The Legacy of Benedict XVI

When it comes to Benedict XVI we find ourselves in the strange and awkward position that we neither know how to end nor how to start dealing with his legacy. We don’t know how to end insofar as we continue to receive his person and work. Like Vatican II, of whose reception he spoke so often, we live in the midst of discernment and argument concerning who and what he has bequeathed to us. Yet, we are also not quite sure how or where to begin dealing with a life that was constituted at once by unshakeable Christian conviction and deep investigation into truth, characterized by prayer, focused on the Eucharist that equally founded the Church and the Christian, moved by contemplation of the Word (made man) that is the purpose and meaning of all the words of Scripture as well as the stated purpose of his own life, and supported by the still small voice of the Holy Spirit that grounded his faith, his hope, and love, which gave him the courage to speak out from the Church to the world that needs redemption and to a sinful Church that requires unceasing vigilance.

With his work where to start? Where to determine the indelible pattern, given the manifold contributions he made to Catholicism in and through his deep historical studies (e.g. Augustine and Bonaventure); major theological inquiries in the areas of liturgy, eschatology, Church, ecumenism, and the theology of religions; his catechetical works (especially Introduction to Christianity) in which he clarifies the faith that has been handed on to us both in terms of the beliefs that make up its content and the confession that binds us to these beliefs as ineluctable and inscribes them in our lives and in our deaths, in our intellects and in our flesh; and—working backward—his interventions as Pope, Cardinal, and Bishop in the public space to speak to the challenges faced by Christianity and the Catholic Church in a secular world that has essentially bled off transcendence, assumed that reason and faith are binaries, questioned all authority, laughed off Christianity’s claims to exclusive truth, denied all hierarchy, spoken satirically or juridically (or both) of Church malfeasance, lodged complaints not only about the Church’s collusion with power and power structures, but determined that the sponsoring of violence is intrinsic to its essence (e.g. the argument of the Egyptologist, Jan Assmann); and when not culpable, then useless: entirely incapable of adding anything to the human search for justice and human rights or indemnifying or even contributing meaningfully to the questioning that marks natural science and the historical and human sciences.

Obviously, one cannot speak definitively to a legacy that is as multivalent as it is excessive. Furthermore, it is likely that a real beginning is beyond us. Yet maybe we can begin to begin. With that more modest aim in mind—and suggesting more as a heuristic than a constitutive interpretive framework—perhaps we can simplify the task by looking at Benedict XVI in the mode of a Christian public intellectual who addresses himself to the secular age and who at once engages its critical stances towards Christianity determined to be authoritarian, fundamentally irrational, fanatical, and prone to violence and useless when it comes to contributing to unfettered inquiry, ethics, and modern culture. We could, and perhaps should, pursue this line of investigation in a straightforward way and critically assess what is living and dead in these episodic but recurring interventions on a range of matters in which Benedict either resists particular negative constructions of Christianity or criticizes fundamental aspects of the secular world either because of a stance it takes on fundamental issues that bear upon the understanding of society, culture, and value or its refusal to entertain Christian views that have a more particularist foundation. I propose to do something slightly different, specifically, not to talk at length to recognizable interventions by Benedict, but rather to the overall horizon and ethos of these interventions that identify him as a singularity as much—if not more—than these public interventions themselves.

I would like to suggest that we can begin to begin receiving Benedict XVI in his mode of critic of secular modernity, as well as defender of the faith and the Church under four aspects or auspices, those of voice, vision, witness, and gratitude. By voice I mean the ways in which across his various roles as theological expert, Bishop, Cardinal, and Pope anything that is idiosyncratic in terms of his person and particular and insistently partisan in terms of position is left behind in light of the commitment to the objectivity of truth that can speak for itself. By vision I mean both the telescoping of who God is as read from the immense love affair of God with his creation as this is focused in the drama of salvation and the figure of Christ. By witness I mean the engaged stance taken by Benedict in general and, more specifically, the stance taken on the basis of the fundamental conviction that if it is true that Christian life without beliefs is blind, it is equally true that Christian belief without commitment, risk, courage, and perseverance is empty. By gratitude I mean not only Benedict’s astonished sense of the gift of the Christian tradition and the mystery of Christ who is both its center and horizon, but his recommendation to the secular world that it pay heed to this Christian tradition as an inheritance that accounts for what is best and most substantive in secular thinking on justice, culture, and human dignity. I will speak to these four aspects in turn, and conclude by making some general remarks about their interpenetration.


His voice: not, as it has been so baselessly claimed, the bark of God’s bulldog; not the shout of the screamer with a bullhorn; not the voice of the carnival snake-oil man; but a calm, “kind” voice steadfastly speaking the truth, witnessed to by a two millennia-old tradition of reflection (conversation and argument) that renders the reality (Greek, ousia) or authority (Greek, exousia) of the Christ, who unforgettably told the whole truth in life, action, and in words, as he exposed himself to the scorn and violence of those who refused to listen and those who were provoked by his innocence and blamelessness. The voice of Benedict XVI is unmistakable in that it is emptied of its individual substance, desire, and insistence. That this voice or its modulation has to do with Benedict’s understanding of the office of Peter is undeniable: to be pope is to enter a role that takes on the Christological role of absolute service and being for others.

Yet, it has also got to do with his understanding of what it is to be Cardinal, to hold the office of Prefect in the CDF, to be Bishop with the responsibility of teacher, and to be Priest with the responsibility of sharing the Eucharist mystery. Ultimately, and constitutively, it has to do with Benedict’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian as a disciple of Christ, called to be a light to the world. To be a light is to be tasked not only to speak boldly (parrhesia, 2 Cor 3:12) of the hope that has been given to the Christian, but also when necessary to critique with the same calm confidence as the ruling idols of the moment that press on Christianity not only by relativizing or denying its truths, but by questioning its rights to proclaim them. This prohibition arises from the tyranny of relativism that marks the secular world, the tyranny that would bar such claims on grounds of special pleading, groupthink, exclusion, and thus implicit violence simply awaiting a spark to make it explicit.

A fundamental element in speaking the truth is to expose the systemic inhospitality of the modern secular state towards Christianity that can at inopportune moments verge into open hostility. This is not to say that the secular world is always wrong in its criticisms of the behavior of the Church that has at times been both reprehensible and scandalous (e.g. the sex abuse crisis) and that the secular world has not been justified in pointing to the way in which the Church—similar to most worldly institutions—is too often guided by the instinct of self-preservation and self-reproduction. For Benedict, as for John Paul II, the world can provide moments for Christian self-inspection and ample opportunities for repentance. Still, overall, for Benedict, the “neutrality” of the modern secular world is as a matter of fundamental principle “armed”: it constructs the Catholic Church as irredeemably authoritarian both in its basic structure and in its public performance towards the world; as substituting an irrational faith for reason, which if objectionable in itself becomes more objectionable as it serves to sponsor violence. Further, it constructs the Church as recommending ways of thinking that straightjacket free inquiry (thereby making it incomprehensible how the university came into being under the tutelage of Catholicism) and engender unfree forms of living contrary to genuine human flourishing.

For Benedict, to respond critically to secular modernity is first to avoid being provoked by it; it is to exercise discernment and discriminate between what is hale and harmful in it; what can be sanctioned by reason understood against the backdrop of its full philosophical amplitude and what in it agrees with the Wisdom (reason as both substantive and holistic) that Christianity attempts both to honor and perpetuate. Demonization of secular modernity is reaction-formation, thus hostage to what it would deny as well as betraying a lack of confidence in the ultimate persuasiveness of truth it would proclaim. Benedict understands that the dominant narrative of secular modernity, to the effect that everything valuable concerning the ratification and protection of human rights depends upon reason’s critique of and separation from Christianity, is entirely self-serving, and deliberately ignores the insights bequeathed to it by the Christian tradition.

The omission perpetrated by secular modernity should be named. Nonetheless, dialogue should not—nor cannot—be broken off, for Christian faith is necessarily an encounter with a world yet to undergo transformation. As such, it needs to be listened to, even if not all of it can be taken on board—thus, Benedict’s capacity to speak to such secular eminences as Habermas and Rawls, as illustrated in an essay from his pontificate such as “Science, Technology, and Faith.” If, as he believes, both are tempted towards a procedural rationality in which the end is consensus, it is remarkable, he suggests, that in the end both qualify their positions: on the one hand, Rawls concedes that consensus has to yield to more substantive truths that may or may not be confirmed by the majority, and Habermas finally realizes that his discourse ethic needs to be leavened by a “sensibility to truth.”

The voice of the pope, the voice of the Christian is made ripe and full by listening: listening to the truth that has been spoken by the tradition, the good that has been lived; listening to the words of Scripture that speak the Word who is truth and life, but also consummately the way. Perhaps Benedict provides a synecdoche of listening when he recalls the pericope in 1 Kings: 3:5. There Yahweh asks Solomon who is about to ascend to the throne what he wants as a gift. Eschewing worldly goods and gratifications Solomon requests a “listening heart.” It is this gift that will enable him for “God speech” (Benedict’s notion of conscience) in and through the bustle of contingency and obligation and despite the noise of the world, and in doing so to unveil and show the way. It would be tempting to think in Benedict’s words and writing that the reproof of bluster and violence in speech as fundamentally unchristian represents the unilateral sanction of “civility.”

While given his philosophical temper, his commitment to reason, and the historical memory of fascism in his own country, Benedict has an elective affinity to tempered speech, he is not proposing civility as the answer or the antidote. He is reluctant to do so because he is aware that the “ask” of civility in the secular world often involves more than the request that certain protocols be obeyed in public speech, but effectively proscribes certain views as rationally baseless, as tribal, as atavistic. The calm that attends the speaking of truth for whose profession, but not whose outcome you are responsible, the recognition of the humanity of those whom you address who are vehement—even ferocious—in their disagreement with you, guarantees that something far more substantive than public “good form” is in play. The manner of speech is not an envelope for the content. As in the case of Socrates and the classical philosophical tradition (think: Aquinas), it is its indelible form. And with respect to voice—from which the I and its insistence has been removed—as with respect to any number of other facets of the dialogue between faith and reason in the West, the voice of Socrates is an analogy—perhaps a pale one—of the voice of the true shepherd brimful of love and forgiveness and hope for those who refuse the truth and ridicule those who speak it. The voice of Benedict is immediately recognizable because of its emptying, its exinanition, its absolute humility.


Even more than Introduction to Christianity, Benedict’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est represents both node and summary of what he understands to be the essence of Christianity. This essence is in the first instance a vision rather than a theory inscribed in a set of doctrines or a set of religious practices and precepts. The vision is focused on who God is as God has expressed Godself in creation, but above all in the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. This vision is not only prime with respect to all other facets of Christianity. This vision is in a quite literal sense an apocalypse (apocalypsis) that provides meaning and direction to our lives by focusing on God as the giver of all gifts, and, especially of himself. It is within the brackets of God’s promises and coming through on those promises across a series of incalculable gifts that history happens. Of course, the title of Benedict’s most famous encyclical is taken from 1 John 4:8.

Given the contemporary production of Jesus of Nazareth (3 vols.), it does not seem an exaggeration to claim that this encyclical represents a crystallizing point to Benedict’s conviction that the Fourth Gospel represents the inflection (because reflection) point of the Gospels and the answer to the haunting question of Mark 8, “Who do you say that I am?” A primary purpose of the Church is to remind believers of this vision that has animated the Catholic tradition and that needs to be inculcated in a contemporary Catholic Church that even when its members are open to belief and precept they remain without conviction and direction. Without this vision as a source of meaning and truth, and perhaps above all of galvanizing energy, it is difficult to navigate the challenges of faith in a world jam-packed with questions and even more jam-packed with non-Christian answers. The first task of evangelization is to repair or inculcate vision, which if it is the fruit of Scripture and tradition, also makes sense of both.

Benedict’s vision is Johannine in a second, and more dramatic, sense in that it takes full account of the forces that oppose this vision and the thinking and the living that flow from it. The Gospel of John presents the fundamental diagnosis: it names the opposing force as “world” and implies thereby all that is in thrall to comfort, prestige, ethnic superiority, habit, anger, resentment, and revenge, as well as the thousand peccadillos that make the world go round and round and numb the prospects for transformation. Important also for Benedict is the Book of Revelation—a book that Benedict refuses to disown, despite its numerous misappropriations and misuses—and especially its concentrated focus on the forces of the world. Of course, this book is the revelation of the eternal meaning of Golgotha. The Lamb who is slain before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8) is Christ in the hidden glory of the Cross. Precisely as such he is rejected and resisted. Whereas the modes of resistance picked out in John’s Gospel are passive and diffuse—darkness automatically rejects the light—the modes of resistance picked out in the book of Revelation are active and suppose the event of Christ as embodying a fundamental challenge to the world that is polarizing and escalates resistance. If the book of Revelation is the book of the martyrs or the book of the “saints,” it is also the book of the lie and the simulacrum. For Benedict, the Book of Revelation is a book that reads history, discerns its patterns, judges its meaning, and adjudicates its value.

To read history faithfully, however, is to see it as an agon in which the forces that resist God and the good are catalyzed in and by their opposition to the truth. If the result is persecution and oppression then and now, the result is also deceit, substituting a more palatable and appealing Christ for the one that hung on the cross to expiate our sins. The counterfeit or simulacrum on offer is that of Christ who will make us feel exalted and justified just as we are and who will waive our need to forgive as we are forgiven. In short, this Christ is one who shares enough attributes with the Christ confessed by Christians over millennia for us to feel that we are in contact with the real thing, though by the same token possessed of enough dissimilar features to convince ourselves that he has been brought up to date. In the Book of Revelation, this figure is the figure of the Anti-Christ. For Benedict, as for Newman in the nineteenth century, this figure can be an actual person, a violent political regime, and a presiding ethos that sucks the life from historical Christianity. The recently canonized saint and the recently deceased pope emeritus both sense that the modern secular ethos fits the bill.

History is a drama, both the drama of our suffering (Christians suffer over the world) and the drama of our choosing between the real Christ and a spurious Christ who is nothing more than an idol. If the drama of choosing is implicit for Benedict in the Book of Revelation, it is explicit in the great temptation scenes in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 in which Christ—and thereby the Church he founded—is asked quite literally to make the devil’s bargain: the price of universal rule is allegiance to a power in love with power. For Benedict, the three temptation scenes in Luke and Matthew are requests for acts of showmanship contributing to success that distort both human beings and God. With regard to the first temptation, to turn stones into bread is not to respond to the poor as Christ responds to them as bearers of inalienable human dignity, but to have decided in contempt that for them their only value is bodily satisfaction. With regard to the second, to consent to expanding the kingdom at the cost of yielding to the prerogatives of naked power is to betray the absoluteness of God and the gift of our indelible relationship with him. If the challenge in the second temptation is power as spectacle (Third Reich and Communism; the great scene in Lord of the Rings of Saruman addressing the orcs), the third temptation has to do with miracle as the suspension of the laws of nature or the apparent suspension of the laws of nature. “Apparent” is the key. As with spectacle, the power of miracle is that it holds hostage human imagination—thus, the rebuttal of this function of miracle and thus its refiguration throughout Luke and Matthew not as contraventions of the laws of nature, but rather signs of God’s compassion and mercy for creatures whom he has loved into existence.


