March 13 was the 10th anniversary of the pontificate of Pope Francis, and since Emeritus Pope Benedict passed away just a few months ago (December 31), it seems like a good time to reflect on what they achieved.
Pope Francis has made it a hallmark of his reign to lead by example, walking his talk as a living embodiment of the church’s preferential option for the poor and marginalized. One of his first actions was humbly washing the feet of prisoners in a jail. He also has taken refugees into the Vatican and welcomed LGBTQ+ people.
He has extended this sensitivity to women by promoting them to key positions in the Vatican, and seriously considering the “sensus fidei,” (sense of the faithful), that God speaks through lay people as well as the ordained hierarchy. He has called for several synods where the 99% of the church who form the laity can speak their minds freely.
He has emphasized the church as a pastoral organization rather than a dispenser of dogma, that is, its first calling is to be compassionate toward all those who suffer. His visit and apology to Canadian Indigenous who suffered from residential schools was his attempt to make amends for misguided church abuse.
Francis has been committed to interreligious dialogue, particularly with Muslims, visiting Islamic leaders in their own countries to discuss how these two major religions can get along and work together for the benefit of all.
His major encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” represented the first attempt by a pope to integrate environmental concern into the theology of the church. Published just before the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, it had an impact on the deliberations there.
A major achievement recently was developing a new constitution for the church, which reformed the Curia (church administration) by replacing Vatican congregations with “dicasteries,” that is, departments meant to help the pontiff govern the church by implementing changes instead of resisting them.
However, it has not been all roses. Francis has been attacked as a “socialist pope” by several conservative bishops, who even suggested he should resign. And he has been criticized by the left due to their disappointment he has not ordained women as clergy.
Except for two notes, I won’t say much about the legacy of Pope Benedict (2005-2013) since so much has already been written by others. His reign was not nearly as substantial as that of Francis, and I agree with some that the best thing he did was step down when being pope became overwhelming.
However, on a positive note, it amazes me that everything I have read has missed Benedict’s greatest achievement, the development of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger chaired a commission of 12 cardinals assisted by seven diocesan bishops as well as experts in theology.
The Catechism is a synthesis of the essential contents of Catholic doctrine on faith and morals in light of the Second Vatican Council and two thousand years of church tradition. Its main sources are sacred scripture, the liturgy, writings of the saints, and the church’s “magisterium” (teaching office). A first draft was sent out to all the world’s Catholic bishops who made thousands of suggestions, all of which were incorporated in the final draft promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992. This was the first major catechism in over 400 years and will be a model for all local catechisms for the foreseeable future. Reminiscing about this, Pope Benedict stated in 2011 that it seemed like a miracle they were able to pull all this together into a contemporary catechism.
However, all was not roses in this case either. The Catechism became very popular among lay Catholics, some of whom weaponized it in the way some Protestants have weaponized the Bible. In other words, it has been used to shut down debate, mature reflection, and interpretation, instead of facilitating it. I have heard Catholics say, “The Catechism says it, and so I believe it.” End of discussion.
It has been extensively studied in parishes, but it should be read along with books such as Adult Faith by Diarmuid O’Murchu. Otherwise, lay Catholics run the danger of being trapped in an adolescent faith that thinks it has all the answers. Still, the Catechism is a masterpiece of Christian thought, and Benedict deserves full credit for it.