The death (December 31, 2022) and funeral (January 5, 2023) of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offers an occasion to reflect on his life as a response to current challenges and a bellwether for Christianity’s future. His story is not only for Catholics.*
Joseph Alois Ratzinger, often described as bookish, was a priest by vocation and a university professor by training, an unusual profile for a pope. The most scholarly pope since Innocent III (1198–1216), Ratzinger profoundly influenced recent Catholic thought.
Ratzinger grew up in the conservative, traditional, and pious Catholic culture of Bavaria, Germany. The cult of the Madonna of Altötting dominated the Catholic culture of Bavaria. Ratzinger was born near the town of Altötting and his family made many pilgrimages to the shrine there. He came of age during the Nazi regime and World War II. While in seminary he was drafted but never served at the front.
After the war, Ratzinger continued his theological education in Bavaria. He received his doctorate from the Catholic faculty of the University of Munich in 1953 and four years later a second thesis, his habilitationsschrift, qualified him to teach in a university.
The thirty-five-year-old Professor Ratzinger became the theological expert advisor (peritus) for Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne in 1962 during the Second Vatican Council. German theologians and bishops led the Council intellectually and Ratzinger engaged with a group of reformers. With Karl Rahner, the senior and most important German theologian, Ratzinger fought back against the Roman curial first drafts on documents concerning revelation and the church. Ratzinger supported liturgical reform and the Council’s general openness. His writings at the time and later as a university professor advanced “certain criticisms, [but also …] express[ed] his agreement with the general directions of Vatican II and his acceptance of the three objectives named by John XXIII: renewal of the Church, unity among Christians, and dialogue with the world of today” (Avery Cardinal Dulles, “From Ratzinger to Benedict,” First Things).
The theological star of Vatican II was undoubtedly the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, two years younger than Ratzinger. His Council, Reform, and Reunion (1961) became almost a blueprint for council documents. Peter Hebblethwaite, a British journalist who covered the Vatican extensively, wrote that “never again would a theologian have such influence.” In 1966 Küng recruited Ratzinger to join the Catholic Theological faculty of Tübingen University. The obituaries of Benedict XVI often remark that he was an eminent or brilliant theologian. That overstates the case. He was a very capable theologian, but when he and Küng were together on the Catholic Theological faculty at Tübingen, Küng was by far the more creative theologian. Küng in many ways was Ratzinger’s doppelgänger.
When the West German Student Movement broke out in 1968, it shook the staid German universities to their core. Inspired by Marxism, the students called for a radical democratization of the universities. Theology students, some of whom were Ratzinger’s own students, called for an equally radical democratization of the Catholic Church. Ratzinger was appalled and shaken, nor was he the only German university professor scared and alarmed by their students. This event shifted Ratzinger from a reformer into a paradigm of orthodoxy.
The German Student Movement profoundly reshaped Ratzinger’s intellectual, theological, and religious life. His response reflects a set of oppositions contrasting the chaos of the German Student Movement with the order of Catholic life. This binary model underlies and supports his writings and future activities.
In a sermon Cardinal Ratzinger preached before the Cardinals who would elect him pope, he laid out his understanding of the situation facing the Catholic Church.
Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.
Instead of the traditional opposition of good versus evil, Ratzinger opposed the certainty of faith and the relativism of modern secular worldviews. The Creed symbolized faith’s certainty. Ratzinger’s sermon caricatured relativism. This binary opposition came out of his experience of the German Student Movement while he was professor at Tübingen. In his view, relativism produces dissent and resistance to the certainty and security of faith. Ratzinger saw obedience to the Catholic Church as the solution to dissent.
In 1969 Ratzinger retreated from the chaos of the student movement to the security of his homeland in a Bavarian university. He joined the Catholic Theological faculty of the new University of Regensburg, in the calmer, more conservative, and thoroughly Catholic Bavaria. Regensburg could not claim the elite status of his former Tübingen.
Ratzinger and Küng chose different paths. Küng remained at Tübingen and continued a brilliant theological career. For him, Vatican II was a starting point demanding ever bolder reforms.** For Ratzinger, Vatican II at its best marked the end of reform.
In 1977 Pope Paul VI appointed Ratzinger archbishop of Munich and Freising, a major German archdiocese. Later that year, Ratzinger became a cardinal. Such a rapid ascent from theology professor to archbishop of a major episcopal see and then to cardinal is highly unusual.
Cardinal Ratzinger next moved to Rome in 1981. John Paul II had appointed him head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition. Ratzinger shared with the pope an abhorrence of Marxism, fear of a liberal drift in the Roman church, and a determination to defend orthodoxy.
