AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
Those reading about the death of Joseph Alois Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict XVI upon becoming the 265th Pope, will probably encounter many clichés. He was a giant, a one-of-a-kind, a renaissance man, a scholar and a gentleman, a genius, a faithful shepherd. The only excuse for the obituary writers is that these are all true. Even some of the progressive ones have some truth. He was very conservative and, yes, controversial.
Those last two aren’t bad words. Any Christian who desires to conserve the truth of the faith once delivered to the saints will necessarily spark controversy. What strikes any fair observer of the man was that the depictions of him as a theological Darth Vader or, in his pre-papal days, grand inquisitor or panzerkardinal, were not just clichés; they were grossly false. In his roles as professor, priest, bishop, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican’s theological office, known as the CDF), and then as bishop of Rome and pope, he was characterized as much by a true liberality of mind and spirit as he was by his dogmatic solidity. As one of his heroes, the nineteenth-century theologian St. John Henry Newman would have explained it, his capacity for dialogue, flexibility of mind, and discernment were precisely because of his commitment to foundational Christian truths—also known as dogmas.
Born April 16, 1927, in Bavaria, Joseph Ratzinger came of age during World War II. It was during this period when so many Christians had embraced or justified their collaboration with the Nazi regime that Ratzinger saw in his father, a police officer, a conscientious opposition to the Nazis. By the age of 12 his budding Christian faith was strong enough that he desired the priesthood and entered a minor seminary. At fourteen, though forced to join the Hitler Youth, he nevertheless, according to his older brother Georg, skipped many of the meetings. He was drafted into a German anti-aircraft division and then the Army infantry, where he was trained but did not see combat. After his unit broke up, he took the risk of being charged with desertion and started for home. On the way, he was taken prisoner by American troops.
Despite the legends and later exaggerations of Catholic complicity and “Hitler’s Pope,” what Ratzinger took from World War II was a deeper Catholic conviction, which he summarized in his memoir, Milestones: “Despite many human failings, the Church was the alternative to the destructive ideology of the Nazis. In the inferno that had swallowed up the powerful, she had stood firm with a force coming to her from eternity. It had been demonstrated: The gates of hell will not prevail against her.” After the war, he and Georg entered the major seminary in Freising and were ordained priests in 1951. While Georg went on to become an organist and choirmaster, Joseph served in a parish and studied theology, completing a doctoral dissertation on St. Augustine of Hippo’s theology of the Church. He later completed a second dissertation, known as a habilitationschrift, required to become a professor in the German university system. That one was on St. Bonaventure, the 13th-century Franciscan and friend of St. Thomas Aquinas.
What he took from these early studies was summarized by his student D. Vincent Twomey in an important 2005 article titled “The Mind of Benedict XVI.” First was Ratzinger’s conviction that Augustine’s understanding was correct: earthly kingdoms (the City of Man) rise and fall while only the City of God—or, as Ratzinger liked to say, the “Citizenry”—remains forever. While the Church is the seed of that eternal city growing in time, humanity being redeemed, it is not the fullness of perfection but instead a pilgrim Church.
Second, this understanding had been contradicted by the medieval figure Joachim of Fiore, who, in Twomey’s words, “proposed a radically new understanding of world history as a divine progression of three distinct eras, the last being the era of the Holy Spirit when all structures (Church and State) would give way to the perfect society of autonomous men moved only from within by the Spirit.” Like Eric Voegelin, Ratzinger saw this theology of history as the root of western theories of progress and attempts to “immanentize the eschaton,” or bring heaven down to earth. Ratzinger didn’t think Bonaventure had quite won the argument with Joachim of Fiore, but he understood that such heaven-on-earth schemes usually brought hell. This insight shaped how he viewed politics and particularly liberation theology later in his career.
As one can see from this beginning, Ratzinger was interested in seeing how the eternal truths should be grasped in and shape our own current era. His time as a professor at Freising College, the University of Bonn, and the University of Tubingen from 1958 until 1977, when he was made Archbishop of Munich and Freising, was a time of enormous productivity as a theological scholar who dared to buck the modern trend of specialization.
Rather than holing himself up in some historical or theological specialty, he wrote voluminously on a whole range of topics: biblical interpretation, moral theology, eschatology (the last things), ecclesiology, liturgy. In all of his writing, there is the sense that he is writing not just for specialists, but for educated Christians and sympathetic observers who want truth and not just footnotes or word games. In an age of specialization, Ratzinger attempted to see the whole.
