Volume > Issue > Was Pope Benedict XVI Holding Back the Destroying Flood?

Was Pope Benedict XVI Holding Back the Destroying Flood?

LITURGY & THE CHURCH'S DESTINY

By Pieter Vree | May 2024
Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR.

“We see how the power of the Antichrist is expanding, and we can only pray that the Lord will give us strong shepherds who will defend his church in this hour of need from the power of evil.” — Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, 2015

 

German journalist Peter Seewald first met Joseph Ratzinger in 1993, when the former worked for a liberal publication with a reputation for criticizing the Catholic Church, and the latter was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and had a reputation as the Church’s “doctrinal watchdog.” Over the next three decades, the two would develop not only a close working relationship — together they produced four book-length interviews — but a close friendship. Seewald credits Ratzinger with influencing his rejection of the atheism into which he had fallen as an adult and his reversion to the Catholicism of his youth. After Ratzinger acceded to the Throne of Peter as Benedict XVI in 2005, Seewald wrote the Pope’s biography and, after the latter’s abdication in 2013, assisted him in writing his autobiography, Last Testament: In His Own Words (2016).

Suffice it to say that Seewald enjoyed a privileged perspective on the late Pontiff, who passed away in December 2022. He probably knew him as well as — or better than — anybody else in the world did.

In two recent interviews, first with Kath.net, an Austrian Catholic news site (published in English in Inside the Vatican, Sept.-Oct. 2023), and later with NewDailyCompass.com, an Italian Catholic news site (published in English in Inside the Vatican, March-April 2024), Seewald — as interviewee rather than interviewer — shared some surprising insights into certain aspects of Ratzinger’s pontificate. Why surprising? Because Seewald sees him as playing a crucial role in the second coming of Jesus Christ in the Last Days.

When those Last Days will come to pass, and whether they are already upon us, has been the subject of great speculation, not only in our time (see, for example, James Patrick’s article “Are We Living in the Last Days?” Jan.-Feb., and James M. Roseman’s letter in response, April) but throughout Christian history, much of it based on a few rather oblique passages of Scripture.

Notably, St. Paul, in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, writes that before Christ comes again, certain events must transpire: “The rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition” (2:3). Rebellion is generally understood as a massive falling away from the faith, or a “great apostasy,” as it is termed in the Third Secret of Fatima. The man of lawlessness is generally understood to be the Antichrist, who “opposes and exalts himself against every…object of worship,” Paul writes, and “takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2:4).

Although Paul acknowledges that the “mystery of lawlessness is already at work” in the world, an unspecified figure “now restrains” its full manifestation and is preventing the emergence of the Antichrist. Once this figure — whom Paul mentioned verbally to the Thessalonians on a previous visit but does not name in his letter — is “out of the way,” the man of lawlessness “will be revealed” (2:7-8). And then the “day of the Lord” — the end of the world, when Christ will come again in glory — will be upon us.

There have been many theories down the ages about who or what this figure is. This katechon (Greek for “he who holds back” or “that which holds back”), or restrainer, has been identified as the Roman Empire, the Holy Spirit, St. Michael the Archangel, the French monarch, and, more recently, the missionary work of the Church.

Which is it? None of the above, according to Seewald. The restrainer, he says, is none other than Joseph Ratzinger.

In those two recent interviews (the quotes from which will be intermingled here as there is much overlap in themes and wording), Seewald gives a sense of how Ratzinger could have fulfilled the mystical role of the restrainer in the eschatological diegesis. Interestingly, much of what Seewald has to say involves the actions of his friend and confidant’s successor, Pope Francis, and the relationship between the two pontiffs.

Upon the accession of Jorge Bergoglio in 2013, Seewald says, Benedict “promised his successor obedience,” and he “remained silent so as not to give the slightest impression of wanting to interfere in his successor’s governance.” Benedict “trusted Francis,” Seewald says, “but he was bitterly disappointed several times.”

