The recent death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI merits attending to his life and works. In the long history of the papacy, few popes have been distinguished theologians. Leo I (the Great) and Gregory I (the Great) and Leo XIII certainly qualify as first-rate thinkers, as does Benedict’s predecessor, John-Paul II. But Benedict must be ranked among a handful of the finest. Indeed, George Cardinal Pell said: “Pope Benedict is probably the best theologian among all the popes and he should become a Doctor of the Church.” Joseph Pearce, in Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith (Gastonia, North Carolina: TAN Books, c. 2021; Kindle Edition), recently wrote a highly appreciative and informative biography. He feels much T. S. Eliot said when considering Dante—“I feel that anything I can say about such a subject is trivial. As feel so completely inferior in his presence—there seems really nothing to do but to point to him and be silent.” But Pearce refused to be silent and gave us a good gift with this biography, which is more an apology than a “critical” appraisal. “It is an apologia: a spirited and heartfelt defense of Pope Benedict’s words and works, a tribute to his life and legacy, an homage to his sanity and sanctity. It is a vigorous defense of a rigorous and vigorous defender of the Faith. For this, at least, I make no apology because no apology is necessary” (p. 19).
Born in 1927 in southern Germany, Joseph Ratzinger was reared by a father “who with unfailing clairvoyance saw that a victory of Hitler’s would not be a victory for Germany but rather a victory of the Antichrist” and instilled in him a deep faith in a Kingdom transcending earthly powers. Schooled in a gymnasium, he thoroughly mastered Latin and Greek, a linguistic foundation for his later mastery of theology. He began such studies just in time, for Hitler’s National Socialist regime soon required students to study science and modern languages rather than the classics, replacing religious instruction with Nazi ideology (an anti-Christian neopaganism). Early in life he decided to enter the priesthood and flourished in his studies, delving into a broad spectrum of philosophy and literature as well as theology.
Rapidly gaining renown in academic circles, he served as a theological consultant at the Second Vatican Council, which began meeting in 1962. Some considered him rather “progressive,” but ultimately he would devote much effort to showing how the council sought to preserve the deepest traditions of the Church. This was evident when, in 1968, he published Introduction to Christianity, the work that would gain him acclaim “as a theologian of the first order. The clarity and beauty of the book earned him the reputation of being the ‘Mozart of theology’ and it also won him many significant and important admirers” (p. 36). In 1977 he was named Archbishop of Munich and soon made a cardinal. His was “what can only be described as a meteoric rise to prominence within the Church” (p. 44). In 1981 John Paul II brought him to Rome to serve as the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “making him—de facto if not de jure—the most powerful man in the Church after the Pope himself” (p. 44). Says Pearce: “the charismatic Pole had made the brilliant Bavarian his right-hand man, the two men forming a dynamic duo, defending doctrine, restoring tradition, and forcing the modernist ascendancy into retreat” (p. 45).
Both Ratzinger and John Paul II sought to rightly interpret Vatican II in light of its written documents—not in the modernists’ alleged “spirit” of the council. “‘The Council,’ explained Ratzinger, ‘wanted to mark the transition from a protective to a missionary attitude. Many forget that for the Council the counter-concept to ‘conservative’ is not ‘progressive’ but ‘missionary’” (p. 64). He insisted that both John XXIII and Paul VI wanted to preserve the traditional doctrines of the Church, and neither the popes nor the fathers at the council envisioned the “progressive” reforms implemented thereafter. What was needed in the Church, Ratzinger believed, was not structural alterations or liturgical innovations but more holiness. Nor did he endorse any of the many Marxist-based “liberation” theologies of those days, including “women’s lib.” Ironically, “those who were allegedly ‘liberated’ suffer the hellish consequences of their own ‘liberation’: ‘It is precisely woman who most harshly suffers the consequences of the confusion, of the superficiality of a culture that is the fruit of masculine attitudes of mind, masculine ideologies, which deceive woman, uproot her in the depths of her being, while claiming that in reality they want to liberate her.’ It is indeed ironic that the feminist movement has its roots in the masculine musings of Marx and has succeeded only in making women ‘equal’ to men as wage-slaves to capitalism, or, as G. K. Chesterton so whimsically put it: “Twenty million young women rose to their feet with the cry, ‘We will not be dictated to!’ and immediately proceeded to become stenographers!”’” (p. 76).
