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Pope Benedict XVI, after a long and productive life in service to Christ and the Church, has now gone to God. The Church prays for him, invoking the Redeemer’s divine mercy on his soul.    

Of his many theological achievements, Benedict’s pre-eminent contribution was his role in the interpretation and reception of the Second Vatican Council. From the time he was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981, to his resignation from the Chair of Peter in 2013, Joseph Ratzinger played a leading part in the interpretation of that extraordinary synod. Over more than thirty years, Ratzinger issued scores of documents directly concerned with Vatican II's reception.

One of these, certain to be remembered far into the future, is Benedict’s decisive Christmas Address of 2005. In that speech, the pope, who had been a peritus at the council, strongly discounted a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” as an appropriate way of understanding Vatican II. But neither did he assert unvarnished continuity between the great synod and the prior tradition. He argued, rather, for a “hermeneutic of reform,” insisting that the council’s approach was one of “innovation in continuity.” 

Benedict XVI claimed that the interpretation of Vatican II demands a “synthesis of fidelity and dynamism.” He adhered closely to this ideal, carefully maintaining the prior Christian tradition even while welcoming organic developments. In 2009, for example, he established Anglican and Episcopal Ordinariates for England and the U.S., in obedience to the council’s precept to foster authentic pluralism within a fundamental unity. One could argue that Benedict’s apostolic constitution on this matter, Anglicanorum Coetibus, is the most tangible fruit of Vatican II’s emphasis on genuine diversity. 

Standing alongside Benedict’s influential discourse on Vatican II is his powerful Regensburg Lecture of 2006. That speech, defending the complementarity of faith and reason, will long be studied, given its critique of passionate faith untempered by critical reason and of technocratic rationality unmoored from the spiritual life. The lecture was a forceful admonition both to an intolerant Islamic world and to a secular North Atlantic one. Only a proper balance between faith and reason could prevent civil societies from slipping into a dangerous one-sidedness, inevitably leading to noxious results. 

Similarly weighty are Benedict’s careful reflections on the distinct orders of nature and grace. Whenever he addressed civil authorities, Benedict’s seemingly innocuous greetings often concealed carefully wrought theological primers. The pope consistently stated that the secular order has a legitimate autonomy; this autonomy, however, can never abridge or excise humanity’s sacral and transcendent dimension. When the state fails to acknowledge man’s profound relationship to God, then “healthy secularism” devolves into a poisonous and distorted anthropology. The natural order has its own excellence, to be sure. But to be fulfilled, this natural excellence must come face to face with the one God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ.

Benedict also addressed the moral duties incumbent upon civil societies. In his speeches at Westminster Hall in London (2010) and the Reichstag building in Berlin (2011), Benedict offered minor masterpieces of natural law reasoning. Can the fundamental moral issues facing men and women today—the pope asked—be decided on the basis of democratic consensus alone? Or do they require a deeper probing into the very nature of humanity? This, the pope asserted, is the real challenge for democracy. In neither of these speeches does Benedict mention abortion or assisted suicide or same-sex marriage. But he makes it clear that decisive moral issues cannot be decided by majority vote. There is a human “ecology” that we must respect—and there is a “natural visibility” to moral truth itself. 

One of Benedict’s last extended speeches as pope, a long reflection on Vatican II, is instructive. On February 14, 2013, just two weeks before his retirement, he offered the clergy of Rome his mature thoughts on the council’s achievements. Twice in this speech, he calls Gaudium et Spes a “great” document—an evaluation that differs from his earlier judgment that the Pastoral Constitution was naively optimistic. Perhaps Benedict had finally concluded that Gaudium et Spes acknowledges Christ’s hegemony over culture—and that its stress on the relative autonomy of the natural order was congruent with themes that he himself later developed. 

In this same speech, Benedict discusses what journalists dubbed the “black week” of Vatican II—the third week of November 1964. That week, the schema on religious freedom was pulled off the council floor at the last moment, thereby postponing the voting until the following year. The elderly Benedict praises Paul VI for supporting the decision to pull the text—despite intense pressure from the American episcopacy—in order to allow full and free discussion before a final vote. 

Benedict also praised Paul VI’s last-minute change to the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. Desiring to uphold the crucial importance of tradition, the pope insisted on adding a phrase to Dei Verbum indicating that the Church does not draw her certainty regarding divine revelation from Scripture alone. While some have criticized “le crayon rouge” of Paul VI, Ratzinger praises Paul for having required the council to teach explicitly that the Word of God also draws life from the robust tradition of the Church.

Despite these noteworthy accomplishments, Pope Benedict’s theological ledger is not without weaknesses, at least by my lights. Although he proclaimed 2009 as the “year of the priest,” he never produced a probing document on the nature and meaning of that embattled office. Furthermore, he failed to recognize that the provisions of the Dallas Charter—thoughtlessly imposed by panicked American bishops—dangerously minimized the theological density of the sacrament of Holy Orders. The Charter is an open wound that festers still, deeply scarring the Church in the United States.

During his tenure as prefect of the CDF, and later as pope, Ratzinger did not offer significant support for episcopal collegiality, a battle won with great difficulty at Vatican II. He once stated that episcopal conferences lacked any theological basis, a position at odds with his earlier writings and with the collegial thrust of the council itself. Ratzinger was correct that such conferences are not constitutive structures of the church, but surely there is a significant theological and historical foundation for such bodies. On the other hand, as both prefect and pope, Benedict was primarily charged with protecting the unity of the Church. He no doubt reasoned that too much emphasis on the autonomy of episcopal conferences might lead to disparate, squabbling national churches.   

In the declaration Dominus Iesus (2000), which marked the completion of the Church’s second millennium, Ratzinger courageously defended the uniqueness of Christ’s salvific work and the exceptional character of Christianity and Catholicism. But the statement failed to mention the significant progress of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue since Vatican II, giving the document an unattractive patina of triumphalism. Given its ardent defense of both Christ and the Church, Dominus Iesus would have likely received negative appraisals under any circumstances. But Ratzinger invited criticism by ignoring the theological advances made through discussions with other Christians, with the Jewish people, and with those of other religious faiths.

Finally, I must mention Benedict’s role in the career of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. While the pope took action against McCarrick, accepting his resignation as archbishop of Washington and imposing certain prudential obligations—lowering his profile and restricting his travel—he did not impose canonical sanctions, nor initiate a fact-finding process. 

In 2020, Benedict XVI was given the opportunity to review the McCarrick Report’s description of the former cardinal’s activities during his papacy. The report states: “Through Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the Pope Emeritus recalled that there were suspicions regarding McCarrick’s prior misconduct but a dearth of concrete evidence.” This is the exact response offered by many American bishops and priests who had heard rumors of McCarrick’s behavior but lacked any evidence of wrongdoing. Is it likely, however, that such evidence would have remained elusive if a pope were intent on discovering the truth? 

Whatever his weaknesses, Pope Benedict is deeply missed. It is rare that the Church is graced with a pope who is both a world-class theologian and an intensely spiritual pastor. Let us give thanks to God for this man—an extraordinary Christian leader, to be sure, but first and foremost, a committed disciple of Jesus Christ. 

Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Seton Hall University. He is the author of The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II

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