Article taken from La Civilita Cattolica
The Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, passed away on December 31, 2022, at the age of 95, at the Mater Ecclesiae convent in the Vatican, to where he had retired after retiring from the papacy and where he spent the last years of his long life in retreat and prayer. A significant exception had been the trip he made to Regensburg from June 18-22, 2020, to visit one last time his beloved elder brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, just days before his death. His last public appearance had been on June 28, 2016, in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace in the presence of Pope Francis on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of his priestly ordination.
Pope Francis had visited him several times, and various friends and visitors were also able to see him, reporting news and images that circulated via social media, so that we continued to feel accompanied by his discreet but vigilant presence, which was also sometimes manifested in responses to letters or short messages, through which his kindness and the sharpness and intensity of his spiritual presence invariably shone. Written interventions of more significant content had, however, been very few indeed.
Stages of a long life: from Bavaria to Rome
Joseph Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, Bavaria. It was early on Holy Saturday morning, and on that very morning he was baptized, as he recounts, “with the newly blessed water of ‘Easter night,’ which was then celebrated in the morning. […] Personally, I have always been grateful that, in this way, my life was from the beginning immersed in the Paschal mystery, since it could only be a sign of blessing.” Joseph came into the world into a Bavarian family of deep-rooted Catholic tradition and modest circumstances – his father, also named Joseph, was a policeman, and his mother Maria was a housewife, but occasionally worked as a cook for the sake of the family budget. He was the third and last child, being preceded by his sister Maria and brother Georg.
Joseph’s childhood unfolded in a basically normal and happy manner, with the family moving to different locations in Bavaria as a result of his father’s service assignments: after Marktl am Inn, in 1929 to Tittmoning (which would remain for Joseph the land of childhood dreams and happy times), in 1932 to Aschau, in 1937 to Traunstein. Here in 1939, at the age of 12, Joseph entered the archdiocesan seminary, where he had been preceded by his brother Georg. These were the years which saw the rise of the Nazi regime; Joseph felt the approaching storm in the air, but he lived through it, protected by the deeply Catholic environment of the Bavarian province and his family, where the anti-Nazi attitude was widespread, though not militant.
He began to directly pay the costs of the onset of Nazism when the seminary was requisitioned shortly after his entry and he had to be compulsorily enrolled in the Hitlerjugend (the Hitler Youth), but he did not participate in its activities. At 16, in the depths of World War II, he was assigned to the anti-aircraft duty in the city of Munich. He was a soldier, but with other seminarians he could continue his studies, attending classes at a city gymnasium.
In September 1944, he was discharged from the anti-aircraft unit and sent to Burgenland – on the border of Austria, Hungary and Slovakia – for labor service and then, following an illness, to the Traunstein barracks. In the confusion of the final months of Germany’s collapse, he deserted and returned home, but upon the arrival of the Americans he was considered a prisoner of war and taken, along with 50,000 others, to an open-air prison camp under harsh conditions near Ulm. Finally freed, he was home again on June 16, 1945.
Through all these events, his vocation to the priesthood remained solid. Although institutions were still in a precarious condition, Joseph resumed his studies in Munich and Freising. He prepared for the priesthood with mature spiritual discernment and entered deeply, with gusto and passion, into the world of theological studies, favored by the proximity and guidance of personalities of first-rate cultural and spiritual stature. This is the time when familiarity with the thought of St. Augustine was born in him, becoming his point of reference, his favorite and fundamental author. He was also able to engage in fascinating readings of great contemporary theologians, such as Henri de Lubac.
On June 29, 1951, Georg and Joseph were ordained priests in Freising Cathedral by Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich. This was a milestone in the course of his life. Although strongly attracted to theological research and teaching, the priesthood would always remain for Joseph a primary dimension of his vocation. He lived it with joy, gratitude and great sense of responsibility, uniting in a vital synthesis liturgical service, the ministry of the Word and pastoral care with a depth of cultural reflection.
After ordination, the new priest was assigned to a year of parish work in a Munich neighborhood, close to a very zealous parish priest. He performed his duties with such commitment and gusto that he would remember it, many years later, as “the best time of my life.” It would therefore be quite wrong to consider Ratzinger’s personality as that of a cold or abstract intellectual, while pastoral sensitivity vibrated in the depths of his heart. But the course of studies and an academic career seemed the most suitable for a young man who had already shown exceptional gifts in this field.
