THR Web Features   /   January 17, 2023

The Postmodern Pope

The surprising legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

Stephen G. Adubato

( Pope Benedict XVI.)

Regardless of one’s personal opinions about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, many of the recent remembrances of the man bring to light an undeniable fact: His presence and legacy are of grand proportions—both within and beyond the Roman Catholic Church. Supporters laud his theological acumen and commitment to doctrinal clarity, and critics reprehend his moral rigidity and mishandling of clerical sexual abuse. I can’t help but dwell on the less newsworthy aspects of his public persona.

For me, Benedict’s affect, style of thinking, and overall aesthetic was emblematic of Catholicism’s unique cultural vision. With his esteem for the arts, his affinity for enaging with intellectuals whom most would deem far from the Church’s tradition, and his campy flare, he was perhaps—despite his measured critiques of it—the pontiff most in tune with and capable of speaking to the postmodern tides that Western culture waded into. Far from being a philistine, intellectually arid, or a bigot, Benedict—more than his predecessor and successor—is par excellence the pope of the postmodern era.

Written off later in his career by the mainstream media as “God’s Rottweiler,” Joseph Ratzinger was widely considered a progressive during the Second Vatican Council because of his openness to engage with postmodernism. His 1968 tome, Introduction to Christianity, straddled the paradoxical line between theological traditionalism and the contemporary, anti-foundationalist air of doubt and skepticism, allowing him to dig into the foundations of Christian belief.

We cannot take for granted, Ratzinger admits, that anything is fundamentally true or that God exists. One can no longer “automatically” proclaim the first articles of the Christian Creed without examining what it really means to say “I believe…” He begins the book by recalling Søren Kierkegaard’s circus clown who makes the townspeople laugh after attempting to warn them that their village is burning down. Christians who exhort an unbelieving culture to turn to God, he writes, are like that clown. The Christian, should he continue to rely solely on antiquated categories that no longer hold any weight, turns himself into a joke, and can no longer expect to be taken seriously.

He goes on to compare the position of the contemporary theist to that of the shipwrecked Jesuit priest in French writer Paul Claudel’s 1929 play The Satin Slipper. The believer can no longer hold on to dilapidated frameworks of belief—he must accept that he, along with the non-believer, is stranded in the abyss of doubt. Rather than trying to impose on the non-believer, he must begin his search for God not beyond but within the abyss, thus rehabilitating a space for God to “incarnate” himself in the concrete circumstances of everyday life as he did two thousand years ago in a manger in Bethlehem.

Ratzinger closes the chapter with a reminder to atheists that their anti-foundationalist position cannot establish that God does not exist, just as the theist cannot assert the opposite absolute certainty. He includes Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s story of the young “enlightened” philosopher who explains to an old rabbi his proofs of God’s non-existence, to which the rabbi replies “perhaps.” Perhaps he is right, perhaps there is no God...perhaps there is. Any position that precludes the fragility of human logic is doomed to crumble.

In his writings on the significance of Holy Saturday (compiled in a beautiful collection interspersed with paintings by the great William Congdon), Benedict considered the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, exploring the day that “God died.” Benedict’s affinity for such postmodern ideas and his Augustinian theological framework enabled him to move beyond the standard polemic between moralistic, Thomistic scholasticism and the sunny optimism of liberal humanism and Enlightenment rationalism.

Benedict shared with skeptics, postmodernists, and existentialists the suspicion of the modern trust in the benevolence of the human will. He was ready to admit that humans are messy and the natural world unpredictable. His willingness to grapple with the darkness of existence has more in common with thinkers like Marquis de Sade and Sigmund Freud, Nietzsche, and Albert Camus—as much as his conclusions may have greatly differed from theirs—than with the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke.

His warm invitations to atheists such as philosopher Julia Kristeva (whose overlap with traditional Christian mysticism is made evident in her book on Teresa of Avila) and social theorist Jürgen Habermas to participate in Vatican events further confirms the parallels of his thoughts with postmodernists. Never quiet about his disagreements with such thinkers (take his outright condemnation of Judith Butler’s writings on gender theory), his convictions made him a more apt conversation partner with those outside the Church than theologians who took a more feckless middle-of-the-road approach. Perhaps that is why atheists like Mario Vargas Llosa held him in such high esteem. As literary critic Wayne C. Booth once observed, “postmodernist theories of the social self have not explicitly acknowledged the religious implications of what they are about. But if you read them closely, you will see that more and more of them are talking about the human mystery in terms that resemble those of the subtlest traditional theologies.”

Benedict’s theological legacy foreshadowed the recent “horseshoe” phenomenon that occurs when divergent forms of religious traditionalism and contemporary counterculture (almost) intersect. The conversion of “Red Scare” podcast host Dasha Nekrasova comes to mind. According to recent pieces in the New York Times and Vox, Catholicism’s artistic, spiritual, and liturgical tradition is drawing in bohemian, artsy types who typically are considered alien to the Church. As mainstream culture continues to head in a stiflingly bourgeois direction—between its unimaginative aesthetics, puritanical political correctness, and repetitive political deadlocks—so-called hipsters are finding that they have more in common with the Roman Catholic Church than they do with conventional progressivism.

Perhaps the most overlooked and misunderstood of Benedict’s “horseshoes” is between his comments on sexual morality and his surprising resonance with queer culture. During his lifetime, Benedict received vehement backlash for his decisive stance on the moral implications of same sex sexual relations and his blocking of men with “deep-seated homosexual inclinations” from the priesthood. In his infamous 1986 “Halloween Letter,” Ratzinger insisted that sodomy is an “intrinsically disordered” act. “To choose someone of the same sex for one’s sexual activity,” he wrote, “is to annul the rich symbolism and meaning, not to mention the goals, of the Creator’s sexual design. Unable “to transmit life,” sodomy is “essentially self-indulgent.”

Before the Stonewall Riots, however, the predominant narrative of homosexuality was perhaps not so different. It relied on a quasi-pagan metaphysical framework, which affirmed that procreation was intrinsic to nature’s design. Gay men, whom cultural critic (and self-described “pagan-Catholic” lesbian) Camille Paglia deemed the “shaman” of civilization, live in constant tension with “nature’s single relentless rule”: procreation. Such an admission was required in order for homosexuality to take on its transgressive symbolism, which it held in Classical pagan cultures, fin-de-siècle European decadence, and the early 1960s counterculture movement.

Until Stonewall, homosexual sex was hardly a matter of expressing one’s “true self,” and was anything but “neutral.” The subsequent shift toward a humanistic anthropology rendered sodomy symbolically neutral rather than spiritually charged, gay people victims of prejudice rather than willful libertines, and a life of bourgeois domesticity the ideal rather than one of transgression and decadence.

The numerous “decadent” gay men who have converted to Roman Catholicism because of its robust moral tradition—from figures past like Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, John Gray, Marc-Andre Raffalovich, and Paul Verlaine to figures present like Milo Yiannopoulos, Anthony Quintal and members of the so-called “liturgiqueer” movement—are a testament to the proximity of Benedict’s rhetoric with that of traditional queerness. To draw an obvious comparison: Pope Francis may appear more welcoming to those whose lifestyles lie outside the precepts of Catholic morality, but his acquiescence to a hollowed out, humanistic narrative of homosexuality occludes the inherent overlap between queerness and Catholicism.

Figures such as Wilde would likely (and ironically) have felt more at home, not with Francis, but with the theology and cultural sensibility of Benedict, whose affect—like Wilde’s—has an undeniably “campy” flavor. Camp, according to Susan Sontag, “is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” That is why gay men like Wilde—caught perpetually between the “extremes” of supernatural chastity and unnatural debauchery—have been known to be drawn to camp.

In an essay on camp, literature scholar Fabio Cleto comments on how Benedict was “totally démodé, so alien to popular experience and the limelight as to retire from the throne in impenetrable, Garbo-like indifference, thereafter graciously considering his successor’s efforts from a distance. So viciously elegant, so unrelentingly medieval.” Benedict’s papacy, he says, made for an “ultra-camp story.” What with his flare for the baroque, his appreciation for aesthetic beauty and the arts, his taste for extravagant liturgical vestments and pageantry, his reputation for reading people’s logical fallacies and being outspoken without much concern for social conventions, his keen awareness of the tension between the finite and infinite, the sacred and profane, the natural and artificial, one might dare to call Benedict the real “gay-friendly” pope.

With a knack for stirring the pot, Benedict had little concern for sentimentality, refusing to pander to or appease the public’s sense of complacency. Take his letter on the resurgence of the Church sexual abuse scandal in 2018, which, while demonstrating humble respect and obedience to his successor, obliquely criticized those who deemed simplistic bureaucratic solutions would be enough to clean up the Church’s messes. Similarly, his “politically incorrect” comments about the reality (as much as it may have been expressed in an imprudent manner) of Islam’s history of violence was stated so glibly, as if to follow his caustic speech with the phrase “just saying…”

Benedict was the Christian equivalent of the Nietzschean Ubermensch. The antithesis to the bourgeois “last man,” he lived with gusto and a fervor for the finer things in life. He reveled in art, literature and music, and was a connoisseur of beer as well as indulging in the occasional Marlboro Red—unlike his party pooper-predecessor, who in 2017 banned the sale of tobacco in the Vatican as “the Holy See cannot contribute to an activity that clearly damages the health of people.”

I cannot deny the prudence, and admittedly the necessity, of the current pope’s change in direction. Pope Benedict XVI’s sensibility served its given time and place, and likely would have had adverse effects on the Church and society as a whole had he not followed his intuition that it was time to abdicate the papacy. But it is my hope that his true genius and contributions to the world—and to my own journey— will not be overshadowed by the standard discourse surrounding his name.