Joseph Alois Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI: born on 16 April, 1927, and died 31 December, 2022 (ordained 1951, consecrated 1977; cardinal 1977, pope 2005)  by Michael Langrish


With the death of Benedict XVI the church has lost a world class theologian and a fine academic mind, one of the greats of the 20th century and, in this writer’s view, likely to still be read in the 22nd. He was also a theologian with an historian’s perspective. As a German whose childhood and early adolescence was that of Hitler’s Third Reich, and whose theological and pedagogical formation occurred against the background of Stalin’s attempt to enforce an atheistic communist hegemony over the Eastern half of Europe, he was acutely aware of the power and complexity of the forces of history which the Church must take seriously in fidelity to its mission and ministry as the Body of the Incarnate Christ. 

It is impossible to understand Joseph Ratzinger, theologian and Prefect of the CDF, or Benedict XVI, Supreme Pontiff, without understanding his passionate concern for the church and its centrality to his theological discourse. He had a strong sense of the depth and continuity of Christian civilisation particularly in Europe. Doctrine, Ethics and Liturgy all need to be true to their formation in the depths of two millennia, whilst yet speaking into the reality of their own time. His plans to have the Tridentine Mass more liberally offered were taken by some as evidence of an obscurantism alien to the spirit of Vatican II. Yet repeatedly he affirmed his own commitment to the Novus Ordo as the ordinary form of the Eucharistic liturgy with its use of the vernacular and stress on the active participation of all the faithful. ‘But,’ he wrote, ‘I do regard it as unfortunate that we have been presented with the idea of a new book’ (and so an excuse for illicit modifications and abuse) ‘rather than with that of continuity within a single liturgical history . . . nothing other than a renewed form of the same Missal to which Pius X, Urban VIII, Pius V and their predecessors have contributed, right from the Church’s earliest history.’

By contrast with the continuity of the deposit of faith as the Church has received it, he saw in much contemporary culture the reflection of a world view focused on the short term, the malleable and the superficial. In seeking to respond to and counter this the task of the church is to shelter truth as well as to proclaim it. Thus his taking his papal name from St Benedict of Nursia whom he once described as having constructed ‘the ark on which the West survived’. 

This sense of the weight and power of history with its concomitant contemporary challenges was very evident in Pope Benedict’s fine address to both Houses of parliament in Westminster Hall during his Apostolic Journey to the UK in September 2010. Recalling the countless men and women who have played their part in the momentous events occurring in that place and shaping the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides, he focussed particularly on Saint Thomas More. More, he said, is ‘admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose ‘good servant’ he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, gives opportunity to reflect . . . on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.’

That place is constantly to testify, in all issues, to a Catholic social teaching which stresses an overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and to emphasise the duty of civil authority to foster the common good. Recognising the inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical questions, the Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, informed by the content of revelation. When reason cuts itself away from God and religion it becomes blind, it recognises no moral foundations other than its own, which results in a situation where there are no longer any common ‘objective’ criteria for morality. Human beings are no longer seen as a gift of the Creator, with an inherent dignity, but are now merely a product of nature, the more easily manipulated by self or others. However, ‘for believers, the world derives neither from blind chance nor from strict necessity, but from God’s plan’. According to this understanding, said Benedict, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply societal norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles, inherent in our true nature. Here is another characteristic of Ratzinger/Benedict’s approach to theology and to faith. In his final spiritual testament, released by the Vatican after his death, he made a last plea to faithful Catholics, urging them to ‘stay steady in the faith’ and wrote that, despite advancements in science and changes in societal views, he was certain of the rationality that faith has and that will emerge again.

Benedict, born Joseph Alois Ratzinger on Holy Saturday, 1927, the son of a policeman, grew up in rural Bavaria. At 14 he was required to join the Hitler Youth, and served in the German army in World War II. Towards the end of the war, he deserted and was briefly held as a prisoner of war by US forces. Ordained priest in 1951, he saw his vocation principally as a theologian and teacher, ministries exercised with distinction in the universities of Bonn, Munster, Tubingen and Regensburg. It was this background that led him to becoming a became a major figure as an ‘expert’ at the Second Vatican Council and for 25 years within the Vatican hierarchy when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he served as a right-hand man to his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So close was their working relationship that even now it is difficult to assess exactly how his own tenure of the See of Peter should be seen. ‘A footnote to JP2?’, ‘completing the work that John Paul II had begun?’, ‘a Pope with a burning desire to both implement the decisions of Vatican 2 as the Council Fathers had intended, and to reform the church tackling its abuses but in the end failing in both?’: each of these and more have been offered as verdicts but yet to be tested by time.

As Prefect of the CDF he earned the nickname ‘God’s rottweiler’. By contrast Cardinal Vincent Nichols has written of ‘his courtesy, his gentleness, the perceptiveness of his mind and the openness of his welcome to everybody that he met’. Such indeed was my own experience on each of the three occasions when I was privileged to meet him. He was undoubtedly a kind man, with a kindness that one suspects led to a tendency to always want to look for the best in others, even to his own cost, and when in terms of leadership or perception it may not have always been wise to do so. During his tenure, allegations of clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up began to surface. His critics said he both failed to deal robustly with cases when Archbishop of Munich and also to grasp the gravity of the crimes and the scale of the crisis, which reached a peak several years after his becoming Pope in 2005. Yet Benedict was the first Pope to meet with victims; he apologized for the abuse that was allowed to fester under John Paul II, and in his papal visits constantly excoriated the ‘filth’ in the church and excommunicated some offending priests.