After his doctorate on St. Augustine, defended in 1953, came the goal of obtaining the license to teach. Here he experienced a difficult and almost dramatic passage in his life, due to the open clash between two influential professors of the Munich Faculty – Gottlieb Söhngen, his teacher, and Michael Schmaus – over his dissertation on St. Bonaventure. Eventually the work was accepted, and Ratzinger became a lecturer in 1957. But these tensions would leave a profound legacy. The young theologian, who had until then had achieved mostly brilliant successes and high praise, had the novel experience of harsh criticism, to the point of radically jeopardizing his career. Wisely at the end he observed – regardless of the merit of the discussions – that “humiliations are necessary […]. It is good for a young man to know his limitations, to suffer criticism as well, to experience a negative phase.”
Thus Ratzinger became a professor. This was a key stage in his life, which lasted almost two decades. After all, it was a time in which he did what he felt called to and what he wanted to do. Yet it was a stage that also saw multiple phases. After teaching Dogma and Fundamental Theology at the high school in Freising, the first chair to which he was appointed was that of Fundamental Theology at the University of Bonn, where he remained from 1959 to 1963; then he moved to Münster for Dogmatic Theology (1963-66), then to Tübingen (1966-69), and finally to Regensburg (1969-77). Accounts of the exceptional quality of his university teaching, such as depth of content, clarity of exposition, care and finesse of language, are unanimous. Students thronged the lecture halls to listen to him. We were able to echo and enjoy these qualities on a broader and more universal level, reading the documents, listening to the speeches, catecheses and homilies of the professor who became pope.
A crucial event in Ratzinger’s life occurred during this period: his participation in the Second Vatican Council as an expert theologian for the elderly Cardinal of Cologne, Joseph Frings. When the Council was announced, Ratzinger was teaching in Bonn, in the Cologne diocese, and soon made his mark with an important lecture on the theology of the Council, which he attended. There was a spark. Frings, though nearly blind, would be a leading figure in Vatican II, a leading figure in the episcopates of central and northern Europe – France, Germany, and Belgium – who would exercise a decisive role in conciliar thought. Ratzinger, in his early thirties, trained in an academic environment different from that of the Roman faculties, accompanied Frings and prepared notes for him, and drafts of interventions that would leave their mark.
In addition to his contribution to the formulation of the documents, his stay in Rome during the council sessions represented a unique opportunity for the young professor to get to know and enter into personal dialogue with the leading theologians of the day – Rahner, de Lubac, Congar, Chenu, Daniélou, and Philips – and experience deeply the universality of the Church and the challenges of today’s world, experiencing from the inside the greatest ecclesial event of the century. His horizons widened to the ends of the world; his theological and pastoral reflection engaged with crucial questions, and he could never again close himself off within limited or short-sighted perspectives.
Not everything, however, was easy and trouble-free. The frequent changes of university positions are an indication of this. The exciting and creative time of the Council was also followed by negative developments and divisions in ecclesial and theological fields. The debate over the role of the theologian in the Church became heated, particularly in Germany. Thus, while it was Hans Küng himself who had invited Ratzinger to move to Tübingen, the paths of these two theologians diverged and they would become inexorably estranged. At a certain point Ratzinger had to take note that for Küng and others “theology was no longer the interpretation of the faith of the Catholic Church, but established itself as it could and should be. And for a Catholic theologian, such as I was, this was not compatible with theology.”
In this context, coinciding with the student unrest of 1968 that deeply disturbed university life, Ratzinger left Tübingen for the quieter Regensburg. But one should not think that those years were not also intense and fruitful. That same year of 1968 saw the publication of his most read book, Introduction to Christianity. Born out of a course offered to students of all faculties and structured as a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, it was a text of extraordinary success, with its translations into 20 languages and ongoing reissues to this day. It offers a fascinating contrast between depth of content and simplicity of language, which brought attention to him from beyond the academic sphere. Ratzinger underlined the personal aspect of the Christian faith: “The meaning of the world is the ‘you’ … Faith then, is to find a ‘you’ who sustains me and in the incompleteness of every human encounter offers the promise of indestructible love, that not only aspires to eternity, but brings it to us.”
