I was extremely surprised to learn this morning that Pope Benedict XVI, 85, has decided to renounce the papal chair on the grounds of advancing age and deteriorating health. In my opinion he has been the best pope since Pius XII. That’s not to say I have agreed with him across the board, as you may note here. But his restoration of the classical Latin liturgy (which was always about far more than mere language) places him at the front rank of modern churchmen, most of whom are aesthetically and liturgically tone deaf.
In a piece I wrote for The American Conservative, unfortunately not available online, I explained the significance to the non-Catholic world of Benedict’s liturgical restoration. A great many non-Catholics in 1971 signed a petition urging the retention of the Church’s traditional liturgy, for good reason: it inspired a great proportion of the artistic and musical corpus of the West.
Here I explained why Benedict allowed the 1962 Missal (the most recent codification of the traditional Latin Mass) to coexist with full rights alongside the modernized liturgy, and here I give an overview for beginners.
And, of course, I wrote a book about this.
News reports will call him a “staunch conservative.” But remember that these reporters think Sean Hannity is a conservative. Benedict has been many things, but a conservative in the mold of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani or Pope St. Pius X he is not. He occupies a rightmost spot along the existing spectrum of opinion within the episcopate, which is well to the left of where it was before Vatican II.
I have not been as close a Vatican watcher over the past several years as I once was, so I don’t have a sense of the plausible papal candidates. My guess would be that speculations about an African pope will be in vain, at least this time around. Italians have lived through 35 years of non-Italian popes. One suspects this will not continue.