With his pontifical election, Ratzinger became the first Pope who was a proper theologian. As a “cooperator of the truth”, he consolidated the lines along which he had worked before, those needed by the Church at the beginning of the third millennium. But before addressing the fourth theological stage of Benedict XVI’s life, as Pope, I would like to make two points.
Theological Profile and Collected Works
The profile of an important theologian is configured, first of all, by the clichés that everyone repeats and which are found in the histories of theology and in the dictionaries. They are usually well-founded. In Joseph Ratzinger, we speak of an enlarging of reason, the dictatorship of relativism, relational anthropology, personalism and the Augustinian primacy of love, attention to the liturgy, ecumenism… His profile is also marked by his best-known books—Introduction to Christianity, The Ratzinger Report, Jesus of Nazareth, and his conferences as Prefect… These are the sources for studying him.
But the edition of his Complete Works, as we have already noted, has transformed this.
For example, we have discovered his two theses, on St Augustine and on St Bonaventure, which are the most extensive and systematic works of his entire academic period; and all his commentaries on the Council, which are a very relevant work from his time as a professor, fill two whole volumes. And there is another entire volume dedicated to the priesthood. In addition, the small manual on Eschatology, with the addition of other materials, has also become a significant volume. So the sources for studying Ratzinger are not the same now as they were before.
Theological profile as Pope
Another nuance. Having become Pope, he was no longer a private theologian, but was constantly exercising a public Magisterium. This affected his theological profile in two ways. Not everything he wrote becomes Magisterium; but also, not everything he taught as Pope was exactly his theological opinion.
As with John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope or in his memoirs, there are writings of Joseph Ratzinger that express only his personal opinion, and are not Magisterium. In Jesus of Nazareth he states this expressly; but the same happened in his conversations with Seewald (Light of the World, 2010) and other more informal moments.
It is also true that not all his Magisterium expressed exactly his way of thinking, because much of what he taught was not written by him: it was done by those who helped him—with his approval and, in some cases, with his orientations or corrections. And it is ordinary Magisterium, because it represents what the Church believes. It is not a problem: but it does not necessarily reflect his theological approach or his personal style. We should take this into account when making syntheses of his thought or doctoral theses. It is not helpful to cut and mix different kinds of materials.
For example, the beautiful cycles he developed in his audiences, on the origins of Christianity, St Paul, the great ancient and medieval theologians, the Doctors of the Church, and prayer, are delightful, and useful for teaching; and they are there because he wanted them to be. But it would not make sense to extract his theological thought from them: he did not write them.
The Pope’s “theological places”
Obviously, we cannot distinguish perfectly between what he wrote and what he did not write. But we can think about what theological inspirations his Magisterium had and what he actually did with them.
To know what he wanted to do as Pope, there are three very personal key texts, which we will consider in a moment.
Next, we should review what he did and what he promoted. First, the encyclicals and apostolic exhortations, which, although he did not write them in their entirety, do reflect his main lines of thought.
His ecumenical endeavors stand out, as they are an important objective that accompanied his whole pontificate and deserves a separate study.
There are speeches where he was very personally involved, such as the trips to Germany (the German Parliament). Perhaps the failed conference of La Sapienza (2008) or the speech at the UN (2008), or his speech in Westminster to the British Parliament (2010)… There are also moments where his voice is very personal: his meetings with priests or seminarians or his compatriots, his interviews with Seewald.
And, of course, the most theologically personal and a desire of his whole life is the book Jesus of Nazareth, written with heroic tenacity and perseverance.
Three first interventions
On April 18, 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger, as dean of the Sacred College, presided at the Mass before the conclave in which he was to be elected Pope. He delivered a famous homily, in which he spoke of the threat of a “dictatorship of relativism” and of the Christian response: “A faith that does not follow the waves of fashion and the latest novelty: adult and mature is a faith deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. We must lead the flock of Christ towards this faith. Only this faith creates unity and is realized in charity.” He trusted, as always, in a Christian truth spoken in charity.
On April 20, 2005, after being elected and celebrating Mass, he addressed the cardinals. After recalling John Paul II, he called for ecclesial communion, the theme of the Council. And he said: “I want to strongly reaffirm my determination to continue in the commitment to implement the Second Vatican Council, following the example of my predecessors and in faithful continuity with the two-thousand-year tradition of the Church.” And since it was the year of the Synod on the Eucharist, he added: “How could I fail to perceive in this providential coincidence an element that must characterize the ministry to which I have been called?” He pledged to “do everything possible to promote, as a priority, the cause of ecumenism,” to “pursue the promising dialogue with different cultures begun by my venerable predecessors”, and to “propose to the world”—and especially to young people—“the voice of the One who said: ‘I am the light of the world’.”
But the most surprising text is the Christmas greeting he addressed that year to the Roman Curia (December 22, 2005). He took the opportunity to see where the Church stood; to consider the implementation of the Council, which was a reform and not a rupture, and in many points still needed to be implemented. He reviewed the great question of evangelization in relation to the modern world, in three points: dialogue with the sciences (including in exegesis), dialogue with political thought, and interreligious dialogue. And, incidentally, he gave a theological answer to the question of religious freedom, which was one of the reasons for Lefebvre’s schism. A text to reread, to underline and to digest. A real key to the intentions and approach of the pontificate.
The encyclicals and exhortations
Of Benedict XVI’s three encyclicals, the first, Deus caritas est (2006), was perhaps the most personal. According to Seewald’s biography, the second part was already more or less ready on his election: charity in the Church, in relation to welfare and charitable work, so as to make clear that the Church is not simply an NGO, and that she lives from the charity of Christ. A magnificent first part was added on what is love and what is Christian love. When reading it, one sees Ratzinger’s style, especially at the beginning. Spe salvi (2007) also took up a personal concern of Benedict XVI’s: hope, as a Christian look to the future, to God’s salvation. And with the obscuring of hope, modern attempts at political and economic substitution. And the places where it can be recovered: prayer, Christian action and suffering, and the longing for a definitive judgment. Some moments recall his handbook on eschatology.
Caritas in veritate (2009) was written in the perspective of Paul VI’s Populorum progressio (1967), and came out in the midst of a world economic crisis (2008). It sought to take up the tradition of the great social encyclicals and put forward suggestions for addressing the problems of poverty in so many nations. The implosion of the Communist world had made false answers and horizons disappear, but now positive action was needed, rethinking the conditions for real development. This is effective charity, and, for Christians, inspired by Christ and with his help.
There was also the sketch of the encyclical on faith, after charity and hope (Lumen fidei), with its central theme “We have believed in love”, so typical of Ratzinger, which was caught in the change of pontificate (2013) and went largely unnoticed.
The two apostolic exhortations corresponded to two synods. The first, convoked by John Paul II but presided over by Benedict XVI (2005), gave rise to Sacramentum caritatis (2007). As we saw, it seemed providential to focus on the Eucharist in order to revive the life of the Church. The theme of the second synod (2008) reflected a certain change from the Pope’s preference for a pastoral tradition: the Christian reading of the Bible, which gave rise to Verbum Domini (2010). It reflected his concern to spread a believing approach to the Bible; that was why he was making time to write Jesus of Nazareth.
Conferences and homilies
Of this immense mass of material, the two trips to Germany (2006 and 2011) stood out as the most personal. And they are not to be missed. It is clear that the homily in Regensburg Cathedral and the speech at the University—his university (2006)—were Pope Benedict’s, also because of the commotion caused by an anecdotal quote on Muslim violence. In the end, the uproar was happily overcome. But the main theme was very much his own: the relationship between science and faith and the public role of faith.
In the second trip to Germany (2011), in addition to his informal meeting with journalists and his moving encounter with seminarians in Freiburg, there was his memorable intervention in the German Parliament recalling the moral foundations of the democratic state and the bitter experience of how an unscrupulous group (the Nazis) could seize power.
Of course there are many more things in so many memorable trips: the enthusiasm of Poland (2006), the entry into the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and the meetings with the Patriarch of Constantinople (2006), the speech to the French intelligentsia (2008), the visits to Mexico and Cuba (2012); and the good moments of the World Youth Days in Cologne (2005), Sydney (2008) and Madrid (2011). And, in every journey, his ecumenical work.
The problem of exegesis
Joseph Ratzinger was always an attentive student of exegetical progress and did much to be well informed, especially of the German literature, as you can see clearly in the prefaces to the three volumes of Jesus of Nazareth. He soon became aware that—besides its notable contributions—the pure historical-critical method had led to entombing the texts of the Bible in the past, making them more and more distant, and producing such a mass of disparate hypotheses that, in fact, nothing could be concluded.
And this, when applied to Christ’s life, meant leaving Christ himself locked in the past and distinguishing almost totally the Christ of the confession of faith from a Christ of history—in reality a disappeared Christ. So all the affirmations of the Church, in perfect connection with the affirmations of the texts, remained vague and unsubstantial, hanging from the most absurd hypotheses about how some statements about the figure of Jesus Christ—his divinity, his miracles—could have been composed in such a short time, so implausible from the purely human historical point of view. Implausible, unless they really were the action of God. If you do not start from a position of faith, you are forced to make reconstructions that are far-fetched and totally unsubstantial.
Bringing all his knowledge to bear, the three parts of this work are an attempt to carry out an exegesis that is believing and at the same time informed, centered on faith in Jesus Christ. Benedict was convinced of the urgency of this approach, and he firmly believed that it was a service he should render. He had tried and started it as Prefect, and he had the extraordinary merit of completing it as Pope.
Obviously, Benedict’s resignation (2013) also involved a theological question: did he have the right to resign? There had only been one precedent, and that in special circumstances: the resignation–flight of Celestine V (1294). Because others were forced (in the Western Schism). John Paul II considered it, and thought it was not possible. Benedict XVI considered it, and decided that he should do it, and doing so created a reasonable precedent.
At the end of his last book-interview with Seewald (Last Testament: In His Own Words, 2016), when he was already retired, he commented on his episcopal motto Cooperators of the truth: “In… the 1970s, it became clear to me: if we omit the truth, what do we do anything for?… One can work with the truth, because the truth is person. One can let truth in, try to provide the truth with value. That seemed to me finally to be the very definition of the profession of a theologian” (p. 241). From that moment, until the end.