In the following years at Regensburg, the lecturer’s activity was not restricted only to lectures, but also involved more commitment to the students who chose him as Doktorvater (“guide”) for their doctoral studies. Thus took shape and stability the Schülerkreis (“circle of pupils”), which Ratzinger would continue to sustain with admirable fidelity into the years of his pontificate, testifying to the exceptional depth of the cultural and spiritual relationship that had been formed between the professor and his pupils.
But the sudden death of Cardinal Julius Döpfner, Archbishop of Munich and undisputed leader of German Catholicism, would disrupt Ratzinger’s life just at the time of his having reached full academic and cultural maturity, at the age of 50. Paul VI asked him to take on the difficult task of succeeding Döpfner. It is not uncommon for popes to think it appropriate to entrust the principal episcopal sees of Germany to individuals of high cultural standing. Ratzinger was a theologian of recognized status, had shown deep attachment to the Church during the post-Conciliar tensions and was also a “Bavarian patriot,” as he called himself. Acceptance was an “immensely difficult” decision for the professor, but the sense of readiness for the service required of him prevailed. On May 28, 1977, he was consecrated bishop. Paul VI immediately created him cardinal: on June 27 in Rome Ratzinger received the biretta.
As his episcopal motto, he chose Cooperatores veritatis (“Cooperators of truth”), a quotation from the Third Letter of St. John (1:8). One could hardly find words more expressive of the continuity between the theologian’s commitment to research and teaching and the bishop’s commitment to the magisterium and pastoral guidance. It would also apply to subsequent engagements: a splendid motto for a lifetime! His service as Archbishop of Munich was intense, due to the commitments involved in the pastoral care of the great archdiocese, but also quite brief. It coincided with “the year of the three popes” and the two conclaves (1978), and then with the election of Pope John Paul II and his first visit to Germany (1980), which concluded in Munich. John Paul II already knew and highly esteemed Ratzinger. He chose him as Relator of the 1980 Synod on the Family, the first of the new pontificate, and let him know immediately that he wished to have him in Rome at the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At first Ratzinger resisted, but the pope’s will was all too clear. On November 25, 1981, he was nominated prefect, and in March 1982 he moved to Rome.
The cardinal prefect
This new stage was a very long one. For 23 years Ratzinger was one of the main and most trusted collaborators of John Paul II, who would by no means be willing to give up his contribution to the life of the Church until the end of one of the longest pontificates in history. The relationship between the pope and the prefect was intense, frank and cordial, based on mutual esteem and admiration, even allowing for the difference of the two personalities. Ratzinger thus certainly was one of the principal characters of this epoch in the life of the Church and he gave a support of great theological depth to the magisterium of John Paul II, faithfully interpreting papal positions. It is quite natural to speak of an extraordinarily effective “formidable pair,” a great pope and a great prefect.
The work accomplished by Cardinal Ratzinger in these years was impressive, thanks to his ability to guide the work of his collaborators, listening to them and directing their contributions with an extraordinary ability to synthesize, so that the documents are not so much the fruit of his personal work as of the effort of the whole group. But it would not be easy, because the debates in the postconciliar Church were heated theologically.
Three salient events can be highlighted among many of this period. First, the Congregation’s interventions on the topic of liberation theology in the early part of the 1980s. The pope was deeply concerned about the influence of Marxist ideology on currents of thought in Latin American theology; the prefect shared it and faced the delicate problem with courage.
The outcome came in the form of the two famous Instructions, with the intention respectively to oppose negative drifts (the first, from 1984) and to recognize the value of positive aspects (the second, from 1986). Critical reactions, especially to the first document, and lively discussions were not lacking, including specific cases of individual controversial theologians (the best known of whom was the Brazilian, Leonardo Boff). Ratzinger, in spite of his acknowledged cultural finesse, did not escape the common fate of those in charge of the Doctrinal Dicastery of having the reputation of a rigid censor, guardian of orthodoxy and principal opponent of the freedom of theological research, and, being German, he would receive the hardly benevolent nickname of Panzerkardinal.
