Pope Benedict XVI (1927–2022): His Life and Legacy – Leonardo De Chirico

Earlier today, at the age of 95, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) died. His death was not unexpected. A few days ago, his successor, Pope Francis, asked Roman Catholics around the world to pray for Benedict as his life was coming to an end.

Benedict was one of the towering figures in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology. Born in 1927, Benedict’s impressive life includes having been a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and having held various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957–1977).

He was Archbishop of Munich (1977–1981) and Cardinal, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005). Eventually, Benedict became Pope (2005–2013) and then Pope Emeritus, following his resignation in 2013 amid the sexual abuses scandals, opaque financial maneuvers, and appalling intrigues within the Vatican. His Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly depth.

Benedict’s work has had a huge influence on present-day Roman Catholicism.

Spiritual Life

What did Benedict’s spiritual life look like? In the interview he gave to the German journalist Peter Seewald, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, we glimpse Benedict’s personal prayer life. About his daily spiritual disciplines, the Pope said he prayed to God and also invoked a selected group of saints. His special list mirrored his theological program: Augustine, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas. To them he cried for help as well as to the Mother of God.

Benedict’s work has had a huge influence on present-day Roman Catholicism.

In another section, Seewald echoed the common assumption—even in evangelical circles—that Benedict (unlike his predecessor John Paul II) was more Christocentric than Marian. Yet Benedict told the interviewer that he was very close to Our Lady of Fatima (believing her alleged revelations) and deeply involved in Mary’s hyper-veneration. In a 2012 homily he said: “God is near and Mary is very near.”

View of Evangelicals and Scripture

What did he think of evangelicals? In his interview with Seewald, Benedict distinguished in Protestantism the “classic confessions” and the “new Protestantism.” In Benedict’s perception, evangelicals were modifying the religious landscape of the developing world. Benedict went on to say that this evangelical movement is not the church, nor can it be, on the account that it lacks some defining features of the church (i.e., the rightly transmitted sacrament of Order, the episcopal hierarchy under the papacy, the properly administered eucharist).

According to Benedict, the evangelical understanding of the church is a “new concept” whereby the church is only a community summoned by the Word. Benedict looked at evangelicals with a mixture of spiritual curiosity and Roman perplexity.

Benedict did have a high view of Scripture, and his last books were focused on the life of Jesus according to the historical accounts of the Gospels. Yet we must understand his true position. In his 2010 Exhortation Verbum Domini, he claimed that the Word of God “precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture; nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word” (17). According to him, the Bible is the Word of God in the sense that it contains the Word.

For Benedict, the Bible was the Word of God in some sense, but the Word of God was bigger than the Bible.

What is at stake is not the divine inspiration of the Bible (which Verbum Domini firmly affirms) but the sufficiency of the Bible and its finality. For Benedict, the Bible was the Word of God in some sense, but the Word of God was bigger than the Bible. According to his thought, the Bible must be supplemented by the Catechism of the Catholic Church which is “a significant expression of the living Tradition of the Church and a sure norm for teaching the faith.”

‘Orthodox’ Pope?

Benedict is frequently called an “orthodox” Pope, even garnering evangelical appreciation. Benedict’s was a Roman Catholic orthodoxy for sure.

In his theology the Bible was always read in the light of the authoritative magisterium. Nicene Christology was always intertwined with “objective” Roman Catholic ecclesiology. The Apostles’ Creed was confessed, as well as the canons of Trent and Vatican I. The cross of Christ was always related to the representation of the sacrifice of the eucharist. The Spirit was always linked to the hierarchical structure of the church. Ecumenism was always thought of in terms of other Christians being defective and the Church of Rome being the catholic church. The mission of the church was always pursued while having in mind the catholic project to embrace the whole world. The ecclesiastical outlook of the church was inherently combined with its political role. In all things, Benedict was a champion of Roman Catholic orthodoxy.

Since his days as theological expert at Vatican II, Benedict tried to renew the Roman Catholic Church “from within” with no intention to change any of the unbiblical—even anti-biblical—dogmatic commitments of his church (e.g., Trent, Marian dogmas, papal infallibility). He also made no effort to change the Roman church’s sacramental and hierarchical structure.

Benedict’s “catholicity” was always meant to be in the service of a Roman-centric system. He fought against secularizing trends in the world and liberal tendencies in his own church. His 2013 resignation was interpreted by many as a defeat. Certainly, it was a personal surrender. Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, is far more “catholic” and much less “Roman” than Benedict, and is in many ways his opposite. Benedict wanted the Roman doctrines and structures always to the fore; Francis is pushing to have Rome become more “catholic” (i.e., inclusive), overlooking its Roman system.

Does this mean Rome has already rejected Benedict? It’s too early to say. Certainly, Roman Catholicism today is going through an identity crisis. While the system will always the same, Francis, unlike Benedict, is working hard to increase the emphasis on the “catholic” rather than on the “Roman.” The options (i.e., Benedict or Francis) create inner tensions within a system that is not open to biblical reformation.

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