Kindness and generosity may also go some way to explaining his apparent eagerness to reconcile the schismatic followers of Archbishop Lefebvre, who rejected much of the second Vatican Council, lifting the excommunication on four illicitly consecrated bishops, one of whom, Richard Williams was a Holocaust denier. Hurt that he, so committed to reconciliation between Christians and Jews – indeed the three great monotheistic religions including Islam – might have caused damage to that cause himself, he issued an unprecedented letter of apology. Maybe another example of a rather flat-footed generosity could be seen in the publication of Anglicanorum Coetibus, setting up personal ordinariates embodying elements of Anglican patrimony. For Benedict undoubtedly this was intended to be both a generous and practical response to those seeking his help (in the spirit of Ut Unum Sint) and an outworking of his commitment to a process of receptive ecumenism. Yet without prior consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury and others who had been engaged in dialogue it was something of a diplomatic blunder and arguably diminished the potential that the initiative might have had.

It was perhaps elements such as these that brought him to announce his retirement in 2013 after only eight years in a job understood to be for life, once elected. The burdens of the office weighed heavily and he had witnessed at first-hand the increasing incapacity of his predecessor as John Paul II’s Parkinson’s cruelly took hold. Having tried tendering his resignation before to the Holy Father, he was now able to exercise that full authority himself. A time of reading and study, cats and Mozart, awaited him. Though there were now two popes in the Vatican, where he lived in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery for the almost ten years granted to him, he was a model of grace and courtesy, maintaining his immaculate sense of dress and simple white cassock. He remained a presence in the Holy City – attending liturgies, writing, receiving guests and new cardinals – but never failed to acknowledge his successor, Francis, as the Pope, even issuing from time to time small correctives when agitators in the Roman Catholic culture wars tried to involve him. In 2020 he returned to Germany a final time to see his older brother Georg, also a priest, who died in July that year, shortly before he marked becoming the longest-living pope in the September. In June 2021, he celebrated his Platinum Jubilee of priesthood, at the same time as the United Kingdom commemorated the 70-year reign of Elizabeth II.

How might history rank him among his predecessors? It would be rash to make comparison with any former pontiffs, but less so to suggest that his name will come to be added to the 37 who already bear the title ‘Doctor of the Church. The body of work Benedict has left behind, spanning almost sixty years, is a treasure trove in which notable and lasting gems may be found. From his Introduction to Christianity (1968) to The Jesus of Nazareth Trilogy (2007, 2011, 2012), his insightful scholarship was brought to bear on Scripture and doctrine; and, in language that is simple, understandable, and deceptively straightforward, draws the reader back to the fundamentals of Christian faith as a journey not only of the mind but of the heart and the soul. 

It has been said that he himself was formed by and held in tension the two halves of the 20th century: the first being cataclysmic wars, hardship and depression; the second being liberalism, increased secularisation, and accelerated technological change. Certainly within his teaching legacy one can find these latter addressed head on in, for example, The God of Jesus Christ (1976) and Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (2005). In the first of which he engaged with the cultural pull to replace God with relative, temporary replacements: ‘It is not God who is dead; what is dead (at least to a large extent) is the precondition in man that makes it possible for God to live in the world.’ Much of what is contained in the second would be echoed in his homily prior to the 2005 conclave, (which would subsequently elect him as Pope) in which the famous ‘dictatorship of relativism’ phrase was coined. It would also define some of his greatest addresses as pope, particularly his trilogy of cultural addresses: Paris 2008, Westminster 2010, Berlin 2011.

Then there was the wonderfully and prophetic Faith and the Future: ‘From today’s crisis will emerge a church that has lost a great deal. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to it losing an important part of its social privileges. It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will be a more spiritual church, will not claim a political mandate flirting with the Right one minute and the Left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute.’

Perhaps foremost in his legacy will be seen his achievement in arguing for and presiding over the process which produced The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Not only was his guidance, his spirit and his inspiration apparently decisive, but the whole project reflected his conviction that the key to addressing a crisis of the proclamation of the faith was the need for the catechesis of the Church to be renewed. Such were the riches that flowed into his three great encyclical letters on love (2005), hope (2007), and ‘charity in truth’ (2009).

One of Joseph Ratzinger’s own theological heroes was St John Henry Newman, whose motto Cor ad cor loquitur. He took as the theme of his visit to Britain in 2010 ‘Heart speaks unto heart’. As used by Newman and Benedict, these words speak profoundly of the personal relationship between God and man achieved through prayer. I wonder, is it fanciful to hear in Benedict XVI’s final spiritual testament an echo of that great Newman hymn Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom: ‘Retrospectively, I see and understand that even the dark and tiresome traits of this journey were for my salvation and, right in those, He led me well.’

The Rt Revd Michael Langrish was the Bishop of Exeter (2000-13) and is an Honorary Assistant in the Diocese in Europe