Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's book-length final interview—Last Testament: In His Own Words—is released in November, we will receive the retired pontiff’s final addition to his vast written corpus. It will be an occasion for us to reflect on the many contributions the Pope Emeritus has made to the Church, by his writings and his years of service.

If I am still living in the Eternal City when the Pope Emeritus passes from this life to the next, I plan to lead a group in St. Peter’s Square that will hold signs reading “Dottore della Chiesa subito!”—“Doctor of the Church, now!” While most onlookers only needed a quick translation to understand the cries of “Santo subito!” (“Saint, now!”) that erupted in Rome following the death of John Paul II, our group of Benedict supporters will no doubt need to explain to a some members of the press the prerequisites of a Doctor of the Church.

In addition to edifying the Church through a life of notable holiness, a Doctor of the Church makes a special contribution to the Church’s theological heritage through his preaching and writing. His works are proven to be valuable through the ages for an audience far wider than the small body of professional theologians. None of the present thirty-six Doctors would boast of adding or subtracting an iota from the faith handed on by the Apostles. They were zealous custodians of a precious inheritance. Yet, in God’s providence (and sometimes with the help of an apparition or two), they plumbed the depths of the deposit of faith and expressed it in an idiom apt to help their contemporaries and their successors better understand and live the perennial Gospel. Surveying the Pope Emeritus’s life and works, it is difficult to think of any other Catholic thinker who so profoundly shaped the Church’s theology since the Second Vatican Council. The heroic diligence, courage, and humility with which he exercised his pastoral vocation indicates that sanctity infused the actions of an intellectual giant worthy of the title Doctor of the Church.

Though the world came to know him through a papal magisterium of incisive encyclicals, speeches in the world’s great capitals, and systematic Wednesday audiences, Joseph Ratzinger had already been a major theologian before his April 2005 election to the Chair of Peter. After gaining the attention of leading theologians for works like his seminal 1968 Introduction to Christianity, the German theologian was named head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 1981. There, Ratzinger oversaw important Church responses to hot-button issues. The demands of his office may have prevented him from penning the theological opus of his dreams, but Ratzinger did compile the many talks he was asked to deliver into influential books released during his more than two decades of service in the Vatican. While this service did not win Ratzinger the household-name status of the charismatic pope he assisted, those with an interest in Church affairs were aware of the German’s theological clout.

He confronted violent protests against his 1988 Erasmus lecture, where shouts of “Sieg Heil!,” “Nazi Ratzi!,” “Inquisitor Go Home!,” “Nazi fascist pig!,” and “Anti-Christ!” from gay-rights activists interrupted his reflections on the lights and shadows of modern biblical exegesis. First Things founder Fr. Richard John Neuhaus recalls how Ratzinger patiently listened to his critics before forcefully emphasizing the need for civil dialogue over contentious issues. This was the peaceful strength that would equip Ratzinger to steer the Barque of Peter through tumultuous waters.

I was new to the Church when white smoke announced that a brief conclave of Cardinals had elected Ratzinger pope in 2005. Within hours of the announcement, the student body and chaplaincy had organized a Eucharistic procession of thanksgiving around campus. Ratzinger exposed the bankruptcy of modern secularism, while exalting the joyful alternative of Christian discipleship. He taught with apostolic parrhesia, but never humiliated his opponents. In short, we knew the caliber of the man entrusted with the daunting task of filling a legend’s red fisherman’s shoes.

Eight years later, I was in Rome for the 2013 election of Pope Francis and experienced the international enthusiasm for the new pontiff as he greeted about two hundred thousand of us in St. Peter’s Square. We had expected buzz around a new pope, but had not anticipated the media fury that surrounded the Argentinian. We certainly did not expect the pope to grace the cover of Rolling Stone.

Over the next months, the many families I met while giving tours of the Eternal City would inevitably ask what I thought of the new pope. I usually praised Francis’s simplicity, love for the poor, and missionary zeal. I was quick to add gratitude for the German Shepherd whose writings, speeches, and virtuous example had inspired my own future priesthood. Unfortunately, many of the people I met expressed their appreciation for Francis at the expense of Benedict. They gave the impression that we finally had a humble, poor pope who had spurned the lavish papal palace in which Vatican slaves had fed Benedict grapes as he lounged upon his silk couch. Francis was the people’s pope, to chase away the scary doctrinal enforcer. Francis the pastor had come to rescue us from the aloof theologian. The calumnies boiled my blood and required that I exert effort not to respond too harshly.

As Francis mania continues, it is easy to forget his predecessor’s accomplishments. Benedict XVI himself has consciously spurned the limelight since embracing a semi-monastic existence at his Mater Ecclesiae lodgings inside the Vatican walls. His mission is to pray for the Church he so passionately loves. He only occasionally leaves his enclosure to participate in major events at Pope Francis’s behest. The Pope Emeritus also spurns all restorationist efforts to pit him against his successor. Just as it is false to celebrate Francis as the anti-Benedict, so it is a disservice to Pope Emeritus Benedict to manipulate him ideologically as the clandestine anti-Francis.

Ratzinger never pretended to have his predecessor’s charm, or to have united himself so heroically to the suffering Christ through a degenerative illness lived on the global stage. That said, Pope John Paul II’s quarter-century at the helm of Peter’s Barque would not have enjoyed the same lasting impact without his trusted head of the CDF. In a less ostentatious manner, John Paul’s successor inspired the minds and hearts of young men like me on the path to the priesthood. As the Augustinian Patristic Institute’s new Joseph Ratzinger master program suggests, we are just beginning to assimilate the riches of the retired pontiff’s theology and spirituality. Those who have followed his years of service to the Church find a thinker willing to affirm the good found in even his most critical opponents and ready to engage in civil dialogue in the common pursuit of the creative Logos. In February 2013, the world was shocked to witness a man set aside the world’s most influential position out of love for his mother the Church and obedience to his Lord. His final dramatic papal kenosis was but the culmination of a lifetime spent in faithful service.

The 2005 “Santo subito!” public chants hearken back to an early period of the Church, before the formalization of today’s canonization strictures, in which titles to sainthood came through popular acclaim. To prevent abuses and misguided devotions, Mother Church eventually developed a process that would certify the name tags of at least some of many rooms in the Father’s mansion. While the Christian people are wisely asked to exercise patience before propagating universal devotion to their purported new saint, the process itself does not begin without the faithful flock’s insistent petitions that their revered companion be held up as an example for the universal Church. That is why—when the Lord calls his humble servant in the vineyard, Joseph Ratzinger—you will find me in St. Peter’s Square chanting “Dottore della Chiesa subito!

Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a summer intern at First Things.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles