The Pope Is Smarter Than We Think

Benedict's resignation lets him ensure a suitable successor.

Pope Benedict XVI made worldwide headlines when he became the first pope to resign from office since 1415.

This particular Pope has an interesting background, especially considering the ongoing battle throughout the Western world between the forces of religious belief and those of government-enforced aggressive amoral secular humanism.

As Cardinal John Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict was appointed to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by John Paul II.  This appointment made Cardinal Ratzinger responsible for maintaining doctrinal purity throughout the entire Catholic Church - in effect, putting him in charge of church-wide quality control.  He was so zealous in rooting out deviance from approved doctrine that he became known as the "Pope's rottweiler."  His wholehearted promotion of John Paul's adherence to longstanding doctrines about the role of women in the church, married clergy, sodomy, and birth control have alienated liberal Catholics in America and in Europe where allegiance to the church has declined sharply.

Ditching the Doctrine

American religious institutions like the Catholic church often seem to act as if their professed beliefs and doctrines don't matter.  Catholics teach that abortion is murder, and that the Pope has the authority to send people to hell by throwing them out of the church.  If the so-called "mortal sin" of abortion is truly that important, why doesn't the Pope excommunicate supposedly Catholic politicians such as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden who advocate government-paid abortions?  By acting as if doctrines don't matter, the Catholic leadership acts like parents who give kids Christmas presents regardless of behavior.

When Lyndon Johnson was promoting the "Great Society" where poverty would be abolished, Catholic authorities argued that government should take care of poor people because only government could raise enough money to cure poverty.  They advocated unconditional welfare payments even though the Bible commands that people who will not work shouldn't eat (II Thessalonians 3:10).

These same leaders advocated paying child support to unmarried mothers in spite of Biblical commands not to support women who weren't married (I Timothy 5:9-10).  By abandoning core doctrines of a book they claim to revere, most Christian denominations undermined their moral authority, and the resulting unconditional entitlements made work unnecessary for more and more layabouts.

What If the Pope is Right?

The Catholic Church is the oldest multinational organization in the world.  It endured English King Henry II murdering an archbishop, and King Henry VIII confiscating all church property in England because the church wouldn't let him divorce his wife.  Through the centuries, it's survived the collapse of Rome, wars, depressions, and other disasters great and small.

It's also seen other societies collapse.  The Vatican archives go back as far as the archives Confucius drew on when he stated his laws of how successful societies operated.

What if the Pope is right in warning against free love, gay "marriage," money for no work, and a host of modern societal ideas?  The church has seen them all and knows that they don't work in the long term.  America has existed as a nation for only a little more than two hundred years and as an idea for maybe three hundred; Western culture as generally classified doesn't go back further than half a millennium.  The Catholics have been operating as a continuous entity for more than four times as long; we should at least the consider the possibility that this accumulated perspective gives them relevant insights.

Pope Paul VI warned against the misuse of birth control in his encyclical Humane Vitae by saying, "The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator."  He went on to explain the responsibilities of married parenthood and warn that birth control would make it possible for couples to abuse sex irresponsibly without suffering the traditional consequences.  This is exactly what we've seen in modern society, most recently illustrated by the notorious Sandra Fluke who expects all taxpayers to pay for whatever sexual hijinks may strike her fancy.

Pope Benedict also saw that his church had become too involved with government, a mistake it's often made in the past.  Although Catholic support helped get Obamacare passed, for example, the Obama administration repaid this help by commanding the Church to abandon its core principles.  The Church is insisting on its right under the US Constitution to practice core Catholic beliefs against abortion and contraception, but that position may not prevail in court.  If the court rules against the Church, Catholic traditionalists will be in direct conflict with the American government.

Pope Benedict is surely aware of Cardinal George's warning:

I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.

Cardinal George ended with a note of either optimism or pessimism as you prefer:

His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.

Pope Benedict knows how his predecessor John Paul II helped destroy the abomination of Communism.  He knows how Catholic monasteries kept the flame of learning alive during the Dark Ages between the fall of Rome and emergence of European nations some thousand years later.  He sees Catholic doctrines of individual responsibility, marital fidelity, and striving to create wealth for society at large under catastrophic decline as they come under society-wide attack.  As a highly intelligent student of history, he knows where this will lead.

Pope Benedict did what he could to combat the tendency of American and European societies to abandon the core social principles that made them what they are, but he realized that, at 85, he wouldn't live long enough either to see the coming collapse or to help pick up the pieces.

The Big "We Told You So"

As the leader of an institution far greater than himself, the Pope's first priority has to be to put his church in a position where it can weather the coming disaster.  That way his successors can say, "We told you so," without being laughed at.  He's doubtless read King Solomon's lament:

Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.  And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity.  Ecclesiastes 2:18-19

He knows that Solomon's son ruled so incompetently that the kingdom split in two shortly after Solomon died; the Catholic Church has been through several similar splits from which it has still not recovered.