The new Pope, from the outset of his reign, “tried to distance himself from his predecessor,” Seewald says. “It was no secret that the two had not only opposing temperaments, but also opposing views of the future of the Church.” Francis “wants to break out of continuity. And thus from the doctrinal tradition of the Church.” That entails “the destruction of Benedict’s legacy,” with which Francis has proceeded apace.

Of utmost significance is Francis’s promulgation of Traditionis Custodes (2021), his motu proprio restricting the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass. “Francis had no qualms about eliminating one of his predecessor’s pet projects with the stroke of a pen,” Seewald says. The liberalization of the celebration of the Traditional Mass — which Benedict had effected with Summorum Pontificum, his own motu proprio promulgated 14 years earlier — was “a matter close to the German Pope’s heart.” There was “really no reason,” Seewald says, for Francis to have undone what Benedict did, other than as “a demonstration of the new power” — Francis’s own power, which, we all know, he is eager to wield. For Benedict, “it was like a stab in the heart.”

Adding insult to injury, Francis didn’t have the courtesy to consult with Benedict beforehand or even inform him of his decision. “How classless,” Seewald says, “that the Pope Emeritus had to learn about the change from L’Osservatore Romano,” the Vatican newspaper.

This shift in policy toward the liturgy came amid Francis’s ongoing “purge of staff” from Benedict’s reign. First, Francis canned Gerhard Cardinal Müller, whom Benedict had appointed as prefect of the CDF. Francis’s other targets have included:

  •  Archbishop George Gänswein, Benedict’s longtime personal secretary, who “was thrown out of the Vatican in disgrace” and “not even given a word of pro forma thanks for his work”;
  •  Bishop Joseph Strickland, “Benedict’s friend and a critic of Bergoglio,” who “was removed from office [the See of Tyler, TX] on the pretext of financial misconduct — an obviously implausible reason”; and
  •  Raymond Cardinal Burke, a supporter of Benedict, who was “deprived overnight of his home and salary without explanation.”

Francis did all this, Seewald says, with the assumption that Benedict would remain “faithful to his promise of obedience.” Yet Francis understood that the Emeritus Pope “would no longer remain silent if the level of destruction of the Church” became “unbearable.”

That went out the window when the calendar turned from 2022 to 2023, and Benedict was no longer in the way. “Immediately after his death,” Seewald says, “the considerations that were still valid during his lifetime were abandoned.”

It “became right,” for instance, “that a man like Victor Manuel Fernández, who was quickly given a cardinal’s hat, should be appointed to the post of Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith,” with which Benedict was long associated and which Francis had renamed and reconstituted as something entirely different from what it had been under his predecessor. Fernández, Seewald asserts, “is not qualified” for this position, “except in one thing: he is the protégé of an Argentinean Pope.”

To Seewald, Cardinal Fernández, the author of two books of erotic theology, embodies this new level of destruction. His writings and speeches are “on the border of heresy,” Seewald says, and upon his elevation to Ratzinger’s former office, he “immediately announced a kind of self-dismantling. He wants to change the Catechism, relativize the statements of the Bible, put celibacy up for discussion.”

In the early 2000s, in the wake of revelations of rampant clerical sexual abuse in the Church, when Ratzinger ran the CDF, he “brought this area under his authority because he saw that elsewhere crimes were swept under the carpet and victims left alone,” Seewald recalls. Francis, however, has recused his protégé from having to deal with this ongoing problem. Seewald points to a possible reason why: “The Argentine daily La Izquierda Diario reported that, as archbishop of La Plata, he [Fernández] had covered up at least 11 cases of sexual abuse by priests.” Fernández is, in other words, compromised.

Within a matter of months of Fernández’s appointment, he and Francis released their “disastrous” document, Fiducia Supplicans, which permits priests to impart spontaneous blessings on same-sex couples and others in “irregular situations.” The document has unleashed a tidal wave of reactions, rejections, and recriminations (about which, see my column “Fiducia Supplicans: A Fine Mess,” New Oxford Notebook, April).

