While there is no substitute for looking at the actual record of a new pope – his work as a pastor, his writings as a theologian or philosopher, his sermons, his interviews with the news media – it is also useful to divine some insight from his choice of a pontifical name.
When Albino Cardinal Luciano of Venice was elected pope in 1978, he took as his name John Paul I – the first compound name in papal history – as homage to his two immediate predecessors. After he died just 34 days later, his successor, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, the first non-Italian pope in 450 years, took the name John Paul II to signify continuity.
With the death of the pope many are calling John Paul the Great, it was probably too much to expect that his successor, whomever it might be, would take the same name. Some might view such a choice as hubris, since John Paul II, over 26 years of his pontificate, had raised expectations of what a pope should be and do.
Now comes the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who has taken the name Pope Benedict XVI. What meaning can we glean from this choice of name? Who is the new pope trying to emulate? What might the name Benedict say about the church’s immediate future?
The first significant Benedict of church history (a monk who lived circa 480-547) was not a pope or even a priest, but the Rule of St. Benedict laid the foundations for what we have come to know as religious orders – the Benedictines, of course, but also the Dominicans and Jesuits and Franciscans and all the rest. Summarized by the Latin motto, “Orare est laborare, laborare est orare” (“To pray is to work, to work is to pray”), St. Benedict’s rule prescribed “common sense, a life of moderate asceticism, prayer, study, and work, and community life under one superior,” according to John Delaney in his Dictionary of Saints. The rule, Delaney continues, also “stressed obedience, stability, zeal, and had the Divine Office as the center of monastic life; it was to affect spiritual and monastic life in the West for centuries to come.”
So there we see one model for the new pope. How about some Benedicts who are anything but role models?
Benedict VIII (reigned 1012-24) has been described as a “ruthless soldier” while the “depraved” Pope Benedict IX (1033-45), according to William J. La Due in The Chair of St. Peter, “obtained the papal office through overt acts of bribery and treachery.” As Hans Küng notes in On Being a Christian, Benedict VIII also inserted the “filioque” clause into the Nicene Creed, which says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This belief conflicts with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which holds that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. To our contemporary ears, this may seem like a minor semantic point, but the theological dispute ended in a schism between East and West that has continued for more than 1,000 years.
There were two popes known as Benedict XIII. One ruled from Avignon in France and was deposed in 1417. Historian Thomas Bokenkotter calls him “a formidable prelate of incredible tenacity and guile,” who by breaking an oath to resign after his election delayed the healing of the rupture between Avignon and Rome – a virtual schism in the Western Church – for nearly two decades.
The other Benedict XIII reigned for six years, 1724-30, and delegated the administration of the church to a corrupt underling who sold ecclesiastical offices (a practice known as “simony”) and engaged in endeavors both avaricious and bungling. This Pope Benedict focused on his pastoral responsibilities as Bishop of Rome – visiting parishes, celebrating Mass, teaching the catechism – but despite this was widely despised by his episcopal flock.
Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) was, according to La Due, “without a doubt the most capable and successful pontiff in the eighteenth century. He was open to the scientific advances occurring at that time, enjoyed a correspondence with Voltaire, did not play favorites, and avoided any tendency to nepotism.” (It says something about the quality of 18th century popes that Benedict must be praised for lacking negative characteristics.)
Benedict XIV permitted the first translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into vernacular languages. He promulgated reforms in regard to the liturgy, marriage, and the censorship of books. La Due writes that “even during his last years as pontiff, Benedict continued to radiate energy and vitality.”
Perhaps it was Pope Benedict XV (1914-22) who was closest to mind when the new pope chose his name on April 19. In an interview with Robert Siegel on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Thomas Groome, a professor of religious education at Boston College, said that he thought it “significant that he chose the title of Benedict XVI because Benedict XV was indeed a bridge-building pope. He came into the pontificate in 1914 and inherited a church terribly divided around theological issues between the conservatives and the 'Modernists' as they were called at the time. Benedict XV managed to bring the sides together and to be a real reconciler. Hopefully, in choosing this name, Cardinal Ratzinger now intends to do something likewise.”
In his book A Concise History of the Catholic Church, Thomas Bokenkotter agrees with this portrait of Benedict XV. The cardinals who elected him, Bokenkotter writes, “were looking for a peacemaker, and Benedict did not disappoint their hopes. Peace and conciliation were the objectives he unswervingly pursued from the first moment of his pontificate. Peace – first in the Church, which was bitterly divided by the anti-Modernist zealots who had been allowed to run riot during the previous administration. And one of his first acts was to call a halt to the witchhunt after ‘Modernists.’” (The Modernists, I might add, were well-represented among American church leaders.)
This Benedict also helped bring the church into the modern world with his encyclical, Maximum Illud, which established, as Bokenkotter explains, three “fundamental principles” of the Church’s missionary project: “promotion of a native clergy, renunciation of all nationalistic attitudes, and respect for the civilization of the mission country.” In other words: no cultural imperialism. While it took a long time for the church to absorb this lesson, the irrepressible growth of Catholicism in Africa, Latin America, and Asia over the past several decades proves Benedict XV’s prescience as well as his sensitivity.
What qualities will Pope Benedict XVI inherit from his namesake predecessors? Only time will tell. After all, the shoes of the fisherman are hard for any man to fill.
Biographical note: The beneficiary of 16 years of Catholic education, Rick Sincere has contributed articles to such publications as Homiletic and Pastoral Review and America, as well as to several diocesan newspapers, such as the Arlington Catholic Herald, the Catholic Standard (Washington, D.C.), and Church World (Brunswick, Maine).