AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was laid to rest Thursday in the crypt beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, following a moving service that included readings from Isaiah and the first letter of St. Peter. Despite the somber mood that has gripped the Catholic world since the death of the former pope on the last day of 2022, the funeral offered another opportunity to reflect on the legacy of faith and freedom left by Benedict – a legacy captured in his remarkable spiritual testament.
According to Catholic tradition, each pope is supposed to leave behind a spiritual testament, which varies in form and structure from one pontiff to the next. Often, pontiffs will compose these testimonies over a period of several years and update them frequently. For most of the Church’s history, these papal testaments were not published. However, the documents nonetheless serve as philosophical and moral records of entire epochs.
For instance, Pope Julius II, who died in 1513 and commissioned Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, wrote in a letter to the Bishop of Venice that his spiritual testament would recommend Christian art to be an instrument of catechesis, or Christian education. French historian Jules Michelet, credited with defining the term “renaissance,” noted that Pope Pius VI called the French Revolution a demonic phenomenon in his testament.
Most historians, however, only have access to a few quotes from the Vatican Secret Archives from spiritual testaments from before World War II. It was only after the war that the Vatican began publishing the pope’s spiritual testament in its entirety.
The first such document made completely available was the testament of Pope Pius XII, which simply requested forgiveness and prayer in a four-paragraph farewell. It was not until Pope Paul VI that historical moments were reflected in the testament.
Pope John Paul II’s testament was noteworthy for its profound reflection on the moral situation in the world, remarking that “the times we are living in are unspeakably difficult and disturbing.” Writing in 1980, he prayed to be an instrument in God’s hands for “the preservation of the human family,” a phrase that also sounds like a deep concern for world peace, as his friend Cardinal Andrzej Maria Deskur said.
Twenty years later, John Paul II wrote that “Divine Providence be praised for this, that the period known as the ‘Cold War’ ended without violent nuclear conflict.”
One of John Paul II’s closest aides throughout his pontificate was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI. Like John Paul II, Benedict’s testament is a reflection of his view of the moral condition of the world – in his case, the need for an enlightened faith to safeguard freedom.
“Stand firm in the faith! Do not be confused!” So Pope Benedict implores Catholics in the penultimate paragraph of his testament. “Often it seems as if science – on the one hand, the natural sciences; on the other, historical research (especially the exegesis of the Holy Scriptures) – has irrefutable insights to offer that are contrary to the Catholic faith. I have witnessed from times long past the changes in natural science and have seen how apparent certainties against the faith vanished, proving themselves not to be science but philosophical interpretations only apparently belonging to science.”
Benedict also recounts the rise and fall of the “liberal generation,” the “existentialist generation” and the “Marxist generation,” each of which saw “seemingly unshakeable theses collapse,” all the while “out of the tangle of hypotheses, the reasonableness of faith has emerged and is emerging anew.”
Throughout his life, both before and after his ascension to the papacy, Ratzinger lived out his belief in the “reasonableness of faith” and in Christian teaching as a bulwark against atheist and tyrannical philosophies. In the 1950s as a professor of theology at the University of Bonn, Ratzinger, with scholarly discipline, defended the truth about the existence of Christ, arguing that He imprinted an irremovable mark on Europe, endowing it with freedom. This defense was all the more important to his native Germany, as it was deciding at the time between freedom as a political idea promoting free markets or reverting to a distorted concept of unity aided by socialism.
Ratzinger emphasized that the foundation of moral politics can only be liberty; there can only be unity once we have freedom beforehand. He explained that Germany’s choice of freedom over socialist unity was rooted in Christianity and it led to the rebirth of Europe after World War II.
Ratzinger’s influential voice was heard once again at the end of the Cold War, especially during the 2004 debate over the EU Constitution when the political consensus that once deemed Christianity indispensable to the defense of Western freedoms in Europe nearly dissipated altogether. Ratzinger warned against the dangers to freedom that would arise from adopting “a culture that, hitherto unknown to humanity, excludes God from public awareness.”
Pope Benedict expounded upon this idea in his 2006 book Without Roots. “The decline of a moral conscience grounded in absolute values is still our problem, and left untreated, it can lead to the self-destruction of the European conscience,” he wrote. “At the hour of its greatest success, Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life, subjecting it to transplants that erase its identity.”
At the height of a renewed wave of terrorism that added to the West’s doubts about its identity based on Judeo-Christian foundation, Pope Benedict contributed to the dialogue reminding European elites at the University of Regensburg in September 2006 of events that had decisive importance. The rationality of the Christian faith conveyed in the Bible and Greek thought was the most important event in world history since it shaped enlightened faith.
As Pope Benedict explained, it was this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, that created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe. Any rejection of that foundation of religion and addressing ethical issues only with subjective “conscience” will deprive individuals of freedom.
In the United States, Christians and non-Christians alike may also well remember Benedict’s 2008 remarks upon the occasion of his visit to the White House. “From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator,” the Pope said.
But, he continued, “Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility… The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.”
In our time of great uncertainty and disruption, with war in Ukraine and a growing list of other threats to global peace and security, Pope Benedict’s call for enlightened faith as the path to freedom seems to be a signpost pointing a way out of the darkness and toward a brighter future. Only through a shared foundation in Christian morals and a deep faith in God can we begin to build a more just and stable society. This lasting message of hope is the most profound legacy Pope Benedict XVI has bequeathed to the world.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.