Before he was a pope, before he was a prefect or a cardinal or an archbishop, Joseph Ratzinger was a professor. In those years, Ratzinger would rivet crowded lecture halls in German universities with his theological acumen, his clarity of expression, and his grasp of the faith’s implications for the modern world. The professor aimed not just to inform the mind but also to warm the heart. His biographer, Peter Seewald, recounts Ratzinger’s words to his friend Alfred Läpple: “When you give a lecture, the students should lay down their pencils and simply listen to you. As long as they keep writing it down, you have not really got to them. But when they put down their pencils and look at you while you are speaking, then perhaps you have touched their hearts.”
Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, would, of course, go on to touch millions of hearts in his long and historic career. Quiet and unassuming but studious and determined, he was a theological and spiritual voice that always demanded serious attention, that always demanded that we put our pencils down and listen to him. Before his death on December 31 at the age of 95, one might say that Benedict was a living history of the Roman Catholic Church in the consequential twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He was a singular figure. My friend and fellow Baptist admirer of Benedict, Timothy George, often says that Ratzinger was the greatest theologian to ascend to the papacy since the time of the Reformation. Ratzinger served as a peritus (a theological advisor) at Vatican II, the first church council in almost 100 years. He was the first German pope in 500 years, the oldest pope in almost 300 years, and one of only a handful of popes to abdicate, the first to do so in 600 years. Though he was sometimes viewed as a progressive during the council, Benedict was a prominent voice for a conservative (not to say traditionalist) interpretation of the council’s meaning and significance. He was viewed as an uncompromising hardliner by his opponents and as a champion of orthodoxy by his supporters.
Others will be able to tell the story of Benedict’s eventful life in richer ways than I can. I heartily recommend Seewald’s two-volume biography, from which I have drawn many of these details. But some basic sketch of his life is needed in order to make an accurate appraisal of his legacy.
Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was the youngest of three children born to Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger Sr., a police officer, and Maria Peintner Ratzinger. He was born on Easter Saturday 1927 in the Bavarian village of Marktl. The younger Joseph’s siblings remained his close friends and confidants throughout their lives. His brother Georg, who died in 2020, was himself a priest and an accomplished musician. His sister Maria served as Joseph’s personal assistant until her death in 1991. The Ratzingers found themselves caught up in the throes of the world-shaping events of the 1930s and 1940s, with the adolescent Joseph being conscripted to serve in Hitler’s Youth, though the Ratzingers abhorred the Third Reich. The elder Ratzinger was able to retire from the police force in 1937 at the age of 60 and escape any further involvement with the government.
From a young age, Ratzinger felt a pull toward a religious life. Ordained as a priest in 1951, Ratzinger’s career took him by turns from being a priest and professor, to an archbishop and cardinal, to the prefecture of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the Church’s doctrinal watchdog—to the dean of the college of cardinals and finally to the papacy itself in 2005. His years as a professor and scholar caused him to cross paths with many of the twentieth century’s most influential theologians. Ratzinger was deeply influenced by Henri de Lubac and the other Nouvelle Théologie scholars. He found allies in de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, with whom he founded the conservative Catholic journal Communio in 1973. He held court with Karl Rahner, whom Ratzinger viewed as an important, if progressive, theologian. He found a rival of sorts in Hans Küng, the liberal theologian, media darling, and Ratzinger’s colleague at Tübingen (it was at Tübingen that Ratzinger experienced the shocking riots of the Marxist student movements of 1968, which shaped his subsequent theological trajectory in some important ways). Ratzinger even caught the attention of Protestant scholars such as Karl Barth, who instructed his students, “Read Ratzinger.” Over the course of his career, Ratzinger wrote over sixty books, including the best-selling Introduction to Christianity, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, which Ratzinger considered his greatest scholarly contribution, and the three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, which he published during his papacy but under his birth name.
After spending several years as Archbishop of Munich and Freising (1977-81) and becoming one of the last cardinals appointed by Paul VI, Ratzinger was appointed by John Paul II to serve as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005). It was there that Ratzinger developed his competing legacy: some viewed him as a strict hard-liner and others as a stalwart defender of orthodoxy. But all respected his intellect and theological skill. He was an ardent opponent of Marxism and liberation theology, though he sympathized with its underlying burden to love the poor. He was responsible for disciplining wayward and boundary-pushing priests and for preserving the doctrine of the Church. He was one of the chief figures, along with his friend John Paul II, who helped to shape a more conservative interpretation of the Second Vatican Council during the important last decades of the twentieth century and the turn of the twenty-first.
In 2005, Ratzinger was chosen as John Paul’s successor on the second day of the papal enclave. Benedict’s papacy was often marked by controversy, especially as it was interpreted in the secular Western press. But Ratzinger simply remained consistent with a theological outlook that he had cemented at least by the late 1960s in the wake of the student movements. He opposed Marxism, Western relativism, abortion, gay marriage, and women’s ordination. He defended church dogma, priestly celibacy, and the Latin mass. But a fair assessment of his papacy would have to conclude that it hardly matches the fundamentalist caricature in which it is often painted. He maintained the Catholic commitment to the Church’s uniqueness, but made ecumenical overtures to Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. Though he remained convinced of priestly celibacy, he did provide a special dispensation for Anglican priests to enter the Catholic priesthood, even in a married state. His papacy was marked by the same doctrinal rigor and pastoral warmth to which he aspired as a young professor.
