Eucharistic Foundations and Social Transformation: The Eucharistic Thought of Benedict XVI
Between October 1 and 16, 2013, the Federal Government of the United States was effectively “shut down” due to Congress’s inability to resolve the budget for fiscal year 2014. In contemporary American politics, we have become accustomed to stalemates in public policy and political processes being driven by ever-increasing polarization. These polemical trends have become the dichotomous lens through which the media and our world perceive reality. The Church is not immune to such polarization, especially in how the media and general public often caricaturize Church leadership and doctrine.
Since his election on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis has been a media darling, being frequently portrayed in stark contrast to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, especially in terms of the pastoral and social emphasis of his pontificate. The height of Pope Francis’s 2013 media rise was his being named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. A lesser known public media accolade was that The Advocate also named the Pontiff as their Person of the Year, a surprising pick for a LGBT publication. Although both Time Magazine and The Advocate couched Francis’s often-interpreted liberal worldview in a more balanced light, such nuance is lost on most of the media. A quintessential culmination of the division depicted between Francis and Benedict in public discourse is the February 13, 2014 Rolling Stone cover story: “Pope Francis, the Times They Are A-Changin’.” A central theme of this division is the caricaturization of Benedict’s doctrinal and liturgical emphasis and Francis’s interest in poverty and inequality. The article claims:
Francis threw down a real marker in November, with the release of his first apostolic exhortation, or official written teaching. Apostolic exhortations under John Paul II and Benedict tended toward the dogmatic (JPII’s Familiaris Consortio restated orthodox Church teaching on birth control and the traditional family) or the wonky (Benedict’s Sacramentum Caritatis spent 32,000 words on the Eucharist). In this context, the blistering attacks on income inequality in Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) resonate like a bomb.1
Many conversations, formal and informal, in theological circles seem to focus on how “progressive” Francis is or is not. However, little energy seems to center on determining the legitimacy of portraying his predecessor as out of touch and disinterested in the concerns of our time. Has Francis departed that significantly from Benedict? Is a pontificate that would dedicate so much verbiage toward the Eucharist somehow inherently disinterested in the plight of the poor, or is there more depth to what Benedict was attempting to accomplish? Did he provide a more significant foundation for the social emphasis of Francis than may be thought by the general public?
Given the popular conception of Pope Benedict XVI as a radical conservative, there was little surprise when he issued the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, allowing what he called the extraordinary form of the Mass (usus antiquior), the 1962 Missal of Blessed John XXIII—functionally known as the Traditional Latin Mass of the council of Trent—to be celebrated more freely in the Church. He is also known for attempted reconciliation with the schismatic conservative group The Society of St. Pius X. Under him, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith took steps toward correcting what the Roman Curia deemed a “doctrinal crisis” among women religious in the United States. More surprising to many has been the pastoral nature of his encyclical letters Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salve, along with the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis. Yet more striking still was the release of Benedict’s last official encyclical as a reining pontiff, Caritas in Veritate. Lisa Sowle Cahilldescribes the encyclical letter as “a concrete response to global poverty and violence, especially the inequities and imbalances of power that lie behind the global economic crisis of 2008 to 2010.”2
For many, this document was so unexpected that some of Benedict’s greatest supporters, like George Weigel, responded with criticism and even redactions in search of what was an “authentic” voice of the Pope amidst what were seen by critics as external intellectual influences. Benedict advocated both for what some would classify as anachronistic liturgy and ritual, and major structural change in social, economic, and political spheres. For many this is inherently contradictory. I believe that these two “poles” grow from the same intellectual tradition exhibiting a remarkable continuity (though not without evolution of thought) within the theology of then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.3 If this continuity of thought is true, then the emphasis of Francis on the poor is not a departure from the theology of Benedict but an ever increasing praxis of what was set forth by his predecessor. It may be in fact a concrete manifestation of the liturgical axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.
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