When Joseph Ratzinger resigned as Pope Benedict XVI, some of his opponents predicted, unkindly, that his abdication would be the only thing remembered about his life and pontificate. It turns out that it is Benedict’s critics who are now being eclipsed, while Joseph Ratzinger’s reputation continues to rise.
In 2012, a year before his retirement, the University of Notre Dame had already published a commemorative volume of essays on Ratzinger’s impressive theology and writings. Two years before that, following his successful visit to the United Kingdom, new Catholic youth movements began springing up, followed by an unexpected increase in men and women pursuing religious vocations. After his retirement, an online initiative titled “Generation Benedict” emerged, inviting young people to describe how Joseph Ratzinger had changed their lives. And this year, the Vatican’s publishing house, in cooperation with the Benedict XVI Foundation, released a new tribute, titled Cooperatores Veritatis (“Co-workers of the Truth”), written by the winners of the Ratzinger Prize, an award now given to leading theologians and scholars.
Ratzinger’s achievements are significant not just for the following they’ve produced, but for the keen insights and teachings they contain.
Nowhere has Ratzinger’s influence been greater than in theology, and specifically in expounding and defending the foundational beliefs of Christianity. In his now-classic Introduction to Christianity, published in 1968 at the height of the cultural revolution, Ratzinger not only defended biblical Christianity through a profound elucidation of the Apostles’ Creed, but presented it as the only cure for the chaos then convulsing society.
Before and after becoming pope, Ratzinger also defended the essential truth of Holy Scripture, against both a literalist reading and the modern-day effort to “de-mythologize” it. Ratzinger’s theological contributions culminated in his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, along with his related writings on eschatology, Mary, the apostles, the saints, the Doctors of the Church, and, not least, Christian worship. No modern Catholic leader has done more to revive the latter than Ratzinger did with his book The Spirit of the Liturgy and his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. This welcome document allowed for unprecedented freedom for modern priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass—now known as the Extraordinary Form of the Mass—following its suppression in favor of the New Mass of Paul VI. Addressing the “liturgical wars” directly, Benedict taught that both forms are valid and authentically Catholic, and should not be seen as rivals.
Ratzinger’s writings on the Second Vatican Council, which he attended as a theological expert, culminated in his now famous critique of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” which has portrayed Vatican II as a radical, irreconcilable break with classic Catholic teaching—when, in fact, Vatican II is continuous with it, within the context of legitimate reform and development, rooted in the Sacred Deposit of Faith. Ratzinger’s proper reading of Vatican II answers both modernists and arch-traditionalists who, having mistaken Vatican II for a revolution, try to use it as either a charter for dissent, or a target for reactionary rebellion. Ratzinger, in contrast, represents the vital center of Catholic orthodoxy, which seeks to bring the Gospel to the contemporary world, without losing its salt or falling prey to secularism and relativism.
That said, Ratzinger has not been afraid to criticize the Council for omitting or downplaying vital aspects of Catholic tradition, or for its reluctance to confront dangerous ideologies and pathologies. In doing so, he has demonstrated how faithful Catholics can support the Council without romanticizing it.
The continuing value of Joseph Ratzinger's work can be seen—to cite three examples—in the intense debates over “decentralization” in the Church, Amoris Laetitia, and the right approach to radical Islam.
Back in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger (then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and Walter Cardinal Kasper publicly debated decentralization in the Church. Kasper argued for the importance of the local Church and its practices, over and against the universal norms promulgated by Rome, which Ratzinger strongly defended. Many bishops in Germany regrettably followed Kasper’s advice, and the disastrous consequences can be seen in the country’s empty pews, mass secularization, and open defiance of Catholic teaching. Robert Cardinal Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, recently spoke about the damage localization and decentralization have caused within the Church—citing Ratzinger:
As Pope Benedict XVI tells us: “It is clear that a Church does not grow by becoming individualized, by separating on a national level … by giving herself an entirely cultural or national scope; instead, the Church needs to have unity of faith, unity of doctrine, unity of moral teaching. She needs the primacy of Peter, and his mission to confirm the faith of his brethren.”
Absent that, warned Cardinal Sarah, the Church risks fragmentation, and even schism.
On Amoris Laetitia, three professors at the Pope St. John Paul II Institute in Rome have just produced a handbook for faithfully interpreting it—and their guide for doing so is Ratzinger's hermeneutic of continuity. As Stephan Kampowski, one of the book’s authors, explained:
Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church along the ages in the understanding of the revelation that God has given us once and for all in Jesus Christ. While there is growth in understanding, no new revelation is to be expected. … Now, the Holy Spirit does not contradict itself. Therefore, a hermeneutic of continuity is the only legitimate one for interpreting magisterial texts. A manner of reading the difficult passages of Chapter 8 [in Amoris Laetitia] that clearly contradicts the magisterium—in particular, with respect to the concrete practice, John Paul’s Familiaris Consortio and Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum Caritatis … is not simply implausible, but, theologically speaking, illegitimate.
Consequently, the book reaffirms Church teaching forbidding Holy Communion for those in grave states of sin, and doesn’t try to get around that teaching by speculating about a person’s individual culpability (something only God knows for certain), or invoking mistaken notions of conscience, mercy, discernment, and accompaniment. Full and genuine repentance of one’s mortal sins, followed by a firm intention not to commit any more, say the authors, must precede Holy Communion.
Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg address, undoubtedly his most controversial speech, was an eloquent reflection on faith and reason, but was heavily criticized for raising pointed questions about Islam. Yet, over a decade later, with radical Islamic terrorist attacks proliferating, that address is seen by many, including reform-minded Muslims, as prophetic. Although Pope Francis has been far more reluctant to question any aspect of Islam, he recently rose to the occasion in Egypt, echoing some of the themes Benedict broached. As John Allen commented:
In effect, what Francis delivered on his first day … was almost his version of Pope Benedict XVI’s celebrated, and controversial, 2006 speech … [which] caused a firestorm of protest by quoting a line linking the Prophet Mohammed with violence. Francis avoided the incendiary quotation, but nevertheless delivered a clear and powerful call to religious leaders—which, in the Egyptian context, unmistakably means Islam in the first place—to reject violence in the name of God.
Joseph Ratzinger’s warnings to the Church should not be taken to mean that his life or pontificate have been dominated by such critiques, or by an all-consuming suspicion of the world. In fact, Ratzinger has always welcomed fruitful dialogue with those outside the Church, including non-believers, and encouraged Catholics to embrace beauty, especially through art, music, and literature. The goal of Joseph Ratzinger’s work has consistently been to uplift and inspire, and to draw people closer to “the pierced one,” Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The joy Christianity brings has been the overriding theme of his life and pontificate; and one could detect some of that joy on the pope emeritus’s face when he recently celebrated his 90th birthday with friends and family. It is a joy that the Church will long share in, as Catholics continue to thank heaven for the gift of Joseph Ratzinger.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.