His room in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican is now empty, though its arrangement still suggests him. The footfalls in the garden below the windows of the rooms where he studied and received visitors and slept, which in his last month let in dim light, are no longer heard by him. The long journey, braided together in the last few years by fatigue and hope, is accomplished. The portal has opened and swallowed his soul in its crystalline yet intimate light, leaving behind his body for our mourning, which in its frailty and brokenness speaks of winter and withering, of the grass that dies, while intimating a more, a stupendous abiding that resides in the power and love of God who is the future more than the future.
On New Year’s Eve 2022 Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI passed over into the mystery of the One who laid down his life for the world and our quivering flesh and into the depths of the communion of saints. To the extent to which his own profound meditations on death prognosticated correctly, he verified in the process of his own death that he was never truly alone, that in the moments of darkness, God was always there, and that in the moments of isolation, he was never truly an atom, but loved, remembered, and hoped for by the living and the dead with whom he was connected by an unbreakable bond. Having ruminated and chewed on “the last things” for much of his life, perhaps the peace and the rest might not surprise as Benedict “passed over.”
Yet how could he have anticipated being so love-struck, that the candle would set alight the spaces as it does? As if all this time, deprived of the necessary oxygen to live and hope by our contentment with the welter of our confusions, our constant turning to the shelter of our conventions, our covering of ourselves in the mantle of our sins, and, of course, our willful and desperate embrace of our sinfulness that goes almost all the way down, we had not learned how to love. Finally, we breathe, as if for the first time, and become fire.
Benedict would cast his life as a joyous one, given his sense of the presence of God in prayer and sacrament and his abiding sense of mission and commitment to the tasks in order of scholar-priest, theological expert at Vatican II, bishop, cardinal, head of Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, Pope, and Pope Emeritus. Over a long and very public life, there was pomp and ceremony. Honors were offered, prestige bestowed that Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict, did not shirk, even as he would insist that these were correlative to the office, and not to the person whose main goal was to pour himself out in order to conform as much as was humanly possible to the office.
This is neither ex post facto construction nor alibi: it is the only way to make sense of a simplicity, modesty, and personal warmth that even Benedict’s many detractors would admit. If his was a truly ardent life of loving God, his life was in its own way arduous, though in an entirely different way than that of his beloved predecessor, Pope John Paul II. His person was not as charismatic, his life not as dramatic, and the quantity and quality of his suffering not so obvious. Yet his life was in its own way a life of suffering, in equal parts structural and contingent.
The structural element had to do with the mismatch between the introverted and contemplative bent of Benedict’s character and the very public life that he led. He was a scholar who loved reading and rummaging in the library, who felt most comfortable with family and close friends, and who loved classical music and church architecture. He was a priest who was most himself in prayer and when presiding over the sacraments. His very public life was uncongenial; it was a suffering.
The contingent aspect of his suffering was unlike that of his predecessor, who was admired by all and loved by many, and his successor, who is admired by many and loved by some, at least from the time of his becoming Prefect of the CDF Benedict had come to be reviled as a Vatican apparatchik and representative of a backward-looking form of Catholicism that refuses to make peace with the modern world and align itself with the secular commitments to equality, justice, transparency, and relevancy. Not only that, he was hated by many because of his administrative style and the stances he took on the issues of the day, for example, the status of Liberation Theology, the question of the possibility of truth and moral absolutes, and religious pluralism.
Indeed, over the course of Benedict’s public life, the calumny became so casual and automatic that his critics increasingly came to feel under no obligation to provide evidence for their dismissing of his revanchist form of Catholicism, for his so-called obsession with ecclesial identity, and for a putative belligerence that called forth the unflattering sobriquet of “God’s bulldog.” The French anthropologist-philosopher, René Girard, noting the untoward extent of the hatred directed against Benedict, which seemed to him to be more constructed than provoked, wondered whether secular modernity was experiencing a return of paganism in its exercise of the scapegoat mechanism in that those who fundamentally disagree with each other could find common cause in focusing on Benedict as an object of hate and an occasion for catharsis.
