Remembering Pope Benedict XVI (1927-2022)
Ten years ago, around this time, I was beginning to teach a course on Pope Benedict XVI—as far as I know, the only full course on the then reigning pope offered at any Catholic university in the United States.
About a month into the semester, Benedict resigned. My students, half seriously, asked if the course was over.
We continued to study one of the most intriguing popes of the modern age. And we turned the course into a pop-up Vatican studies lab following in real time the historic election of a new pope.
Now, a decade later, that new pope, who boldly chose the name Francis, is preparing to preside over the funeral Mass of the pope who resigned.
Once again, we’re reminded how ill-prepared American journalists are to cover something as complex as the papacy, one of the oldest continuous institutions in the world. The 24-hour news cycle we’re so familiar with trades mainly in easy-to-digest dualisms: liberal/conservative, good/bad, liked/unliked. And that goes for Catholic media too.
Pope Benedict XVI, known for most of his life as Joseph Ratzinger, defied and, now from the other side of the veil, continues to defy simplistic binary categories.
Vatican-watchers across the globe are busy assessing Ratzinger’s legacy, focusing mainly on his missteps and oversights as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as pope.
Those of us in Catholic higher education owe it to ourselves and our students to examine Ratzinger’s record in its entirety, including his enormously significant contribution to Catholic thought.
Ratzinger was a major player on the world’s intellectual stage.
We should remember Ratzinger the young avant-garde priest-theologian—in coat and tie, not clerics—at Vatican II (1962-65). He was an enthusiastic interpreter of the unparalleled council for his whole career and never questioned its necessity or legitimacy.
We should remember Ratzinger the professor at Tübingen University, where he and the Vatican’s loyal opponent Hans Küng served as the theology faculty’s collegial odd couple—Küng tooling about the medieval streets in his sporty Alfa Romeo, Ratzinger in black beret peddling to lectures on his rusty bicycle.
We should remember Ratzinger the brilliant teacher and writer. His Introduction to Christianity is one of the best on the market, and his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth reveals a daring scholarly mind. He told the world how Jewish scholar Rabbi Jacob Neusner “opened my eyes to the greatness of Jesus’ words.”
Ratzinger’s four encyclicals, one co-written with Francis, are models of clarity and style. Many folks during the nearly 27-year pontificate of John Paul II figured turgid prose was just the way popes wrote. Ratzinger brought to the papal desk grace and elegance.
We should remember Ratzinger the first green pope. His address to the United Nations on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, delivered half in French and half in English (with final greetings in Chinese and Arabic), called for cooperative action to “preserve the environment and to protect various forms of life on earth.”
We should remember Ratzinger the lover of beauty. John Paul gravitated toward austere modernism. His abstract crucifix symbolized his Cold War apostolate. He was famous for his threadbare cassocks and unshined shoes.
Ratzinger was cut from different aesthetic cloth. A classicist, whose taste ran toward Mozart, he reprised papal lace and Renaissance red shoes. His sartorial philosophy was: If it’s in the papal wardrobe, it ought to be worn now and then.
He felt the same way about liturgy. In the Catholic worship wars, still ongoing, his starting point was not what’s right or wrong, but what elevates the human spirit, what showcases the historic Catholic treasury, what gives an intimation of a better world.
We should especially remember Ratzinger the promoter of dialogue. He combined hardcore devotion with eager and natural participation in cross-confessional exchange. He continued John Paul’s revolutionary interfaith gatherings at Assisi and added atheists to the guest list. The book he co-authored with secular philosopher Jürgen Habermas communicates a generosity of spirit rarely seen in church, academy, or society.
All of us should reflect carefully on this arresting passage from his Many Religions—One Covenant:
“What we need … is respect for the beliefs of others and the readiness to look for truth in what strikes us as strange or foreign; for such truth concerns us and can correct us and lead us farther along the path. What we need is the willingness to look behind the alien appearances and look for the deeper truth hidden there.”
Now that his earthly career has run its course, let us look behind the alien appearances of Joseph Ratzinger, so hard to summarize in soundbite, and search for the deeper truth that shaped such a memorable life, so refined, so committed, imperfect like all others.
Dr. Peter A. Huff
Chief Mission Officer and Director, Center for Benedictine Values