Benedict XVI, Pope

Tracey Rowland. New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2010. Editor: Robert L Fastiggi. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2010.

Benedict XVI grew up in Bavaria as the youngest of three children of a police commissioner. His family was opposed to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi ideology, and his father took an extended sick leave so as not to be required to implement Nazi regulations. Ratzinger’s school teachers were also inclined to take an anti-Nazi stance, and he was later to write that it seemed to him that an education in Greek and Latin antiquity, such as his teachers had, created a mental attitude that resisted seduction by totalitarian ideology.

In 1939 Ratzinger entered the minor seminary of St. Michael in Traunstein, something he found difficult because he was not made for regimented boarding-school life, and, as the youngest of the students, he was also the least able sportsman. However, the seminary was soon converted into a military hospital, the playing fields were lost, and in lieu of field sports, the boys were taken on hikes and fishing trips which were more appealing to his contemplative nature.

At the age of fourteen he was signed up as a member of the Hitler Youth by his seminary superiors, though he was never required to attend meetings, and the Nazi ideology occupied nothing but a negative place in his intellectual formation. In 1943, at the age of sixteen, he was called up for military service. He spent the last two years of World War II in various military appointments, first at an antiaircraft battery near Munich, then as an infantryman on the Hungarian border, and finally as an American prisoner-of-war near Ulm. Ratzinger has written that he never fired a single shot during this period of military service, and he actually deserted the army prior to his being taken prisoner by the Americans. He narrowly escaped execution for desertion by SS officers who allowed him safe passage because they believed him to be wounded. He was carrying one of his arms in a sling.

After the war Ratzinger entered the seminary of Freising, and in 1947 he began theological studies at the Herzogliches Georgianum associated with the University of Munich. During this period of his life, the writers who influenced him included Romano Guardini, Josef Pieper, Peter Wust, Theodor Häcker, and John Henry Cardinal Newman. He also studied the thought of Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Klages, Henri Bergson, Theodore Steinbüchel, and Martin BUBER. He has described the encounter with Buber’s personalism as a spiritual experience that left an essential mark, especially as it resonated with his studies of St.Augustine.

On the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in 1951 he was ordained a priest, along with his brother Georg. His doctoral dissertation, defended in 1953, was titled “The People and the House of God in Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church”; and his postdoctoral thesis, or Habilitationsschrift, offered an examination of St. Bonaventure’s theology of history. The latter was the subject of some internal faculty controversy as it was highly critical of the then-dominant Suárezian account of revelation.

Vatican II

In his thirties Ratzinger attended the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) as a peritus (theological consultant) to Josef Cardinal Frings of Cologne. In those years he was representative of a younger generation of scholars who were frustrated by what they called the Roman school of theology, a form of neoscholasticism that did not allow much room for the use of conceptual frameworks built on other than scholastic categories. Ratzinger was never enchanted by preconciliar scholasticism, which he found to be too dry and impersonal. In contrast, he found that within the works of St. Augustine, “the passionate, suffering, questioning man is always right there, and you can identify with him” (Ratzinger 1997, p. 61). His former seminary prefect, Alfred Läpple, has said that Scholasticism “wasn’t his beer” (Valente and Azzardo 2006, p. 60).

At the Council, Ratzinger played an important role in the drafting of Dei Verbum, which in part can be read as a vindication of arguments made in his controversial thesis on the theology of history. He was also a member of the subcommission responsible for drafting Articles 22 and 23 of Lumen gentium and a member of the team responsible for redrafting the schema on the Church’s missionary activity. It is suspected that he drafted the speech delivered by Cardinal Frings on November 8, 1963, in which the cardinal was strongly critical of the procedures of the then Holy Office, which was subsequently reorganized and renamed the Sacred congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Paul VI.

During these years he was associated with other young periti who were also critical of the Roman schools of theology. These included Karl Rahner, S.J., Hans Kung, and Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P. He collaborated with Rahner on Dei Verbum, and in 1966 they jointly published Revelation and Tradition. However, this alliance was short lived and did not survive the 1960s.

By the early 1970s a definite cleavage had developed between two groups of leading theologians, which came to be associated with the names of the journals in which they published. One group, centered around the journal Concilium, included: Rahner, Küng, Johann Baptist Metz, Yves Congar, O.P, Schillebeeckx, Paul Brand, Franz Böckle, and Gustavo Gutierrez. Ratzinger was for a time a member of the Concilium board. He has described it as an attempt to establish itself, on the model of the ancient rights of the Sorbonne, as the true center of teaching and teachers of the Church. He believes that this aspiration was buried at the fifth anniversary congress in Brussels in 1970 when divisions began to appear among Rahner, Congar, Schillebeeckx, and Küng. The second group was centered around the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, M.J. Le Guillou, Louis Bouyer, Jorge Medina, and Ratzinger. Together in 1972 they founded the Communio journal, which came to be published in sixteen languages. This involvement with the establishment of Communio followed upon the success of his first book, Introduction to Christianity, which was a bestseller published in 1968 and later translated into seventeen languages.

