Defending Truth, Life, and Family: Benedict XVI’s Legacy
This past Thursday, in a humble ceremony in St. Peter’s Square, our Holy Father Pope Francis laid his predecessor, Benedict XVI, to rest.
With the death of Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church has lost one of the most powerful defenders of its teaching on life and family that we have ever seen.
Benedict’s Defense of Life and Family
Pope St. John Paul II has often been called “the pope of life.” This is because promoting the Catholic Church’s pro-life teaching was one of the central themes of his papacy. However, behind many of the saintly pope’s pro-life efforts we find the supportive figure of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI).
During his time as the prefect for The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under Pope St. John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger oversaw the writing and release of numerous important teaching statements and documents that lucidly upheld and defended the Church’s perennial teaching on life and family. Many of these statements and documents remain the definitive word on various difficult moral issues pertaining to life and family.
This includes Donum vitae, which applies the Church’s teaching to a variety of contemporary and thorny bioethical issues; “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” which reaffirms the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage; “On Some Questions Regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” which reaffirms that Catholic politicians have a grave moral duty to uphold the Church’s teaching on life and family; and “Some Considerations Concerning the Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-discrimination of Homosexual Persons“ and the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” both of which outline a doctrinal and pastoral plan for addressing increasingly urgent questions pertaining to sexuality and the family.
The central importance that Cardinal Ratzinger placed on the Church’s teaching on life comes through loud and clear in an address he gave to the Consistory of Cardinals in 1991, entitled “The Problem of Threats to Human Life.” Cardinal Ratzinger concluded that address by suggesting the possibility of, and outlining the ideal features of, a new Magisterial teaching document that would focus on the defense of human life.
“Above all,” the future pope said of such a document, “it would be a matter of giving a joyous restatement of the message about the immense value of each and every human being, however poor, weak, or suffering he or she may be. The statement would show how this value is seen in the eyes of philosophers, but above all, in the eyes of God, as Revelation teaches us.”
A few years after this, Pope St. John Paul II released Evangelium vitae, his pro-life magnum opus, which stands as the definitive statement of the Church’s pro-life views. We can be quite certain that Cardinal Ratzinger played a key role in the drafting of that encyclical.
In other words, if Pope St. John Paul II was the “pope of life,” Cardinal Ratzinger was, so to speak, his partner in crime, his right-hand man. It is in no small measure thanks to him that we have not just Evangelium vitae, but many of the clearest, firmest, and most convicting statements and documents the Church has ever produced on the issues that are at the heart of the contemporary battle between the Culture of Life and the culture of death.
The Gift of Caritas in Veritate
Confronting the mindset of post-modernity where society has opted for the choice that truth is only the product of our own efforts, Pope Benedict XVI explained, in one of his speeches as a newly elected Pope, that he would resist any efforts to “water down” Church teaching. The pope “must not proclaim his own ideas, but ever link himself and the Church to obedience to the word of God, when faced with all attempts of adaptation or of watering down, as with all opportunism,” he said, highlighting in particular “the inviolability of human life from conception to natural death.”
As pope, he consistently did just this. Time and time again, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his full-throated support for the pro-life movement, often sending heartfelt messages to pro-life marches and events occurring all around the world. Wherever human life or the family was coming under threat, he proactively supported the pro-life activists who were fighting to defend and advance the Culture of Life.
Of his numerous writings, statements, and publications, however, I found Benedict XVI’s third encyclical letter, Caritas in veritate of fundamental importance to the pro-life movement in its advancement of authentic human development and flourishing.
When you serve in developing countries, as Human Life International does, you quickly realize that there are networks of non-profit groups and non-governmental agencies that advocate for anti-life and anti-family ideologies, dedicated to promoting decadent Western sexual morals and practices. Benedict XVI opposed such viewpoints, reminding us that a country that welcomes these ideas affects not only its own citizens, but other nations as well.
In this encyclical, Benedict XVI lamented that in many first-world nations “legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality.” Even worse, he added, many of these nations are actively seeking “to export this mentality to other States as if it were a form of cultural progress.”
In reality, he writes in a pivotal section of the encyclical, “Openness to life is at the center of true development.”
When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual (no. 28).
The Example of Benedict XVI’s Silence
For the past nine years, since his surprise retirement, Benedict XVI has lived a life of prayer in a former convent inside Vatican City. According to a recent interview with his private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, at the time of his retirement, Benedict did not expect to live more than a year. Instead, he had nearly ten years more to live.
With the exception of a handful of statements, Benedict mostly stuck to his promise to spend his time in retirement in prayerful silence. There were times in the past ten years when this must have been very difficult. As Archbishop Gänswein reveals in that recent interview, Benedict was deeply affected by the recent decision to restrict the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. One of Benedict’s signature decisions as pope had been to lift previous restrictions, in the hope that doing so might heal some of the divides that had riven the Church over matters of liturgy. The confusing messages coming from some of the Pontifical Academies and Institutes in recent years must have also caused him particular concern and disappointment.
