A Woman's Defense of Pope Benedict XVI

FILE - This April 19, 2005 file photo shows Pope Benedict XVI greeting the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basi
FILE - This April 19, 2005 file photo shows Pope Benedict XVI greeting the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica moments after being elected, at the Vatican. On Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 Benedict XVI announced he would resign Feb. 28, the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years. The decision sets the stage for a conclave to elect a new pope before the end of March. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis/FILE)

It is perhaps small-minded and selfish to say that, as a professor, I will miss Pope Benedict XVI's intellect. As a woman, I will miss his tremendous attention to the questions concerning women, and concerning women and men together. As a family law scholar, I will miss his regular reflections upon human sexuality and marriage and the family. And as a Catholic who serves the Church regularly, and has grown up steeped in its theology, its rituals and its diverse international expressions, I will miss him like a father.

Small-minded and selfish, perhaps. But all true. And perhaps all in need of being said.

I wince every time I hear a "drive-by" commentator on Benedict XVI refer to him as narrow or "hard-line" or "conservative," as if political boxes or strictly worldly categories could capture what is true about this man, or about the contents of the Catholic faith. I know it is hard, very hard, to see past the classifications one is accustomed to, but allow me to try, on the subject of Benedict, in order to help gauge the contribution of his papacy, and the work that remains to be done by the next pope.

"Progressives" fault Pope Benedict XVI for his failure to jump on board what they take to be a progressive agenda, most particularly in the areas of the nature of the human person, the meaning of sexual differences, the roles of women, and the nature of marriage. I think, on the other hand, that Benedict XVI has looped them more than a few times on the race track we call progress. Emerging data about human flourishing seem to confirm this.

Benedict has written that real human progress is the measure of our ability to love those with whom God has entrusted us. This would include not only our family and friends, but all those we have the opportunity to love, in our personal circles, and via the work we have been called to in this world. Every human person begins at the starting line, and must struggle to learn to love over the course of his or her life. The world, on the other hand, too often mistakes merely material and technological gains for the entire sum of progress.

Benedict XVI has therefore made the exploration of the meaning of love a hallmark of his papacy, perhaps expressed most fully in two of his greatest encyclicals "God is Love" (Deus Caritas Est) and "Love in Truth" (Caritas in Veritatae). In these, he identified either the shortcomings or the harms of modern notions of love: love as sexual expression alone, without an abiding concern with the well-being of the partner or any child conceived; love as taking pleasure, versus giving good gifts; love as social services alone, without any concern for the eternal well-being of the other; and love as emotion, divorced from the truth about the human person. These ideas -- not political categories, not prejudice -- drive the Catholic teachings Benedict XVI has elaborated upon, on the subjects of respect for human sexuality and life, the equality of women, and the goods of opposite-sex marriage.

Empirical research on the well-being and happiness of people who live according to these understandings of love, indicates that revelation and reason see eye-to-eye on the subject of love. Sex that takes children's well-being into account, life that takes eternity into account, and social services based upon the acceptance of the radical and God-given equality and dignity of every human life -- all these are associated with greater happiness and well-being in the individuals and populations that practice them.

But the movements for a worldly notion of progress usually fail to acknowledge this, and continue nearly unabated in our day. Wealthier, often Western, proponents of this notion, pressure less wealthy nations to adopt it. The language of "human rights" is increasingly attached -- both domestically and internationally -- to technologies that would diminish or destroy respect for human life or the powers of human sexuality, and to recognition of new adult-centric forms of marriage and cohabitation.

Benedict XVI has strengthened the theological and rational foundations for Catholics' going forward on these and other critical modern questions. He has done so in a modest but compelling manner. The next pope will have at his disposal immense intellectual and spiritual resources for grappling specifically with modern times, thanks in particular to both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Benedict XVI seems to be telling us by the circumstances of his early departure that the next pope will need all of these, and everything else that a gifted man can bring to the table.