In any event, much of his criticism over the decades has been tinged with Schadenfreude. It is unlikely that Benedict would make a case for himself in precisely this way, and equally unlikely that he would agree to play the role of the innocent victim. Such, he is convinced, is the prerogative of the sinless One who was and who continues to remain among us through the ministration of the Holy Spirit. Christians who are not beset by his failure to support a compromise between Catholicism and secular modernity are likely to be in a better position to see and appreciate how he has borne this suffering with dignity and patience, just as he has borne his physical sufferings and his nearing death in his hidden life in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, where he has resided since the annus mirabilis of 2013 when he relinquished the papacy.
If his life has featured valleys and troughs, nonetheless, it seems to have been a life in which contemplation of the mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ has not only empowered acceptance of suffering but transmuted it into joy. As he has crossed over, it is our shared Christian hope that this joy has become enhanced and permanent. Yet, for those of us who feel called to remember him, we cannot but ask, what is his abiding legacy? Personally, I feel called to remember him from beginning to end as a theologian, that is, one who speaks of the God (theo-logos) who has created, redeemed, and sanctified us. For this particular theologian, scripture is the love story of God and the world in which God exposes Godself to our acceptance and rejection.
For him also, in line with theological mentors such as de Lubac and von Balthasar, theology is not only or even primarily a scientific scholarly activity; it is steeped in the best thinking, the most apt feeling, and the best practices of a tradition of unimaginable richness that commands our trust; it finds its milieu and surround system in prayer that enables us to be open to the God of whom we would speak and has as its aim our release into praise and thanksgiving. Benedict thinks of his theological favorites Augustine and Bonaventure as grasping this with peculiar sensitivity, while at the same time recognizing this conception of theology to be a peculiar gift of Eastern Christianity.
It was this understanding of the nature and function of theology that motivated his move in the early 1960s from Tübingen, Germany’s most famous theological center, to Erlangen, a Catholic seminary that did not remotely enjoy equivalent prestige. Not for him was the form of theology represented by Hans Küng and Jürgen Moltmann, marked by science (Wissenschaft), the presumptive authority of the individual theologian, the tendency to reconstruct Christian faith, and the penchant for critique of the Church or churches.
For Benedict, the form of theology represented a fundamental option. For him, it would be humbly confessional rather than overarching; it would be from the Church and for the Church but also for the world; it would be traditional, though not traditionalist, that is, it would call on the resources of the past to forge a rich, deep, and vital form of Christianity that could meet the challenges of the Church in the modern world and that could call on the great arbiters of “living tradition” such as Möhler and Newman.
As Benedict made theology fundamentally ecclesial, he also made it fundamentally pastoral. Thus, his contributions to theology from his historical studies of Augustine and Bonaventure in the 1950s to his unsurpassable encyclicals and his meditations on the Gospel in his Jesus of Nazareth series are simply different iterations of a pastoral theology. Though Benedict was significantly influenced by the greats of nouvelle théologie, his theology lacks the historical gifts of a de Lubac and the comprehensive systematic and speculative gifts of a von Balthasar. His genius is otherwise.
He is plausibly the greatest pastoral theologian of the Catholic Church over the last century. I have no interest here in what is a recollection in demonstrating the truth of the claim, and dealing with objections and counterfactuals. What I have an interest in doing is highlighting what I think are the three main features of this pastoral theology: theology as teaching, as prophetic witness, and as vision.
A crucial aspect of being the kind of pastoral theologian that Benedict wanted to be was to take on the responsibility of teaching the faithful by laying out the content of faith while paying equal attention to the act of faith as enabled by grace. Benedict’s classic Introduction to Christianity is exemplary in this respect as it presents an interpretation of the Apostle’s Creed for the late twentieth-century world that provides a digest of belief, excavates its Christological center, and indicates the ground of Christian confidence in the Church and Christian hope in the resurrection.
The text continues to be savored by interested Christians in their quiet time and undergraduate students in theology classes all over the world. As Benedict explicates the content of faith, he also underscores for a Christian world, which has been infected by subjectivism, that faith is not mere affect. Rather, faith has an objective content that not only demands intellectual assent, but consent to the implications that faith has for the kind of life one lives and the practices that one engages in, all with the view of being in right relationship with God, ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the world at large.