For his church to survive and retain any moral power, Pope Benedict has to make sure that his successor holds to doctrinal purity as he has done.  Traditional Catholic positions on marriage, sexuality, individual responsibility, hard word, education, and sodomy are known to work and should be urged in an attempt to put off the crash.  What's more, if things do fall apart, what credibility would a church have that's abandoned beliefs it's held for two thousand years?

He knows that many Catholics are tempted to get in line with what they think are new social theories but are in fact modern resurrections of old ideas which he knows won't work.  He doesn't want the church to be caught in the collapse; it has to get back to its roots, and when the truth becomes obvious it'll be in the ideal position to be listened to once again.

In restoring the fundamentals, the Pope declared that the church should proclaim the Gospel "to those regions awaiting the the first evangelization and to those regions where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization."  He wants to preserve the church as a future voice for social policies that are known to work.  We're going to need many such voices.

By retiring, this most traditional and orthodox of Popes will have a most unusual advantage: a voice during the process of choosing the next Pope, and the ability to privately confer from time to time with his successor.

His retirement may stretch Pope John Paul II's efforts to return the church to its historical foundations through yet another Pope's time in office. This is a worthy goal, and Pope Benedict's giving up his position to save his church is much to be admired.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

My we all have faith and honor such as this.

February 26, 2013 11:13 AM

This is Offensicht's best article since I have been reading Scragged articles. A tip of the hat is due.

In this article he points out solutions, mainly from the church which is, if you are a Christian, eternal. These main tenets are the way to get out of oour current malaise. I am aware that the church's men have made mistakes and many are really hard to believe but the bottom line is that the tenets of the church are unshakable. It is when men try to please man instead of God that we find ourselves in a mess. If the Catholic Church were to have a leader that would be that leader that all fo Christianity needs, we not only as a nation but as the world would see some of these problems dissipate. Excommunication is the quickest way to get the point across. If that sin't done then pray tell what is the difference in congress and the Vatican?

February 26, 2013 12:16 PM

Unethical sexual activity caused the downfall of Rome and Greece. The Libertine movement in France, caused the revolution there to only do half the job. And the "sexual revolution" that started in the sixties, and was slowed only by the advent of incurable sexually transmitted diseases, is now back in full swing.
Interest in prurience far outweighs any interest in purity.
Robert Walker

February 26, 2013 11:45 PM

I think one should be careful to assign unquestioned moral authority to the Church. After all, it is comprised of human beings with all their failings, weaknesses and shortcomings. The Church, for hundreds of years assigned blame to the Jews for Jesus' death on the cross. One might choose to say it was that very idea which gave rise to anti-Antisemitism and Nazism. The Pope, his predecessor and virtually all of the bishops of the Church (all appointed by them) are known to be extremely conservative. Celibacy was less about giving one's life to God than it was about capturing the wealth bequeathed to the first born sons of nobility who often became clergy. Dying without issue meant that the Church got the property. And there were and continue to be illicit liaisons of heterosexual priests. Further, it was the bishops that these two Popes anointed who countenanced and abetted all the sexual abuse by priests, not just in the United States, but in Ireland and other places around the world.

Reading Cardinal George's column wherein he called the Civil War more bloody than the Crusades was laughable. The Crusades were about conquest of a territory that was relatively peaceful at the time with Muslims, Jews and Christians living side-by-side. Pope Urban called for a crusade and the second born of the nobility responded as they saw an opportunity to come into land as their family's lands went to the first born. By contrast, the Civil War was at least as much about ending slavery as it was about secession, economics, etc. Further, the world was much less populous at them time of the Crusades. And probably in both cases, more died of disease and such, than from battle. I could go on and on.

Pope John XXIII, had he lived longer and likely Pope John Paul I who died under suspicious circumstances, would have taken the Church in a different and most likely, better direction.

I was raised Catholic and continued to practice as one for all but the last five of my 60 years. And I continue to appreciate the wisdom and learning of the Church's leaders, but that doesn't mean I accept all of it. For instance I am against abortion and the death penalty but I see nothing wrong with contraception. The Church itself, by preaching "natural" planning (ie., the rhythm method) allows that sex can have other purposes than just pro-creation. And since Solomon was mentioned, let's not forget that he had 80 or so wives.

Many people look at the Bible (actually a collection of oral history stories) as the inerrant word of God. However it is full of contradictions as well. And how can we agree and trust in it alone if we don't even agree on the interpretation of the "original" - actually, oldest extant - version? It may be inspired by God, but that could be said about any human work. I think it largely stands the test of time, but so do other religious works when we interpret what they mean and choose what we should believe.

Religions came to be as a ways to formalize our explanation of the unexplainable. As we learn more and more, less and less of the observable remains unexplained. What we don't know is what we don't know, which is why we have the mystery of God. How active God is in our daily lives is open to question. How a good and just God could allow the repeated slaughter of millions of innocents through the ages is open to question and yet people pray every day for victory in a football game, to win the Lotto or that their loved one be saved. Yes, God's "plan" certainly is a mystery.

Lastly, I still remember Pope John Paul II's admonition that the world was becoming too concerned with material well-being. I agree western society and most especially we in the United States are guilty of neglecting our spiritual lives, however we choose to practice and attend to them. Ironically, Pope Benedict praised agnostics ( for seeking the true God.

February 27, 2013 1:08 PM

You didn't point out that the church discovered the advantages of lean management long long ago. The church has 5 layers - laity, priest, bishop, cardinal, pope. There are man staff organizations like monasteries, holy orders, Jesuits, etc., but those don't intrude into the lean management hierarchy. Very good way to organize a very global organization. It was honed in a time when sailing ships meant that it took a year to get a letter back to Rome and an answer back - had to be decentralized.

Management phenomenon.

March 1, 2013 7:30 PM

@Nate - you reminded me of a story I heard about church management. Overall, there are 3 kinds of priest, 3 kinds of bishop - shepherds, scholars, and business guys. The shepherd brings in the flock and builds up the congregation, but he can't manage the finances. The roof leaks and the buildings run down, but the members are happy.

Ideally, you follow a shepherd with a business guy. He straightens out the finances and gets management procedures in place. If you can, you follow him with a scholar. He won't hurt the finances as badly as a shepherd, the congregation will appreciate his learning, but they won't connect as with a shepherd. Then a shepherd comes along and builds the flock while wrecking the finances and the cycle starts over again.

John Paul was a shepherd. Benedict was a scholar. They needed a business guy.

March 2, 2013 10:24 AM

Benedict stopped decline.

In America, the ’70s were defined by not just a weakening in the institutional life of the church but a wholesale collapse. Thousands of priests and nuns left their holy orders each year. Mass attendance had fallen by a third in a generation. The church faced a rebellion from Latin Mass traditionalists, even as progressive theologians confidently planned for a third Vatican Council. ... the rate of abuse was at its peak.

Beneath these trends was a pervasive sense that Catholic identity was entirely up for grabs — that having dispensed with Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the church might be poised for further revolutions, a major schism, or both. When Walker Percy’s novel “Love in the Ruins” imagined Catholicism in the United States splitting in three — a progressive church modeled on liberal Protestantism, a right-wing “American Catholic Church” that plays the “Star-Spangled Banner” during Mass, and a tiny remnant loyal to Rome — it seemed more like prophecy than fiction.

It was the work of Ratzinger’s subsequent career, first as John Paul II’s doctrinal policeman and then as his successor, to re-establish where Catholicism actually stood. This was mostly a project of reassertion: yes, the church still believes in the Resurrection, the Trinity and the Virgin birth. Yes, the church still opposes abortion, divorce, sex outside of marriage. Yes, the church still considers itself the one true faith. And yes — this above all, for a man whose chief gifts were intellectual — the church believes that its doctrines are compatible with reason, scholarship and science.

It was understandable that this project made Ratzinger many enemies. It turned him into a traitor to his class, since it involved disciplining theologians who had been colleagues, peers and rivals. It disappointed or wounded the many Catholics who couldn’t reconcile the church’s teachings with their post-sexual-revolution lives. And it obviously did not solve the broad cultural challenges facing institutional Christianity in the West.

But it did stabilize Catholicism, especially in America, to an extent that was far from inevitable 40 years ago. The church’s civil wars continued, but without producing major schisms. Mass attendance stopped its plunge and gradually leveled off, holding up even during some of the worst sex abuse revelations. Vocations likewise stabilized, and both ordinations and interest in religious life have actually risen modestly over the last decade. Today’s American Catholics, while deeply divided, are more favorably disposed to both the pope emeritus and the current direction of the church than press coverage sometimes suggests.

This stabilization was not the kind of sweeping revival that some conservative Catholics claimed to see happening, and it did nothing to prevent the church’s reputation from suffering, deservedly, once the abuse epidemic came to light.

But for all of Catholicism’s problems, the Christian denominations that did not have a Ratzinger — those churches that persisted in the spirit of the 1970s and didn’t reassert a doctrinal core — have generally fared worse. There are millions of lapsed Catholics, but the church still has a higher retention rate by far than most mainline Protestant denominations. Indeed, it is difficult to pick out a major religious body where the progressive course urged by so many of Ratzinger’s critics has increased vitality and growth.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t some further version of reform, some unexpected synthesis of tradition and innovation, that would serve Catholicism well. And if such a path exists, Pope Benedict was probably not the leader to find it.

But he helped ensure that something recognizable as Catholic Christianity would survive into the third millennium. For one man, one lifetime, that was enough.

March 3, 2013 2:44 PM
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