Pope Benedict XVI: A Pagan Perspective of His Legacy

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In a move that has shocked the world, Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, announced that he was abdicating his pontifical duties at the end of February.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

Already, speculation is flying fast and furious about who will replace him, and what the legacy of this Pope will be. However, for modern Pagans, for indigenous religious communities, for interfaith advocates, for anyone who existed outside the boundaries of the dominant monotheisms, his legacy of exclusion and derision was all too clear. Here at The Wild Hunt we’ve been covering the career of the former Cardinal Ratzinger turned Pope Benedict almost from the beginning. Below is a sampling of that coverage, of a church under his leadership that has emphatically placed our faiths outside the boundaries of respect or dialog.

So let us place the pieces together, shall we? Banning energy healing, banning a book that suggests female pronouns for the Christian God, banning gender-neutral formulations of baptism ceremonies, turning access to contraception (for women) into a national referendum on religious freedom, and now, accusing the largest conference of American nuns of promoting “radical feminist themes” and moving to bring them under control.  What do you get? In his book “The Ratzinger Report”, then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, made very clear his views as to what radical feminism was: “I am, in fact, convinced that what feminism promotes in its radical form is no longer the Christianity that we know; it is another religion.”

If Benedict won’t deign to visit practitioners of Vodun in its very birthplace, even after much speculation that he might, what hope does Santeria have in Cuba? One can only imagine that this trend of avoidance goes beyond mere discomfort, or fear of unscripted moments of truth-telling, oreven traditionalist furor, into outright animus against any and all non-monotheistic “pagan” faiths. Benedict, when he was Cardinal, lashed out at Catholic interfaith efforts when he thought they might be getting too chummy with African animists, he also called Buddhism narcissistic in nature, andpredicted it would replace Marxism as the Church’s main enemy. 

The last 25 years have seen Catholicism’s theological conservatives smear the goals and initiatives of the Assisi interfaith meetings, setting back progress on relations between the Catholic Church and non-Christian faiths (incidents like this don’t happen in a vacuum). Meanwhile, the rest of the world’s religions have moved on, the Parliament of the World’s Religions openly welcoming all faiths without worry over who does and doesn’t pray together. Its 35 Trustees boasting three American Indians, four individuals in Hindu or Hindu-derived traditions, two Buddhists, and three modern Pagans (Andras Corban-Arthen, Phyllis Curott, and Angie Buchanan). If anything, this Benedict-approved Assisi meeting could be interpreted as an attempt to regain relevancy for the Catholic Church within the world of interfaith dialog. As for claims of “desecration” or “syncretism” in Assisi, I think Italian Pagans have an earlier claim for that particular outrage.

Obviously not all Catholics are demon-haunted like Father Euteneuer, my father’s a staunch Catholic and I don’t think he believes I’m being controlled by various devils (right dad?), nor do most rank-and-file believers seem to be lining up for exorcisms because their teenager is reading “Twilight” or dabbling in Wicca. But this new zeal for exorcisms among certain priests and believers is troublesome, especially since Euteneur isn’t the first exorcist to list modern Paganism as a symptom of possession. Further, their zeal for occult battle is vindicated when prominent Bishops fear a looming “esoteric religiosity” due to the evils of secularism, and their Pope warns of “subjugation to occult powers” in his encyclical on love. When your religion isn’t merely criticized, or found to be in error, but actively demonized, seen as a pure evil to be cast out, there can be no real conversation or understanding. It sparks a dehumanizing process that can lead to violent outbursts against those who are “other”.

Catholicism is the best! Paganism is the worst! Rah! Rah! Rah! Some religions are more equal than others, right Benedict? I love the scare quotes around religion when describing syncretic, magical, and occult belief systems, it really drives home that the current leader of the Catholic Church doesn’t see us as even practicing a valid faith (even if in error). I suppose I should be flattered that the Pope considers us enough of a going concern that we’re mentioned in an encyclical, but I doubt it’s a first step towards understanding or tolerance. After all, if we aren’t “equal” to Catholicism (and other faiths that the Catholic Church deems “real” religions), maybe we don’t deserve the same religious freedoms and protections.

There are quite a few problems with Benedict’s argument, a primary one is the confusion of mythological stories with the living and breathing religion being practiced at the time. The assumption that Roman polytheists had no hope for a pleasant afterlife, when in fact they had a systematic afterlife that included judgment, rewards, and punishments, and the characterization of Roman religious ritual as a clockwork obligation that had no belief or passion. The bugbear here for Benedict is the specter of “philosophical rationalism”, which along with relativism leads (in his view) to all manner of horrors, including the destruction of Christianity (and which, in his view, drained the life out of Roman polytheism).

In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, while addressing the Jewish community of Cologne, laid out exactly what the new party line on Christian involvement in the Holocaust was. “And in the 20th century, in the darkest period of German and European history, an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism, gave rise to the attempt, planned and systematically carried out by the regime, to exterminate European Jewry. The result has passed into history as the Shoah.” Comments like these conveniently sweep aside the long, long history of Christian persecution of the Jewish people. As columnist James Carroll pointed out, to not mention Christian culpability when discussing National Socialism can be a dangerous enterprise in the longer run.

This is a pope that claimed indigenous populations in South America were“silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizers, who said at the recent Assisi gathering that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. He has mocked and criticized “paganism” in any form one could imagine, describing pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-paganism.” During his Papacy the practice of exorcism has boomed once more, a practice that explicitly lists adherence to other faiths as a sign of demon possession. This was the Papacy of a man afraid of a post-Christian future, one “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith,” as he put it. His stepping down can only be met with something akin to relief, albeit one tempered by the knowledge that his sucessor will no doubt follow in his footsteps.

I leave to others the monumental task of listing the many things this Pope will be held accountable for, but I wanted to use this moment to remind the world of how the Catholic Church under Benedict XVI had used its power and influence when it came to the religious world beyond monotheism. Catholicism is one of the most powerful religious bodies in the world, and power should always be judged by how it is used. For my part I think Pope Benedict XVI used his power in ways that were not always wise or good, and should the post-Christian shift really bring about a “neo-pagan” (as he would put it) world, I wonder if the Church will look back on him as a hero, or as a misguided, intolerant, man trying to shore up the power and privilege of a lost institution.