Today is the fifth anniversary of Joseph Ratzinger’s election as successor to St. Peter. It was a happy day in 2005 and it’s sad that this year’s celebration comes amid much controversy. But our press, with all its sophistication and technology, is not really equipped to detect holiness or even simple goodness. And wouldn’t much know what to do with them. So let’s put aside for one day the stories of abuse – and the stories about the fairness or unfairness of the stories – to look at some of the more lasting things that this intelligent and gentle soul has done, before and after becoming Benedict XVI.
There are quite a few of them. He seems to have been destined to become a world-class theologian. But not in the merely cerebral sense. He was born in 1927, entre les deux guerres, “between the two wars” that radically shook Europe’s confidence in its own culture. Though he admires Thomas Aquinas for reconciling faith and reason, he did not adopt the then popular neo-scholasticism (as a contemporary from his native Bavaria put it in the local dialect, “scholasticism wasn’t his beer”). Ratzinger latched on to an Augustinianism that he saw as better suited to our moment: “ultimately it is not enough for a man that God is supposed to have said this or that to us, or that we can imagine this or that about him. Only if he had done something and is something for us, then what we need has come about upon which we can base our life.”
This God who moves first to meet us lay behind his – and Karol Wojtyla’s – initial enthusiasm for Vatican II. But He also came in a specific historical form. When reforms started to turn into revolutions, Ratzinger’s was one of the most brilliant exponents of the truth that the authentically new is always in living continuity with the tradition. Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, and John Paul II made him prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) only four years later.
Cardinal Ratzinger was often described as “God’s Rottweiler” or der Panzercardinal. The media picked up these slurs from dissident Catholics. Though he was responsible for doctrinal orthodoxy at CDF, there has perhaps never been an occupant of the post less of a Grand Inquisitor.
When John Allen did his critical book on Ratzinger (which he later regretted), he discovered that Ratzinger’s students, even those who deeply disagreed with his views, described him as the best prepared, most accessible, and well intentioned of professors. That has been a constant character trait. Even when lines had to be drawn at the CDF on Liberation Theology or other innovations, he never entirely closed off dialogue (after his election, he invited Hans Küng to Rome, who returned the kindness with multiple criticisms in the press). Indeed, he’s opened real dialogue with leading European secularist thinkers like Jürgen Habermas. The ex-Panzer Cardinal had the American press eating out of his hand during his 2008 visit because of his obvious sincerity and gentleness. No one was more surprised than the press itself – though it has a short memory.
He continued an enormous intellectual output in the midst of all this other activity. If you want a good sense of the man and his thought, pick up Salt of the Earth or God and the World, the two books of interviews he did with the German journalist Peter Seewald – which brought Seewald himself back to Catholicism. They’re easy to read and very rich. On every page, you encounter an active, searching mind, firm in faith, but aware that faithfulness means a constant, renewed determination to face the challenges of life and to seek deeper understanding through them.
Here’s a passage taken almost at random:
If we become steel hard, impenetrable, that would mean a loss of humanity and sensibility in dealing with other people. [The Roman philosopher] Seneca the stoic said: Sympathy is abhorrent. If, on the other hand, we look at Christ, he is all sympathy, and that makes him precious to us. Being sympathetic, being vulnerable, is part of being a Christian. One must learn to accept injuries, to live with wounds, and in the end to find therein a deeper healing.
Of course, this is not to be read in the sappy modern way of thinking that sympathy abolishes distinctions and truth. Still less does it mean accepting individualistic forms of do-it-yourself spirituality. Ratzinger identified the loss of the communal dimension – which is perhaps part of the general loss of faith in institutions since the two World Wars – as a distortion of Christianity. We don’t just sit down with the Bible and draw a teaching out of it. That just makes Christianity another philosophy. Religion, he notes, has not disappeared, even in Europe: “religions are springing up all over the place.”
The problem is that these are ultimately systems of self-help that we manufacture with no real roots. They could have existed without the sacred history of Israel and the Church – which is to say if God had never bothered about us. This is the deep source of the “dictatorship of relativism” he spoke of just before his election. Of the central role of the Church, he has said: “If her faith collapsed and she were to declare herself, so to speak, spiritually bankrupt and say, We have been mistaken, then a fracture would run through the whole of history and of mankind, the implications of which would be quite unimaginable.”
Pressed by Seewald on his own vocation, which Ratzinger once called “a real meeting” with God, he dismissed any mystical event, but explained, “Perhaps one might describe it as something that gets right past your guard and burns its way into your inmost being.”
Thank God it did, and thank God for Joseph Ratzinger, our Holy Father now these five hard years. Ad multos annos.