What will the ultimate legacy be for Pope Benedict XVI? Well, the first answer is obvious—he’ll be the pope who broke centuries of tradition and stepped down from office, establishing a precedent that it’s okay for the pontiff to retire. For the record when I say he “broke centuries of tradition”, I’m not attempting to cast it in a negative light. Clearly, the Holy Father felt this was something he needed to do for the good of the Church, and I don’t see it as my role to question him. Either way, it will clearly be the biggest part of his legacy.
But on a deeper level, I believe Benedict XVI will be remembered as the pope who began to bring the authentic vision of Vatican II into the life of the Catholic Church. Here at Catholic Vote, Tom Hoopes concisely summarized the contrast between the “spirit of Vatican II” movement of the 1970s—curiously a spirit whose correlation to what was actually said in Vatican II was coincidental at best—and the “read the documents” movement, which had the crazy notion that Vatican II meant what it actually said, not what dissident theologians and clergy claimed it really meant.
In an era of tremendous confusion about what Vatican II did or did not mean, came the papacy of John Paul II. Elected in October 1978, the late pope produced a huge body of work, from his encyclicals to his apostolic letters, to his numerous public statements. It was ultimately aimed at bringing about a true understanding of what Vatican II was really trying to accomplish.
There was one thing that John Paul II, by his own admission, did not often do, and that was to rein in dissident clergy, including his brother bishops. Indeed, it seemed there was little a disobedient cleric couldn’t do and have it passed over by the Holy See. This is not an attempt to cast blame at the feet of the late pope—perhaps he feared a crackdown would result in a schism, particularly in the West. Whether it would have is something historians can debate.
What we do know is that, whatever the reason, JPII chose a path where he would let the power his ideas and vision ultimately squeeze out disobedience, and that the next generation of priests would gradually begin the implementation of the authentic Council. In essence, he chose to ride out the storm and let it pass.
Thus we come to Benedict XVI. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he had been head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and seen firsthand all the disobedience that ran wild since the Council. As one who as a participant in the Council itself, he joined his predecessor in having a clear understanding of what Vatican II was actually intended to achieve. With his predecessor having laid the intellectual groundwork for an implementation of the Council, it was Benedict who began to enforce it. Notable crackdowns on dissident American nuns and on a disobedient movement of Austrian priests were just a couple examples of letting people know a new sheriff was in town.
Whether it was planned or not, the long pontificate of John Paul II and the relatively shorter one of Benedict XVI, worked in perfect tandem to bring forth what our retiring pope called “the true Council…in all its spiritual strength.” The first step was to clarify what it really meant. The second step was to let people know Rome was serious about its true implementation. Beyond the question of retirement, I think that’s what Benedict XVI’s legacy will ultimately be.