificial birth control (not least because of course the debate would then shift to abortion).

    • Tom Tom

      That is the idea. They brought in the gay priests when Us Bishops ignored papal instructions on screening candidates for seminaries in the early 1960s….lots of young boys paid for that

  • Austin Barry

    “If he’s being held to account for his record on women priests, gay rights, contraception and abortion and found wanting, it says more about us than about him.”

    Well, actually, it probably says more about standard issue, theocratic thuggery than anything else.

    • Don Strevel

      A democracy and a theocracy are different.
      Don, LasVegas

    • commonsenseobserver

      Because people are blown up in the name of the Catholic Church each week.

      • Vrai Telemachus

        Not many

    • Tom Tom

      Yes the State Church at BBC TV Centre does pontificate and sermonise without scrutinising what goes on behind the curtain. I wonder just how many times BBC staff procured for Jimmy