In 1969, in Herbert Vorgrimler’s Commentary on the Documents of the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger published an extensive critique of the treatment of freedom and anthropology in the Conciliar document Gaudium et spes. He argued that while the document offered a daring new theological anthropology which was to be celebrated, the presentation of the anthropology was poor, and indeed he went so far as to observe that some of the language in the section on free will was “downright Pelagian” (p. 138). The sections of the document he strongly affirmed were those owing their inspiration to the work of Henri de Lubac, particularly de Lubac’s Catholicism, which he described as “a key reading event” that gave him “a new way of looking at theology and faith as such” (Ratzinger 1998, p. 98).

Academic Posts and the Episcopacy

As one of the most prolific theologians of his generation, Ratzinger held positions at the University of Bonn (1959-1963), the University of Münster (1963-1966), the University of Tubingen (1966-1969), and the University of Regensburg (1969-1977), and in 1992 he was appointed an associate member of the Académie Française in the section for moral and political sciences. However, his life as a full-time professor came to an end in 1977 when he was made a bishop and cardinal by Paul VI.

As Archbishop of Munich-Freising (1977-1981), Ratzinger was a prominent defender of the dignity and sacredness of human life. He delivered many homilies against abortion, and he also took part in street demonstrations against the treatment of workers and intellectuals associated with the Polish anti-Communist trade union, solidarity. He was active on ecumenical fronts, respected by Lutheran scholars, and he was also interested in the problems of the Church in Latin America. He assisted with raising money for the missions in Ecuador, he organized conferences with nonbelievers, and he extended hospitality to the local Jewish community. Every year on the Feast of St. Korbinian he presided at a meeting with young people who were invited to question him about the Church’s teachings.

The Prefect

In 1981 he was called to Rome by Pope John Paul II to become the prefect for the Sacred congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the President of the International Theological Commission, and the President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. In 1985 he participated in the Synod called to reflect upon the reception of the Council, and out of this meeting came the decision to publish a new Catechism or compendium of Catholic teaching. Ratzinger played a major role in its composition and presided over its release in 1992. In 1985 he allowed himself to be interviewed by the journalist Vittorio Messori, and this collection of very frank reflections on the state of the Church in the postconciliar era, marketed as The Ratzinger Report, became another international bestseller.

Ratzinger’s early years as prefect were dominated by the problems of the Church in Latin America and the general influence of the Latin American liberation theologians. He was especially critical of the christology of those associated with the Liberation Theology movement, and this culminated in the release of two documents, the “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’” (1984) and the “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation” (1986).

Ratzinger’s concern to defend the ontological priority of the universal Church over that of the local church was manifest in his “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion” (1992). Questions about the nature of the Church flowing from some terminology of the conciliar documents were also addressed in the document Dominus Iesus, presented by Ratzinger in 2000. This declaration began with the observation that the Church’s missionary proclamation is endangered by relativistic theories that seek to justify religious pluralism. It declares that the Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is historical continuity—rooted in the apostolic succession—between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church. Moreover, the Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. The words “subsists in” come from the Conciliar document Lumen gentium. In Dominus Iesus, it is stated that with this expression the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church; and on the other hand, that outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth—that is, in those churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church.

In 1994 John Paul II’s Ordinatio sacerdolatis: Apostolic Letter on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone was released with the strong support of Ratzinger. In his many references to this issue, he emphasizes that the Jews stood out in the Old Testament world as being the only religious group without priestesses, and he believes that this is theologically important. In 1995 Ratzinger issued a response to questions about the doctrine contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, stating that the teaching belongs to the deposit of the faith and has been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium and confirmed by the pope.

Prominent theologians whose works were the subject of warnings by the Sacred congregation during his period as prefect include: Schillebeeckx, who promoted the idea that nonpriests might in some circumstances be able to validly perform a consecration; Charles Curran, who rejected the teaching against contraception and who was subsequently removed from his post at The Catholic University of America; Tissa Balasuriya, O.M.I., who rejected the doctrine of original sin, supported the ordination of women, and held heretical views on Christ’s redemptive role; and Roger Haight, S.J., whose works were held to contain errors in Christology. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was also excommunicated for ordaining bishops without the consent of the pope.

Of the many documents released by the Sacred congregation during Ratzinger’s prefecture, the more prominent ones addressed problems in the area of sexual morality. These included: a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” (1986); an “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation” (1987), clarifying the Church’s position on assisted fertilization techniques and other biomedical issues, and reaffirming the teaching that an embryo is human from the moment of conception and that conception is moral only in the context of sexual intercourse within marriage; a “Note Regarding the Moral Rule of Humanae vitae and Pastoral Duty” (1989), stating that couples who find the teaching difficult to follow are deserving of love and respect, but nonetheless contraception is always an “intrinsically disordered act”; “Some Considerations Concerning the Response to Legislative Proposals on Nondiscrimination of Homosexual Persons” (1992), saying that it is not unjust to take sexual orientation into account in certain situations such as adoption, service in the military, and the employment of teachers.

In 1994 he issued a “Letter to Bishops Regarding the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful,” affirming that those who are divorced and remarried cannot receive Holy Communion. In 2003 he issued “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” reaffirming Church teaching requiring compassion for homosexuals, but opposing legal recognition of homosexual unions.

Also in 2003 he issued a “Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” in which he held that while Catholics are free to choose among the various strategies offered by political parties for promoting the common good, they may not claim that such a freedom permits them to support abortion or euthanasia.

While prefect for the Sacred congregation, Ratzinger continued to publish academic works, including The Feast of Faith (1986), A New Song for the Lord (1996), and The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000); and as chairman of the Pontifical Biblical Commission he presided over the drafting of two significant documents: “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (1993) and “The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible” (2002). These built on principles set out in Dei Verbum, as well as the encyclical Providentissimus Deus of Leo XIII and Divino afflante Spiritu of PIUS XII.

Benedict XVI

On April 19, 2005, Ratzinger was elected pope after a short conclave, and he took the name Benedict XVI. His first encyclical, Deus caritas est (2005), began with a reiteration of the central theme of his thesis on the theology of history, that being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, who gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. He also developed the theological understanding of the relationship between eros and agape and launched an assault on the Nietzschean claim that Christianity had killed eros. While not adding anything substantially new to the Church’s social teaching, the encyclical nonetheless made the point that love must always be a component of Christian social welfare.

A second encyclical, Spe salvi, was released in 2007. It offered a reflection on the theological virtue of hope and contemporary secularist variations on this theme, including the Marxist and liberal notions of progress and scientific rationality. According to these secularist versions of hope, redemption is no longer expected from faith, but from a newly discovered link between science and praxis. There is now a faith in progress itself, where progress is interpreted as the application of scientific principles to overcome various forms of human dependency. This change has in turn given rise to new conceptions of reason and freedom which appear to hold out the hope of a new and perfect human community. Pope Benedict stated that it is not science, but love, that redeems humanity, and thus salvation is a social enterprise. Henri de Lubac’s ecclesiological masterpiece, Catholicism, is cited as a source of understanding of this point. Pope Benedict also used the encyclical as an opportunity to reaffirm the Church’s teaching on the existence of an intermediate state between heaven and hell, usually called purgatory. Here he affirmed the idea of some recent theologians that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior.

The inadequacy and errors of a secularist notion of progress was also a central theme of the third encyclical of the pontificate, released in July 2009. Entitled Caritas in veritate, it offered a synthesis of the Trinitarian anthropology of Gaudium et spes and the subsequent social teaching of Paul VI and John Paul II, and it called for a reform of the United Nations and the economic institutions of international finance. The core theological ideas were all present in Ratzinger’s essay on the notion of human dignity in Gaudium et spes, written in the late 1960s. The intellectual center of the encyclical is found in the statement that “a humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism” since “life in Christ is the first and principal factor of development.” Secularist notions of development have fostered government policies which are hostile to the more spiritual elements of human life, including relationships of reciprocal self-giving in love. The pope lamented that in the name of human development abortion is encouraged and international aid is linked to the acceptance of contraceptives. He argued that there exists a “human ecology” which links the life issues to the issues commonly associated with social justice.

Benedict’s first apostolic visit was to Cologne for the August 2006 World Youth Day celebrations attended by an estimated one million pilgrims. A collection of his homilies delivered on the occasion was published in God’s Revolution: World Youth and Other Cologne Talks (2006). Later in 2006 he returned to Germany and delivered an academic address at the University of Regensburg titled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections.” Although the lecture was critical of both the place accorded to religion in Western liberal theory and the place accorded to reason in Islamic thought, and although the subtext of the speech was that both Western liberalism and Eastern Islam share a common voluntarist philosophical starting point (for one the will of the individual, for the other the will of Allah), the response of many Muslims was to treat the speech as a direct attack on Islam. From Islamic quarters there was almost no acknowledgement that the pope had been equally critical of Western liberalism and was imploring all peoples of good will to critically examine the relationship between religion and reason. These themes were central to a collection of his essays published as Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (2004).

Further apostolic visits have included a trip to Brazil in May 2007 for the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops and the canonization of the first Brazil-born native saint, Fr. Antônio de Sant’Ana GALVÃO; a trip to the United States in April 2008, which included an address to the United Nations and a meeting with the leaders of the Jewish community in New York; a trip to Sydney in July 2008 for the second World Youth Day of his pontificate; a visit to LOURDES in September 2008 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin to St. Bernadette; and in March 2009 he made his first papal visit to Africa, traveling to Cameroon and Angola to meet with political and Church leaders and visit centers of charitable work. The international media coverage of this African trip was dominated by the pope’s statements on HIV/AIDS, to the effect that this tragedy cannot be overcome by money alone or through the distribution of condoms, but rather what is required is a spiritual and human awakening and friendship for those who suffer. In May 2009 the pope visited the Holy Land, including Christian sites in Jordan. This trip also included a Mass at Mt. Precipice in Nazareth, Vespers in the Grotto of the Annunciation, and visits to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and the Armenian Apostolic Church in Jerusalem, and a meeting with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.

In Sacramentum caritatis (2007), his first apostolic exhortation, he took up themes in his prepapal liturgical works. He stated that “participation [in the Mass] does not refer to mere external activity during the celebration but to a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated” and “active participation is not equivalent to the exercise of a specific ministry.” He also stated that “everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty” (II, 41).

In a prepapal essay, Benedict had stated that all rock music should be excluded from the liturgy, “not for aesthetic reasons, not out of reactionary stubbornness, not because of historical rigidity but because of its very nature,” while in The Feast of Faith (1986) he argued that “utility music”—that is, music promoted for its popularity and pedagogical usefulness—is unworthy of use for liturgical purposes.

In line with his many statements on the problems of postconciliar liturgical practices, on July 7, 2007, Benedict issued the motu proprio, Summorum pontificum, which contained the ruling that the Roman Missal promulgated by Paul VI is to remain the ordinary expression of the Lex orandi (Law of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite, but nonetheless, the Roman Missal promulgated by St. Pius v and reissued by Pope JOHN XXIII is to be considered as an extraordinary expression of that same Lex orandi, and must be given due honor for its venerable and ancient usage.

Relationship to John Paul II

On all the major issues during the quarter-century pontificate of John Paul II, the pope and Ratzinger, as prefect for the Sacred congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, stood shoulder to shoulder. However, while anthropology and the meaning and purpose of human sexuality and human dignity might be regarded as key themes in the papacy of John Paul II, with Benedict XVI it is more likely that the key themes will be ecclesiology, liturgy, and revelation. Benedict has taken on board his predecessor’s accounts of what went wrong with contemporary conceptions of truth and goodness, and he adds to them an account of the contemporary predicament of beauty and the relationship between truth and love. The two papacies are likely to provide a study in harmonious contrasts.

In January 2009 Pope Benedict released from the penalty of excommunication the four bishops who had been illicitly ordained in 1988 by Archbishop Lefebvre, the leader of traditionalist groups who opposed the liturgical changes of the pontificate of Paul VI and doctrinal elements of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. This gesture did not mean a return to full communion with the Church of the traditionalist groups since, as Pope Benedict stated in the motu proprio, Ecclesiae unitatem of July 2009, “doctrinal questions remain and until they are clarified the Society [of St. Pius X] has no canonical status in the Church and its ministers cannot legitimately exercise any ministry.” In lifting the decrees of excommunication the pope was intending to remove all possible pretexts for infinite arguing in his negotiations with leaders of the Society of St. Pius X. In the process he suffered the humiliation of discovering after the event, that one of the four bishops, Richard Williamson, is a holocaust (shoah) denier. In an apologetic letter to the bishops of the world the pope wrote that a gesture of reconciliation to one ecclesial group had turned into its very antithesis, “an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council—steps which my own work as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and support.” He added that the pain caused to the Jewish people by this event is something he could only “deeply deplore.”

In 2007 the pope published the first volume of his work Jesus of Nazareth. He emphasized that this was a private academic work that did not carry with it magisterial authority. In the introductory section he offered some reflections on the general theme of scriptural hermeneutics, which was taken up again in 2008 at the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God. He emphasized that scriptural exegesis is not only a literary phenomenon, but a movement of one’s whole existence under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In 2008 he also announced a special Pauline Year to encourage the study of Pauline scripture and theology. This was followed in 2009-2010 by the Year of the Priest in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests.