Skip to main content

Why pope will be remembered for generations

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 11:12 AM EST, Tue February 12, 2013
Tim Stanley says Pope Benedict will be seen as an important figure in church history.
Tim Stanley says Pope Benedict will be seen as an important figure in church history.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Benedict XVI's resignation is historic since popes usually serve for life
  • He says pope not so much conservative as asserting church's "living tradition"
  • He backed traditionalists, but a conflicted flock, scandal, culture wars a trial to papacy, he says
  • Stanley: Pope kept to principle, and if it's not what modern world wanted, that's world's problem

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- Journalists have a habit of calling too many things "historic" -- but on this occasion, the word is appropriate. The Roman Catholic Church is run like an elected monarchy, and popes are supposed to rule until death; no pope has stepped down since 1415.

Therefore, it almost feels like a concession to the modern world to read that Benedict XVI is retiring on grounds of ill health, as if he were a CEO rather than God's man on Earth. That's highly ironic considering that Benedict will be remembered as perhaps the most "conservative" pope since the 1950s -- a leader who tried to assert theological principle over fashionable compromise.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

The word "conservative" is actually misleading, and the monk who received me into the Catholic Church in 2006 -- roughly a year after Benedict began his pontificate -- would be appalled to read me using it. In Catholicism, there is no right or left but only orthodoxy and error. As such, Benedict would understand the more controversial stances that he took as pope not as "turning back the clock" but as asserting a living tradition that had become undervalued within the church. His success in this regard will be felt for generations to come.

Opinion: Why pope will be remembered for generations

He not only permitted but quietly encouraged traditionalists to say the old rite, reviving the use of Latin or receiving the communion wafer on the tongue. He issued a new translation of the Roman Missal that tried to make its language more precise. And, in the words of one priest, he encouraged the idea that "we ought to take care and time in preparing for the liturgy, and ensure we celebrate it with as much dignity as possible." His emphasis was upon reverence and reflection, which has been a healthy antidote to the 1960s style of Catholicism that encouraged feverish participation bordering on theatrics.

Nothing the pope proposed was new, but it could be called radical, trying to recapture some of the certainty and beauty that pervaded Catholicism before the reforming Vatican II. Inevitably, this upset some. Progressives felt that he was promoting a form of religion that belonged to a different century, that his firm belief in traditional moral theology threatened to distance the church from the people it was supposed to serve.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



If that's true, it wasn't the pope's intent. Contrary to the general impression that he's favored a smaller, purer church, Benedict has actually done his best to expand its reach. The most visible sign was his engagement on Twitter. But he also reached out to the Eastern Orthodox Churches and spoke up for Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

Opinion: Huge challenges await next pope

In the United Kingdom, he encouraged married Anglican priests to defect. He has even opened up dialogue with Islam. During his tenure, we've also seen a new embrace of Catholicism in the realm of politics, from Paul Ryan's nomination to Tony Blair's high-profile conversion. And far from only talking about sex, Benedict expanded the number of sins to include things such as pollution. It's too often forgotten that in the 1960s he was considered a liberal who eschewed the clerical collar.

The divisions and controversies that occurred under Benedict's leadership had little to do with him personally and a lot more to do with the Catholic Church's difficult relationship with the modern world. As a Catholic convert, I've signed up to its positions on sexual ethics, but I appreciate that many millions have not. A balance has to be struck between the rights of believers and nonbelievers, between respect for tradition and the freedom to reject it.

As the world has struggled to strike that balance (consider the role that same-sex marriage and abortion played in the 2012 election) so the church has found itself forced to be a combatant in the great, ugly culture war. Benedict would rather it played the role of reconciler and healer of wounds, but at this moment in history that's not possible. Unfortunately, its alternative role as moral arbiter has been undermined by the pedophile scandal. Nothing has dogged this pontificate so much as the tragedy of child abuse, and it will continue to blot its reputation for decades to come.

Opinion: Echoes of past in pope's resignation

For all these problems, my sense is that Benedict will be remembered as a thinker rather than a fighter. I have been so fortunate to become a Catholic at a moment of liturgical revival under a pope who can write a book as majestic and wise as his biography of Jesus. I've been lucky to know a pope with a sense of humor and a willingness to talk and engage.

If he wasn't what the modern world wanted -- if he wasn't prepared to bend every principle or rule to appease all the people all the time -- then that's the world's problem rather than his. Although he has attained one very modern distinction indeed. On Monday, he trended ahead of Justin Bieber on Twitter for at least an hour.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Sat September 13, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 6:12 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
updated 1:05 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
updated 12:55 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
updated 3:32 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
updated 1:59 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
updated 8:41 PM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT