A Theologian-Pope
January 23, 2023

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died in his residence at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in Vatican City on December 31, 2022, aged 95. He was Pope from 2005 until his surprise resignation in 2013. Earlier in life, Joseph Ratzinger was an academic theologian and Archbishop of Munich, and immediately prior to his elevation to the Papacy, Ratzinger served under John Paul II as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (1981-2005). In my judgment, he was among the greatest theologians of twentieth century, writing with pastoral warmth and deep theological insight about every major theological topic.

I spent a chunk of 2017, the year of Benedict’s ninetieth birthday, researching and writing two papers about his theological work. One, a sketch of his “biblical-ecumenical liturgical theology,” was published in The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation, and the other, on his political theology, in Joseph Ratzinger and the Healing of Reformation-Era Divisions. Here’s a smattering of themes I came across in my research.

At the beginning of an essay on the Lord’s day (in Theology of the Liturgy), Ratzinger writes: “As with all the major themes of theology, the issue of correctly determining the relationship between the Old and the New Testament proves to be fundamental here.” It’s a characteristic opening: Nearly everything I’ve read of Ratzinger/Benedict starts with Scripture. He was a biblical theologian.

Benedict had an anthropologist’s feel for the human and theological significance of everyday activities, as reflected in this (Schmemannesque, Jordanesque) passage from Theology of the Liturgy:

Human eating is something different from the food intake of an animal: eating attains its human dimension by becoming a meal. Having a meal, however, means experiencing the delightfulness of those things whereby men are supplied with the gift of the earth’s fertility, and having a meal means to experience also . . . the company of other men: a meal creates community, eating is complete only when it happens in company. . . . in this way the meal becomes a very penetrating interpretation of what it means to be a man, of human existence. . . . In a meal man discovers that he is not the founder of his own being but lives his existence in receptivity.

He waxed polemical in an essay on church music from the same volume. “Wherever people praise God, words along do not suffice,” he observes. “Everywhere it has called on music for help.” He knew not all music could help:

music has become today the decisive vehicle of a counterreligion and thus the showplace for the discerning of spirits. On the one hand, since rock music seeks redemption by way of liberation from the personality and its responsibility, it fits very precisely into the anarchistic ideas of freedom that are manifesting themselves more openly all over the world. But that is also exactly why such music is diametrically opposed to the Christian notions of redemption and freedom, indeed their true contradiction. Music of this type must be excluded from the Church, not for aesthetic reasons, not out of reactionary stubbornness, not because of historical rigidity, but because of its very nature.

Benedict endorsed the twentieth-century resurgence of Trinitarian theology, while remaining firmly within the orthodox tradition of Trinitarian reflection. In a 1990 essay on the “theological concept of person” (Communio, 17.3), he distinguished Trinitarian theology from the dialogic personalism of thinkers like Martin Buber:

In Christianity there is not simply a dialogical principle in the modern sense of a pure “I-Thou” relationship, neither on the part of the human person that has its place in the historical “we” that bears it; nor is there such a mere dialogical principle on God’s part who is, in turn, no simple “I,” but the “we” of Father, Son, and Spirit. On both sides there is neither the pure “I,” nor the pure “you,” but on both sides the “I” is integrated into the greater “we.” Precisely this final point, namely, that not even God can be seen as the pure and simple “I” toward which the human being tends, is a fundamental aspect of the theological concept of the person. It explicitly negates the divine monarchy in the sense of antiquity. It expressly refuses to define God as the pure monarch and numerical unity. The Christian concept of God has as a matter of principle given the same dignity to multiplicity as to unity. While antiquity considered multiplicity the corruption of unity, Christian faith, which is a trinitarian faith, considers multiplicity as belonging to unity with the same dignity.

As Pope, Benedict regularly intervened in public debates about the European Union and Europe’s Christian identity, Islam, and faith and reason (the latter two in his controversial Regensberg address in 2006). Several themes run through his public statements.

He often castigated the Enlightenment for separating reason and faith. The Enlightenment didn’t inflate reason; it deflated reason by cutting it off from its source in God. As a result, the Enlightenment is a cultural and political disaster. Unless it’s open and submissive to God, reason can produce nothing but nightmarish fanaticisms. Along similar lines, Benedict regularly stressed the essential connection between truth and freedom. Modern freedom, he argued, is an effort to cut off human action from all limits and tethers; for modernity, truth is what we need to be freed from, since truth is inherently limiting. Benedict warned that freedom from truth cannot produce genuine liberty, but rather leads to what he labelled the “dictatorship of relativism.” Freedom can be truly free only when it’s grounded in truth.

Benedict applied this analysis to the issue of abortion. “Man’s essence,” he wrote, “consists in being-from, being-with, and being-for, human freedom can exist only in the ordered communion of freedoms,” because we image the Triune God who “by his very nature entirely being-for (Father), being-from (Son), and being-with (Holy Spirit).” An unborn child is dependent (being-with) in unique ways, but dependence isn’t unique to unborn children. The fetus symbolizes the natural human of dependency. A pregnant woman must “be-for” her child in unique ways, but being-for isn’t unique to pregnancy: “the mother’s womb is simply a very graphic depiction of the essence of human existence in general. Even the adult can exist only with and from another, and is thus continually thrown back on that being-for which is the very thing he would like to shut out” (from an essay in The Essential Benedict XVI). Trying to free ourselves from dependence and from the imperatives that arise from dependence is nothing less than an attempt to free ourselves from our own humanity. Because the radical humanism used to justify abortion denies the truth about man, it inverts into anti-humanism; severed from the truth, “freedom” turns bloody.

Benedict called for the cultivation of a “civilization of love.” Charity is the heart of Christian ethics and living, but charity isn’t a private virtue. Love is the power behind the church’s witness and is the church’s hope for the world. In Caritas in Veritate, he summarized the social teaching of his predecessor, Paul VI:

he underlined the indispensable importance of the Gospel for building a society according to freedom and justice, in the ideal and historical perspective of a civilization animated by love. Paul VI clearly understood that the social question had become worldwide and he grasped the interconnection between the impetus towards the unification of humanity and the Christian ideal of a single family of peoples in solidarity and fraternity. In the notion of development, understood in human and Christian terms, he identified the heart of the Christian social message, and he proposed Christian charity as the principal force at the service of development.

(Photo: Author, Rvin88).

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