Sameer Advani, LC
(ZENIT News / Rome, 12.31.2022).- On the 19th of April 2005 Joseph Ratzinger walked hesitantly out onto the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica as the 265th leader of the Catholic Church. In a shy, almost apologetic tone he then compared himself to his predecessor, telling the cheering thousands gathered below him that after the great John Paul II, the cardinals had elected just “a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
The contrast was hardly an exaggeration. Church officials across the world knew that Ratzinger was a brilliant theologian who had courageously and even heroically defended Catholic doctrine in the confusing and turbulent years of the post-conciliar crisis, but they also knew that humanly speaking the German possessed little of the personal charism, outgoing personality, infectious energy, and sense of the dramatic that had helped endear John Paul to the world. Instead, Ratzinger was quiet and reserved, a scholar far more comfortable in the classroom or library than on the international stage, a private man who quite deliberately avoided the limelight.
Ratzinger’s election as Pontiff was thus largely shrugged off at the time – even by commentators within the Church – as primarily a nod to continuity, as a decision by the Cardinal electors to have a kind of buffer papacy that would allow the seeds planted during the 26 year reign of John Paul the Great to bear fruit and ripen. Benedict was chosen to guide the Church into the new post-modern world of relativism and radical scepticism along a course that had largely already been set out, in other words; no one expected him to dramatically shake things up.
No one foresaw that his final public mass 8 years later would end with what the New York Times aptly described as a “deafening standing ovation that lasted for minutes”.
No one foresaw that as we contemplate the extraordinary gift of his life and work in 2023 the faithful are already beginning to call him Benedict the Great.
A Spiritual Giant
Benedict XVI’s name and legacy will always be closely linked to his decision in February 2013 to resign from the Papacy: it made him the first Pope to voluntarily relinquish the office of Peter since Celestine V in 1294 and sent shock waves throughout the Church. It is thus also the best place to start in our effort to try and understand who Ratzinger really was.
The decision, Benedict said at the time, was taken in full freedom and was motivated by the realization that he no longer had the strength to adequately carry out all the tasks required of the Pope. But there was also more to the question than just crass pragmatism. For in Benedict’s mind it also opened up a new way for him to remain “at the side of the crucified Lord,” a new form in which he could participate in that Petrine ministry through the “service of prayer” instead of active governance. “The Lord is calling me to ‘climb the mountain’, to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation,” he thus claimed in his last angelus as Pontiff. “But this does not mean abandoning the Church. Indeed, if God is asking me to do this, it is so that I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength.”
This dramatic insistence on the absolute primacy of prayer in the life of every individual and the entire Church, and his corresponding understanding of Christianity as the ‘love story’ between God and humanity, is actually a side of Ratzinger that has not been sufficiently underlined up until now; paradoxically, it could actually constitute his greatest legacy and mark him out a spiritual master for generations to come.
Ratzinger was convinced, in fact, that at its very core Christianity was not a series of ideas, doctrines, and ethical commandments, but the living encounter with the God who as Love freely chose to enter into a relationship of love with each and every human being, and the vast majority of his meditations, homilies, conferences, and even his more theologically sophisticated writings all revolved around this simple, but profoundly spiritual central idea.
“God created the universe to enter into a love story with humankind. He created it so that love can exist,” he wrote when explaining the book of Genesis in 1986, for example. Salvation history was “not a small event, on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe,” but “the motive for everything, the motive for creation,” he then added in 2008, before concluding: “everything is created so that this story can exist, the encounter between God and his creature.”
In Deus Caritas Est in 2005 he likewise proclaimed that “God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation – the Logos, primordial reason – is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love.” And 2 years later in his message for Lent he explained that God’s love for man was not only agape, the self-giving love of one who seeks the good of another, but also eros, or in other words the love of someone who desires to possess what he lacks, the love of someone who years for union with the beloved. “Eros is part of God’s very Heart: the Almighty awaits the ‘yes’ of his creatures as a young bridegroom that of his bride,” he wrote before adding: “On the Cross, it is God himself who begs the love of his creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us”.
Texts like these abound, and through them Ratzinger interpreted the central tenets of Christianity – of creation, salvation history, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, Mary, the Church, baptism and the Eucharist – as the successive chapters in the love story between God and man, as the unfolding of what he called a “mysticism of personal love” in which God and man increasingly became one in spirit.
And if this deeply spiritual theological understanding of Christianity was not enough, Ratzinger also left us a precious testimony to how it had shaped his own pilgrimage on earth. In the last days of his pontificate, for example, he beautifully described faith as “nothing other than the touch of God’s hand in the night of the world, and so – in the silence – to hear the word, to see love.” And speaking to those who were worried about the future of the Church after his abdication, he then added: “I should like to invite all of us to renew our firm confidence in the Lord, to entrust ourselves like children in God’s arms, certain that those arms always hold us, enabling us to press forward each day, even when the going is rough. I want everyone to feel loved by that God who gave his Son for us and who has shown us his infinite love. I want everyone to feel the joy of being a Christian.”
