Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Reluctant Pontiff: the end of the Ratzinger/Benedict era

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 31, 2022

He didn’t want to be the Pope. He didn’t even want to be the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office. Father Joseph Ratzinger was happy to be a theologian: reading and thinking and praying and writing about the beauty of the faith, guiding others to do the same.

Twice (at least) Cardinal Ratzinger asked Pope John Paul II to release him from his work as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, so that he could resume his beloved work as a scholar and teacher. But when the saintly Polish Pontiff said that he needed him, as a colleague and an ally, the German cardinal heard the call of duty and complied.

When St. John Paul II died, and the conclave elected Cardinal Ratzinger to replace him, I was overjoyed for myself and for the Church at large, yet apprehensive for him personally. Would the new Pope be burdened by this new office? Would he regret being denied, yet again, an opportunity to turn back to academic work? Then he appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s, wreathed in smiles, and I realized that he had not only accepted his new role; he had embraced it, chosen to welcome it, to rejoice in it, because he saw it as God’s will.

That was the story of the life of Ratzinger/Benedict as a key figure in the Vatican for decades. Left to himself he would have remained an academic figure. But Providence did not leave him to himself. He chose to accept his calling rather than his predilection.

Never has a prominent man’s public image been so radically at odds with his actual personality. The man who was pilloried in the media as the Panzerkardinal and “God’s Rottweiller” was actually a quiet, meek, retiring man: diminutive in stature, unfailingly polite and deferential in behavior. Old students recall in his seminars, when a student presented a view with which he disagreed, Professor Ratzinger would summarize the student’s argument, usually expressing it more cogently than the student himself had managed, and only then—kindly, respectfully—pointing out its weaknesses. He actively encouraged differing views, to sharpen his students’ critical abilities. The only thing formidable about him was his intellect.

And that was formidable. Since his death early this morning I have read dozens of reports describing Ratzinger/Benedict as “one of the leading Catholic theologians of his day.” That characterization is certainly true, as far as it goes; but it is flawed by its understatement. If he is “one of” the leading Catholic theologians of our time, who are the others in his class?

Before his election as Roman Pontiff, Cardinal Ratzinger had produced an enormous volume of important work. Both profound and prolific, he wrote in a lucid style, making difficult concepts seem simple. He wore his learning easily, sprinkling his arguments with apt citations from Old and New Testaments, ancient and modern thinkers, religious and secular sources, even from works of fiction, of music and the arts. But even more than his erudition, his work was marked by the signs of profound faith. He not only knew his subject; he was deeply in love with his subject—which was, invariably, the Triune God.

To read The Spirit of the Liturgy is to know that the author saw nothing more important in life than worship of the Almighty. In his mind (and so in his work), true worship was the natural response of faith, and faith in turn was the natural partner of reason, the two working together to enlighten human understanding.

He explained that partnership beautifully in a talk to a Communion and Liberation conference in Rimini, Italy in 2002. Too often, he remarked, the secular world sees religious faith as irrational or emotional—as a foe of pure reason. “Rather,” he countered, “it is the opposite that is true: this is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act.”

Reason is made ready to act, then-Cardinal Ratzinger explained, when it is yoked with faith to produce love, the most beautiful fulfillment of human life. Seeing the perfect expression of love in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, and recognizing His agony, the cardinal continued:

However, in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes “to the very end”; for this reason it is revealed as greater than falsehood and violence.

He was a theologian at heart, dedicated to the search for that truth and beauty that inspired him. But he, too, was called to action, to postpone (and eventually abandon) his longing for a quiet scholarly retirement, to go “to the very end.”

Thrust into the role of the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, Cardinal Ratzinger became an incisive analyst of the problems that plague the Church in our time. The publication of The Ratzinger Report was an unprecedented event: the candid appraisal of current ecclesiastical affairs by a top Vatican official, who looked at the difficulties without blinking and spoke the truth without apology.

While in office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger continued to write and speak frequently, urging a better appreciation for the depths of Catholic faith. His preference was to propose rather than impose orthodoxy. But he did not shy away from confrontation with secular orthodoxies, and so he became—and still remains—the bete noire of liberal ideology, the embodiment of rigid Catholic tradition, the fearsome Panzerkardinale.