Another document of the Congregation, many years later, also gave rise to a wave of criticism: the Declaration Dominus Iesus, published during the Great Jubilee of 2000, on the centrality of the figure of Jesus for the salvation of all. This time it was mainly those circles most committed to ecumenical relations and dialogue with other religions that reacted. But even in this case there is no doubt that his stance fully corresponded to John Paul II’s intention to protect some essential points of the Church’s faith from misunderstandings or deviations with serious implications.
A third endeavor, also at first much debated but eventually achieving wide consensus and success, was the truly herculean effort of drafting a new Catechism of the Catholic Church. An exposition of the entire Catholic faith, mirroring the conciliar renewal and formulated in language suited to today’s times, had been requested by the 1985 Synod. The pope entrusted the task to Cardinal Ratzinger and a commission he chaired. The fact that after an era of very strong theological and ecclesial debates and tensions, within a few years, that is, already by 1992, the work came to fruition in a largely convincing way has something miraculous about it.
Only an exceptional capacity for a unified vision of doctrine and the entire field of Christian life could guide the enterprise and come to terms with it. Sensitivity to contemporary expectations was not lacking. Are these not the same qualities we had recognized and admired 25 years earlier in the author of the Introduction to Christianity? The Catechism remains probably the most significant positive doctrinal contribution of John Paul II’s pontificate, a safe and valuable tool for the life of the Church: it is not for nothing that Pope Francis makes frequent reference to it.
The pope and the ‘supreme priority’ of the pontificate
Thus we come to the penultimate, but in ecclesial terms, most important, stage of Ratzinger’s long career, also unexpected like the previous two. Even so, upon the death of John Paul II, there were several reasons to look toward him as a possible successor: the prolonged and close collaboration in full harmony with the previous pope, the eminent qualities of intelligence and spirit, the absence of any ambition to power that placed him above the parties, to which is finally added the serene mastery with which, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, he conducted the acts and presided over the rites involved in the preparation and implementation of the Conclave. Despite his advanced age, the factor of continuity quickly prevailed. On April 19, at age 78, Joseph Ratzinger became the 265th pope of the Catholic Church, choosing the name of Benedict, the sixteenth to bear that name, and presenting himself to the people gathered in St. Peter’s Square as a “simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
Despite the new pope’s age, the pontificate, which would last just under eight years, was to be marked by activity in Italy and abroad. In addition to the “ordinary” activity of celebrations and audiences at the Vatican, we can recall 24 trips abroad, several of them crowned with great success and popularity, with 24 countries on five continents visited; 29 trips within Italy; five Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops – three ordinary general ones: On the Eucharist (2005, already convened by John Paul II), on the Word of God (2008), on the Promotion of the New Evangelization (2012); and two special ones: for Africa (2009) and for the Middle East (2010) – each followed (except the last one in 2012) by an important apostolic exhortation.
Other major magisterial documents include three encyclicals. Also of particular importance is the Letter to Catholics in the People’s Republic of China, Pentecost 2007. Also worth mentioning are the “Years” by which Benedict XVI intended to give coherence and direction to his pastoral leadership of the Church. After leading to its completion the “Year of the Eucharist,” already begun by his predecessor, he successively proclaimed the “Pauline Year” (June 28, 2008 – June 29, 2009, for the bi-millennium of the birth of the Apostle), the “Year for Priests” (June 19, 2009 – June 11, 2010, for the 150th anniversary of the death of the Curé d’Ars) and finally the “Year of Faith” (begun on October 11, 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council). Regarding the latter, which the pope did not personally lead following his resignation, it is fair to note what he himself said about it, responding to this question from Peter Seewald: “What do you think is, in retrospect, the hallmark of your pontificate?” “I would say,” Benedict replied, “that it is well expressed by the Year of Faith: a renewed encouragement to believe, to live a life starting from the center, from the dynamism of faith, to rediscover God by rediscovering Christ, therefore to rediscover the centrality of faith.”