Perhaps Ratzinger’s “primary concern” according to his brother, Georg, was restoring the liturgy—most evident in his strong support of the Latin Mass. Reformers who championed vernacular liturgies did so “in clear contravention of the specific teaching of the Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium, which stated unequivocally that ‘the Latin language . . . is to be preserved’ in the liturgy and that ‘care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may … be able to say or sing in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.’” (p. 84). Modernizers also called for priests to face the people rather than joining them in facing the altar. “Instead of the priest and the people being united in praise, facing the same way, the priest now faced the people and became the central focus of the liturgical ‘performance.’ He was now the star of the show with the sanctuary being transformed into the stage on which he performed” (p. 88). Such innovations—designed to appeal to the modern mind—“had transformed the majesty and mystery of the liturgy into what Ratzinger described as ‘a do-it-yourself patchwork’ which had ‘trivialized it, adapting it to our mediocrity’” (p. 85). Properly done, however, celebrating the mass makes Christ really present to His people, most notably in the Eucharist whereby He enters in and transforms the faithful. To this end Benedict exercised his influence.
Shortly before his election as Pope in 2005, Benedict told the assembled College of Cardinals: “‘Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,” seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires’” (p. 97). To resist this dictatorship Benedict would devote much of his papal work, insisting the Christian faith balances faith and reason. This was evident when he spoke at the University of Regensburg, differentiating between the Muslims’ Allah who is ultimately irrational and the Christian insistence on a reasoning, rational God. He set forth “a brilliant synthesis of fides et ratio,” insisting that God is the Logos, “the very Reason that makes reality rational. This understanding of God is what unites Christian theology with Greek philosophy, a unity of faith and reason that was the catalyst of Western Civilization” (p. 108).
In this short and insightful biography, Pearce explains some of Benedict’s encyclicals and lauds his efforts to proclaim the Gospel. Summing up his work, he says: “The paradox of the papacy is that a good pope needs to be as wily as the world without being worldly. He must be worldly-wise without falling for the foolishness that the world mistakes for wisdom. He has to have lived in the world and to have witnessed its wantonness without succumbing to worldliness or wantonness himself. In this sense, Benedict XVI was a very great pope indeed, one of the greatest in the long and venerable history of the papacy. Under his sagacious patronage and guidance, first as the indomitable Ratzinger and then as the incomparable Benedict, he fought tirelessly and largely successfully against the forces of the zeitgeist within and without the Church. Within the Church, he fought against the spirit of the world in his war against modernism and its worship of the spirit of the age. He restored the splendor of truth in his defense of orthodoxy and the splendor of the liturgy in his restoration of tradition. He fought the wickedness of the world in his unremitting and uncompromising battle against the dictatorship of relativism and its culture of death. In short and in sum, and as the conclusion (in both senses of the word) of this brief and inadequate tribute to a great pope, we can safely assume that Benedict will be remembered as one of the most resolute defenders of the Faith in the Church’s long and tempestuous history” (p. 160).
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Joseph Ratzinger set forth a brief overview of his first 50 years in Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998). Born and reared in Bavaria by devout parents, he enjoyed a blessed childhood. He attended the gymnasium in Traunstein, where he thoroughly mastered Latin and Greek, a linguistic foundation for his later mastery of theology. Entering adolescence, he decided to become a priest. In 1943, as Hitler’s war effort began crumbling, all boarding school students (Ratzinger included) were required to serve in a civil defense force. When he became eligible for military service, he was spared active duty but had to work in a labor camp (which he fled as the war was ending) and thus support the regime. When the war ended, Ratzinger resumed his seminary education at Freising. Despite the lack of virtually everything material, the students joined together and zestfully studied for the priesthood, delving into a broad spectrum of philosophy and literature as well as theology. From Freising, Ratzinger went to Munich to study at the university. Here he encountered outstanding scholars and relished the challenge of new ideas and diverse perspectives. He also dug deeply into biblical studies and the thought of St. Augustine. “When I look back on the exciting years of my theological studies,” he recalls, “I can only be amazed at everything that is affirmed nowadays concerning the ‘preconciliar’ Church” (p. 57). Rather than being a tradition-bound static era, it was a time of ferment and radical questioning.
His intellectual brilliance fully evident, Ratzinger was encouraged to pursue the doctorate and did so while serving as an assistant pastor in Munich. He worked hard in youth ministry, received his degree, and then began teaching in the seminary in Freising. Subsequently he moved to Bonn, where he as awarded the chair in fundamental theology. Soon thereafter (moving quickly up the academic ladder) he was invited to Munster, then Tubingen and Regensberg. In the midst of his moves, he was fully involved in the theological discussions of the ‘50s and ‘60s—including the efforts of some to reduce Revelation to the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis. While at Tubingen, he saw existentialism literally collapse, to be replaced by the pervasive Marxism that continues to shape European universities. His encounters with Karl Rahner ultimately led him to note that “despite our agreement in many desires and conclusions, Rahner and I lived on two different theological planets” (p. 128). Scripture and the Fathers, not Kant and the Modernists were his beacons of truth.
Fully expecting to remain in academia for a lifetime, Ratzinter was, quite unexpectedly, appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. He chose, as his Episcopal motto, a “phrase from the Third Letter of John, ‘Co-worker of the Truth’” (p. 153). To fulfill that calling, he sought to anchor his diocese to the eternal Rock of Christ. Committing one’s all to “the side of God,” of course, never guarantees worldly success, even in the Church. But it does give stability to one’s decisions. And it explains why Pope John Paul II soon called on Ratzinger to take control of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
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Following his resignation as pope, a journalist, Peter Seewald, initiated and recorded interviews with him in Benedict XVI, Pope; Last Testament (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, c. 2016; Kindle Edition). Over the decades Seewald had interviewed Joseph Ratzinger and had been impressed by his “courage to go against the grain with his old-fashioned thinking. And strangely, these findings were not only shocking, they also seemed to be right. The much-maligned ‘Panzerkardinal’’ possessed “a new intelligence for recognizing and articulating the mysteries of the faith. His speciality was the ability to unravel complicated issues, to see straight through mere superficialities” (p. xx). For him theology is a prayerful pondering of God’s Word, listening to Him rather than constructing personal positions. “‘God Himself is the place beyond all places. If you look into the world, you do not see heaven, but you see traces of God everywhere. In the structure of matter, in all the rationality of reality. Even where you see human beings, you find traces of God. You see vices, but you also see goodness, love. These are the places where God is there’” (p. 238).
His hunger for God distanced him from the the progressive, this-worldly churchmen claiming to represent Vatican II. Benedict understood that: “‘The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon,’” and man is sliding into a nihilistic darkness. What we need is God, not social reforms, and to find God we must open our hearts to His Revelation in Christ and the Christian tradition. The grave problem in today’s Church is not simply the catastrophic loss of members but the loss of faith so evident in “the lukewarmness in prayer and worship, the neglect of mission. For him, true reform is a question of inner awakening, of setting hearts on fire. The top priority is to proclaim what we can know and believe with certainty about Christ” (p. xiv). Benedict endeavored, he said, “‘above all else to show what faith means in the contemporary world, and further, to highlight the centrality of faith in God, and give people the courage to have faith, courage to live concretely in the world with faith’” (p. 4). Of all the Church Fathers, St Augustine proved primary in Benedict’s development. They both found that ‘“God is so great that we never finish our searching. He is always new. With God there is perpetual, unending encounter, with new discoveries and new joy’” (p. 12). To know Him, to worship Him, to serve Him, is the real work of theology.
Extended passages in The Last Testament deal with Benedict’s memories of his earlier years and give insight into his family, his scholarly works, his evaluations of his contemporary theologians, and his positions in the Church. But the thing that stands out in this book is his deep desire to be a “co-worker with the truth” proclaiming the Good News that God is Love.
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In 1996 Peter Seewald interviewed Joseph Ratzinger and published their conversations in Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1996). Seevold provided a very personal introduction, indicating that he had, as a youngster, rejected the Faith, so he interviewed Ratzinger with some genuine personal concerns regarding himself as well as his subject. He noted that Ratzinger was always interested in philosophy, theology, doctrine, and ethics. He granted that knowing theology doesn’t make one a better person, but when rightly studied and appropriated it matters eternally—both for an individual and the Church. Though more celebrated “problems” may capture newspaper headlines, the real crisis in the Church was theological—for above all she’s entrusted with declaring what one ought to believe. To Ratzinger, “To the substance of the faith belongs the fact that we look upon Christ as the living, incarnate Son of God made man; that because of him we believe in God, the triune God, the Creator of heaven and earth; that we believe that this god bends so far down, can become so small, that he is concerned about man and has created history with man, a history whose vessel, whose privileged place of expression, is the Church” (p. 19).
