The story of two eight-year terms

Pope Benedict, 2005-2013 vs. President Obama, 2008-2016

I know, the comparison is hardly equivalent for many reasons:

  • Ratzinger was well-known worldwide as a leading scholar and hardly raised any eyebrows when selected as Pope; Obama was a little-known Chicago senator who advanced politically probably because his ideological leanings were kept under wraps.
  • Benedict XVI shepherded an institution with divine origin and inspiration which will last for all time; President Obama rules an institution with lofty though earthly origin whose future is certainly not guaranteed.
  • Everyone agrees where Ratzinger was born…

But given that Benedict was head of a billion-member Church and Obama is head of the world economic and military superpower, maybe the comparison is somewhat appropriate. So how do they (or will they) stack up?

  • Even going beyond the obvious papal job description of continuing the line of St. Peter, Pope Benedict has stressed the importance of continuity with the past, both in his writings on the liturgy and in emphasizing a “hermeneutic of continuity,” especially as regards Vatican II. President Obama seems determined to break continuity with past presidents (except in fiscal profligacy) or societal tradition itself, whether it’s full-on support for abortion or same-sex “marriage.”
  • Speaking of which, Pope Benedict has stood steadfast for common-sense understandings of when life begins and what marriage is (and, foundational to that, what sex is for), even though the culture is blindly charging in whatever direction feels good. President Obama is the most visible example of a relativistic culture: changing positions when it suits him, even if nature and reason aren’t on his side.
  • Again speaking of which, President Obama secured his political position by relying on half-baked “arguments” that won more converts by emotion than logic. “If it feels good, do it” gets an embarrassingly high amount of support in our culture, but it wins when pushed by a good-looking and smooth-talking president or Hollywood star. Pope Benedict is not telegenic and certainly had his share of occasions where his words were easily twisted against his intent (e.g., Regensburg, his “approval” of condoms for AIDS sufferers, etc.), but no one would accuse him of sacrificing substance for style.
  • President Obama stands for, well, I’m not really sure. Making the rich pay their fair share? Bringing ‘murica down a peg? Pope Benedict continually comes back to the simple Gospel theme of sharing the Good News about Jesus Christ, and the necessity of our knowing Him and doing His will. His brilliant intellect, though, can’t help but shed incredible new lights on our faith.

Whose eight-year term will have a greater impact on the world? As far as “the world” is concerned, I can’t imagine Pope Benedict generating much media interest after, say, a year from now. Maybe Obama will go out quietly too, eschewing the “did you forget me yet?” approach of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, but I somehow doubt it. He’s been elevated to god-like status on too many magazine covers to be allowed to recede quietly into the background.

Pope Benedict wants to recede quietly, and has since before he was elected. It sounds like an oxymoron to say that Ratzinger showed great humility in accepting the papacy, since most people consider exercising power to be the ultimate in self-seeking. But Ratzinger’s own choice was to be a scholar and teacher; he set aside his personal desires to serve. If, in his own words, he is too ill to continue then he is a most visible example of demonstrating that “no greater love,” since he laid down his life for us, the Church.

While President Obama will likely pen one or more best-selling memoirs about himself, Pope Benedict’s popular literary legacy will be continuing what St. John the Baptist and our Blessed Mother did: pointing to Jesus of Nazareth. The modern world may not long appreciate Pope Benedict but those in heaven certainly will, especially those whose path there was made easier and more fruitful because of what he did and taught.

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