These words lead us to reflect directly on the priorities of the pontificate as a key to its interpretation. Benedict spoke about them explicitly in a very particular, passionate and intense document: the Letter to the Bishops of March 10, 2009, written in the aftermath of the criticism and attacks on him following the withdrawal of the excommunication of the bishops who followed Marcel Lefebvre and the “Williamson affair” This seems almost to serve to “account for” his governance of the Church. “In our time when in vast areas of the earth the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame that can no longer find nourishment, the priority that stands above all is to make God present in this world and to open to the people access to God. Not to any god, but to that God who spoke at Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in love driven to the end (cf. John 13:1), in Jesus Christ crucified and risen.”
To this priority, consistent with his entire previous life, Pope Benedict Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church and The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith himself with total commitment and his own style of governance that would be acutely characterized as “magisterial.” As he himself said, “I come from theology and I knew that my strength, if I have one, is to announce the faith in a positive form. That is why I wanted above all to teach from the fullness of Sacred Scripture and Tradition,” and at the same time, “There is a need for renewal, and I have tried to carry the Church forward on the basis of a modern interpretation of the faith.”
It is easy to see how the choice of themes and the development of his encyclicals fit into this framework. Benedict intentionally limited their number and wanted to devote them first and foremost to the theological virtues: charity: Deus Caritas Est (2005); hope: Spe Salvi (2007); faith: Lumen Fidei (which remained unfinished, and would see the light “posthumously,” taken up and completed by his successor).
What Benedict says about love and hope deals very deeply with how these words are interpreted in contemporary culture, the questions they pose to Christian faith and witness, and the answers that can flow from the heart of faith to the disturbances of our time: The loss of the highest meaning of love and the temptation to despair in the face of the power of evil.
The encyclical Caritas In Veritate (2009), part of the Church’s social teaching, also tells of the response offered by the Christian faith, through the operative commitment of charity, to the very serious economic, social and moral crisis into which humanity today has stumbled. Similarly, the coherence with the previously indicated priorities of the themes assigned by the pope to the Ordinary Synod Assemblies is evident as found in: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church and The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Pope Benedict did not consider it his task to engage in a reform of the Roman Curia. However, he did make an innovative decision, that of establishing a new Dicastery dedicated to “promoting the new evangelization.”
The second aspect of the “supreme priority” – not just any god, but the God revealed to us by Jesus Christ – is evident from a unique element of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, to which attention must be drawn. Ratzinger had begun work in 2003 on a major work on Jesus, to which he felt called as a believer and as a theologian in his “personal search for the ‘face of the Lord’ (cf. Psalm 27:8).” This work seemed urgent to him, partly because a concern had grown within him that modern methods of interpreting Scripture lead us to lose our living relationship with the person of Jesus.
Elected pope, Ratzinger did not abandon the undertaking, but considered it so important that he devoted to it all the time he had left “free” from the priority commitments of governing the Church, and he actually succeeded in bringing it to fruition. He stresses that “it is in no way a magisterial act” and that the result can be freely discussed and criticized, but since he is Peter who is to “confirm his brothers,” his research and personal witness of faith are of immense value to the whole Church, and he was well aware of this. The composition of the book on Jesus in fact accompanied his entire pontificate, constituting in a sense an inner dimension of it. Benedict XVI said he was deeply involved in this work. When Seewald asked him, “Could one say that this work has constituted an irreplaceable source of energy for your pontificate?” he immediately replied, “Of course. For me it has been what is called a constant drawing of water from the depths of sources.”
Benedict XVI’s great concern for the Church’s liturgy also flowed directly from “supreme priority.” He was genuinely concerned that it should have its due place in the life of the community and the believer and that the dignity of its celebration be preserved, which placed at the center the encounter with Christ. In Benedict XVI’s intention, therefore, there is no nostalgic restoration of the old, but care for a fundamental dimension of the Church’s life. His effort to avoid ruptures in tradition, expressed in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (July 7, 2007), which readmitted as an “extraordinary form” the celebration of Mass according to the Roman liturgy prior to the conciliar reform, should also be seen in this light.
But in this context we would like to recall above all the happy intuition of including Eucharistic adoration among the key moments of the World Youth Days (WYD), during the great Vigil: an innovation in a certain sense “against the current” for an immense and festive youth gathering, but welcomed and lived with full commitment by the hundreds of thousands of young participants in Cologne, in Sydney, and in Madrid. These were impressive moments of silence and spirituality, among the most beautiful and intense of the entire pontificate. This was the only innovation – of no small importance! – introduced by Benedict to WYD.
Speaking about his own pontificate, Benedict XVI added that from the primacy of God “it follows as a logical consequence that we must have at heart the unity of believers […]. This is why the effort for the common witness of faith of Christians is included in the supreme priority. Added to this is the need for all who believe in God to seek peace together, to attempt to draw closer to one another in order to go together toward the source of Light, and this is interreligious dialogue.” Benedict XVI’s unwavering ecumenical commitment has been expressed on many occasions, among which his meetings during his travels remain memorable: in Istanbul with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (2006), in London with Anglican Primate Rowan Williams (2010), and in Erfurt with Lutherans in Martin Luther’s famous monastery (2011).
Here Benedict evoked with striking force Luther’s great question, “How can I have a merciful God?” to challenge ecumenical dialogue to seek union by going – returning! – to the root of faith and not staying on the surface. A delicate moment was the publication of the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (November 4, 2009), by which the pope established the practice to be followed to welcome into the Catholic Church those Anglicans who ask to join, not as individuals but as groups. Benedict XVI’s efforts for the unity of the Church also included his generous efforts to restore full unity with Marcel Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X, which cost him not a few criticisms and difficulties, but unfortunately was not successful.
In the field of dialogue with other religions, there was no shortage of difficult moments during his pontificate: with Jews, especially on the occasion of the Williamson case and the decree on the “heroic virtues” in Pius XII’s cause of beatification; with Islam, especially on the occasion of the Regensburg speech and then also for the baptism of the well-known Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam on Easter night in 2008. However, Ratzinger’s evident lifelong dedication to dialogue with Judaism and his attitude of respect for and appreciation of Islam, consistent with the Second Vatican Council’s line, made it possible to overcome misunderstandings and difficulties. By the end of his pontificate, Benedict XVI, following in the footsteps of the first visits made by John Paul II, had visited as many as three synagogues (Cologne, Park Avenue in New York, and Rome) and three mosques (Blue Mosque in Istanbul, in Amman, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem) in addition to the Wailing Wall.
Dialogue with culture: the ‘open reason’
The proclamation of the God of Jesus Christ in our time implies dialogue with today’s culture. Ratzinger always did this fearlessly, well prepared by the inclusion of the theological faculties in the life of German universities and the debates that followed his lectures. His dialogue with Jürgen Habermas at the Catholic Academy in Munich (2004) remains famous. The Catholic tradition has always upheld the value of human reason, consistent with a vision of God who is Love, but at the same time Logos.
The theologian and pope thought that on this basis meeting points and common ground could be sought even with people who do not share the Christian faith. He insisted on the theme of searching for truth even with the forces of human reason, and for this he repeatedly spoke against relativism and its “dictatorship” in the present time.
The rightly most famous speeches of Benedict XVI’s pontificate can be read from this perspective. At the University of Regensburg (2006) he showed how “the conviction that acting against reason contradicts the nature of God,” and saw reason as the necessary cure for religious justifications of violence; at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris (2008) he recalled how the development of European culture, including the affirmation of the dignity of the human person, is originally connected with the medieval monks’ search for God; at Westminster Hall in London (2010) he insisted that religious faith should not be excluded from the public space and relegated to the private sphere, because its contribution to ethics and pluralism is not to be seen as the cause of difficulties, but as a necessary part of building a free and democratic society; at the Reichstag, the German Parliament (2011), he warned of the dangers of a limited, positivistic view of law that undermines its very foundations, while a “reason that is open to the transcendent” contributes to building the human city, to developing the compelling conception of the state that we need to overcome the opposing challenges of either radically atheistic or radically religious, fundamentalist conceptions.
The idea of “open” or “enlarged” reason, capable of research because it is called to know and love the truth is a constant feature of Benedict XVI’s thought and speeches. It is the reason that does not allow itself to be enclosed within the limits imposed by a purely empirical vision of the sciences and by an exclusively mathematical language, but is capable of broader reflection on the human person, on philosophy and morality, on the meaning of life and death, on transcendence and finally on God; and thus is not closed in on itself, risking no longer seeing anything beyond what is functional.
“Closed” reason “resembles windowless concrete buildings, in which we give ourselves the climate and light by ourselves.” Eventually, the human will be suffocated, and the relationship with nature will be guided by the power dynamics of technology alone, which will become destructive. In this perspective should be read one of the original and fruitful initiatives of the pontificate, the “Courtyard of the Gentiles,” the space for dialogue open to all, including non-believers: an idea that was creatively taken up by the Pontifical Council for Culture, with ramifications in many different directions.
Not everyone accepted Benedict XVI’s proposals for dialogue: characteristic was the refusal that led him to forego the visit to La Sapienza University in Rome, scheduled for January 17, 2008, The episode was an example of the clash between “open” and “closed” reason, but the value of the proposal remains unchanged.
Difficulties and crisis
In the course of his pontificate, Benedict XVI encountered several moments of difficulty and suffering, which have often been highlighted by a non-benevolent attitude in the media. It is only fair to recall them. The first in order of time was a wave of strong negative reactions in the Islamic world to some sentences of his speech at the University of Regensburg (2006), a crisis overcome thanks to a series of clarifying interventions and, finally, to the visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Another very delicate moment occurred because of the reactions to the already mentioned revocation of the excommunication of the four bishop followers of Lefebvre, including Williamson, a real injury since the pope was not aware that he was a Holocaust denier. To this crisis Ratzinger responded with the famous “Letter to the Bishops” of March 2009. Another episode that was much talked about was a view pronounced by the pope in a conversation with journalists on an airplane about condom use and the spread of AIDS in Africa (2009): his phrasing could easily have been interpreted favorably in the context of the speech, which evidently did not happen. On the contrary, it was an opportunity seized on by many to attack the pope on the basis of their prejudiced view of an obscurantist Church and therefore co-responsible for the evils of humanity.
But the real cross of the pontificate was clerical sexual abuse, particularly of minors. This was an issue that had already “exploded” in the latter part of John Paul II’s pontificate and which the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith had to deal with in depth, but which continued to emerge dramatically throughout the course of his pontificate. It is not the intention here to retrace its stages, but we believe that Pope Benedict should be credited with a true historical sense for the way in which he addressed it. He not only gave a personal witness of humility, transparency and rigor, but also offered a series of fundamental guidelines and legal norms for the Church’s conduct and pastoral care, ranging from the recognition of responsibility, to personal encounters with victims, to the demand for forgiveness, to the commitment to intervene to establish the truth and to sanction perpetrators, to preventive action and formation, and to the development of a true culture of child protection in the Church and society. The witness of personal involvement shone out particularly in the touching encounters with victims of abuse on all the trips where the bishops of the countries he visited had asked him to do so (United States, Australia, Malta, United Kingdom, Germany). The most comprehensive expression of his line of response to the dramatic problem came with his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, dated March 19, 2010, which obviously had value not limited to the country to which it was addressed.
Another complex and painful affair of the last phase of the pontificate is the one the media called Vatileaks; the publication of confidential documents from Vatican sources that fueled and increased unease.
Eventually, an entire book, consisting of confidential documents and correspondence, several of which came from the pope’s closest circle, came out in June 2012. At this point it became easy to identify the person responsible for the leak of most of the documents: unfortunately, it was the pope’s butler, who was very close to him in daily life. The scandal was unheard of. The butler was arrested and tried by the Vatican Tribunal in a process that attracted the attention of the world’s press. Sentenced to 18 months in prison, he would finally be pardoned by the pope, who personally visited him a few days before Christmas. Benedict XVI felt it was only right that, in the face of such a serious matter, justice should take its course, but then he exercised the mercy that dwelt in his heart despite his suffering.
Renunciation and retired life at the convent ‘Mater Ecclesiae’
This issue too, was thus essentially over by the end of 2012. When on February 11, 2013, at a consistory convened to set the date for the canonization of the martyrs of Otranto, Benedict XVI unexpectedly read in Latin the declaration of his desire to renounce the position of pope, the surprise was great throughout the world, because very few people were prepared for it: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to advanced age, are no longer suitable for the proper exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
The pope said briefly, but with full clarity, that he felt a decrease in “vigor of both body and soul,” which made him unable “to administer well the ministry entrusted to him,” keeping in mind the demands of Church government “in today’s world, subject to rapid change and agitated by issues of great relevance to the life of the Church.” The renunciation is made “in full freedom,” and the Sede Vacante will begin February 28, at 8 p.m.