Benedict’s papacy and his earlier career as archbishop and prefect were also carried out under the dark shadow of the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church over the past several decades. An honest assessment of his papacy must account for this as well. As pope, Benedict did enact stricter policies and penalties for priests who committed sex abuse, but he was sometimes accused of being insufficiently strict on the bishops who allegedly covered up the abuse. Benedict himself was implicated in a report written by a German law firm in January 2022, which alleged that he took insufficient action against priests accused of abuse during his years as Archbishop of Munich and Freising. Benedict denied any personal wrongdoing but acknowledged that some cases were mishandled and expressed remorse for any missteps that were made.
In 2013, Benedict shocked the world by resigning, citing his declining health. Theories and conspiracy theories abound as to what was really behind Benedict’s abdication, but for his part, Benedict stated that he wanted to spend his remaining days upholding the church by his prayers. He moved into the Mater Ecclesiae monastery at the Vatican and spent his final years in prayerful obscurity.
For his doctrinal and ethical stands, Benedict won the respect and admiration of many evangelical Protestants. He has, indeed, sometimes jokingly been referred to as a “Protestant pope.” But, of course, he remained firmly committed to Roman Catholic dogma on those seminal controversies that marked the Protestant Reformation: justification, Scripture and tradition, the sacraments, Mariology, and so on. Ratzinger had, after all, chaired the committee that produced the official statement of Catholic dogma, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the 1980s during John Paul II’s papacy. No one can accurately describe him as anything other than a stalwart defender of Roman Catholic teaching. And on all those areas of disagreement, Protestants must continue to register our dissent with Benedict and with the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. Despite some admirable ecumenical efforts in recent decades, it would be a mistake to conclude, as some have, that the Reformation is over. No, the key doctrinal disagreements remain, and they remain important for Christian faith and practice, for Christian assurance, and for pastoral ministry.
And yet, an honest Protestant reader of Benedict’s voluminous corpus will quite obviously find much common ground. On the cardinal doctrines of the faith—the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and so on—Protestants will find little to disagree with in Ratzinger’s works. On many of the social and ethical issues of the day—marriage, life, the Christian heritage of the West, the objectivity of truth, and so on—Protestants will find a loyal ally in Ratzinger. To summarize Benedict’s legacy from a Protestant perspective, I wish to highlight three main areas of appreciation.
First, was Ratzinger’s commitment to the theological interpretation of Scripture. My first exposure to the writings of Ratzinger was his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, which is a careful and reverent exposition of the life of Christ as presented in the fourfold gospel (and a good entry point into his writings). Ratzinger believed that the Church must account for modern methods of biblical criticism, but he believed that the Bible must above all be read as a theological book—as the Word of God for the people of God—with simple faith in the truthfulness of its teaching. His writings are full of rich reflections on the text of Scripture, and Protestants would be foolish to ignore his many biblical insights.
Second, Ratzinger was committed to retrieval for the sake of renewal. As mentioned above, Ratzinger was shaped by the Nouvelle Théologie, which sought a retrieval of Scripture and the church fathers. Catholic theology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had arguably become calcified by the neo-Thomism of the theology manuals. Without dismissing the important role that Thomas Aquinas and Thomistic theology have played in Catholic theology, the Nouvelle Théologie theologians aimed for a fresh reading of the foundational texts of the church (including Thomas himself). Parallel to Ratzinger’s commitment to theological exegesis was his commitment to listen to the wisdom of patristic reflections on the Bible. Theologically, Ratzinger was above all an Augustinian, which is another point of contact for Protestants. But for all his commitment to the Christian past, Ratzinger was not interested in a kind of stale traditionalism. He believed that the Church must address the needs and longings of the contemporary moment. He wrote about marriage, the family, economics, technology, and more (another good entry point to Benedict’s writings would be his three papal encyclicals). For Ratzinger, a recovery of the past aids the Church in speaking more clearly and prophetically to the crises of the present.
Finally, Ratzinger’s writings evince a deep and genuine devotion to Jesus Christ. As with any significant thinker, it is difficult to discern just one “center” of Ratzinger’s thought. He wrote about Scripture, the church fathers, the creed, preaching, eschatology, anthropology, liturgy, the Eucharist, and more. But a good case can be made that devotion to the man Jesus Christ, whom faith discerns as the very Son of God, is close to the heartbeat of his entire theological program. This can be seen not only in Jesus of Nazareth, but in his entire corpus. In early 2022, as Benedict was reflecting on the end of his own life, he wrote these stirring words, which express well his devotion to the risen and returning Christ and which serve as a fitting conclusion to my own reflections:
Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my “Paraclete”. In light of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death. In this regard, I am constantly reminded of what John tells us at the beginning of the Apocalypse: he sees the Son of Man in all his grandeur and falls at his feet as though dead. Yet He, placing his right hand on him, says to him: “Do not be afraid! It is I…” (cf. Rev 1:12-17).