That time as a professor was broken up by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), during which time he was a peritus,or theological expert, accompanying his own bishop and taking a hand in shaping the documents that came out of that Council. While Ratzinger was identified with the “progressive” wing, he admitted later that while he agreed with certain conclusions of people like Karl Rahner, his theological world was very different. In contrast to Rahner’s lens of German philosophy, Ratzinger looked at things through the lens of the Catholic Tradition as a whole—especially the Bible and the Fathers of the Church. That critical perception of what the times were really like allowed him to evade the facile optimism about the world that characterized many theologians, Catholic and Protestant. When the optimism of the mid-sixties descended into the revolutionary movements of 1968, Ratzinger was not surprised. He had read his Joachim of Fiore and his Marx, but he was also grounded in his Bible and Augustine.
His sympathy for ordinary people, his aversion to flights of inhuman abstraction, and his nose for truth characterized his work from beginning to end. Those characteristics are evident in one trait not usually pronounced in German academics: clarity. No one has ever made the joke about Ratzinger’s writings that is attributed to Hugo Rahner. Asked if he had read his brother Karl’s books, Hugo said he was waiting for them to be translated into German. Not only the popular interview books that Ratzinger did with Vittorio Messori and Peter Seewald, but his theological books and even the three marvelous papal encyclicals he wrote are clear and profound. Anyone wishing to study the Gospels with an eye toward head and heart would do well to read his three-volume series, Jesus of Nazareth. Anyone who would like to see how the unity of different loves are purified by the Cross would do well to read his encyclical Deus Caritas Est.
Though his real wish was to continue to work as a professor and priest, he thought of himself as “God’s donkey” and took up first the call to become a bishop and then the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer and eight more years as pope. It was during these many years in Rome that left-wing theologians and journalists attempted to paint him as “God’s rottweiler” for his dealings with theologians who had strayed from Catholic—and often Christian—truth entirely.
What always characterized him was his intellectual charity. He was unfailingly polite and respectful even to figures such as Hans Küng. He cleverly did not advocate for more extreme measures but simply rescinded the Swiss theologian’s mission to teach Catholic theology, blunting Küng’s attempt to claim martyrdom. He also never failed to note where figures were correct, not simply where they had strayed from the truth. The two documents put out by the CDF on liberation theology acknowledged that liberation, even political liberation, was a legitimate aspect of the Gospel while ruling out the Marxist and other ideological lenses through which that liberation was viewed. Ratzinger was always clear on the dangers of religious politics and politicized religion. While a politics bereft of deeper philosophical and theological underpinning was vulnerable to tyranny (he famously warned of the “dictatorship of relativism”), he knew also that Christ’s kingdom was ultimately not of this world.
That clarity about fundamentals was why he was acknowledged as an honest debate partner by secular intellectuals. In 1992 he replacedthe Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov as associé étranger in the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques of the Institut de France and in 2004 he famously debated Jurgen Habermas on reason, religion, and the modern state. He was not only accepted as a debate partner but also looked to as a leader by many Christians outside of the Catholic Church especially after the 2000 CDF document Dominus Iesus masterfully presented and defended the centrality of Christ as Savior and Lord. Though they disagreed in whole or in part with the specific claims about the nature of the Catholic Church, both Protestants and Orthodox could see the power of true faith richly expounded.
So, too, Catholics themselves. Many people don’t know that during his time in the papal office, Benedict XVI drew as large or larger crowds for his noon Angelus addresses as his predecessor, the larger-than-life St. John Paul II. He may have been quiet and he may not have been a thrilling showman, but it was so clear that he was not simply conservative out of temperament or courting controversy. Instead, he was trying to be one of the ones indicated by his papal motto: cooperatores veritatis, cooperators with the truth. Though famous for defining Christianity as “an encounter” and as “friendship with Christ,” he never separated the personal or the heart from the necessity of knowing the truth about Christ. And it is in the light of Christ’s truth that we see what is light and dark in our own age.
Even in the years after his abdication from the papacy, Catholics, Christians, and men of good will looked to the gentle German shepherd for wisdom gained from study, faithfulness, and prayer. As my colleague Thomas P. Harmon has put it, “There were other Catholic theologians who made specific contributions in the various sub fields of theology greater than any single contribution of Benedict/Ratzinger. But there was no one who was able to read the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel better than he, because of his profound and accurate grasp of what makes up the times we live in.”
He has gone on to meet the Lord about whom he spoke and wrote so well. When the prophet Elijah was about to die, his successor, Elisha, begged, “let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me” (2 Kings 2:9). Let us pray that Christian leaders would be raised up who have a double portion of the spirit of Pope Benedict XVI, God’s donkey, who saw this world so clearly because his eyes were fixed on the Lord.
David P. Deavel is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.