For Benedict, the very simplicity of the Creed is a major point in its favor and reminds the theologian that theology is not there for the theologian, but for the ordinary Christian who wants help in giving a convincing account of his or her faith. Theological complications with regard to particular doctrines are inevitable and new challenges arise that can be met only by the kind of thinking that the theologian does. Yet, for Benedict, he has learned from Origen as well as Augustine, and been reminded by the de Lubac of Catholicism and The Christian Faith, that the simple faith of the ordinary Christian believer is where theology must begin and end.
With some justification, Introduction to Christianity can be commended as the best example of Benedict’s teaching vocation. Its relative comprehensiveness is a function of the Creed that is the object of interpretation. Nonetheless, Benedict’s teaching vocation is exemplified in everything he wrote.
Most obviously Benedict’s highly developed sense of his teaching responsibility is discharged in his particular accounts of last and first things—more specifically, the hope for eternal life in and beyond our death (Eschatology)—and, correlatively, the grounds supporting Christian conviction that the world is a free creation of God and that, in consequence, if the world is mysterious, it is not a mere matter of chance, but rather the effusion of a wild love that cannot be exhaustively comprehended and signing an intelligibility that, if gratuitously given, is woven into the fabric of the universe and raveled into the et cetera of history.
Such a responsibility is also evinced in Benedict’s meditation on the Gospels in his Jesus of Nazareth series undertaken to allow the figure of Jesus to shine forth in all his divine glory in and through a narrative in which Jesus takes upon himself the mission to reconcile humanity and the world with the gracious and loving Father. Throughout three luminous volumes, Benedict shows the elaborate stitching between the Old and New Testament, thereby ruling out interpretive tendencies that would deliberately sever the relationship between the testaments after the manner of Marcion or suggest, à la Bultmann and others, that Jesus is best understood against the backdrop of broader Hellenistic reflection on savior figures in the ancient world.
Equally important for him is that we maintain now as before the traditional Catholic consensus of the compatibility between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John and, perhaps more specifically after Balthasar, regard the ontological language of the latter as the appropriate translation of the narrative language of the former. Finally, it would be delinquent not to mention Benedict’s voluminous work over the years on the liturgy, perhaps best crystallized in his The Spirit of the Liturgy, which, if decidedly contemporary, also represents a homage to the text of the same name by Romano Guardini. In any event, with due respect to the great liturgical movements of the twentieth century and theories of ritual, Benedict attempts to recover a strong notion of the sacraments as media of grace and, in the case of the Eucharist, the notion of sacrifice that seems in the contemporary period to be set aside in favor of “meal” almost as a matter of course.
The above are but the most sustained and focused acts of teaching. His reflections on the intimate relationship between faith and reason, his meditations on the proper interpretation of Vatican II, his articulation of the Trinity, Christian devotions, his theology of religions, his views on evangelization and inculturation, as well as his views on Church authority and ecumenism are intentionally in the service of the faithful who need guidance on all of these matters.
Though Benedict himself would acknowledge his enormous debts to de Lubac and Balthasar, as mentioned already, his gifts are otherwise. Whereas the gift of both of these theologians is copiousness, erudition, and the laying out of the symphony of voices that makes the Catholic tradition so rich and textured, the gifts of Benedict are economy, clarity, and fundamental decision and are calculated to address the modern believer more directly and incisively. Despite his reputation as a doctrinaire, Benedict’s writing is characterized by persuasion rather than an appeal to authority. It features a marvelous objectivity that is the effect of a radical self-emptying that is required if one is to speak with the “mind of the Church.” Of course, precisely because of its objectivity, its radiant clarity, and its letting be, the form of his theology is through and through Marian, after the manner of de Lubac and Balthasar, but also after the manner of Christian existence intimated in Lumen Gentium.
Throughout his more than sixty years of writing, Benedict showed that prophetic witness and teaching were complementary rather than antithetical; indeed, they are simply two different sides of the imperative to speak boldly (parrhesia) of the faith that has been given and received. While encouraging the encounter with the modern world that Gaudium et Spes mandated, Benedict thought it naïve to assume that secular modernity provided a supply of dispositions, habits, and attitudes so congenial to Catholicism that all that was required was a rubberstamping.
