Benedict XVI, Pope and theologian

Benedicto XVI, Papa y teólogo

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“When, little by little, the trend of the voting led me to understand that, to say it simply, the axe was going to fall on me, my head began to spin. I was convinced that I had already carried out my life’s work and could look forward to ending my days peacefully. With profound conviction I said to the Lord: Do not do this to me! You have younger and better people at your disposal, who can face this great responsibility with greater dynamism and greater strength. I was then very touched by a brief note written to me by a brother Cardinal. ‘If the Lord, he wrote, tells you Follow Me!, then keep in mind what you preached yourself and do not refuse.’”

With these words, Joseph Ratzinger explained on April 20, 2005, before a group of German journalists, why —despite considerable doubts— he had accepted his naming to become the 264th successor of St. Peter. The day before he had been elected Pope and had taken the name Benedict XVI. But eight years later, on February 28, 2013, he resigned from the Papacy: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

Inside Vatican II

Immediately after the announcement of his resignation, on February 11, 2013, insiders of the Catholic Church wondered why the largely considered conservative (and by many, even reactionary) “prince” of the Church made such a shocking decision. Until then, in its 2,000 years of history, there had been no resignations from the Papacy for personal reasons. It was something entirely new. But “newness” was a recurring theme throughout Joseph Ratzinger´s trajectory.

In 1953 he finished his Theology degree with the doctoral thesis “People of God and house of God in the doctrine of St. Augustine on the Church.” Four years later, his thesis “The theology of the history of San Buenaventura” positioned him to serve as a Theology professor. Not long after, he was “discovered” by the enormously renowned Cardinal Joseph Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, who made Ratzinger his adviser for the Second Vatican Council, which began on October 11, 1962. In Rome, he earned a reputation of being an expert theologian of the Council.

The Council had been announced by Pope John XXIII in October 1958. Its objective was to reestablish the Catholic Church in modern society and open dialogue with the Enlightment, that had become atheistic. Cardinal Frings, Ratzinger and their companions set up their Roman residence in the German college Santa Maria dell’Anima. The “Anima,” founded in 1406, thus became the center of the German episcopal delegation. There the “road map” for the next joint steps was laid out. And from there the “spirit of the Council” spread throughout Germany —a “spirit” which emphasizes emotions and moods and which, even today, is responsible for very different interpretations of the great ecclesial Assembly.

Post-Vatican II Council years

When John XXIII died on June 3, 1963, the new Pope, Paul VI, declared the Council closed on December 8, 1965. From the point of view of Church history, the council´s main themes were also new at the time: “ecumenism , religious freedom and collegiality,” and the Church intended to face the post-Council future with them at the forefront of its teachings.

The Council´s message for the church to be “out in the world” found large support: the Church´s monarchical structure was accepted as more of a democratic body in which the faithful (beyond those living religious vocations) made up “the Church.” With surprising speed, the so-called spirit of the Council spread throughout the Catholic Church.

Joseph Ratzinger is known for his contribution in spreading a fair interpretation of the Second Vatican Council

However, years later, Pope Paul VI seemed to have doubts about what had come about after the Second Vatican Council. In a homily delivered on the solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, on June 29, 1972, he said: “From some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God… We believe … that something preternatural has come into the world specifically to disturb, to suffocate the fruits of the [Second Vatican] Ecumenical Council, and to prevent the Church from breaking out in a hymn of joy for having recovered in fullness the awareness of herself.”

Joseph Ratzinger´s interpretation of the conciliar texts, in the light of Church tradition, was met with strong resistance from the reformers, including one of the most popular, Swiss theologian Hans Küng. After Cardinal Ratzinger´s was elected Pope, Küng —in a 2007 television interview— stated it was “an enormous disappointment for all those who hoped for a reformist and pastoral pope.” And that “unfortunately, there has not been much change from stagnation. We keep having the same boring problems; we keep having problems with the pill, with celibacy, with same-sex marriages, with intercommunion. No democratically elected organization in today´s world would survive something like this. Here it is only possible due to an authoritarian system, which cannot be changed precisely because we do not have democratic controls and mechanisms that, in certain circumstances, would also allow for its replacement given that it does not work as it should.”

Opposed to totalitarianism

Joseph Ratzinger, born on April 16, 1927 in Marktl am Inn (Bavaria), was the son of a police officer and a cook. He was ordained a priest on June 29, 1951. On May 28, 1977, he received episcopal ordination as Archbishop of Freising and Munich. His motto was “Cooperatores veritatis,” a cooperator of the truth.

John Paul II apparently liked this motto. Shortly after his papal election on October 16, 1978, the Pole offered Ratzinger to work with him in the Vatican. Three and a half years later, he accepted; on February 15, 1982, Ratzinger left the archiepiscopal seat and on March 1 he assumed the position of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Thus, he became the main custodian of the Magisterium of the Church and, next to the Roman Pontiff, the “number two” of the Vatican.

During his adolescence, Ratzinger saw first-hand the evils of totalitarianism in the Nazi regime

Possibly the heaviest burden that Ratzinger had to carry as custodian of the Catholic Magisterium came at the beginning of the 1980s with what became known as “liberation theology”. Around 1970, liberation theology seemed to be the panacea for all social problems; the new doctrine spread like wildfire through Latin America and from there, it reached Europe.

Ratzinger recognized the underlying totalitarian core of this “theology,” which makes the figure of priests classist, Marxist-like combatants. Alongside Pope John Paul II, the cardinal defended the Roman Catholic doctrine and triumphed against the Marxism-tinged teachings. For “progressives” inside and outside the Church, this won him the reputation of a reactionary par excellence.

In his adolescence, Ratzinger was introduced to the National Socialist variant of totalitarianism. At the age of 16 he was drafted into the German anti-aircraft corps as an artillery assistant in Munich. A year later he was set to carry out his compulsory conscription in the SS. One night, he and his comrades were suddenly awakened by an SS officer trying to enlist them, which by late 1944 had lost many troops. The young Joseph Ratzinger refused. Bravely, he told the officer he wanted to be a Catholic priest… which got him off the hook.

At the age of 18, he was drafted to the Wehrmacht. Yet thanks to a sympathetic superior, he was sent to Traunstein, far from the front. At the end of April 1945, however, he defected. His fate down the road as St. Peter´s successor prevented him from being caught and executed. When American officers found him at his parents’ home, they took him prisoner, whereafter he spent several weeks in a prisoner of war camp.

Under the guidance of St. Augustine

John Paul II died after years-long suffering on April 2, 2005. In an exceptional homily, Ratzinger reminded the cardinals that the fight against the culture of death, with its prominent particularities of contraception and abortion, was one of the main fights of the late pope. Ratzinger’s election to the papacy was greeted with reserve by “progressive” Catholics and with good grace by “conservatives.”

Benedict XVI’s first World Youth Day in Cologne and his early trips garnered him the support of young people

To the surprise of some, the German Pope won the hearts of young people at the World Youth Day held in Cologne in 2005, and later during his general audiences in Rome. His first trips to Poland, Germany and Spain also garnered him support. Even his visit to the former Auschwitz concentration camp, extremely onerous for a German Pope, was positive, helping to stabilize the Vatican’s relations with Judaism.

Ratzinger visited Regensburg in 2006, where he had served as a professor of Theology between 1969 and 1977. During a visit to his former University and, in his oft-quoted “Regensburg speech,” he appealed to a world, whose ears pricked up: Christianity is the synthesis of reason and faith. Reason does not stand without faith; and faith without reason is not human, he maintained. This idea, together with his plea for a return to Natural Law, summarizes Ratzinger’s theological convictions.

His guide, from during his time as a student, was St. Augustine, who defines the episcopal ministry with the following words: correct the undisciplined, comfort the faint-hearted, support the weak, refute opponents. The German bishops experienced first-hand that Ratzinger took this seriously. He told them: “From time to time, an African bishop tells to me: ‘When I present social projects in Germany, I immediately find the doors open. But if I go with an evangelization project, I run into reservations. Apparently, many are of the opinion that social projects are high priority, but that matters directly related to God or the Catholic faith are another story and not nearly as pressing.”

A target of anger and betrayal

Along the lines of what was said in the Regensburg speech, Ratzinger said that the inclination towards violence was rooted in Islam and that, on the other hand, the Christian God does not take delight in bloodshed, and that not acting according to reason is contrary to the nature of God, sparking a wave of indignation in the Islamic world, and a backlash of criticism of Ratzinger in the West. On his trip to Turkey, Benedict XVI managed to calm things down. But at the time, the scandals of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and attempts to bring back the priestly Society of Saint Pius X further shook up his pontificate.

Finally, Benedict XVI´s butler was found guilty in October of 2012 of betraying the pope´s trust in leaking papal correspondence. This could very well have been the final straw which pushed Ratzinger to act on his thoughts of resigning from the pontificate. In the Consistory of February 11, 2013, he announced: “I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.” On the 28th of that same month, in Castel Gandolfo, he gave the impression that he was saying goodbye to the world outside the Vatican and that, from then on, he would dedicate himself solely to prayer in a convent located in the Vatican gardens, which was remodeled for him as “Emeritus Roman Pontiff”.

However, after the election of his successor Francisco, he continued to appear in a white cassock and skullcap on various occasions. He also received visitors, with whom he took pictures, and even made several statements. His retirement as Pope Emeritus lasted nine years, until his death on December 31, 2022.


Ingo Langner is a journalist, writer and filmmaker. He has published two books of interviews with Cardinal Walter Brandmüller. Among his documentaries, one dedicated to Benedict XVI (2007) and Das Antlitz Christi (2015), inspired by the Pope’s own trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, stand out. He is currently the editor-in-chief of the culture magazine Cato.

English version by Lucia K. Maher

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