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Prophet of Catholic conservatism

The magisterial Benedict XVI has bequeathed a lasting legacy


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

For all the magnificence of the setting, it was a simple ceremony: conducted for the most part in Latin, the lingua franca of the universal Church, but with most readings and prayers in the vernacular, some read by women. It was not an overtly traditional Mass: for the first time in history, the long-form Roman Canon was not used at the funeral of a pope. Though he had championed the right to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, this was a post-Vatican II liturgy. The young Joseph Ratzinger had, after all, helped to shape the Ecumenical Council and held firm to its promise of a “new Pentecost”. 

Pope Francis presided, enthroned before the coffin of his predecessor, though his own physical frailty was such that most of the offices of the Mass had to be celebrated by the Dean of the College of Cardinals. As the coffin was carried back into the basilica to its final resting place in the crypt of St Peter’s, the Pope bowed his head before the mortal remains of the Pope Emeritus and prayed silently. The way is now open for Francis too to resign.

It felt like the end of an era, not only for Catholics but also for Western civilisation

It felt like the end of an era, not only for Catholics but also for Western civilisation. Coming less than four months after the equally moving obsequies of Queen Elizabeth II, this funeral was our last farewell to a generation of leaders whose lives had been formed under the impact of the two world wars — the most terrible man-made catastrophes the world has ever known. 

This generation, who also included Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and John Paul II, was eloquently evoked by Charles Moore in the Telegraph: “As they worked for peace, they held in their minds the most vivid conceptions of the opposite.” No survivor of those wars could banish the memory of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn called “a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them”. The only possible response to such a monumental failure, for the representatives of Church and State, is abject humility. 

Humility was indeed the watchword not only of Benedict’s funeral but of his pontificate. Joseph Ratzinger — professor of theology, cardinal archbishop, Supreme Pontiff — never forgot his humble origins as the son of a Bavarian policeman, nor esteemed himself as more than a penitent sinner. He chose as the Gospel reading for his requiem Mass the passage from Luke in which one of the thieves crucified with Christ rebukes his mocking fellow criminal, then repents: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

This gentle, retiring scholar called himself after the founder of Western monasticism and indeed ended his life in a monastery. Despite his natural modesty, however, Benedict will be seen in retrospect as one of the greatest minds ever to hold the Petrine keys. 

Indeed, some Catholic intellectuals, especially in America, believe, as I do, that Benedict will one day be recognised as a Doctor of the Church. One of the greatest Doctors of the Church, St Augustine of Hippo, was a major influence on the young Ratzinger — just as he had once been of another German theologian who changed the world, the former Augustinian monk Martin Luther. 

Polar opposites in almost every other respect, the first new Pope of the twenty-first century shared the pessimistic temperament of the Protestant anti-pope and the African patriarch. Both the latter saw the sack of Rome, respectively by the Visigoths of Alaric in 410 and the largely Lutheran Landsknechte of Charles V in 1527, as a harbinger of the end times. After the barbarians had destroyed the Roman Empire, a largely monastic Church led by religious orders, such as the Augustinians and Benedictines, became, said Ratzinger, “the ark on which the West survived”. 

Like Augustine, though unlike Luther, the future Benedict XVI saw the Catholic Church with all its faults as the only way that led to the City of God. In order to preserve herself from a neo-pagan world — in Augustinian terms, from the havoc wrought by original sin — the Church again found itself, in John Paul II’s words, “a sign of contradiction”. Rather than be reconciled to modernity, as the Vatican Council had hoped, Catholics in the third millennium might be called to retreat into ecclesial bastions of resistance.

How, then, did Benedict emerge as the prophet of nonconformist Catholic conservatism? During his time as a professor at Tübingen in the late 1960s, Ratzinger underwent a cathartic experience that changed not only his intellectual life but his whole relationship with the secular world. For two centuries Tübingen had been a magnet for European thinkers, especially in philosophy and theology. 

Among Ratzinger’s colleagues there were Ernst Bloch, the utopian Marxist; Jürgen Moltmann, the Protestant theologian who like Bloch based his teaching on “the principle of hope”; and Hans Küng, the Swiss Catholic who became first a celebrity and then a kind of heresiarch.

 Ratzinger knew Küng from the Vatican Council, where both men had been periti, or advisors to the senior cardinals. According to George Weigel’s magisterial new book on Vatican II, Ratzinger had played a significant role behind the scenes, while Küng, though “the most mediagenic” peritus of all, “arguably had the least impact on the Council’s actual work”. Still, Küng saw Ratzinger as a fellow reformer and had been keen to bring him to Tübingen, where the two friends dined together every Thursday night. 

What changed? In 1968, the students and junior teaching staff at Tübingen followed the example of their peers elsewhere in Europe and America by rebelling against hierarchical university structures. There was no actual violence, but the threat hung in the air — a threat that would soon be executed in the form of terrorism by Andreas Baader’s and Ulrike Meinhof’s Red Army Faction. Ratzinger saw this as “an instrumentalisation by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal and cruel”. He feared for the future of all that he held dear. As for himself and his fellow academics: “Anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity.” 

Küng drew precisely the contrary conclusion. The two best-known Catholic theologians of the day diverged so far that in 1979 Küng lost his licence to teach as a Catholic — a loss for which he held his former friend largely responsible. When I interviewed Küng decades later, he spoke of Ratzinger bitterly as “the Grand Inquisitor”. Küng resented the heights to which a man to whom he felt superior had risen. The resentment was not reciprocated.


n the aftermath of his dark night of the soul in Tübingen, Ratzinger moved to Regensburg to create a new theological faculty. He also co-founded Communio, a new journal of Catholic thought. Contributors included the French theologian Henri de Lubac, whose 50 volumes of works began with his devastating 1944 analysis of unredeemed modernity, The Drama of Atheist Humanism. Even more influential was the Swiss thinker Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose trilogy The Glory of the Lord showed how the beauty of holiness permeated the entire civilisation of which she was the foundation. 

Balthasar shared with Benedict an aesthetic sensibility, but also antennae for the apocalyptic and the demonic. History, for Benedict, was a cosmic drama with a Satanic adversary, whom he saw as ultimately responsible for the sexual abuse scandals that overshadowed his pontificate and have damaged the Church in the twenty-first century as much as simony and nepotism did in the sixteenth. Already 78 when he was elected in 2005, Benedict resigned eight years later when, aged almost 86, he no longer felt equal to the task of battling the forces of radical evil. Yet he lived to become the oldest Pope in history.

He had a hard act to follow. John Paul II had spent most of his life living under Nazism and Communism, enabling him to make common cause with those who feared for the free world too. Indeed, Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger formed the most important alliance in the history of modern Christianity: faith and reason personified. 

Wojtyla was drawn to Ratzinger partly thanks to his own immersion in German thought. Their friendship was cemented by the two conclaves of 1978, at the second of which Ratzinger (who had only recently acquired his cardinal’s hat as Archbishop of Munich) played a notable part in the election of his Polish confrère. The new Pope recognised in his German ally a magisterial quality worthy of entrusting with the Church’s Magisterium. Ratzinger became Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office) in 1982.

He did not relish his role as the Church’s gatekeeper, but saw it as a necessary one. The postmodern crisis of the late twentieth century posed an unprecedented peril to posterity, with the relativist dissolution of all moral constraints and the infiltration of Marxism. The most notorious example of the latter was liberation theology, whose leading exponent was Leonardo Boff. Ratzinger’s response was a bold one: to turn Marx on his head. Liberation theology had tried to change Christianity; the point was to understand it.

Benedict’s legacy takes many forms

Benedict’s legacy takes many forms, from books, articles, lectures, interviews and above all his papal encyclicals and other documents. But it is perhaps best encapsulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was compiled under his direction and promulgated by John Paul II in 1992. This catechism incorporates the essence of Vatican II and subsequent doctrinal development, explaining in a comprehensive yet readable form both what Catholics are expected to believe and why.

In 1996, the then Prefect gave a book-length interview, published as Salz der Erde (Salt of the Earth). The following passage caused a minor scandal in Germany and was excised from the English translation: “We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that … Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups … Christianity might diminish into a barely discernible presence.” 

The persecution of Christians began with Jesus and his apostles and still continues, notably in many parts of the Muslim world and elsewhere. That Cardinal Zen of Hong Kong was able to attend Benedict’s funeral was almost miraculous, given that he was arrested last year despite his age (he is 90) by a Chinese Communist Party that is determined to crush Christianity along with any other resistance to its totalitarian rule. 

But the amnesia and euthanasia of European Christianity is something different from any persecution seen in previous centuries. Benedict developed his “mustard seed” model over many years, for example in his dialogues with Marcello Pera (Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, 2006) and Jürgen Habermas (The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, 2005). His beatification of John Henry Newman on his visit to Britain in 2010 may also be seen in this light, because the English seer was the first to prophesy the mutation of liberalism into what Benedict famously called “the dictatorship of relativism”.

The Benedictine option of smaller, self-contained Church communities draws conscious inspiration from Jewish history. One of Benedict’s many virtues is his deep love of the Jewish people and the Hebrew Bible, which inspired late works such as his biographies of Jesus and Paul. My late friend Geza Vermes, the leading scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jesus the Jew, was critical of Benedict’s three-volume Jesus of Nazareth — but conceded that a Pope could hardly be expected to abandon the divinity of Christ. Most Jews appreciated his profound erudition. 

Another friend, the American David Goldman (who also writes as “Spengler”), maintains that, “with [Benedict] ends an epoch. It’s no longer possible to educate a man like Ratzinger.” From a polymath like Goldman this is quite a tribute. But it also begs the question: what made it possible in the past — and what makes it impossible now?

It is sometimes supposed, even in Germany, that pre-war German Catholicism was provincial. I have in front of me a volume published in 1927, the year of Benedict’s birth: a Festschrift for Karl Muth, the editor of Hochland, then the leading German Catholic journal of ideas. It is full of brilliant essays, but two authors stand out: Carl Schmitt and Theodor Haecker. 

Schmitt is much better known today, for all the wrong reasons: he became one of the most notorious intellectuals to support the Nazis, was disgraced and later posthumously rehabilitated by American political scientists. By contrast Haecker defied the Nazis, who arrested him but were persuaded by Muth to release him. In 1944 he was arrested again, having been introduced to the White Rose resistance group by Muth. His war diaries, published posthumously as Tag- und Nachtbücher (Journal in the Night), are a classic of Catholic existentialism. 

This, then, was the rich but contested intellectual soil from which Joseph Ratzinger emerged. His own family was firmly anti-Nazi: his own account in his memoir Milestones has been corroborated by more recent research. He was deeply hurt by his media image as the “Panzer Cardinal”. Of his contemporaries, Habermas was protected by a Nazi father; Günter Grass joined the Waffen SS. Ratzinger deserted and was lucky not to be shot.

A 1958 essay in Muth’s Hochland by the young Father Ratzinger anticipates a critique the future Pope would develop over the next sixty years: “She is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans who still call themselves Christians…” 

Will we ever see another Benedict XVI? Not until the Church of pagans becomes once more the Church of pilgrims for which he worked and prayed.

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