For Benedict, the appropriate response to the apocalyptic figuration of modernity as crisis—indeed as a bundle of crises, for example, epistemic (truth issue), anthropological (whether or not selves have intrinsic dignity and are essentially relational), ethical (whether ethics is contextual or objective), politics (whether a purely immanentist politics is valid), and metaphysical (whether there is a ground or meaning or not)—is witness. Though they are textually and perhaps even intrinsically related, there are essentially two forms of witnessing in the biblical and Christian tradition, that is, suffering for one’s faith even unto death (martyr) and witness in terms of a perception and embrace of a mission to speak God’s judgment on society and on the Church in a condition of crisis (prophet). Obviously, even if there has been a significant measure of suffering, isolation, and ridicule in Benedict’s life, the mode of witness enacted in his life and writings is more prophetic than martyriological in the strict sense.

As with the biblical prophets, the judgment is directed both outward towards society and inward towards the Church in that there is a porous boundary between outward and inward insofar as that which enjoys political, social, and cultural prestige oftentimes is taken up uncritically by religious believers to the detriment of their faith and its hallowed traditions. Benedict’s theology as a whole is surcharged by the prophetic response “here I am.” He will stand for the prospects of truth and the validity of reason, for the intrinsic dignity of human beings, for the objectivity of ethics, and for God precisely as the ground of meaning and truth. He will make a stand equally against modernity’s elevation of instrumental and critical reason and its diminishing of philosophical reason, against the view that human beings are conditionally valuable depending upon whether they exist in or out of the womb, whether they are physically or cognitively impaired, whether they demand huge amounts of medical resources; against contextualist determinism; against relativistic and casuistical species of ethics; against an immanentist politics whether authoritarian or democratic; and against what he understands to be the pervasive and unacknowledged nihilism of modernity in which the divine is no longer the rivet.

All of these are important, but perhaps it is better to follow Goethe’s injunction of “dare to be finite” in the limited time (or space) that I have. So here I will speak to simply one of these crises with respect to which Benedict takes a stand, that is, the epistemological crisis that manifests itself as the “pathology of reason.” No less in talks he gave as Pope, for example the Regensburg Address and “Science, Technology, and Faith,” throughout his entire career Benedict argued against the reduction of reason in the modern world to instrumental reason (see: his essay on Fides et Ratio). Instrumental reason is reason that has cut its cloth to the measure of problem-solving, having sidelined or dismissed with prejudice almost all the questions that animated classical philosophy, whether the nature of man, cosmos, God, value, happiness, etc. For him, reason realizes itself fully as a wisdom discourse, that is, a discourse comprehensive in its aim, deeper in what it discloses about reality than instrumental reason that shines a sharp light on a narrow slice of reality, and that does not admit of verification or falsification. For almost all of its history, the wisdom discourse of the West has been philosophy, and it is precisely because of its wisdom orientation and inflection that Christianity has been able in good conscience to fruitfully negotiate with it over the centuries.

Of course, Benedict is fully aware that what is at dispute in modernity is less the fact of this encounter than its validity. The validity of this encounter has in the modern world come to be questioned both from the side of philosophy (Benedict’s essay on Fides et Ratio) and from the side of Christianity (Regensburg Address). It has been attacked from the side of philosophy on the grounds (a) that philosophy is an autonomous discipline that has only in modernity succeeded in throwing off its shackles from the Church that has consistently proven itself to be uninterested in free inquiry; and (b) that philosophy has no validity as a comprehensive discourse: it is either a problem-solving discourse of a particular type (analytical) or it represents a particular stance on the world (postmodern). It has been attacked from the side of Christianity on the grounds that the historical link between Christianity and philosophy has been ruinous to the integrity of Christianity that undergoes the contamination of “Hellenization” in and through the encounter. Hellenization denotes that Christian discourse, which is biblical discourse, is essentially hijacked by being made the servant of an alien discourse that is more propositional and impersonal.

With regard to the first objection (from the side of philosophy), Benedict is perfectly aware that a fact of history, that is the historically close ties between philosophy and Christianity, does not logically imply its justification. As is obvious from his essay “Science, Technology, and Faith,” Benedict sees philosophy as an independent discipline. Nonetheless, he wants to argue that there was something marvelously right—maybe even providential—about the close historical relations between philosophy and Christianity and philosophy and theology more specifically, given that each presents a comprehensive grasp of reality and its foundation. He is convinced that something like the law of double attraction applies. Even if philosophy and Christianity (also theology) are different in kind, nonetheless, philosophy can be seen to find in Christianity a kind of confirmation of its schematizations. Correlatively, in philosophy Christianity finds a wisdom discourse that would enable it at once to understand more clearly the revelation that it has been given and translate it (apo-logia) more effectively in a world that is plural in terms of culture, language, history, assumption, and levels of openness to listen to and appreciate what at first blush might be perceived to be alien to it. The site of the crossing, the chiasmus between philosophy and Christianity, is Christ who as Logos is word, but also intelligibility and truth.

With regard to the second objection (from the side of Christianity), which would separate Christian text and Christian faith from philosophy and keep them free from contamination, Benedict replies that the attempt to keep the biblical text free from the infection of philosophy itself exposes the biblical text to either a kind of hapless fundamentalism that, on the one hand, avoids rather than deals with the challenges of modernity (that is, if it is not a product of it) and, on the other, exposes the biblical text to the historical sciences in which its meaning is reduced either to historical facts or the historical-cultural situation of its production or transmission. With regard to Christian faith and its proposed purity, in the Regensburg Address, as well as any number of other places, Benedict argues that there is a pathology of faith correlative to the pathology of reason. Newman also argues that in addition to fideism’s indissoluble contract with fanaticism, its embrace of a God of sheer will (thus unaccountability) rather than Logos is ground zero for religious violence and its justification.


To embrace tradition—the handing on (traditio) of the Church to the individual and the community of what it has not earned—is to suggest that the fundamental disposition of reception is gratitude. For Benedict as Pope, Cardinal, Bishop, Priest, and Christian this extends to the entire Catholica—beliefs, precepts, practices, and forms of the Church’s life of a historical reality, as well as its wide array of theological voices, its saints and its prophets, as well, of course, as scripture and its symphony of voices unified by the Word and the glosses in writing, in prayer and song, and in life that it spurred with its fullness and provoked to sacrifice. Then there is the liturgy, which wears gratitude and memory in each of its gestures and words, and, in the Eucharist, memorializes the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ in whom God—who ever remembers us and counts us for more than we are worth—reconciles the world to himself.

It hardly needs saying that the gratitude enjoined on the Church and individual Christian is determinate in the sense that it is shaped by its object. Yet, when we consider the numerous interventions of Benedict into the public arena as pope, Benedict has noted a monumental shift, that is, theoretically and practically the new hegemony is that of self-rule (auto-nomos) that refuses to yield to any other, even the “totally Other.” In this brave new world of autochthony, humility is vice rather than virtue, what enslaves rather than what sets you free. For Benedict, the freedom that would be gained by autonomy is forever a chimera: we cannot completely fashion ourselves. Moreover, we have proven time and again that we cannot bear the load of our own self-creation. Just as importantly, for Benedict, this form of freedom is too low rather than too high, riddled by anxiety that cannot be masked by stipulation, beset by accident and self-loathing. Recognition of our limits and the gracious founder of these limits is what sets us free to love, cherish, mourn, and hope, thereby giving us a form of freedom that is rich and determinate. Above all, it sets us free not merely from but for. Freedom for is concretized in service to others and to the world.

These, of course, are Augustinian sentiments and judgments. Recognizing such would not embarrass Benedict who loves Augustine and regards him and his work as a gift to be received—though, of course, Augustine’s work is a cornucopia of gifts: the gift of understanding that life is confession, the gift of understanding our createdness and creaturehood, the gift of exegesis, the gift of understanding that prayer is a call to God who has already called us, the gift of both understanding the Trinity and being taken up by it, the gift of understanding the Church’s relation to an ambiguous social world, and the gift of comprehending at once the peccable as well as impeccable nature of the Church as corpus permixtum.

