Pope Benedict XVI – A remarkable life

Pope Benedict XVI visits the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela during a Nov. 6–7, 2010, visit to Spain. Born Josef Ratzinger, the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will be remembered as one of the most important teachers, servants and leaders in modern Church history.(Vatican Media - CNA).

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Eight years as pope, 36 years a cardinal and bishop, 71 years a priest and 95 years a Christian — Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered as one of the most important teachers, servants and leaders in modern Church history.

Born Josef Ratzinger in the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn April 16, 1927, Pope Emeritus Benedict died a peaceful, natural death in the Mater Ecclesia monastery enclosed within the Vatican walls on Saturday, Dec. 31 at 3:34 a.m. ET.

His remarkable life encompassed significant accomplishments, but he will go down in history as the only pope in the modern age to resign as pontiff. He stunned the world on Feb. 11, 2013 when he announced that, due to age and declining strength at 85, he was physically unable to fulfill his ministry.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” he said, speaking in Latin during a conclave of cardinals.

He left the papal office for good 17 days later and, after a brief stay at Castel Gandolfo, moved into a newly created monastery in the Vatican Gardens. There he became Pope Emeritus Benedict, where he lived a life of prayer.

His intention to remain hidden from the world was tested by some. Early in 2020 the American publisher Ignatius Press brought out From the Depths of Our Hearts, a slim volume of essays on the nature of the priesthood and focused on defending mandatory celibacy for priests of the Roman Rite. When the book came out and appeared to be attempting to influence Pope Francis just as he was about to make a decision on whether or not to ordain married men for service within their own remote communities in the Amazon, the retired pope was shocked to see his name as Pope Benedict splashed across the cover. He asked that his name be removed, which Ignatius Press refused to do.

Benedict reminded people on several occasions that there is only one pope.

He was the first pope to resign since Pope Gregory XII in 1415, and the first to do so willingly since Pope Celestine V in 1294. It was a bold move by a man who spent his life in courageous defence of the truth.

Compared to the 27-year reign of his predecessor Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s eight-year term may seem modest, but in his insightful encyclicals, his struggle to cleanse the Church hierarchy in the wake of sexual abuse scandals, his promotion of the traditions and continuity of the Church, his encounter with Islam and his ground-breaking resignation, this pope crafted a legacy.

Never the charismatic master communicator Pope John Paul II was, Pope Benedict XVI was more substance than style. His papacy cannot be understood separately from his 24 years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This time spent as John Paul’s intellectual right hand and the Vatican’s defender of Church teaching is deeply linked to his standing as a preeminent theologian of his generation. He then became the theologian-pope of the 21st century.

“In a profound, theological way, yes (he was a conservative),” said the late Canadian theologian and ecumenist Gregory Baum. Like Josef Ratzinger, Baum is a German-educated theologian who survived the Second World War. Both men served as theological experts advising bishops and cardinals at the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger and Baum were among the founders of the influential journal Concilium, though Ratzinger later left the increasingly liberal publication to found its conservative rival, Communio.

Though a liberal and often a target of conservative anger, Baum retained a deep respect for Ratzinger who later became Pope Benedict. In an interview prior to his death in 2017, Baum called him a “great theologian” and recommended his writings. From 1968’s Introduction to Christianity to the 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, the theologian-pope wrote with clarity and insight.

“He is a conservative in a very interesting way,” Baum said.

He was the kind of conservative who made Church renewal at Vatican II possible. “Ratzinger was very much (one) of the people linked to a return to the sources, as he was a renewalist,” said Baum.

The young Josef Ratzinger identified with French theologians who wanted to go beyond the old, neo-scholastic philosophy which had been used to defend the Church after the Council of Trent. As one of the true conservatives, Ratzinger wanted to go back much further than the 16th century.

Ratzinger’s camp at Vatican II based its thinking on the early Church and the Gospels. They were intensely interested in how the first generations of Christians absorbed Greek philosophy. It was a movement in post-war theology that rallied under the banner Ad fontes — To the sources.

The question Pope John XXIII posed to Ratzinger and his generation was, “How should the Church be in the modern world — the world that had perpetrated Auschwitz, invented and used nuclear weapons and connected the entire globe in a democratic web of mass media?” Marxist ideology controlled half the globe with a promise of justice and peace as the inevitable outcome of revolutionary struggle and materialistic history. All this was a challenge the Church must answer. Pope Benedict spent his whole adult life responding to that challenge.

But first he was a boy in a small German town, son of a rather impoverished civil servant, who thought he might want to be a house painter — or a cardinal. At that age he was impressed by Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber’s purple robes. He loved poetry and learned piano. Mozart was a passion that stayed with him his whole life.

He had been in the Hitler Youth, but not willingly. He needed to attend regularly to earn a reduction in tuition at the minor seminary, but a sympathetic math teacher let him off the hook once he had secured the proper certificate. The idea that Pope Benedict had in any way been a supporter of Hitler or his pagan ideology just doesn’t add up. His father subscribed to an anti-Nazi newspaper. The Bavarians on the whole – Catholics especially – had voted against the National Socialist Party.

From left to right: Joseph Ratzinger, Jr.; Maria and Joseph Ratzinger (parents); Maria Jr.; and Georg Ratzinger. Vatican Media
From left to right: Joseph Ratzinger, Jr.; Maria and Joseph Ratzinger (parents); Maria Jr.; and Georg Ratzinger. Vatican Media – CNA

But there was a war on and the 16-year-old seminarian was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit in 1943. Ratzinger was part of the range-finding section. He lived through the Allied bombing of Munich and was moved into a communications division operating the telephone system for both military and civilians. In the fall of 1944, he was part of the last desperate attempt to stop the Russians, digging tank traps and trenches at the border between Austria and Hungary. As the war ended, he was out of the military but was swept up into an American prisoner-of-war camp in Ulm with 40,000 to 50,000 others in the spring of 1945.

The war didn’t drive young Ratzinger into the priesthood. He was already headed in that direction.

“There was no lightning-like moment of illumination,” Cardinal Ratzinger told German journalist Peter Seewald for the 1996 book Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium. “The feeling that God had a plan for each person, for me too, became clear for me early on. Gradually it became clear to me that what He had in mind had to do with the priesthood.”

In the fall of 2020 Seewald published volume one of his authorized biography of the former pope, Benedict XVI: A Life: Volume One: Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927–1965.

At 19, in 1946, Josef Ratzinger entered the Freising seminary. A year later he was studying philosophy at the University of Munich. He was ordained June 20, 1951, alongside his older brother Georg, who died July 1, 2020. Fr. Josef Ratzinger received a taste of life as a parish priest in Munich while continuing his studies.

By 1953 he was a doctor of theology with a thesis on St. Augustine’s concept of the people and the house of God. The German university system required him to write a second major work, called an “habilitation,” before he could be licensed to teach at the university level. His habilitation thesis was later published as The Historical Theology of Saint Bonaventura.

He began teaching dogmatic theology at the Freising seminary in 1958 and quickly moved on to teach fundamental theology at the University of Bonn in 1959 and the theology and history of dogma in Munster in 1964. He teamed up with the great Jesuit theologian Fr. Karl Rahner in 1961 to write about the relationship between bishops and the pope. The resulting book, The Episcopate and the Primacy, is still a touchstone on the subject and informed debate on the subject at the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.

His intense interest in the history of dogma and the ways Church teaching has developed over centuries put him in the arena for Vatican II. When the Council was called he was the personal theological advisor to Cologne’s Cardinal Josef Frings. Frings was a standard bearer for those bishops who wanted the Vatican’s bureaucracy to serve them, not the other way around. Ratzinger was quickly promoted to official status as a peritus — a theological expert in the employ of the whole Council.

Throughout the Council, Ratzinger wrote essays to explain to an educated, non-specialist audience what issues were at play in Vatican II. In 1966 the essays were gathered together and published as Theological Highlights of Vatican II. A generation of theologians and students learned the meaning of the Council and its documents from that book.

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council Fr. Ratzinger began to see a different side of evolving European civilization — a decidedly darker, less Christian culture. In 1968 there were widespread student protests across Europe, including in Tubingen, where he was then teaching. Students were bringing Marxists into the classroom. Rejection of America’s war in Vietnam was steeped in an atmosphere of anti-authoritarianism.

In lecture halls at Tubingen University, leftist students staged sit-ins, stole microphones from professors, spray painted slogans on the walls. Ratzinger felt he was faced with people who had lost the thread of Christian civilization.

“I saw very clearly and also really experienced that there were incompatible concepts of reform,” Cardinal Ratzinger told Seewald. “That there was an abuse of the Church and the faith, which were enlisted as instruments of power, but for totally different purposes and with totally different thoughts and ideas. The unanimous will to serve the faith had come to pieces.”

At the end of that school year Ratzinger left Tubingen to take up a post at Regensburg University — a brand new school set up by the Bavarian state with little history or tradition. It is as though he left Oxford for No-Name University.

At the same time, Ratzinger published his first popular work, Introduction to Christianity. The book begins with a German folk tale about Lucky Jack who discovers a lump of gold as he begins a journey. He decides the lump is too heavy and exchanges it for a horse. He trades the horse for a cow, then the cow for a goose, finally the goose for a stone. Lucky Jack throws away the stone, reckoning it’s not worth much anyway. Written before the 1968 student riots, the professor was using this parable to warn the West about the danger of failing to value its Christian heritage.

Pope Benedict always insisted his theology and his world view did not change after 1968. He had always warned that aggiornamento, Pope John XXIII’s great opening to the world, must not tempt Catholics to dump their history, heritage and essential truths.

“The (Vatican II) Fathers wanted to update the faith — but this was precisely in order to present it with its full impact,” he told Seewald. “Instead, the impression increasingly gained hold that reform consisted in simply jettisoning ballast, in making it easier for ourselves. Reform thus seemed really to consist, not in a radicalization of the faith, but in any kind of dilution of the faith.”

In 1972 Ratzinger joined with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Karl Lehmen and other leading theologians to found a new theological journal. Communio was to act as a counterweight to the increasingly liberal Concilium, a journal that had published several Ratzinger essays.

It’s wrong to think Concilium was a rejection of the Second Vatican Council or the Council Fathers’ wish to engage the world, said King’s University College theologian Carolyn Chau from London, Ont.

“It’s still a question of how the Church encounters the world, but it’s a different model of how the Church encounters the world vis-a-vis Concilium,” she said. “It’s different if you cast it as two potential options of how to encounter the world as opposed to one being for openness to the world and the other against it.”

Pope Paul VI, who had seen the best theological minds of his own generation silenced and exiled by the Holy Office, was not about to let Ratzinger waste away at some regional university. On March 24, 1977 Ratzinger succeeded Cardinal Julius Dopfner as archbishop of Munich-Freising. His episcopal motto was Cooperatores Veritatis — “Co-workers in the truth.” He was made a cardinal three months later — in time for the conclaves that elected both Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II.

Nov. 25, 1981 Pope John Paul II named Cardinal Ratzinger prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the post that earned him the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.” It was an unfair caricature of a man who cared deeply about theology and who possessed an intellectual capacity that far surpassed most of his predecessors in the post. The job was to protect Catholic teaching whenever speculative, theoretical, abstract theology began to either present itself, or be accepted, as the settled theology of the Church.

He was assigned to be a guardian of the faith and then was criticized for doing his job.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica on March 26, 2005, in Vatican City. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 26, 2005, in Vatican City. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images – CNA

As he took up his post, Latin America was in turmoil. Guerilla movements were succeeding in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In Chile, Argentina and Brazil societies were deeply divided and authoritarian, military dictatorships were eliminating their opposition with programs of state-sponsored murder and kidnapping. Rural poverty, which had been bad enough, was rapidly transforming into the misery of urban slums, condemning people not just to hunger and want but to the disgrace and debasement of subhuman status.

Latin America was half the Catholic world and the Church’s response mattered. Liberation theology was the Latin American Catholic voice the world heard.

Reading the Bible politically, from the point of view of the poor, everyone from gun-toting guerrillas to bishops was lining up Jesus and the Church behind the next redemptive revolution. This worried the anti-communist Polish pope and many others in Europe and North America. It fell to Cardinal Ratzinger to sort out the difference between the Church’s solidarity with the poor and the violent overthrow of corrupt oligarchies in the name of Jesus.

In 1984 he produced the CDF’s “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation.” In the atmosphere of the time, anti-communist Catholics interpreted it as an outright fatwah against liberation theology. But it was in fact subtle, closely argued and anything but a condemnation of the entire theological movement.

“The aspiration of ‘liberation,’ as the term itself suggests, repeats a theme which is fundamental to the Old and New Testaments,” said the instruction. “In itself, the expression “theology of liberation is a thoroughly valid term: it designates a theological reflection centred on the biblical theme of liberation and freedom, and on the urgency of its practical realization.”

But Ratzinger was skeptical about any combination of sociological and political thinking which ran roughshod over the personal salvation offered by Jesus or the personal relationship of each Christian to the saviour of the world.

“In a liberated society, the good no longer depends on the ethical striving of the people responsible for this society; rather, it is simply and irrevocably provided by the structures. The myth of the liberated society is based on this notion, since moral values are always endangered, never perfect, and must be achieved over and over again,” he wrote in Church, Ecumenism and Politics: New Endeavours in Ecclesiology in 1984.

For decades opponents of liberation theology tried to persuade Ratzinger’s CDF to condemn the Peruvian father of liberation theology, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez. Investigations were opened, interviews held, but never a word of condemnation. As Pope, Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith — a good friend of Gutiérrez who has travelled many times to Peru to work with Gutiérrez in his parish of poor, indigenous Peruvians.

While the Catholic concern south of the equator, in poor nations of the world, was liberation theology, in Europe and North America the CDF was challenged by a movement toward ordaining women into the priesthood.

It was actually Cardinal Ratzinger’s predecessor, Croation Cardinal Franjo Seper, who declared in 1976, “The Catholic Church has never felt that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women.” But it was Ratzinger who declared the case closed and forbade theological speculation on the issue. In 1995 he ruled in response to a question to the CDF that the 1994 statement of Pope John Paul II “On the Reserving of Priestly Ordination to Men Alone” was a teaching which requires “definitive assent.”