Coincidentally — or not — Sr. Lucia, the primary Fatima visionary, claimed that “the final battle” at the end of time will be about “marriage and the family.” What is Fiducia Supplicans about? Blessing couples who remain in alternatives to marriage.

These “latest developments,” Seewald says, “point to a veritable dam bursting. And in the view of the dramatic decline of Christianity in Europe, this could result in a flood that destroys what has still held out.”

A dam bursting? A destroying flood? Sounds apocalyptic.

Indeed, that’s Seewald’s intent, for the German revert then makes a reference to “the mystery of evil” and “the idea of the katechon.”

When asked to elaborate, Seewald says, “With regard to the Second Letter of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians, this means the principle of stopping. It is a term that is also interpreted as a ‘barrier,’ something or someone who holds back the end of time. Benedict XVI had been something of a ‘stopper.’”

Say what? This sounds like crazy talk!

But Seewald insists it isn’t farfetched. “The Pope Emeritus apparently saw it the same way,” he says. “When I asked him why he couldn’t die, he replied that he had to stay, as a memorial to the authentic message of Jesus, as a light on the mountain.”

Key to the great apostasy — or “rebellion,” in Paul’s words — is, to Benedict’s way of thinking, the liturgy. “The way we treat the liturgy,” Seewald quotes the late Pope as saying, “determines the destiny of the faith and the Church.” That the liturgy has eschatological import should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read the Apocalypse of St. John.

That’s why Benedict was eager to see the Traditional Mass spread. He had famously called the New Mass instituted after Vatican II a “fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product” (in his preface to the French edition of Msgr. Klaus Gamber’s The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background, 1993), and he wished to see the two forms of the Roman rite mutually enrich each other — not merely to appease disgruntled or breakaway traditionalists but for the benefit of the entire Church.

Benedict went a little deeper into this idea in his interview with Seewald published as Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (1997). “I am convinced,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger said, “that the church crisis we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy, which at times has even come to be conceived — etsi Deus non daretur: ‘as if God did not exist’ — so that it does not matter whether or not God exists or whether he speaks to us and listens to us.” This is perhaps one of the reasons why restoring the Traditional Mass was so important to him, and why its cessation by his successor was so disappointing.

To be clear: Seewald isn’t suggesting that Pope Francis is the Antichrist. That figure is commonly understood to be a political luminary who will arrogate to himself the things of God. But the Antichrist is intimately associated with the Church. Way back in 1956, a young Ratzinger, in his fifth year of ordination, said, “The Antichrist belongs to the Church, grows in it and with it up to the great separation.”

According to Seewald, the great separation is now upon us. “From the beginning,” he says, “the Church was inextricably mixed: it is both the Church of Christ and the Church of the Antichrist. From this point of view, Benedict’s resignation inevitably led to the separation of the ‘good’ Church from the ‘black’ Church, the separation of the wheat from the chaff.”

Now that Ratzinger the Restrainer has died — or is “out of the way,” in St. Paul’s words — there is nothing and no one to prevent the great separation, the great apostasy, and the appearance of the man of lawlessness. Francis can’t stop it; rather, he has accelerated it, perhaps fulfilling his own designated role in the drama of salvation.

(All this does not take into consideration the dubious “Prophecy of Malachy,” named after an Irish bishop from the Middle Ages who, legend has it, wrote down the complete list of popes, which ends with “Petrus Romanus,” whom many believe to be Francis!)

Is Seewald correct that we are approaching the Last Days, as the Antichrist prepares for his grand entrance on the world stage? Or is he merely airing a grievance against a Pope who doesn’t hold his predecessor in sufficiently high regard and presenting it as an elaborate eschatological scheme? Ultimately, history will answer that question. At the very least, Seewald has given us much to ponder, especially about where we each fall in the separation of the “good” from the “black” Church, the wheat from the chaff. One thing, however, is certain: The end will surely come, and with it Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It remains to be seen whether that day is near or far, and how many of us will be around to witness it.

 

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