Vatican II had been heady days for theologians who had exercised real influence and oversight in the formation of the Council documents. But under John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger those days ended. John Paul removed theologians from Vatican commissions and appointed bishops to restore the episcopal (or bishop’s) teaching office. This quickly changed the character of the commissions. Bishops usually are not known for their theological acumen.
Poised to carry out John Paul’s agenda, Cardinal Ratzinger rooted out liberation theology in South America because of its connections to Marxism. Then he investigated many theologians, including the American moral theologian Charles E. Curran, who challenged the teaching on contraception; the American Jesuit theologian Roger Haight, who questioned the superiority of Christianity to other religions; the Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, for taking the historical Jesus seriously; and the Belgian Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis for his investigations into pluralism. Ratzinger moved against these dissidents whom he saw as challenging the certainty of faith and thereby threatening chaos. Corralling outspoken theologians proved effective. It silenced debate on the left.
In 1985 Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston called for a new catechism to quell theological dissent. In addressing a gathering of bishops, he argued the relation between theologians and the teaching magisterium of the church was difficult, but that “cannot justify open dissent. We are teachers and masters of faith and must appear such.” Soon thereafter, Cardinal Ratzinger headed a commission to draft the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1986–92). Cardinal Law, also a member of the commission, oversaw the translation of the Catechism into English.
The Catechism’s purpose was to shore up the certainty of Catholic teaching and to stop the dissent that followed Vatican II, threatening theological chaos. The Catechism’s critics charged that it ignored recent theological developments, failed to distinguish between central and less important Catholic beliefs, and treated many open theological positions as dogma. Sexual issues such as abortion, birth control, ordination of women, and changes in the celibacy requirement for priesthood appear settled in the Catechism. As a Catholic biblical scholar, I found its use of the Bible appalling. The Catechism was oblivious to modern critical biblical scholarship, restoring to old style proof-texting and allegorical exegesis. The Catechism ignores history, psychology, and science because these subvert certainty.
The Catechism marks a line in the sand. It became a landmark document, surely the most important Catholic document since the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. The Catechism has become the criterion for all Catholic teaching. It may well become a permanent guide to Catholic theology. That would achieve one of its primary goals, silencing dissent on the left.
As Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Ratzinger preached the sermon quoted above, laying out what he saw as the primary challenge facing the Roman Catholic Church: the clear faith of the Creed versus the swirling uncertainty of relativism in the modern secular world. Ratzinger viewed obedience to the Catholic Church as the only way out of modern secular woes. When the white smoke emerged from the chapel chimney on April 5, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had been elected Pope Benedict XVI on the first ballot. His agenda was set.
Benedict XVI was no clone of John Paul II. Although he had been nicknamed JP II’s bulldog as he oversaw a return to orthodoxy, Benedict formulated his own agenda. He thought Catholicism needed to strengthen its more conservative (and, in his view, faithful) members, not broaden its appeal to a diverse population. He believed a smaller, tighter, orthodoxy could resist the raging chaos of modernity.
Benedict loosened strictures on the Latin Tridentine mass, a key symbol for traditional Catholics unhappy with the reforms of Vatican II. As Council peritus, Ratzinger had described the old Latin mass as “archaeological.” But the reinstated Latin rite revived the traditional Good Friday prayer calling for conversion of Jews. Pope Benedict subsequently apologized to Jewish groups but left intact the Good Friday prayer.
In 1970 Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, one of the strongest traditionalists at Vatican II, broke away from the Roman communion and formed a schismatic church under the title of the Society of Saint Pius X. He ordained several bishops for this group. In 2009, Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications for four of these bishops. One of the bishops, Richard Williamson, had denied the Holocaust only a few days before his reception back into the Roman communion. He had publicly stated that Nazi gas chambers had never existed and that only several hundred thousand Jews had died. Again, Benedict subsequently apologized to the Jews, but bishop Williamson remained in good standing.
That same year, Benedict welcomed clergy of the Church of England who opposed the ordination of women in that church. They could become Roman Catholic priests, even though they were married. No reconsideration of priestly celibacy was permitted for Roman Catholics, but even more verboten was the issue of women’s ordination.
In these and other ways, Benedict reached out in the name of church unity and ecumenism, disguising his real motive: to build a bulwark against the threatening secular world with it relativism and chaos, while making the Catholic Church’s positions ever clearer and more immune from dissent.
American orders of religious women had taken seriously Vatican II’s reforms. They abandoned their traditional religious garb for modern dress and expanded their ministries beyond schools and hospitals, often serving the most depressed and poverty-stricken persons. The Vatican characterized the nuns as theological dissenters, accusing them of radical feminism, another modern -ism in the right-hand column of Ratzinger’s binary model, along with the dreaded Marxism.
