Today we mourn the loss of Pope Benedict XVI, a holy man of God who lived the faith well. May he rest in the arms of God for eternity! Read more about his life and be inspired by his legacy.
Pope Benedict XVI Dies At The Age Of 95
Who Was Pope Benedict XVI?
Long before he was Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927 in Bavaria, Germany. Joseph was ordained a priest in 1951 in Bavaria and within the decade had established himself as a theologian of high regard. He was given a full professorship in 1958 at the age of 31. He took part in the Second Vatican Council as a peritus (advisor) and taught theology for almost two decades at various German universities. In 1977, Pope St. Paul VI created him a cardinal in 1977. Four years later, he was appointed as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981. From that time on, he lived in Rome.
What Was the Impact of Pope Benedict XVI?
This short article does not seek to be a biography of Pope Benedict XVI or an exhaustive account of his remarkable career. Instead, I just want to paint in broad strokes and present some perspective on his tremendous impact on the Church. As a private theologian, Fr. Ratzinger was a more liberal theologian from the time of his ordination until around 1968. He was a friend and intellectual associate of Karl Rahner. He was a proponent of church reform resulting from an admiration of the Nouvelle Theologie movement. The Tübingen school, of which he was associated, was heavily influenced by Marxist leanings.
Due to Marxist riots in 1968, Fr. Ratzinger saw these disturbances and the accompanying disrespect for authority as connected to a departure from traditional Catholic teachings on faith and morals. As such, his line of thinking became increasingly at odds with the liberal ideas circulating in his theological circles. While his contemporaries saw his departure as a turn to conservatism, Cardinal Ratzinger, in a Time magazine interview in 1993, would say, “I see no break in my views as a theologian [over the years].”
The trajectory of his theological studies after 1968 is a marvel to behold. Ratzinger became regarded as one of the foremost theologians in the world. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and as the closest confidant of Pope St. John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger had phenomenal influence on the post-Vatican II Church. He defended and reaffirmed Catholic doctrine, especially on touchy topics and levied suspensions, censures, and excommunications against dissident Catholic lay people, religious, and prelates. Future historians who continue to study the era of the Church of the Pope St. John Paul II papacy will begin to see ever more clearly the safeguard on Catholic faith and morals that Cardinal Ratzinger was. His impact is undeniable, both as a cleric in the Roman Curia and as a private theologian.
As Pope Benedict XVI, the writings we have received are fantastic. He only wrote two encyclicals as pope: one on love and one on hope. He also wrote an encyclical on faith which was the first document released by Pope Francis. He wrote many other sermons, Wednesday audiences, and apostolic exhortations which contributed greatly to the deeper understanding and guarding of Catholic teaching.
The Holy Humility of Josef Ratzinger
While I did not know Ratzinger personally, I am always blown away by the stories of his holy humility. Cardinal Ratzinger was the prefect for the CDF from 1981 until 2005. During that time, he strove to be balanced and judicious in all cases. He did not punish those in need of discipline with a heavy hand. Often, out of charity and tenderness, he would try to find remediation through dialogue.
When he spoke on sensitive issues, he did so with boldness but not with pride. He desired only to seek after the truth of Jesus Christ. As a true Augustianian, Ratzinger sought to unite the head and the heart in all matters. He was a soft spoken, kind man who was more at home in the classroom or in the library than anywhere else. When he turned 70, he asked permission from Pope St. John Paul II to leave the CDF and become an archivist in the Vatican Secret Archives and a librarian in the Vatican Library. The Pope said no, but I think it shows that Ratzinger did not desire power, prestige, or honor.
The Papacy of Benedict XVI
When he became pope, he chose the name Benedict. He did so for two reasons. First, Pope Benedict XV was the pope during World War One and passionately pursued peace between warring nations. Second, St. Benedict of Nursia, co-patron of Europe, evoked the Christian roots of Europe. In both regards, Benedict XVI wanted to bring a measure of peace to the world and help steer Europe back from what he would earlier call the “dictatorship of relativism.” The impact of the papacy, in particular, of Pope Benedict XVI is the topic of another article on another day. There is so much fruitful ground to cover regarding his specific teachings, legal reforms, liturgical principles and advancements, and his shocking resignation. But, again, this is for another day.
What is a “Doctor of the Church?”
The Catholic Church has thousands of canonized saints who we are assured are in Heaven with God. The saints are a model to us on Earth because of their exemplary, holy lives and their sound teaching, preaching, or actions. Every so often, there are saints who the Church recognizes as significantly contributing to theology or Church teaching through their research, study, or writing. These doctrinal writers with special authority are given the title Doctor Ecclesiae Universalis (English: Doctor of the Universal Church). To date, there have only been 36 saints who have been called Doctor of the Church. The writings of these holy men and women are of great advantage to the Church throughout the world. A Doctor of the Church is a teacher of the Faith who has exceptional holiness, depth of doctrinal insight, and an extensive body of work which upholds and contributes to Catholic Church teaching.
In the Middle Ages, four Doctors, in particular, were held in high esteem: St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome. In the East, three stand above the rest: St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and St. Gregory Nazianzen. Later, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure were added. Later popes added other Church Fathers, such as St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. John Damascene. Currently, there are four women Doctors of the Church, as well: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and St. Catherine of Siena.
Will Pope Benedict XVI One Day Be Called “Doctor of the Church”?
Pope Benedict XVI is the greatest theologian of the 20th Century. I know that this is a bold claim and many are certain to disagree with me. However, in terms of impact in theology, I am not sure there is another greater. The Second Vatican Council was a landmark moment in the Church’s History, but Cardinal Ratzinger, under St. John Paul II, was its faithful interpreter. By all accounts, Ratzinger was a man of exceptional holiness and humility; even his adversaries could not speak truthfully against his kindness. He had a depth of doctrinal insight which will bear fruit for centuries to come. And his extensive body of work upholds and contributes to Church teaching.
So, will Pope Benedict XVI one day be called a “Doctor of the Church?” I do not know, but I hope so. Perhaps it is presumptive of me to say with such a high degree of certainty that he will be canonized a saint, as this is the first step. I am not in favor of the recent trend to canonize almost every modern pope or to canonize so quickly. Be that as it may, Pope Benedict XVI is a good and holy man who is a model servant of the Church. He is a first-rate theologian who takes fidelity to Christ and His Church seriously. May he be remembered well and his contributions valued as the Pilgrim Church journeys onward, sustained by his prayers.
A prayer for the soul of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
Father, eternal shepherd,
hear the prayers of your people for your servant Benedict,
who governed your Church with love.
to the reward you have promised your faithful servants.
May he who faithfully administered the mysteries
of your forgiveness and love on earth,
rejoice with you forever in heaven.
For more reading Pope Benedict XVI’s excellent trilogy on the life of Jesus in the Gospels: