Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger became Father Ratzinger, then Professor Ratzinger, Archbishop Ratzinger, and eventually Cardinal Ratzinger, who was appointed to be the Vatican’s Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On April 19, 2005, he became Pope Benedict XVI. On February 28, 2013, Pope Emeritus. And on December 31, 2022, at age 95, he became a Christian who had “crossed the Jordan” and was met by our Lord and his mercies. Many remembrances of Benedict XVI have been written, mostly by Roman Catholics. What follows is a simple remembrance by a Methodist pastor.
In the late 1980s, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was the “CEO of doctrine,” so to speak, of the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, Rev. Richard John Neuhaus was directing the Rockford Institute Center on Religion and Society (aka “The Center”) in New York City. Dedicated to matters related to religion’s public role in modern life, The Center later morphed into the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which now publishes First Things. (That story is for another time.) I served as the assistant director of The Center.
Rev. Neuhaus was an alert observer of all things Roman Catholic, with particular respect for the theological work and Christian witness of Cardinal Ratzinger. Neuhaus invited him to deliver the 1988 Erasmus Lecture in New York. Cardinal Ratzinger agreed not only to lecture but also to participate in a two-day theological conference afterward.
A day or two before the lecture, The Center rented a limo and hired a driver, and on January 27, Rev. Neuhaus and I headed off to John F. Kennedy International Airport to welcome Cardinal Ratzinger to New York City. Since Cardinal Ratzinger upheld the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual ethics, he had unsurprisingly generated opposition all over the world. But on the evening of the lecture, he was mostly among friends. Cardinal Ratzinger had chosen the topic “Biblical Interpretation in Conflict: On the Question of the Foundations and Directions of Exegesis Today.” Around a thousand people attended the talk, held in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church at Citicorp Center. White-haired and not tall, Ratzinger appeared to be humble and perhaps even shy. He began his lecture in a gentle but firm academic tone.
Early in the talk, he stated: “Materialist and feminist exegesis, whatever else may be said about them, do not even claim to be an understanding of the text itself in the manner in which it was originally intended.” At precisely that point, his lecture was interrupted by shouting demonstrators inside the sanctuary and loud picketers outside the sanctuary: “Nazi!” “Fascist pig!” “Anti-Christ!” As it turned out, the demonstrators were militant gay rights activists. As this unpleasant scene developed, Bishop William Lazareth of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) left his seat and stood next to Cardinal Ratzinger to signal solidarity. The New York Police Department had been alerted to the possibility of disruption and stationed police officers in and around St. Peter’s for the evening. In short order, they made the necessary arrests so that the lecture could continue.
Cardinal Ratzinger resumed speaking with good humor: “I think we’ve had sufficient occasion to listen to this message [of protest]. It is sufficient now. There are other people here who wish to hear what I have to say, not what you [protesters] have to say.” The lecture went on and concluded without incident.
That evening some of us gathered for dinner at the residence of John Cardinal O’Connor, the archbishop of New York. O'Connor introduced Ratzinger with humor: “In essence, you are looking at the Grand Inquisitor.” The next morning a headline from one of the city newspapers screamed “Gay Protest Rocks Vatican Biggie.” “Vatican Biggie”—that must have been a first for the cardinal.
Next up was the theological conference, with the purpose of investigating how historical-critical methods of interpreting the Bible might be quieting or silencing the Word of God in the churches, and how such methods might be employed but transcended by other means of interpretation. Conference participants included Dr. Elizabeth Achtemeier (Union Theological Seminary), Father Avery Dulles, S.J. (The Catholic University of America), Dr. Thomas Hopko (St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary), and Dr. David Wells (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary). The Ratzinger lecture and a report on the two-day conversation were eventually published by Eerdmans under the title Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church. Methodist theologian Dr. Thomas C. Oden, who also participated in the conference, later wrote in his memoirs: “Those days with Ratzinger would remain important to me for the rest of my life. There I began to consider the deliberate study of the history of patristic [Church Fathers’] exegesis [interpretation of the Bible] as a paramount personal vocation.”
Throughout his life and ministry, Benedict XVI was committed to the foundational truth that the triune God actually reveals himself to the world, to the Church, and to the Christian. Without such revelation, God would be unknowable. Furthermore, the grandest glory and greatest strength of this revelation is Jesus Christ, the God-man. Revelation, Christ, and Church are great themes throughout Benedict’s ministry. Protestants who have read Karl Barth or Dietrich Bonhoeffer are sure to notice how their theologies are consistent with the writing of Benedict XVI.
A grouchy Methodist might reply to all of the above: But what does Benedict XVI have to do with me, my congregation, and my denomination? In his book John Wesley, Professor Albert C. Outler (1908–1989), who could accurately be called the father of the United Methodist Church, described John Wesley as an “evangelical catholic.” If Wesley was indeed an evangelical catholic, the churches, clergy, and laity that resulted from his ministry should be open to the riches of evangelical catholicism—which are so beautifully offered through the life and ministry of Benedict XVI.
Here is an example of a Benedict quote that reads like something Barth or Bonhoeffer would have said, and that inspires evangelical catholics throughout the Church even today:
If the Church . . . is viewed as a human construction, the product of our own efforts, even the contents of the faith end up assuming an arbitrary character: the faith, in fact, no longer has an authentic, guaranteed instrument through which to express itself. Thus, without a view of the mystery of the Church that is also supernatural and not only sociological, christology [the study of Jesus Christ] itself loses its reference to the divine in favor of a purely human structure, and ultimately it amounts to a purely human project: the Gospel becomes the Jesus-project, the social-liberation project or other merely historical, immanent projects that can still seem religious in appearance, but which are atheistic in substance. (The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church)
Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth is a retired elder in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, and editor of the newsletter Lifewatch.
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