He asked Catholics to consider the possibility that, in its tendency to foreclose transcendence and in its elevation of critical and instrumental reason, secular modernity functioned at best in the mode of armed neutrality vis-à-vis the Church and at worst as its avowed enemy. The vehemence of his condemnation is a function not only of Benedict’s sense of the allure of secular modernity but also his recognition that it has infiltrated and taken deep roots in the Church. Given his own critical analysis of the Church in the modern world, he believed a kind of Augustinian suspicion regarding modernity’s “splendid vices” was in order. Thus, his frequent lamenting regarding the evisceration of doctrine, the dilution of tradition, the questioning of Church authority, the legitimation of innovation, the reduction of the Gospel to a social project, the redundancy of prayer, and the implausibility of the afterlife.
The complementarity of prophetic witness and teaching is perhaps most in evidence in precisely those texts that offer the best examples of Benedict’s teaching: in the case of Introduction to Christianity the object of criticism is the secular age as the age in which it seems no longer to be necessary to argue against Christian belief, but that such belief has become implausible, even ridiculous and quixotic; in Eschatology the target is specific forms of political theology loosely affiliated with the kind of Marxist humanism that de Lubac announced in The Drama of Atheistic Humanism to be a competitor of Christianity because it appealed to the imagination in the way Enlightenment rationalism cannot and is able to mime some of Christianity’s best intuitions about community while erasing God from the picture; and in Jesus of Nazareth, it is the historicism and rationalism of the historical-critical method that is the object of critique, even if Benedict is anxious to insist, in line with Dei Verbum, that, as a tool, historical-critical method can assist the Church in deepening the interpretation of the Gospel.
In all of these cases, and in his encyclicals also, Benedict is suggesting that secular modernity is what Charles Taylor calls the new “social imaginary” that vets, critiques, and corrects all beliefs and practices, not excluding religious beliefs and practices, while essentially not only being intolerant of criticism, but effectively immunizing itself against it. Of course, one comes across volumes of collected essays, for example, Truth and Tolerance and Values in a Time of Upheaval where the critical edge is entirely dominant. Yet, even here, Benedict makes it clear that the critique of secular modernity is restricted to its pathologies and exaggerations. Reason, the commitment to truth and freedom, and the passion for justice, all find a home in Catholicism, indeed, Benedict is convinced, therein they find their foundation.
Despite—or perhaps because of—his prophetic witness, throughout his career, even as Prefect of the CDF and as Pope, Benedict has displayed an unwavering commitment to dialogue. Thus, his engagement with Jürgen Habermas, the leading proponent of the legitimacy of secular modernity. Thus, also his engagement with Catholic critics such as Hans Küng, Johann Baptist Metz, and Walter Kasper. Here it should be noted that in Benedict’s prophetic witness there is none of the vitriol that has come to be associated with the prophetic voice.
If there is occasional sharpness and calling out, Benedict’s critical voice is, for the most part, measured, almost urbane. Similar to Newman, criticism of secular modernity and its influx into the Church is delivered with the intent of fostering dialogue that will bring us all nearer to the truth. For Benedict, the avoidance of violence even in the boldest of Christian speech is at once the fruit of the recognition of Christ’s form of speech and the conviction that our mode of speech should and can participate in the peace that is the triune God.
Deus Caritas Est (2005), Benedict’s first encyclical, is arguably one of the most inspiring encyclicals ever written. It finds its lever in the famous declaration of 1 John 4:6, its focus on the Gospel of John, its horizon in the intuition of the faithful over two millennia who lived and died towards loving God fully disclosed in Christ, and its inspiration in his reading of such beloved theologians as Augustine and Bonaventure and, more proximally, in his reading of Hans Urs von Balthasar. “God is Love” is as much an exclamation as it is a statement, and for that reason more a vision than a doctrine, indeed, a vision of the nuclear core of Christianity that effectively sums up all Benedict attempted to say throughout his long theological career.