Typical of a journalist, Seewald also asked Ratzinger probing questions. The future pope acknowledged that he is something of a Platonist and is openly devoted to St. Augustine. He also cited a turning point, for him personally, came when Marxists gained power, especially in the universities, in the late ‘60s. He instantly knew that “Christians” trying to mix Marx with Jesus—flying the flag of “progressivism”—would lose their integrity as Christians. Since that time, “progressives” within the Catholic Church have sought to change her sexual standards, to install female priests, to make the Church something akin to themselves rather than Christ. Obviously, Ratzinger noted, “not all who call themselves Christians really are Christians” (p. 220). Real Christians seek to live out the Christ-like life divinely imparted to them. They’re not intent on changing the world! Indeed, as the 20th century demonstrates, “everything depends on man’s not doing everything of which he is capable—for he is capable of destroying himself and the world—but on knowing that what ‘should’ be done and what ‘may’ be done are the standard against which to measure what ‘can’ be done” (p. 230). To give us direction we need spiritual renewal, not political revolution. We need saints, not power-hungry protesters. “What we really need,” says Ratzinger, echoing his words in The Ratzinger Report, “are people who are inwardly seized by Christianity, who experience it as joy and hope, who have thus become lovers. And these we call saints” (p. 26).
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Yet another set of published interviews by Peter Seewald, God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 2000), enriches our understanding of Pope Benedict XVI. By this time Seewald had returned to the Faith and his questions are both informed and sympathetic. Setting the stage in his preface, hinting at his own journey back to faith, Seewald wondered what to make of the fact that: “Within a short period of time, something like a spiritual nuclear attack had befallen large sections of society, a sort of Big Bang of Christian culture that was our foundation” (p. 13). To which Ratzinger, “one of the Church’s great wise men . . . patiently recounted the gospel to me, the belief of Christendom from the beginning of the world to its end, then, day by day, something of the mystery that holds the world together from within became more tangible. And fundamentally it is perhaps quite simple. ‘Creation,’ said the scholar, ‘bears within itself an order. We can work, out from this the ideas of God—and even the right way for us to live’” (pp. 14-15). Faith and love, rightly amalgamated, provide us that way.
Consequently, the Faith, rooted in the Truth of Revelation, cannot be compromised. “I always recall the saying of Tertullian,” Ratzinger says, “that Christ never said ‘I am the custom’, but ‘I am the truth’” (p. 35). Thus the task of the Church, in the words of Romano Guardini, is to “‘steadily hold out to man the final verities, the ultimate image of perfection, the most fundamental principles of value, and must not permit herself to be confused by any passion, by any alteration of sentiment, by any trick of self-seeking’” (p. 65). To the cardinal: “Christianity makes its appearance with the claim to tell us something about God and the world and ourselves—something that is true and that, in the crisis of an age in which we have a great mass of communications about truth in natural science, but with respect to the questions essential for man we are sidelined into subjectivism, what we need above all is to seek anew for truth, with a new courage to recognize truth. In that way, this saying handed down from our origins, which I have chosen as my motto, defines something of the function of a priest and theologian, to wit, that he should, in all humility, and knowing his own fallibility, seek to be a co-worker of the truth” (p. 263).
Seeing the truth—discerning the Logos in creation—enables one to share Sir Isaac Newton’s conviction that: “The wonderful arrangement and harmony of the universe can only have come into being in accordance with the plans of an omniscient and all-powerful Being. That is, and remains, my most important finding” (p. 47). The clear mathematical structure of the cosmos reveals its Logos. Equally rational, one discerns moral truths that are as objective and inflexible as mathematical formulae. The Ten Commandments, explained by Ratzinger as “commandments of love” (p. 180), are always and everywhere valid because they tell us the truth about God and ourselves. Thus it follows, he says, that: “Setting moral standards is in fact the most prominent work of mercy” (p. 317).
Since Seewald guided Ratzinger through the major themes of the catechism, God in the World is a rather handy, informal primer for the Catholic faith. Combined with The Ratzinger Report and Salt of the Earth, it provides valuable insight into the personality and theology of the late pontiff.