Benedict XVI and the “Benedict Option”
Recent conversations with two friends have shown me how misunderstood Benedict XVI. is. Both praised the late Pope for setting the example of the “Benedict Option” in his decision to resign, which I understood to be an explicit reference to Rod Dreher’s 2017 book of the same name. It was only when I spoke to the second friend that I realized that he was under the impression that the “Benedict” appearing in the title was Benedict XVI, not St. Benedict of Nursia!
The irony is that, despite his name, his retirement from public life, and his pronouncements on the importance of small Christian communities, Pope Benedict would not have proposed the “Benedict option” as the only way forward for the Church, be it particular or universal. in the third millennium. Rather, Benedict was a passionate advocate of what I would call the “Pauline option,” as evidenced in a magnificent series of catechesis examining the life and teaching of the Apostle of Tarsus, spanning July 2008 through February 2009.
On several occasions Benedict XVI. describes the encounter of Saul with the Risen One on the way to Damascus as paradigmatic for all Christians. The Apostle, Benedict taught, reminds us that conversion is essentially “not the result of a development of thought or reflection, but the fruit of divine intervention, of an unpredictable divine grace” (General Audience, October 25, 2006). . “What counts,” Benedikt continued, “is to place Jesus Christ at the center of our lives, so that our identity is essentially shaped by this encounter, by communion with Christ and with his word” (ibid.).
Inseparable from this personal encounter with the risen Lord is the call to proclaim him. “From the first moment,” “Paul understood that this is a reality that affects not only the Jews or a particular group of people, but a reality that has universal value and affects all” (ibid.).
Pope Benedict XVI taught that to fulfill this mission Christians must recognize that their very identity is marked by a “refraining not to seek themselves, but to receive of Christ and to dedicate themselves with Christ, and thereby to partake personally in the life of Christ himself up to the Point to identify with him and to share both his death and his life” (General Audience, November 8, 2006). This, Benedict stressed is the essence of faith, not a disembodied confession of abstract articles.
This wonderful series of catechesis, in which Benedict methodically examined the life of St. Paul, his theology and its importance for the Church, coincided with the “Pauline Year”, a jubilee event commemorating the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of the Apostle among the Gentiles . When I was working at the Vatican Secretariat of State at the time, I remember both the excitement at the initiative and the disappointment at taking part. Benedict XVI opened the year by praying in front of and entering the “Pauline Door” in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, together with the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Cardinal Archpriest of the Basilica and representatives of several other Churches and Ecclesial Communities. It was a moving and unforgettable ecumenical moment. But the basilica’s distance from the average tour route and the lukewarmness with which Benedict’s Wednesday catechesis and other events were received made it a missed opportunity, but not one that cannot be regained by (re)reading these wonderful reflections and Paul’s missionary embraces spirit: a spirit that Cardinal Bergoglio wanted to foster even on the threshold of his election as President of Peter.
In 2013, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino unveiled the outline of a speech Cardinal Jorge Martio Bergoglio delivered to his brothers, the cardinals, before they began deliberations and voting behind closed doors. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires made two main points: (1) the Church must come out of itself and go to the peripheries: not just geographically but “existentially,” and (2) every effort must be made to move from a “one “self-centered” church that separates it from the world, “keeps Jesus Christ within itself” and does not “allow him to go out into the world.”
With the publication of the memoirs of Archbishop Georg Gänswein (Nothing but the Truth: My Life Next to Pope Benedict XVI), unfortunately much attention is paid to the differences between Benedict XVI. and addressed to Francis. But I’m sure the archbishop would agree that the two popes shared a common vision for the “Pauline option,” judging by the daily priorities and catechetical projects entrusted to the papal staff to which I belonged. Having had the courage to shoulder the increasing burdens of the papacy, I would also say that no one understands better than her the “centrality of the cross” if we choose that option. The cross, stressed Benedict XVI, is so central to the apostle’s vision and mission that he “even went so far as to describe our suffering as ‘the suffering of Christ’ within us (2 Cor 1:5), so that we ‘ always [carry] the death of Jesus in the body, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our bodies (2 Cor 4:10).”
The decision to resign and devote himself to a quasi-monastic routine was a personal decision of Benedict XVI. I will not deny that in doing so he set a great example of prayer, sacrifice and discipline for all. But by no means did he imply that it was time for Christians (tempo Alasdair MacIntyre, Rod Dreher, et al.) to make a strategic retreat from the world. In fact, Ratzinger’s choice of the name “Benedict” had both “political” reasons (in the broadest sense of the word) and hermits.
Not only is there nothing wrong with monastic life, it is absolutely essential to a healthy, vibrant church. But for the vast majority of Christians, the life, mission and spirituality of Saint Paul is the model that guides the Church to encounter the risen Lord, to accept the cross and to go to the periphery so that we can experience our “being”. “Being able to share, loved by Jesus Christ” and our desire “to share this love with others” (General Audience, October 25, 2006).