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.