The challenge that consumed Cardinal Ratzinger’s later years as prefect and much of his ministry as Pope Benedict was sexual abuse of children by priests.

In 2001 the cardinal changed canon law so that all cases of sexual misconduct involving minors were to be referred to the CDF in Rome. In 2005, as he walked through the Stations of the Cross, the future pope declared, “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Him! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking on water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them. It is we who betray you time and time again.”

It did not take long for the College of Cardinals to elect this man pope. On just four ballots, Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. April 19, 2005 he stepped out onto the balcony to pronounce a blessing on the city and the world.

“Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord,” he said. “The fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with insufficient instruments comforts me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers. In the joy of the Risen Lord, confident of His unfailing help, let us move forward. The Lord will help us, and Mary, His most holy mother, will be on our side. Thank you.”

He chose Benedict to honour the great founder of Western monasticism, St. Benedict of Nursia, and Pope Benedict XV, who strove for peace as Europe tore itself apart during the First World War.


Pope Benedict XVI on the benediction loggia of St. Peter's Basilica after the announcement of his election as pope April 19, 2005. Vatican Media
Pope Benedict XVI on the benediction loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica after the announcement of his election as pope April 19, 2005. Vatican Media – CNA


Early on in his papacy he declared that a “dictatorship of relativism” was eroding our sense of right and wrong. He urged Christians to trust in their friendship with Jesus. He surprised many with a first encyclical on the subject of love, including sexual love, issued Christmas Day 2005.

Like Pope Francis’ first encyclical years later, the 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is love) was in fact co-authored with Benedict’s predecessor Pope John Paul II. The first half was drafted by the new Pope in German. The second half is drawn from writing by Pope John Paul II.

“I wish my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others,” he wrote.

Benedict was disturbed in the post 9/11 era that religion had become associated with irrational violence. Most of all, he wished to teach that God’s gift of love was not a sentiment to be enjoyed or a protective shield against the harsher aspects of life. It is a call to action.

“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the state. Yet at the same time, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”

In the 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (The hope of salvation), the Pope was at pains to separate Christian hope from any political program or materialist ideas of progress.

“The ambiguity of progress becomes evident,” wrote Pope Benedict. “Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil — possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth, then it is not progress at all but a threat for man and for the world.”

In 2009’s Caritas in Veritate (Love in truth) Pope Benedict took on the economic challenges of our times in a demonstration of how Christian faith can be relevant without endorsing a political program. The pope was critical of new forms of capitalism, cautious about the possibilities of globalization and unyielding in his demand for moral standards to govern markets.

“Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty,” he wrote.

On Sept. 12, 2006 at his old university in Regensberg, Pope Benedict thought he was making the argument that faith is indispensable to reason when he unleashed a firestorm. He quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who said, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

The Muslim world reacted in anger. Many Catholic commentators wondered about the competence of the pope’s communication staff. Churches were burned in the West Bank. By Sept. 17 the pope was on the balcony of his summer residence to publicly state he was “deeply sorry.”

But the incident gave Catholic dialogue with Islam new urgency. It led to “A Common Word Between Us,” a 2007 letter signed by 138 prominent Muslim leaders. The letter points out that together Christians and Muslims constitute more than half the world’s population. Understanding between the religions is essential to peace, they said.

In 2009 Benedict endorsed the dialogue begun by “A Common Word Between Us” saying, “Together we may strive to ensure that society resonates in harmony with the divine order.”

In 2010 Pope Benedict was not done with the painful saga of priestly sexual abuse. In that year he found himself writing to the people of Ireland, expressing sorrow for the long history of abuse and the sense of immunity that had crept into clerical culture. He sent Toronto Archbishop (now Cardinal) Thomas Collins, now-retired Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, and other bishops of Irish heritage to visit Ireland, find the causes of the scandals and the cover-ups and recommend a way forward for the Irish Church.

Pope Benedict XVI addresses volunteers of World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, Spain, Aug. 21, 2011. (CNA Photo – Vatican Media)

Elected pope at age 78, for eight years Benedict shouldered a heavy load. On Feb. 11, 2013 he did something history is unlikely to forget. He retired.
“His ongoing commitment and concern for the truth is an important legacy,” said King’s University’s Chau.

Chau represents a generation of theologians who have never known a time when Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict XVI did not dominate theological debate. She finds herself in the middle of something now being called “evangelical catholicism.” Because of Benedict “there was an awareness of the importance of affirming and celebrating the great good of Vatican II, but not at the expense of recognizing the mission and task of the Church with respect to culture,” Chau said.

But Chau most appreciates what Benedict taught about faith and truth.

“There aren’t too many voices in that camp saying the question of truth matters. He took that on,” said Chau. “When we stop being concerned about the question of truth all kinds of things start falling apart — even the most important of things, love, is weakened.”