Pope Benedict XVI is destined, for the time being, to be overshadowed by both his predecessor and his successor. He lacks their force of personality, their command of media, their “curb appeal.” Over time, though, the understandable focus on his papal renunciation will be outweighed by his theological and magisterial legacy, particularly in his decades-long influence on the post-conciliar Church. I suspect this legacy will age well.
It isn’t news to anyone that his reputation as a hierarch and a theologian is polarizing. Some see him as the one who, with John Paul II, stood in the breach during difficult decades and offered needed criteria for faithfully implementing Vatican II. Others see him as a good, even holy man whose profound insights—especially on liturgy—were undermined by his quasi-modernist tendencies and passive leadership, culminating in his resignation. Still others see him as the personification of the betrayal of Vatican II’s spirit of openness to the modern world and to a more inclusive Church.
Assessing his theological legacy, then, is complicated. We are simply too close to him to be able to see clearly and fully. And unlike, say, Karl Rahner or Hans Urs von Balthasar, he left no theological system, no magnum opus. He wasn’t a specialist who dominated a particular area but a generalist whose arguments often need to be pieced together from his many essays and short books. He was a professor who, ironically, spent most of his adult life outside of the academy. Finally, his scholarly legacy is complicated by his magisterial service as pope and as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
I do not pretend to objectivity with regard to Joseph Ratzinger. I first encountered his thought while writing my doctoral dissertation at Notre Dame. I was working on the relationship of local churches to the universal Church and questioned his argument for the priority of the universal Church. His position, I thought, reinforced Vatican centralization and didn’t appreciate the contributions of local churches. I shared the view of most of my professors: Ratzinger was undeniably intelligent, but doctrinally rigid, pastorally insensitive, closed to modernity, a turncoat on Vatican II who lost his nerve amid post-conciliar tumult.
Reading him, though, set me—imperceptibly at first—on a decades-long journey. While reading his memoirs, Milestones, I was initially struck by his warmth and evident gratitude. As I continued on to Salt of the Earth and other interviews, I encountered an astute observer of Church and world who joined forthrightness and gentleness, piercing insight and disarming simplicity. The stereotypes and even caricatures thus began to fall away over time, and I entered into a theological and spiritual friendship with someone I never met. Above all, I came to see him as a believer who really knew and loved his Lord. That Christ-centeredness animated his entire life as a theologian and a Church leader; to me, it remains consoling and challenging.
In assessing his contested legacy, then, I wish to highlight four “nodes” that stand at the heart of his theology. These aren’t exhaustive: important themes—such as eschatology and the relationship between faith and reason—will need to be left aside.
The first node is Ratzinger’s seemingly self-evident insistence that Christianity is about Christ. One might respond, “Well, what else would it be about?” Ratzinger sums up his meaning at the beginning of his first papal encyclical, Deus caritas est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” It is not enough to see Christ as a moral example or a great teacher whose significance lies outside of himself, in the way that Buddha’s finger points at the moon or Muhammed serves as Allah’s transcriber. He is, rather, the kingdom of God in person, and Christianity is nothing other than the encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, this person’s deepest identity is that he is Son of the Father. This is the “true center of his personality,” as Ratzinger puts it in Jesus of Nazareth. In constant prayer and love, Christ is his relationship with the Father: he receives all of himself from his Father. And this divine sonship issues forth in human communion with others: “His entire being is expressed by the word ‘pro-existence’—he is there, not for himself, but for others. This is not merely a dimension of his existence, but its innermost essence and entirety.” To be Christian, likewise, is not so much to “do good” or to assent to doctrines, but to become, like Jesus, a son or daughter of the Father. Our response, Ratzinger insists, is always preceded and made possible by receiving God’s loving gift.
This Christocentrism gives rise to one of the most surprising aspects of Ratzinger’s thought and life: the quiet, reserved scholar’s warm, affective, even pietistic emphasis on friendship with Jesus. Such emphasis is not native to many older Catholic ears, sounding too “evangelical” or “Jesus and me”–ish. Ratzinger stated that his purpose in writing Jesus of Nazareth was his worry that “[i]ntimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air,” because of scholars and preachers who cast doubt on the reliability of Scripture. Similarly, the usually overlooked heart of his “dictatorship of relativism” homily, delivered just before the 2005 conclave that elected him pope, was a lyrical invitation to adult friendship with Jesus—one grounded in firm doctrine as well as mutual trust and intimacy. Those who saw him only as “God’s Rottweiler” or as an aloof professor might have been surprised to hear him say, before the College of Cardinals and the rest of the world, “Thank you, Jesus, for your friendship!”
These emphases on Christ’s person, his sonship, and our friendship with him drove Ratzinger’s resistance to various kinds of reductionisms: Christ as merely one among humanity’s great religious sages, as primarily a liberator from earthly evils, as an ordinary human person with an exceptional experience of God, as only one savior among others. Dominus Iesus (2000) was perhaps the most controversial document issued by the CDF while Ratzinger was prefect (rivaled only by its 1984 instruction on liberation theology and its 1986 letter on homosexuality). Although Dominus Iesus caused needless ecumenical tension in its oversimplified account of other Christian communities, its essential core was simply the reaffirmation of the most fundamental Christian beliefs: Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human, is Lord and the one and only savior of all humanity; the Church, as Christ’s one and only Body, is uniquely connected to his saving mission and therefore not equivalent to other religions. This is simply Christian bedrock, without which the faith is in vain.
Ratzinger’s Christological concern continued with a 2001 Notification against the Belgian Jesuit Jacques Dupuis (which the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago acknowledged was an “unfortunate example” and not “thought out well enough”) and a 2004 Notification which declared that the American Jesuit Roger Haight’s writings on Christ, salvation, and the Trinity contained “serious doctrinal errors contrary to the divine and catholic faith of the Church.” Nearly twenty years later, it is troubling to me that Ratzinger’s upholding of the Church’s Christological and Trinitarian teachings seems passé or even oppressive in theological circles that are effectively post-Christian in their narrow focus on anthropology and critical theory.
These doctrinal controversies point to a second node: for Ratzinger, theology is inherently ecclesial. It grows from the heart of the Church. The theologian’s primary and most essential (but not exclusive) home is the Church. He or she is not an academic free agent, but one whose “raw materials” are drawn from the divine revelation entrusted to the Church through the apostles. For Ratzinger, then, the conflict between academic freedom and apostolic faith is often spurious. In fact, he turns this conflict on its head, arguing that Church doctrine, far from being restrictive, is “generative” of genuine theological creativity. He laments those theologians who, “though personally orthodox, in their scholarly work were emulators of liberalism,” and who saw theology’s ecclesial identity primarily as a “shackle.”
That said, Donum veritatis, the CDF’s 1990 Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, does acknowledge the tensions that can exist between theologians and the magisterium. It affirms further the right and even the duty of theologians to make known to ecclesial authorities their difficulties with Church teaching. Reading both Ratzinger and Donum veritatis on the theological task calls to mind Henri de Lubac’s Splendor of the Church. Written by a theologian who suffered deeply at the hands of ecclesial authorities and who, precisely in that suffering, fell even more soberly and deeply in love with the Church, de Lubac’s book remains indispensable for anyone who seeks to be a truly ecclesial theologian and believer. Given Ratzinger’s long friendship and grateful debt to the Jesuit cardinal, I am convinced that Splendor shaped his thinking on the ecclesial nature of theology.
Donum veritatis also makes clear that theologians and Church authorities exist only in relation to the entire people of God. In his own writings, Ratzinger returns time and again to what he calls the faith of the “little ones” or the “simple,” who, though insignificant in worldly terms, keep the faith alive across the centuries. He has in mind biblical figures such as Simeon and Anna, as well as more modern ones such as the Bavarian farmers and tradesmen he knew in his youth (not least his policeman father and homemaker mother). In this context, he criticizes experts who are contemptuous toward ordinary believers. His own willingness to venture into theological fields beyond his own—e.g. scripture and liturgy—was an attempt to share the riches of the faith that some scholars had either restricted through a kind of guild mentality or even undercut in their presumed sophistication. His efforts annoyed some scholars who criticized what they saw as his lack of specialization and scholarly expertise. It would be hard, for instance, to find a more despised—I use this word advisedly—figure in some professional and scholarly liturgical circles than Ratzinger.
This contentious relationship—even animus—leads to a third node. Liturgy will undoubtedly be the most visible, divisive aspect of his legacy for the foreseeable future. He has argued that the Church’s contemporary crisis is “to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy.” That bold claim will seem hyperbolic or irresponsible unless one properly grasps the nature of Christian worship.
Liturgy, for Ratzinger, is not primarily a communal activity that one does on Sunday in order to fuel up for the Church’s work in the real world. It is instead the central, ultimate reality of human existence. The human person is a worshiping creature who is most him- or herself when glorifying God. Christ himself is the perfect worshiper of his Father. Orthodoxy, Ratzinger notes, is “right worship” before it is “right doctrine.” Christian liturgy, then, is above all about glorifying God; it is centered on God, and only in being so does it contribute to our sanctification. As Ratzinger puts it in The Spirit of the Liturgy, the “only goal” of the Exodus was to enable Israel to worship God rightly, as he wished to be worshiped. Idolatry-leading-to-apostasy is conversely the primal sin of Israel and the Church.
Because liturgy is primarily a divine gift before it is a human response, any true liturgical reform must be organic. It must regard the liturgy as, to use Ratzinger’s image, a plant to be tended rather than a machine to be rebuilt or made more efficient. This is the source of his call for a “new liturgical movement, which will call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council.”
This is where the controversy goes into overdrive. While acknowledging gains from the post-conciliar liturgical reforms, Ratzinger frequently criticized both their genesis and their consequences. Their genesis, he argues, was unprecedented in scope. The post-conciliar reforms went beyond (and even against) the decrees of Vatican II—and far beyond any preceding reforms. Moreover, the reforms were problematically entrusted to a group of experts who believed that they had a mandate to revise the liturgy according to modern scholarship (some of it now outdated or discredited) and their perceptions of the needs of modern believers. Ratzinger holds, in effect, that Concilium (the Second Vatican Council itself) and Consilium (the Vatican body that directed the immediate post-conciliar liturgical changes) cannot be equated. He affirms Vatican II’s teaching while questioning key dimensions of its implementation.
The post-conciliar changes, combined with the effective prohibition of the pre-conciliar liturgy, introduced a “breach…whose consequences could only be tragic.” Such liturgical excess and rupture threaten the Church’s very identity and authority:
A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent. Can it be trusted any more about anything else? Won’t it proscribe again tomorrow what it prescribes today?
Summorum pontificum—Benedict’s 2007 letter liberalizing the use of what he called the “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite and its attendant sacraments—was intended neither as a restorationist move nor as a mere concession to the Priestly Society of St. Pius X and elderly Catholics attached to the older liturgy. Instead, he held that the Church needed “interior reconciliation” with its own tradition and “mutual enrichment” between the two forms of the Roman Rite. He wished for the Church to recover its venerable heritage and to be open to legitimate development.
With his 2021 letter Traditionis custodes, Pope Francis has effectively reversed Benedict’s efforts. It is a strikingly public repudiation. Some may try to minimize the conflict or hope that it will gradually disappear. They can’t, and it won’t. Although the numbers of Catholics involved are relatively small, they represent a highly motivated group. As a teacher and speaker, I have been surprised by how many laypeople, seminarians, and clergy identify The Spirit of the Liturgy as their favorite among Ratzinger’s writings. They attest that it has deeply changed—even if only gradually—how they understand the liturgy. Not all of them participate in the older liturgy, but they are all committed to more reverent forms of worship. It will take decades, possibly centuries, to heal the liturgical wound in Roman Catholicism.
One model of what that healing might look like is offered by the personal ordinariates—equivalent to dioceses—that Benedict established for Anglicans and Episcopalians who wished to enter corporately into full communion with the Catholic Church. These communities, in their fragility and their strength, exemplify Vatican II’s vision of liturgy that glorifies God through the active participation of all believers, of a Catholicism capacious enough to receive the wealth of the Anglican patrimony and confident enough to reclaim its own heritage.
My final node is what I call the “style” of salvation history: “God is not loud. He does not make headlines,” as Ratzinger said in a homily. This quiet gentleness forms the climax of Jesus of Nazareth, which he knew would be his theological last will and testament:
It is part of the mystery of God that he acts so gently, that he only gradually builds up his history within the great history of mankind; that he becomes man and so can be overlooked by his contemporaries and by the decisive forces within history.…
And yet—is not this the truly divine way? Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom, to offer and elicit love. And if we really think about it, is it not what seems so small that is truly great?
Tracey Rowland has perceptively noted that Ratzinger is drawn to what is affective, natural, interior, organic, communal; conversely, there is an “aversion to the ugliness of the industrialized world,” as well as its rationalism and materialism. Her comments point to what I would call the monastic, particularly Benedictine cast of Ratzinger’s thought and life: a simple, regular life of prayer, work, reading, and community.
This emphasis on the small and seemingly insignificant nature of divine action in the world, together with Ratzinger’s repeated predictions (dating back to the 1950s) that the Church of the future would be smaller, stripped of its institutions and social influence, has given rise to perhaps the most baseless yet widespread criticism of his thought: that he desires a “smaller but purer” Church shorn of its dissenting and even merely lukewarm believers. I sometimes wonder whether the real object of this criticism is Ratzinger himself or the unpopular Church teachings on, say, sexuality and ordained ministry that he upheld in the face of pressure for change.
In any case, Ratzinger unambiguously rejects any form of spiritual elitism or Donatism. Instead, at the heart of his theology is the thoroughly biblical conviction that God saves the many through the one or the few: Abraham is chosen to be the father of many nations; Israel is elected for the sake of the Gentiles, Christ—the new Adam—gives his life for the sake of all; the Church’s mission is to be light to the nations. God prefers to start small and to use mustard seeds to accomplish his work of salvation. The Church is open to all, and whether big or small, the greatest gift that it can offer the world is being itself and living the twofold commandment of love of God and neighbor.
As a theologian and as a hierarch, Ratzinger played a long game, trusting in divine providence. In his papal installation homily, he said, “God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified One, not by those who crucified him. The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man.” I believe that this humble trust in providence fostered his sense of being a simple “worker in the vineyard of the Lord” and sustained his decision to step down from the papacy.
Now the last surviving major participant at Vatican II is gone. An ecclesial era has ended. The man who grew up under Nazism, who resisted Marxism and theological liberalism, has passed. There are new movements in the world and in the Church, new signs of the times, for good and for ill. Still, I am convinced that the stature of this “mustard seed” theologian and hierarch will grow over the coming decades and bear much fruit.