The Paradoxical Pope

In spite of the profound impact Pope Benedict XVI has had on my life (or perhaps because of it), I can’t help but have mixed—and confused—feelings about the man now that he has passed.

A few months after I entered the Catholic Church in 1993, I began a graduate program in Catholic theology. There I discovered the writings of a man who would fundamentally shape my understanding of Catholicism: Joseph Ratzinger. My program of study was heavy on the 20th century Catholic theologians, men such as Congar, de Lubac, Danielou, and Wojtyla, but for me, Ratzinger towered above them all. 

I devoured everything I could find by the German Cardinal. In fact, at one point I considered learning German just so I could read all his works in their original language. Even after leaving formal studies, I continued to read anything and everything Ratzinger said or wrote. When he was elected pope, my joy was complete. 

From the beginning I felt a connection to Joseph Ratzinger. I don’t know if it was his writing style, the depth of his insights, or the Biblical foundations of his thought, but for whatever reason I soaked in his works. I think I read his Principles of Catholic Theology in one long insane reading session (and then read it again and again). I loved his book on Eschatology, and his Introduction to Christianity I considered a foundational work for Catholics in the 20th century. 

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His book Jesus of Nazareth, written while serving as pope, touched me and led me to a deeper encounter with our Lord. In fact, encountering Christ was the plum-line that connected all his works and was what I most appreciated about him: unlike many scholars who detached themselves from their subject in a spirit of academic inquiry, Ratzinger passionately loved his Subject, Jesus Christ. 

That, in fact, was likely his particular genius. In an era of academic skepticism—about the Bible, about the Church, about God Himself—Joseph Ratzinger retained that childlike faith our Lord urges us to have. He was perhaps the most intellectual pope the Church has ever seen, yet he also had an evangelical love for Christ that would put the most fervent Pentecostal to shame. 

As pope, two great administrative decisions stand out: Summorum Pontificum and Anglicanorum Coetibus. The first liberalized the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass and declared it was never abrogated (and could not be abrogated!). This generous action led to a flourishing of the traditional liturgy and helped create an enthusiastic movement of both young and old that is probably the most exciting thing to happen in the Church in the past half century.

The second decision, Anglicanorum Coetibus, was an act of true ecumenism in an era awash in meaningless ecumenical gestures. Benedict established a practical way for Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church while retaining many of their legitimate Anglican traditions. I remember well the criticism he received from the Ecumenical Establishment for his generosity; at this point, the ecumenical movement had devolved into a series of endless “dialogues” leading nowhere yet here was a pope challenging them by saying, in effect, “the goal is to become Catholic!” 

Both these actions demonstrated Benedict’s care for souls. He looked, as our current pontiff would say, to the peripheries—disaffected traditionalist Catholics and disaffected Anglicans—and reached out to them in charity and in a desire to integrate them into the fuller life of the Church. In these actions he demonstrated he was no ivory-tower academic, but a man passionate for souls.

As we entered 2013 I felt the Church was on the right path with Benedict at the helm. Although even then he was getting older, I was confident that he would continue to lead us where the Lord wanted us to go.

Then came the Great Resignation. 

It’s impossible to write about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI without addressing his papal resignation. His decision sent seismic shocks throughout the Church and has impacted every aspect of Church life today. What Catholic doesn’t sometimes wonder what the Church would be like if he had not resigned? There would be no Pope Francis, obviously. But it goes much deeper than that. The entire outlook of the Church has radically changed since Benedict’s resignation, and many (myself included) would say for the worse.

I freely admit that I still have not gotten over the pain of Benedict’s resignation. It’s one thing for a son to be abandoned by a lousy father; it’s another for a son to be abandoned by a father he adores. The betrayal cuts deeper. (And betrayal it was.) 

Joseph Ratzinger accepted the pontificate with full knowledge of what it entails—he was Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man for 25 years. He knew it meant he was becoming the father—the Holy Father—of more than a billion Catholics. A father should never abandon his children, yet that’s exactly what Joseph Ratzinger did. He left his flock to the wolves, and those wolves have been roaming free ever since his abdication.

After Benedict’s resignation I started to see his life and his work in a new light. Like a young man starting to see his father in a less idealistic way as he grows older, I came to recognize some of his flaws, both administratively and theologically. 

I still love and appreciate most of his theological works, but revelations about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick put Benedict’s administrative failings in full light. Even though it’s clear that Benedict knew at least some of McCarrick’s despicable misdeeds, he only quietly moved the monster aside instead of publicly removing him from any influence in the Church.

Further, it’s also clear in hindsight that while Benedict recognized many of the problems in today’s Church, he did not have the personality or the will to make the hard choices needed to overcome them. He was brilliant at times in diagnosing the problem (remember the “dictatorship of relativism?”); he fell far short of actually doing much about it when he had the power to do so—and eventually he gave up trying.

His theology was not without its flaws either, I came to realize once I removed my rose-colored glasses. He was ultimately a product of the modern—and often modernist—Church. When it came to his Biblical theology, that often meant he combined traditional insights with modern scholarship to dive deep into the Sacred Scriptures. But it also led him to a questionable ecclesiology at times, including his own bizarre and confusing idea of the role of a “pope emeritus” (an innovation of his own making).

In my book Deadly Indifference I detail many of the problems with today’s ecumenical and interreligious movement, and while Ratzinger was far better than most Churchmen today in understanding the unique role of the Church in salvation, he too often de-emphasized that role. Even he at times presented salvation as detached from outward membership in the Catholic Church.

Like all great men, then, Joseph Ratzinger was a combination of good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, brilliance and ignorance. There’s no question in my mind that he was a great man, one of the leading figures of our time, and an overall force for good in our chaotic Catholic Church, even if at times he embraced too much modernity in that Church. Yet his papal resignation casts a dark pall on his whole life, suggesting that when the great moment came and his Lord asked him for the ultimate sacrifice, he blinked. 

Rest in peace, Joseph Ratzinger. May you come in the next life to see directly the Lord whom you loved so much in this life.

[Photo taken by author on Benedict XVI’s birthday in 2008 in Washington, DC]

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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