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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT