The Quiet Genius of Pope Benedict XVI

From a Wall Street Journal column by Francis X. Maier headlined “The Quiet Genius of Pope Benedict XVI”:

In the 1980s I had two long conversations with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would be elected pope in 2005 and was known as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when he died Saturday at age 95. Our meetings were private affairs and off the record. This allowed us to have unhurried and unfiltered discussions about issues and personalities in the church.

The press already had branded him Panzerkardinal, the humorless German commandant of the Vatican’s doctrine police. I had read his bracing work, and the label seemed implausible. I still wasn’t prepared for his personal simplicity and humility. He gave no hint of impatience in his manner, no divided attention, no self-important ego. That can be said of few public figures, including churchmen.

Decades have passed, along with many of the people and issues we discussed. But I still remember the unexpected feeling our conversations produced: hope. Like the early Christian saint and scholar Augustine, who helped shape his thinking, Ratzinger wasn’t an optimist. But also like Augustine, he was a man alive with unshakable trust in Jesus Christ and the God of Israel.

Pope Benedict XVI was one of the great religious minds of the past century. He belonged to an era of Catholic genius, alongside thinkers like Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope John Paul II. All had been formed by Europe’s deep cultural fractures after World War I. All lived through the church’s struggle with the great atheist ideologies, the bloodbath of World War II, and reactionary impulses within the church herself. They were attuned to suffering on an industrial scale.

As a peritus, or scholarly expert, at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) the young Ratzinger was an unabashedly progressive priest. Yet he saw the council as a task of continuity and faithful development. He believed it was a project of renewal based on a return to the sources of Christian life, not a revolution. His stress on fidelity split him from more-radical colleagues like Hans Küng, who became a venomous critic of Ratzinger.

For all the criticism he inspired, Ratzinger himself was a quiet man averse to conflict. He was a scholar of refined tastes in music and art. His greatest needs were ample sleep and silence to think and write. Much of his enormous body of work was scribbled with a pencil in shorthand. He never sought to be a bishop, cardinal or pope—but served as all three. As prefect of Rome’s doctrine congregation, he tried repeatedly to resign and return home to Germany. The response of John Paul II, the pope to whom he was a friend and perfect complement, was simple: Stop asking, because “as long as I am here, you must stay.” Ratzinger even remarked that he saw his papacy, which started when he was 78, as a looming guillotine blade.

This was a prescient feeling. His service as pontiff was marked by brilliant teaching and surprising energy in his travels, but he also placed unwarranted trust in some of those around him. His longtime colleague and Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, came under fire for incompetence and alleged embezzlement. His butler leaked sensitive documents. On the advice of counselors, he lifted the excommunication of a schismatic bishop as a gesture of mercy, without knowing the man was a Holocaust denier. He was accused unfairly of inadequate action and sensitivity on the child-abuse issue.

These problems were made worse by his cerebral nature. Unlike the “force of nature” public presence of John Paul II, Benedict XVI was more retiring and thus more easily attacked. His resignation as pope in 2013, the first in many centuries, caused as much irritation and bafflement as praise. His historically unique status as “pope emeritus” invited confusion.

Pope Benedict XVI nevertheless used his astonishing intellect in luminescent ways. His 2006 University of Regensburg lecture was widely and ignorantly trashed at the time as anti-Muslim. What he actually delivered was a superb defense of the mutually supportive roles of faith and reason and the nature of a free conscience. His 2008 comments to the United Nations—which he praised as “an instrument of service to the entire human family”—were a triumph. His extensive collected writings on human responsibility for the environment preceded the current pontificate. His 2011 Freiburg address offered a brutally sober assessment of the challenges facing Christianity. It was also a compelling call to conversion and hope. The first and best encyclical issued by Pope Francis—“Light of Faith”—was written in significant part by Benedict XVI.

Toward the end of his life, he described himself as a “pope between the times.” He added, “You only see in retrospect how the forces of history are proceeding.” Whatever the future holds, the Catholic world has lost one of its most brilliant minds and articulate voices. His memory will endure.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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