And yet, Benedict’s silence is a reminder to us – as the title of one of Cardinal Robert Sarah’s books puts it – of the “power of silence.”
Our world is a cacophony of the voices of those who are convinced that their voice is “necessary.” While it is true that there are times when it is important to speak, many of the greatest spiritual masters have told us that those occasions are less frequent than we think. Often, in speaking much, we only add to the disorienting din in the world: so many angry, strident voices competing for attention. And in the midst of this noise, the “small, still” voice of the Lord is drowned out.
We must never forget that for thirty years Christ, God incarnate, was Himself almost completely silent. The infinite wisdom of the Godhead, in the flesh, remained in a little, unimportant town in an unimportant backwater of the Roman Empire, working alongside His foster father. And then, in the end, standing before the Sanhedrin, as His enemies showered calumnies on His head, He again remained silent.
“I could wish I had oftener been silent, and that I had not been in company,” writes Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ. Thus, he exhorts his readers to, “fly from the tumult of men as much as thou canst,” and instead to “watch and pray (Matt. 26:41), that our time may not pass away without fruit.”
It was natural to feel conflicted about Benedict XVI’s unprecedented resignation and protracted retirement. So often in recent years, it felt as if we needed Benedict more than ever. And yet Archbishop Gänswein recounts a recent conversation with Benedict, in which the pope emeritus explained that he “accepted” the unexpected years of continued life, “and tried to do what I had promised: to pray, to be present, and above all to accompany my successor with prayer.”
Let us not underestimate the power of Benedict’s example. His prayer, his confidence, his peace, his humility, his self-effacement, remind us to place all our confidence in the Lord, rather than our own, human efforts.
A Simple, Grateful Faith
Shortly after Benedict XVI’s death, the Vatican released his final spiritual testament. For a man who had written and published millions of words, Benedict’s testament is remarkably brief and simple.
“When, at this late hour of my life, I look back on the decades I have wandered through, I see first of all how much reason I have to give thanks,” the testament begins. That first sentence expresses the theme of the rest of the text: gratitude.
Gratitude for his mother and father; gratitude for his siblings; gratitude for his friends; gratitude for the beauties of his homeland, Bavaria, and of Rome and Italy; gratitude for the gifts of grace with which God had showered him. Gratitude, above all, for the gift of faith, which he exhorts his readers to cling to in the face of the cynical onslaughts of the world, which is ever triumphantly claiming to have destroyed faith.
“What I said earlier of my compatriots, I now say to all who were entrusted to my service in the Church: Stand firm in the faith! Do not be confused!” writes Benedict. “Jesus Christ is truly the Way, the Truth, and the Life – and the Church, in all her shortcomings, is truly His Body.”
In the end that, of course, is all that Benedict XVI ever wished to say with all those millions of learned words that he poured forth throughout his decades of service and leadership, addressing so many of the problems, complexities, and questions facing the Christian living in the modern world. That is his message, boiled down to its essence.
As Archbishop Gänswein said in that interview, Benedict “was a man deeply convinced that in the love of the Lord one is never wrong, even if humanly one makes many mistakes. And this conviction gave him peace and – it can be said – this humility and also this clarity.” Gänswein goes on to recall that Benedict would often say that “Faith must be a simple faith, not simplistic, but simple. Because all great theories, all great theologies have their foundation in faith. And this is and remains the only nourishment for oneself and also for others.”
This is the final message that Benedict XVI wished to leave for us: that we must cling steadfastly to the cross of Christ with a simple, hopeful faith. It may seem that the world is hellbent against us, but this is no matter. It was against Christ too. Rather than becoming embittered or resentful, let us, like Benedict, take recourse to silence and prayer, allowing our hearts to be filled with gratitude for the innumerable good things that He has showered upon us, including the gift of being asked to suffer for the truth of His Gospel.
In the end, the pro-life movement owes tremendous gratitude to Benedict XVI for his unwavering defense of the sacredness of human life, the integrity of the family founded on the marriage of a man and a woman, and the Christian teaching on sexual morality. Benedict walked with us every step of the way in our service of the Gospel of Life. He is one of the great popes, and certainly one of the greatest theologians, of the ages.
Please join me and HLI’s global family in thanking our Almighty God for the gift of Benedict’s life, for his dedication to proclaiming the Good News, and his willingness to move mountains. May this faithful servant, we pray, now share His Master’s joy.
As president of Human Life International, Fr. Boquet is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having journeyed to nearly 90 countries on pro-life missions over the last decade. Father Boquet works with pro-life and family leaders in 116 counties that partner with HLI to proclaim and advance the Gospel of Life. Read his full bio here.