To the question “what is Christianity?” Benedict provides an answer of startling brevity: Christianity is the seeing of divine love drenching the world that finds its expressive core in the Incarnation, passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ. It is important for Benedict, as it was for Augustine and Bonaventure, that seeing is correlative to love as an ontological reality or event, and not the other way around, which would yield to the destructive subjectivism of the modern age. This is the stance also taken by Newman and expressed powerfully in the opening pages of the Development of Doctrine.
In all likelihood, Benedict also owes a debt to Balthasar’s reflections on the necessity of seeing in the theological aesthetics that he explores in the Glory of the Lord, and his exposition of the theo-logic of love that completes Balthasar’s winding triptych of theological aesthetics, theordramatics, and theo-logic. Perhaps Benedict might also have found Balthasar’s edifying Love Alone to provide the kind of summary that might serve him well as a pastoral platform. As always, however, Benedict is more than the sum of his influences. His rendering of the core vision is unique to him: it is ecstatic, but not effusive, and delivered with untoward economy and stunning clarity.
From divine love as the objective correlative of Christian vision all the other catholica flow. Divine love is a mystery not only in the sense that it transcends discursive thought and language, but also in the sense of the infinitely fecund source from which flows the Church, its sacraments, its practices that exceed the demands of justice rather than fail to rise to them, and the forms of holiness that the irrigation of love through the Holy Spirit makes possible and actual. For Benedict, the universal call to holiness at Vatican II is not a pious imperative; holiness is, rather, the fitting response to the gift of love. Imitation and participation are non-competitive goods in Christianity. The end of discipleship is not imitation, it is participation in the triune love of God.
This explains Benedict’s enthusiasm for the canonization of saints, his devotion to them, and his understanding of them as being iconic not because they illustrate some generic piousness, but because each is a singularity that radiates in an unrepeatable and unique way the love of God. The answer to the cynical charge that saints like Mother Theresa inhibit the kind of social change that would make a real change in the life of the poor, is to suggest that there is something like the fallacy of misplaced concreteness afoot. Yes, it is a part of the Church’s mission to help large numbers to rise above poverty, but it is also part of the Church’s mission to treat each person as an irreplaceable “I” in God’s eyes and an irreplaceable “thou” for the Christian who is there to help.
The tenderness with which Mother Theresa holds this particular dying person is the fierce love of God that insists that this person is of infinite worth. There can be no doubt for Benedict that John Paul II is a saint near and dear to him and to whom he related in admiration, affection, solidarity, and compassion. Equally, there can be no doubt that all of Benedict’s encyclicals bear the impress of his predecessor’s personalism.
Teaching, prophetic witness, and vision will be Benedict’s abiding legacy. Each was intrinsic to who he was; together they were constitutive. They define him across his entire life, indicating the flavor of the person, what Gerard Manley Hopkins would speak of as “inscape.” He was not John Paul II, whose extraordinary life and passion was the fuel that fed the blaze of Spirit. He was always the shy, retiring priest and the modest theologian anxious to set himself aside in order to think more than he could think, do more than he could do, and love more than he could love.
Vatican gossip will continue to do the rounds and whisper about the disagreements between the Pope Emeritus and Pope Francis. Yet, there can be no mistaking the affection Pope Francis has for his predecessor, his respect for his theological mind, and his admiration for his holiness. And, marvelous to say, Francis also seemed to understand him by presiding at a funeral that, if not without a measure of pomp and ceremony, was fairly basic. As was Francis’ homily also in which he commended his brother in Christ to the loving care of God; no personal stories were appended to distract from the solemnity of asking God to remember Benedict into eternal life.
We who are left, caught betwixt mourning and joy, want to remember also a life poured out for us all and in that pouring out felt love pour in, at first quietly and then finally, in his last years and especially in his last days, and so experienced its thundering, oceanic “Yes.”
May the one who has given his all be given all.
May he who sought the truth be guarded by it.
May he enjoy the only peace that endures, God’s peace that passes understanding.
May he fold his love of us into Christ’s love that wounds us so that we may be made whole.
May he who burned with love burn with a love even more effulgent and rhyme with the infinite motion of the triune God.