Rivers of ink have flowed about this renunciation and his motivation, but the act was simple, and the reasons given by Benedict XVI are obvious and entirely plausible: it involved a great act of responsibility before God and the Church. This was an act of humility in the face of the immense demands of the Petrine office and of courage in opening a path that was already provided for in Church law, but for centuries no one had traveled. The election of the pope is for life but the pontificate does not necessarily have to end with the pope’s death.
The “novelty” of the renunciation was considered by many to be a “historic” act that revealed with particular clarity the farsightedness and spiritual greatness of Benedict XVI, and in this light helps one to reread the entire pontificate with more attention and depth.
Before Easter the Church would have a new pope. The time following the resignation is known to all: a time of prayer for the Church, of confidential personal contacts, of very rare written interventions, and above all of preparation for the meeting with the Lord. The benevolence and attention of Pope Francis, the discretion and prayerfulness of the “Pope Emeritus,” all allowed the Church to appreciate a situation that had been unprecedented since the Middle Ages and to sincerely enjoy a shining example of Christian fraternity. The beautiful images of the embraces and prayers in common of the two figures dressed in white were a far greater source of consolation than the attempts – unsuccessful and malicious – to pit Benedict against Francis.
The horizons of Joseph Ratzinger’s thought and ecclesial service expanded during the course of eight decades, from his native Bavaria to the ends of the world, as his gaze focused on the fascinating and mysterious face of Jesus, until the moment of the Encounter. The legacy he leaves us is that characteristic of a theologian called to the See of Peter, who confirmed his brethren in the faith through teaching, sacramental service and the witness of life.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.1 art. 4, 0123: 10.32009/22072446.0123.4
. J. Ratzinger, La mia vita, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2005, 6.
. Maria would not marry and would devote most of her life to caring for her younger brother, living and moving with him on the various stages to Rome, where she would die in 1991, accompanied by Joseph’s affection and gratitude. Georg, also a priest, devoted himself to sacred music, becoming choirmaster of the Regensburg Cathedral’s pueri cantores, the famous Regensburger Domspatzen (the “cathedral sparrows”). He died in Regensburg on July 1, 2020.
. Benedict XVI, Ultime conversazioni, edited by P. Seewald, Milan, Garzanti, 2016, 92.
. Ibid., 96 f.
. All these contributions are now published in volume 7/1 of the Opera omnia.
. Benedict XVI, Ultime conversazioni, op. cit., 149.
 J. Ratzinger, Introduzione al Cristianesimo, Brescia, Queriniana, 2003, 46f.
. Ibid., 217.
. Ibid., 180; 222.
. Foreword to J. Ratzinger – Benedict XVI, Gesù di Nazaret, Milan, Rizzoli, 2007, 20.
. The first volume, on Jesus’ public life, came out in 2007; the second, on Jesus’ passion and resurrection, in 2011; the third, on Jesus’ childhood, which completes the trilogy, in 2012. The last volume is introduced by a Foreword, signed on August 15, 2012, i.e., just at the time when the pope finalized the decision to resign.
. Benedict XVI, Ultime conversazioni, op. cit., 194.
. This remains limited to a few particular communities (in England, the United States and Australia) and has fortunately been accomplished without disrupting relations with the Anglican Confession as a whole, indeed bringing to the Catholic community the richness of liturgical and spiritual elements of the Anglican tradition, which are preserved as such.
. Benedict XVI, Address to the German Parliament, September 22, 2011.
. The speed with which Benedict, newly elected pope, intervened in the shocking case of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel, and later addressed the situation of that religious congregation, also speaks in his favor on this crucial issue for the purification of the Church.
. G. Nuzzi, Sua Santità. Le carte segrete di Benedetto XVI, Milan, Chiarelettere, 2012.
. The Tribunal had not identified any other perpetrators. To shed light on the broader context of tensions that had manifested themselves in the Vatican, the pope also appointed a commission of three cardinals, which carried out a considerable number of interrogations and eventually delivered to the pope an extensive report, which he in turn delivered to his successor, but which remained confidential and without externally observable consequences