There are other theologians who are lauded and serve as theological models both in terms of substance and style, for example, Origen, Bonaventure, Guardini, de Lubac, and Balthasar. The general point here that Benedict strikes as Pope and as Christian is the virtue of humility that runs at the tangent to the modern world. Benedict sees this as clearly as T. S. Eliot. He privileges these other, these previous voices. What T. S. Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton”—the second of the Four Quartets—can be slotted in as if it were Benedict’s own avowal or confession:

And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found again and again.

For Benedict, it is gratitude that determines for a Christian the excess of joy over lamentation, the priority of celebration over the declamation of what we have lost in terms of place, prestige, and audience for what is true, good, beautiful, and wondrous. In gratitude is the inbuilt consolation of the memory of the Word who makes true the off-kilter world and makes bearable its ridicule and comic its machinations and deceptions.


The legacy of Benedict is the gift of his life and work with respect to which we are struggling to appropriate adequately, that is, to remember in a way that does justice to its eloquent and charitable firmness, the insights provided regarding the nature of faith, and especially of its understanding of the Church and its encounter with the modern world. With respect to the last of these, his words are as bracing as they are illuminating, and we continue to discern, discriminate, and sift. Yet, what he has bequeathed to us are insights and telegraphic hints rather than fully complete thoughts, diagnoses, and suggested intellectual and moral therapies. Thus, he has given us work to do, given our thinking a future while providing signposts. We would-be Christian thinkers are invited to pull hard on our oars. Thereby we come to honor Benedict our benefactor in the only way that he would approve, that is, by producing a supplement to the treasure of the Christian tradition, just as he was a supplement.

Acknowledging all of this, here I wanted to do something different, that is, present a horizon for his interventions in the public square as well as his retrieval of the Christian tradition that could serve as prologue or epilogue to the inventory of his manifest contributions and the tasks he set. My aim has been provide a set of categories that would do justice to him and his work as a singularity, as itself unforgettable—and not simply memorable—as the thinkers that prompt him to think and to pray. These categories were four: voice, vision, witness, and gratitude.

Looked at in pairs and then the pairs together, these categories suggest an unmistakable Gestalt. Voice and gratitude form a pair insofar as first, the “emptied” voice of Benedict presents an opening for the gracious receiving of an excessively rich tradition that accesses the excessively rich reality of a God who graciously loved us into being and who is with us to the end. Second, gratitude finds a privileged place not only in Benedict’s explicit affirmation of the entire Catholic tradition, but in his voice which is his own precisely as not his own, a voice emptied of its insistence such that we can hear the echoes of numerous other voices, speaking, praying, worshiping, suffering, healing, loving, and hoping. By the same token vision and witness are two sides of the same coin: the Christian vision of God as love opens up a dramatic narrative space in which one stands or yields, is bold or cowers, is faithful or unfaithful, is loving or unloving, is hopeful or has surrendered to despair and meaninglessness. Correlatively, witness supposes not only the profession of a truth that one will live for or die for, but echoes the Christological pattern of suffering, death, and resurrection inscribed in the world that has the power to refuse it.

Finally, the two pairs also relate positively and intersect. Voice and gratitude are what they are because they are caught in the gravitational pull of vision and witness. The voice would not be the voice full of listening unless it were measured by the self-emptying of the cross and the firmness of witness to the end. Nor would gratitude be so wide and deep and so plural, thus so “catholic.” And Christian vision and witness require a voice that has become a proper receptacle because it has drowned out its conceit, cut off the fat of rhetoric, and found a gratitude ample enough for us speak to, praise, and celebrate the bounty of the one so careless as to create us, make us so essential to his life, and pledge everything on the risky hope that we respond by pledging all that we are back.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is adapted from the welcome address of the de Nicola Center's conference: “Benedict XVI’s Legacy: Unfinished Debates on Faith, Culture, and Politics” at the University of Notre Dame, April 7—9, 2024.

Featured Image: Taken by © Mazur/, distributed by  The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI in 2010; Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume treatment of Hans Urs von Balthasar's response to philosophical modernity. The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

Read more by Cyril O'Regan