Pope Benedict: A Pontiff With a Plan

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Scott’s Catholicism Blog

By Scott P. Richert

 

Tuesday July 21, 2009 – The recent release of Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, Caritas in veritate, followed the very next day by a motu proprio on the unity of the Church (Ecclesiae unitatem), has reinforced a sense that I have had ever since the Holy Father’s election in 2005: This is a pontiff with a plan.

Because of his age, Pope Benedict has always known that his would not be one of the longest pontificates in the history of the Catholic Church, but he seems determined to make it one of the most significant in recent centuries. And considering the men who have occupied the Chair of Peter in the 19th and 20th centuries, that’s a tall order.

74633849po101_pope_assisiYet the Holy Father is well on his way to fulfilling it.  In his now-famous address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, he set forth a plan to show to the world that there is no such thing as a “pre-Vatican II” and a “post-Vatican II” Church, but simply One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, upholding an unbroken Tradition from the time of the Apostles.

That required that Vatican II be interpreted through a “hermeneutic of reform” rather than a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” which has characterized both proponents of the “spirit of Vatican II” and traditionalist critics of the council.

And Benedict set about putting his own words into action. He signed the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum on June 29, 2007, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Summorum Pontificum freed priests to use the Traditional Latin Mass, and the date was significant: The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch sends representatives to Rome each year to take part in the celebration of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (and sometimes comes himself). The Orthodox have long been concerned about the decline of the liturgy in the Western Church, and the revival of the Traditional Latin Mass was seen as a major step in the right direction.

The motu proprio was released to the public on July 7, 2007—a date that takes on greater significance this year, in light of the release of Caritas in veritate on the same date. Three days after the release of Summorum Pontificum, which was an overture to the traditional Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), Pope Benedict authorized the public release of “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.” It, too, was dated June 29, 2007, and it addressed another major concern of traditionalists—namely, the Catholic understanding, expressed in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, of the nature of the Church—and, by extension, the nature of those other churches and Christian communities that are not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, two years later, Pope Benedict has delivered a similar one-two punch. Caritas in veritate, as I have noted, is an extended exercise in the “hermeneutic of reform,” taking another document long criticized by traditionalists—Pope Paul VI’s 1967 social encyclical Populorum progressio—and situating it squarely within the mainstream of traditional Catholic social teaching. Delivered on the same date (July 7) as Summorum Pontificum (and signed on June 29, as Summorum Pontificum and “Responses” were), the message could not be clearer: All of these documents forum part of a unified plan to clear up confusion and misconceptions that have reigned in the Church since the closing of Vatican II.

Part two was the release of Ecclesiae unitatem the very next day. This motu proprio may seem unexciting, simply announcing the folding of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but what it signals is far more important. As far as Pope Benedict is concerned, all liturgical questions raised by the SSPX schism have been answered, and the groundwork has been laid for addressing the remaining doctrinal questions.

As the Holy Father notes in Ecclesiae unitatem,

The duty to safeguard the unity of the Church, with the solicitude to offer everyone help in responding appropriately to this vocation and divine grace, is the particular responsibility of the Successor of the Apostle Peter, who is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of the unity of both bishops and faithful.

And thus it is significant that the results of all doctrinal discussions with the SSPX will be submitted “to the superior dispositions of the Supreme Pontiff.”

It is important always to keep in mind that the pope—any pope—is a man, and subject to personal failings. Even though he cannot err when speaking ex cathedra on a matter of faith or morals, he can make mistakes on practical matters.

Yet at many points in the history of the Church, when the Faith seemed most under attack and the Church Herself has seemed in disarray, the Holy Spirit has raised up a Supreme Pontiff who has led the Church out of Her troubles in truth, in charity, and in prudence.

I cannot help but feel that we might be in one of those times now.

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