Twentieth Century Theology

The stages of Joseph Ratzinger (III). Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013)

In the two previous articles, we have already seen three of the four theological stages of Benedict XVI's life as professor and bishop (I), and as prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith (II). We are left with the fourth, as Pope (III), which we will see in this article. 

Juan Luis Lorda-March 29, 2022-Reading time: 7 minutes

Translation of the article into English

With his papal election, Ratzinger became the first pope to become a theologian. And, as "cooperator of the truth"He consolidated the lines along which he was working, those needed by the Church at the beginning of the third millennium. Before addressing the fourth theological stage of Benedict XVI's life as Pope, two points should be made. 

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 dictionaries. They are usually well-founded. In Joseph Ratzinger, we speak of expanded reason, the dictatorship of relativism, relational anthropology, personalism and the Augustinian primacy of love, attention to the liturgy, ecumenism... Then his profile is marked by his best known books. Introduction to Christianity, Report on faith, Jesus of Nazarethand his lectures as prefect... These are the sources to study him.

But the edition of his complete works (O.C.), as we have already noted, has transformed this.

 For example, the two theses on St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure, which are the most extensive and systematic studies of his academic period, have emerged. And two volumes have been composed with all his commentaries on the Council, which are a very relevant work of his time as a professor. And there is another entire volume dedicated to the priesthood. In addition, the small manual of EschatologyThe book, with the addition of other materials, has also become a powerful volume. That is why the sources for studying Ratzinger are not the same now as before. 

Theological profile as Pope

Another nuance. By becoming Pope, he is no longer a private theologian, but constantly exercises a public Magisterium. This affects his theological profile in two ways. Not everything he writes becomes Magisterium. And also not everything he teaches as pope is exactly his theological opinion. 

As John Paul II did in Crossing the threshold of hope or in his memoirs, there are writings of Joseph Ratzinger that only express his personal opinion, and are not Magisterium. At Jesus of Nazareth expressly states this. But the same thing happens in conversations with Seewald (The light of the world2010) and other moments of expansion. 

It also happens that not all his Magisterium expresses exactly his way of thinking, because a great part of what he preaches was not written by him. It was written by those who help him with their approval and, depending on the case, with their orientation or corrections. And it is ordinary Magisterium because it represents what the Church believes. There is no problem. But it does not necessarily reflect his theological approach or his personal style. It is necessary to take this into account when making syntheses of his thought or doctoral theses. It is not useful to cut and mix all kinds of materials. 

For example, the beautiful cycles he developed in the audiences on the origins of Christianity, St. Paul, the great ancient and medieval theologians, the Doctors of the Church, and prayer, are pleasant 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 has not written them. 

The Pope's "theological places

Obviously, a perfect discrimination between what he wrote and what he did not write is impossible. But it is possible to think about what theological inspirations his Magisterium had and what he actually did with them. 

In order to know what he wanted to do as pope, there are three very personal and relevant first texts, which we will recall in a moment. 

Then, we must review what he did and what he promoted. First, the encyclicals and apostolic exhortations, which, although he did not write them in their entirety, represent his main lines. 

Ecumenical efforts stand out, an important objective that accompanies the entire pontificate, and deserves a separate study. 

There are interventions where he is very personally involved, such as the trips to Germany (the German Parliament). Perhaps the failed conference at La Sapienza (2008) or the intervention at the UN (2008), or his speech in Westminster to the British Parliament (2010)... There are also moments where his voice is very personal: meetings with priests or seminarians or compatriots, interviews with Seewald.

And, of course, the most theologically personal and a longing of his life is the book Jesus of Nazarethwritten 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. He spoke of the threat of a "dictatorship of relativism" and of the Christian response: "The Christian response to the threat of a "dictatorship of relativism".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 with 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 wish to strongly reaffirm my determination to continue my commitment to the implementation of 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 can I fail to perceive in this providential coincidence an element that must characterize the ministry to which I have been called?". Committed to "to do everything possible to promote the priority cause of ecumenism.", a "to continue the promising dialogue established by my revered predecessors with the different cultures". and to "to proclaim to the world the voice of Him who said, 'I am the light of the world'".especially to young people. 

But the most surprising text is his Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia that year (December 22, 2005). He took the opportunity to see where the Church was. To judge the application of the Council, which was a reform and not a rupture, and in many points it is still pending application. He reviewed the great questions of evangelization in relation to the modern world, with three questions: dialogue with the sciences (including exegesis), dialogue with political thought and interreligious dialogue. And, incidentally, he gave a theological answer on religious freedom, which was one of the reasons for Lefebvre's schism. Text to reread, underline and summarize. Truly, a key to the intentions and approach of the pontificate. 

Encyclicals and exhortations

Of Benedict XVI's three encyclicals, the first, Deus caritas est (2006), perhaps the most personal. According to Seewald's biography, the second part was already more or less ready: charity in the Church, in relation to welfare and charitable work, with the intention of insisting that the Church is not simply an NGO, and that it lives from the charity of Christ. A magnificent first part was added on what is love and Christian love. When reading it, one finds, especially at the beginning, Ratzinger's style. Spe Salvi (2007) also takes up a personal concern of Benedict XVI: hope, as a Christian look to the future, to God's salvation. With its obscuring and 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 glimpses recall his eschatology manual. 

Caritas in veritate (2009) is written in the perspective of Populorum Progressio (1967), by Paul VI, and came out in the midst of a world economic crisis (2008). He wanted to take up the tradition of the great social encyclicals and advance suggestions to address the problems of poverty in so many nations. The deflation of the communist world had made false answers and horizons disappear, but positive action was needed. Rethinking the conditions for real development. That is effective charity, and, for Christians, inspired by Christ and with his help. 

This would leave the outline of the encyclical on faith, after charity and hope (Lumen fidei), with its central theme We have believed in love, Ratzinger, who was caught by the change of pontificate (2013) and was left on the sidelines.

The two apostolic exhortations correspond to two synods. The first, convoked by John Paul II, but presided over by Benedict XVI (2005), gives rise to Sacramentum charitatis (2007). As we have seen, it seemed providential to focus on the Eucharist in order to revive the life of the Church. The theme of the second synod (2008) represents a certain change with the preferably pastoral tradition: the Christian reading of the Bible, which gives rise to Verbum Domini (2010). It reflects his concern to spread a believing approach to the Bible. That is why he is taking time to write Jesus of Nazareth.

Lectures and homilies

Of this immense material, the two trips to Germany (2006 and 2011) stand out as the most personal. And they are not to be missed. It is evident that the homily in the Cathedral of Regensburg and the speech at the University, his university (2006), were his own, also because of the commotion caused by an anecdotal quote on Muslim violence. In the end, the uproar was happily resolved. 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 the informal meeting with journalists and the moving encounter with seminarians in Freiburg, there is his memorable speech 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 of Istanbul and the meetings with the Patriarch of Constantinople (2006), the speech to the French intelligentsia (2008), the tour of Mexico and Cuba (2012). And the good moments of the World Youth Days in Cologne (2005), Sydney (2008) and Madrid (2011). And, always in the travels, the 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 bibliography, as can be clearly seen in the prefaces to these three books. He soon became aware that, in addition to notable contributions, the pure historical-critical method led to locking the texts of the Bible in the past, to making them more and more distant and to concluding such a number of scattered hypotheses that, in reality, nothing could be concluded. 

But this applied to the life of Christ meant leaving him locked in the past and distinguishing almost radically the Christ of the confessed faith from the Christ of history, in reality lost. So all the affirmations of the Church, in perfect connection with the affirmations of the texts, remained in the air. Pending the most absurd hypotheses about how in such a short time could have been composed some statements about the figure of Jesus Christ, his divinity, his miracles, so implausible from the purely human historical point of view. Implausible unless they were really the action of God. If one does not start from faith, one is forced to make reconstructions that are really difficult and perfectly in the air. 

With all his knowledge, the three parts of this work, is the attempt to make a believing exegesis, at the same time informed, centered on faith in Jesus Christ. He was convinced of the urgency of this approach. He firmly believed that it was a service he should render. He had tried and begun it as prefect, and had the incredible merit of carrying it out as pope. 


Evidently, his resignation (2013) also involved a theological question: did he have the right to resign? There was only one precedent and in special circumstances: the resignation-flight of Celestine V (1294), because others were forced (Western Schism). John Paul II considered it and thought it was not possible. Benedict XVI considered it and decided that he had to do it and created a reasonable precedent. 

At the end of his latest book-interview with Seewald (Benedict XVI. Last conversations, Mensajero, Bilbao 2016), when he was already retired, commented on his episcopal motto. Cooperator of truth: "In the 1970s, I became clearly aware of the following: If we forget the truth, what are we doing all this for? [...] With the truth, it is possible to collaborate because it is Person. It is possible to commit oneself to it, to try to assert it. That seemed to me, in the end, the true definition of a theologian." (292). From then until the end.

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