In conversation with Peter Seewald a few years later he stated, “I see him [Jesus] directly before me. He is of course always great and full of mystery.” And just a few months before his death he wrote that “in light of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death.”
What all of this tells us is that while Ratzinger has always been known and respected – even by his detractors – as the voice that has championed faith’s need for reason and reason’s need for faith, as the heroic defender the Christian roots of Europe, and as the intellectual who perhaps more than anyone else in the 20th century has explored the meaning of Christian identity and mission in the modern world, he may very well be known to future generations not primarily as ‘Ratzinger the Theologian,’ but as ‘Ratzinger, the Mystic of God’s love for humanity’.
A Theology for our time… and for all times
None of this is meant to detract from the quantity and quality of Ratzinger’s theology, of course. Hundreds of scholarly articles and books have already been written about his Christology, Ecclesiology, Theology of Revelation, and Anthropology, and thousands more will almost certainly be produced. The sheer volume of his output – the Collected Works of his writings span 15 volumes, and most of these are well over a 1000 pages – means that experts in the field will be pouring over his texts for years to come.
But more than any of his particular discoveries or insights, it is the style of Ratzinger’s theology that sets him apart from the rest. For the one hand, his was a theology that belonged entirely to the 20th century, and that was shaped very explicitly as a response to the upheavals in the faith of the ordinary Christian that the implementation of the Council, liberation theology, and then relativism and post-modernism implied. His preference for Augustine, whom he admitted struck him “with the power of all his human passion and depth,” was also linked to this idea: the African’s personalism was easy to reconcile with the drama and difficulty of Christian existence in the modern world that Ratzinger was interested in, and he thus found him much closer to his own style and theological concern than the “impressive” but coldly dispassionate theology of Aquinas. As one commentator put it, Ratzinger was thus no disconnected spiritual writer living in an ivory tower; he wrote with the Bible in the one hand and the newspaper in the other, and set himself the task of trying to truly understand, empathize with, and engage the questioning faith of the contemporary Christian.
But precisely in his attempt to provide 20th century man with an answer to his questions about the meaning of Christian faith, existence, and mission, Ratzinger developed a theology that became valid for all times. The key lay in his distinction between what belonged to the true core of the Gospel message, and what was only a secondary, cultural form of understanding and expressing that truth of revelation. And while Ratzinger resolutely defended the former against all the attacks and misguided attempts to ‘interpret away’ the inevitable scandal of the incarnation, cross, and resurrection, he was surprisingly generous in admitting that the latter received a necessary service of purification and enrichment in its encounter with the other.
The image of Ratzinger as the Panzerkardinal and as God’s Rottweiler that was popularized by his liberal opponents in the 80’s and 90’s as a slur thus tells only half the story. For it ignores that it was the very same Ratzinger who also claimed in 1986 that “the truth is never monotonous, nor is it ever exhausted in a single form because our mind beholds it only in fragments,” and in 1997 that “I need to be willing to allow my narrow understanding of truth to be broken down. I shall learn my own truth better if I understand the other person and allow myself to be moved along the road to the God who is ever greater, certain that I never hold the whole truth about God in my own hands but am always a learner, on pilgrimage toward it, on a path that has no end”.
This is not the place to develop these ideas in detail. But the point is that the Ratzinger who famously called Luther a felix culpa and a necessary correction to excessive Roman centralization, the Ratzinger who called the world’s religions “necessary parts of salvation history,” and the Benedict who created the Anglican Ordinariate in the hope of allowing these separated Christians to enter into the fullness of the faith and the Church while simultaneously allowing them to maintain as much of their own liturgical and spiritual tradition and patrimony as possible, is as equally and authentically Ratzingerian as the theologian who resolutely defended the divinity of Christ against the excesses of the historical-critical reduction of Him to the mere man Jesus, bravely called out the errors that the Marxist interpretation of the faith espoused by liberation theology implied, and fearlessly proclaimed that science and technology cannot fill the void in man’s heart that cries out for God.
This is not to say that there are two Ratzinger’s; the defender of the faith and the man of authentic dialogue and the humble search for the truth are one and the same. They are two sides of the same coin, and this one Ratzinger thus constructed a unified theology characterized by its vision of both unity and plurality, of a legitimate plurality of cultural-historical ‘languages,’ theologies, communities, and churches arranged symphonically within the unity of the faith and the universal Church.
In an ecclesial situation increasingly divided between ‘ultra-conservatives’ and ‘radical-progressives’, the theological foundation that Ratzinger provided for what he called a “diversified pluriform unity” in the Church thus offers a nuanced but balanced middle path that challenges the assumptions, prejudices and rigidness of both sides. More than any of his single texts or conferences, it is this daring theological vision, this style of a faithful but generous theology, that Ratzinger will be remembered for.
‘Ratzinger the Mystic’ will thus also go down in history as ‘Ratzinger the Theologian’. And one day – perhaps not too far in the future – they may simply be united under the title ‘Benedict the Great’.
Fr. Sameer Advani, LC, is Professor of Dogmatic Theology, Pontifical Atheneum Regina Apostolorum, Rome