Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is dead. The title of “Pope Emeritus” was, I believe, crafted to describe the fact that he had retired from what has usually been considered a lifelong office. The election that followed gave us Pope Francis; and just like that, the ethos of the baby boomer generation was fully in charge of the Church.
It was all there: the perplexing love of felt banners and childlike “art,” the punishment of modern church music, the allergy to doctrinal clarity and tradition, and the unshakeable certainty in the face of decades of evidence to the contrary that this is the way to bring in the youth.
I became a Catholic under Francis, though I had been on the cusp of conversion for years. From the Anglican Church, I watched my friends’ conversions with envy. But then, in 2013, Benedict stepped down, and I began getting near-weekly red alerts from my Catholic friends about what Francis had done this time.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Although I’ve since joined the Church, I still don’t share my friends’ despair. To me it seems clear that the Church’s problem will be solved as Lefties age out. The only people who feel motivated to become priests are people who take the faith seriously, and eventually they will predominate. The Church will survive, but it may be a rough ride.
This doesn’t mean I can’t imagine a better timeline on which Benedict remained pope. In that timeline, there is no Pachamama, obviously. The Church remains a firm voice on marriage and the reality of biological sex. James Martin has not been given such a loud microphone. The Traditional Latin Mass thrives. And—since this is my story, and I’ll tell it my way—Benedict comes down on the right side of Covid and celebrates the growth of those churches that tried to continue to provide sacraments as the world went mad.
But Benedict resigned, and here we are.
I was raised not to speak ill of the dead. To do otherwise is ghoulish. Or, at least, that’s what people used to think.
I noticed that the rule about speaking ill of the dead was changing after the death of Queen Elizabeth in September. There were the usual encomia. The enemies of the English people rejoiced. But I noticed a new kind of commentary from those on the Right. They weren’t exactly dancing on Elizabeth’s grave, but they weren’t viewing her legacy through rose-tinted glasses either.
Elizabeth was head of the Church of England; but in her reign, England became the kind of place where a woman can be arrested for praying in her mind in front of an abortion clinic. Elizabeth was the sovereign of the English people; but on her watch, 1,400 English girls were raped in Rotherham alone, and authorities did not interfere for fear of being called racist. (People objected that Elizabeth was merely a constitutional monarch. And yet she was able to intervene against her former colonists in Rhodesia and South Africa.) The semi-ghouls of the Right looked at this legacy and withheld praise. I was with them.
My sense is that the death of Queen Elizabeth started a breakthrough on the Right. It helped us to understand just how dire our situation is. The Left didn’t need to learn this. They always think they’re in dire straights, even when they’re winning. That’s why the arch-ghoul used to be Christopher Hitchens, who cheerfully attacked his enemies as he was writing their obits. Hitchens knew that politics mattered. It didn’t stop mattering when a bad person was dead.
Unlike Hitchens, I would like to live in a world where not speaking ill of the dead is good advice. But in the West today, it’s one of the great weaknesses of the conservative movement. Richard Nixon took the United States off the gold standard, but he meant well. Ronald Reagan deregulated the corporate oligarchs who rule over us today, but he hated those commies. George Bush Sr. passed the Americans with Disabilities Act and slapped a wheelchair ramp on every beautiful building, but at least he wasn’t a Democrat! Conservatives fought against all of these things, then lost, then forgot that they had ever opposed them.
What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will to-morrow be forced upon its timidity, and will be succeeded by some third revolution, to be denounced and then adopted in its turn.
This could have been written yesterday, but for the old-fashioned spelling of “to-day” and “to-morrow.” In fact, it was written by Robert Lewis Dabney in 1871. And if that doesn’t persuade you that conservatives long ago forgot how to conserve anything, I recommend Russell Kirk’s inexplicably optimistic book The Conservative Mind. It’s 300 years’ worth of but-his-heart-was-in-the-right-place rationalizations, drawn from both sides of the Atlantic.
Queen Elizabeth, then, was the first vaguely conservative figure not to get the amnesia treatment. Will Pope Emeritus Benedict be the second?
The state of the world isn’t Benedict’s fault, anymore than it was Elizabeth’s. But for those in the Church Militant, our situation is getting worse. The ideology of neoliberalism has sufficiently diverged from the Church that courts in Canada, Finland, and the United Kingdom have seriously entertained the question of whether the Bible is hate speech. In Canada, where I live, in the summer of 2021, 68 churches were subject to arson and vandalism with very little public outcry. Indeed, Pope Francis rewarded this behavior with a 2022 apology tour for the supposed crimes of the Church.
Don’t let it get you down. Our future is bright. Eventually, we are going to kick in the gates of Hell itself. But between then and now, there may be a lot of bad times. The world has grown darker since 2013, when Benedict stepped down. We could have used his help.
What then remains to be said of the legacy of Pope Benedict? We should say at least what we would say for anyone.
God rest his soul.