Cardinal Law, having been forced to resign as archbishop of Boston when the Boston Globe exposed his years of covering up for dozens of pedophilia priests, was now ensconced in Rome. He remained a powerful force in Vatican politics and played a major role in the investigations of American nuns. When the Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation with groups of bishops as inquisitors in 2008, things turned acrimonious. In 2012 the Vatican reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, accusing them of spending too much time helping the poor while being silent on the right to life and Vatican teaching on marriage and sexuality. American Catholics who supported the nuns reacted fiercely. This time there was no apology.
Early in his reign, Pope Francis put an end to the investigation of American nuns and met openly with their leaders. He congratulated the leaders of Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
At the turn of the century, the pedophile priest scandal exploded into public view. This scandal has several aspects. First, injury to the abused children was expansive, horrific, and permanent. This damage clearly had no place in the forefront of the bishops’ concern. Second, the sheer number pedophiles among priests was shocking. Next bishops’ coverup of criminal acts had gone on for at least decades. Finally, the media’s exposé of all this constituted the real scandal from the hierarchy’s point of view.
Beginning in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger led the Catholic Church’s response to its scandalous coverup. The Vatican was overwhelmed with cases. Each Friday Ratzinger waded through them, a task he referred to as “our Friday penance.” As Pope Benedict, he could not get ahead of the issue. He met with victims and, in a first for a pope, he apologized. But the scandal continued to expand.
Blind to the scandal’s cause, Benedict initially blamed American sexual freedoms, an untenable position once the scandal ranged worldwide. He then blamed homosexuals infecting the church. The real cause, the celibacy requirement for priesthood, created a culture of secrecy that facilitated the abuse of children through pedophilia and other kinds of abuse. Benedict’s deep belief that the Catholic Church was the answer to the chaos threatening from outside disabled his dealing with this cause, which would have required radical surgery on church teaching and practice. Even more damning, Benedict viewed pedophilia as an attack from the outside by the church’s enemies. He could not acknowledge that the problem arose from within the Catholic Church. Benedict could not accept that the Catholic Church caused the chaos, nor could he recognize the horrific damage done to generations of children by pedophile priests.
Even in retirement the Pope Emeritus could not escape the spreading disgrace of protecting pedophile priests. A 2022 report by the Roman Catholic Church in Munich implicated him in the handling of several cases of priests accused of sexually molesting children. The law firm the diocese had hired reported that Benedict’s denial of any direct knowledge of pedophilia cases was not credible. The sexual abuse scandal was widespread and deep and the coverup had been underway for a long time, making it statistically impossible that Ratzinger, as head of a major German archdiocese, could have escaped involvement.
Previously, as head of the Congregation of the Faith, Ratzinger had understood how pedophilia damaged the church. As early as 2005, he recognized the abuse as “filth in the church.” But still he failed to see or admit that the Catholic Church itself was the cause.
The German Student Movement clearly traumatized Professor Ratzinger and he retreated to the traditional safety of the conservative Catholic environment of a Bavarian university. The world-out-there became the problem. Too much freedom threatened chaos. As pope, Benedict XVI attempted to shepherd his beloved Catholic Church into the shelter of orthodoxy.
Ratzinger looked into the abyss of relativity and fled in terror to the certainty of the Creed. While his view of relativity caricatured its potentially chaotic outcomes, relativism presented an unsurmountable challenge to Ratzinger. Modern cosmology argues for a big bang with no cause, a universe unimaginably ancient and reaching out to a future that will far outlast our species. Darwin’s theory of evolution erases the creation of Adam and sees humans as evolved primates. A modern historian’s hermeneutics of suspicion obliterates certain knowledge of the past, corroding even the certainty of the Bible, theology, and creeds. Modern scientific disciplines make all our knowledge relative to some extent and install doubt as a fundamental methodological principle.
Joseph Ratzinger’s response to relativity is all too common. The challenge of modern life drives many to seek security in some imagined conservative past, whether political, religious, or both. The promised certainty is a bulwark against relativism’s corrosive power. Such a move ultimately denies reality, ending in reaction, with disastrous consequences that reverberate into the future. Faith is not certain. It always involves doubt, unknowing, and risk. In the New Testament the opposite of faith is not doubt but fear. Fear of relativity is faithless. Science and history can help us imagine how to live in the chaos of relative reality. It requires a leap of faith to embrace relativism, no longer dreaded but welcomed as the condition of life.
*For a balanced obituary, see the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the National Catholic Reporter. For a hagiography see the National Catholic Register. The Vatican Website on Benedict XVI is extensive and informative.
**Pope John Paul II removed Küng from Tübingen’s Catholic faculty the year before Ratzinger was appointed the head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. During Ratzinger’s tenure as Prefect of the Congregation, there was no known move against Küng. For an appreciative appraisal of Küng’s theological career and influence, see Richard A. Rosengarten, “The Legacy of Hans Küng.” One of the best books on Vatican II is John W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (2008).
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