The tension between the German cardinal and the secular media was never more in evidence than in the days after the death of John Paul II, when Ratzinger, now unquestionably the most imposing figure in Rome, denounced the “dictatorship of relativism.” I wonder now, looking back on those days, whether he felt free to speak with such candor because he expected soon to be released from his unwanted duties as a controversialist. He was, the majority of Vatican-watchers agreed, too old to be elected, and his health was not strong. But the conclave thought differently; the cardinals chose him because, again, who else could they have chosen?

As Sovereign Pontiff, Benedict XVI continued to speak, but he cut back drastically on his writing, conscious that now anything he wrote might be mistaken as a definitive pronouncement, and so cause confusion. (Would that his successor had the same prudence!) In his beautiful three-volume Jesus of Nazareth he sought to present the essence of the faith—but he also made a point of writing that this work was not a work of the papal magisterium.

Unfortunately, governing was not Pope Benedict’s strong suit. His greatest weakness as a manager was his tendency to assume the goodwill of others: to take it for granted that the prelates who surrounded him were honestly dedicated to their tasks, willingly carrying out his policies. He had denounced the “filth” that corrupted the priesthood, but he did not see—or did not know how to uproot—the corruption within the Roman Curia. Financial scandals rocked the Vatican, leaked memos embarrassed the papacy, subordinates resisted his policies. Eventually, Pope Benedict concluded that he lacked the strength, the stamina, and perhaps the decisiveness necessary to right the barque of Peter. So he resigned, in what I see as the one grievous error of his pontificate. His frustration was understandable, but when the shepherd leaves, the wolves begin to circle.

Some tradition-minded Catholics have hoped, for the last several years, that the Pope-emeritus would speak out to dispel the confusion that his successor has caused. Actually, I have argued, the retired Pontiff was the last person who could weigh in on current controversies. He had already, in his resignation announcement, pledged his unswerving support to his successor, whoever that might be. He wrote occasionally to clarify his own thoughts, but never to challenge those of Pope Francis; he was acutely aware of the need to preserve unity in the Church.

But even more important, Pope Benedict had made a conscious choice, before he left office, to set aside the sort of work that had preoccupied him for so long, Rather than managing and directing and teaching and leading, he chose to serve the Church through prayer, leaving all practical problems in God’s hands. Having forsaken the government of the universal Church, he devoted his remaining energy to invoking supernatural help. So he lived out his days not as he might have once chosen, in a quiet library in Regensberg, but as a sort of monk, in the Mater Ecclesiae residence, still caught within the walls of the Vatican.

For decades he offered his enormous talents in service to the Church he loved—not in the way he would have chosen, but in a way that was chosen for him. After nearly eight years of wielding power that he never wanted, he chose to retire, leaving all earthly problems in God’s hands. And now, free from earthly troubles, he himself is in God’s hands, to contemplate the Beauty and Truth that he has loved for so long. May he rest in peace.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: plazabks1852 - Jan. 07, 2023 12:44 PM ET USA

    Beautifully expressed. I think your assessment is totally correct. Thanks.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Jan. 06, 2023 8:49 PM ET USA

    " . . .he was acutely aware of the need to preserve unity in the Church.". Bah, utter nonsense. Of what value is a superficial unity at the expense of the truth? If that was BXVI's thought, then he was a bigger fool than I imagined.

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jan. 02, 2023 11:44 AM ET USA

    We shall miss Benedict XVI! Now we’re left alone with a serial abuser shielded behind his ecclesial office. As Dr Mirus always quotes Psalm 13:1, “How long, Oh Lord?”

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Jan. 02, 2023 3:47 AM ET USA

    Magnificent elegy for a beautiful and holy man. Thank you.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 01, 2023 8:40 AM ET USA

    "The man who was pilloried in the media as the Panzerkardinal and “God’s Rottweiler” was actually a quiet, meek, retiring man: diminutive in stature, unfailingly polite and deferential in behavior" - It's what happens when one lives and speaks the truth: in a culture built on falsehoods and saturated with ever-new lies, telling the truth becomes "hate speech." Benedict's successor, on the other hand, very quickly became a darling of the media. His many scandals are downplayed or not reported.

  • Posted by: Cinciradiopriest - Dec. 31, 2022 6:17 PM ET USA

    This is a beautiful reflection of the life of a Holy Man.