[guest post by JVW]
It must have been a hard act to follow, replacing a Pontiff so charismatic, so brilliant, so influential that calls for his canonization began immediately after his death. But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stepped into the role and proved more than worthy to the task, continuing with his predecessor’s clear-eyed reading of the gospel and no-nonsense approach to the catechism. Though it was clear that his health had been declining, the death today of Pope Benedict XVI on the last day of the year leaves so many of the faithful wondering if the Church of Rome will go the way of so many other traditional denominations and replace the teachings of scripture with trendy progressive social justice concerns.
Born during the heyday of the Weimar Republic in a small village in Bavaria, Benedict will be the last Pope — and likely the last Vatican figure — to have any personal involvement with the Second World War (Pope Francis, born in 1936, is an Argentine, and Argentina remained neutral during the War up until twelve days before Hitler killed himself). Young Joseph Ratzinger was naturally forced into the Hitler Youth as a boy, and watched the Nazis round up and kill his special needs cousin in nasty pursuit of their evil eugenics policy, no doubt strengthening his belief in the sanctity of all life at all stages of development. He was forced into wartime service as a sixteen-year-old and assigned to the infantry, deserting his unit in the final months of the war only to end up in an Allied prisoner of war camp anyway. Upon his release he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1951.
A man of vast intellect, Father Ratzinger completed a doctoral dissertation on Saint Augustine of Hippo, the patron saint of brewers. (One of my favorite aspects of Pope Benedict is that he was often pictured drinking beer.) His obvious intelligence and interest in philosophical as well as doctrinaire questions led him to a life as an academic, with Father Ratzinger serving in posts at several German seminaries and universities. At one point he was apparently offered a position as a professor at Notre Dame University, which he declined partly because he didn’t believe his English was up to snuff. In 1977, Pope Paul VI named Father Ratzinger the Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and a few months later he was named Cardinal Priest of Santa Maria Consolatrice al Tiburtino in Rome, marking him as a rising star within the Vatican.
Three years into his own Pontificate, Pope Saint John Paul II appointed Cardinal Ratzinger to the office of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he would hold for nearly a quarter-century up until his own appointment to the Chair of Saint Peter. In this role Cardinal Ratzinger enforced discipline on Church theologians, working with his boss to reject heresies such as attempts to diminish the role of Jesus Christ or Mary the Mother of God among the faithful, and to point out the weaknesses and contradictions inherent in Liberation Theology, a Marxist-inspired doctrine then popular among Third World leftists. He chaired the committee convened by Pope Saint John Paul II to create and publish The Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, which put to rest many of the questions that the reforms of Vatican II had brought about and reminded the faithful that salvation could be found in Jesus Christ alone.
When John Paul II died in 2005, conservative Catholics such as I feared that the great man’s successor would be a weak imitation of the most consequential Pope of the previous 500 years. At the time, progressive cardinals pushed forward Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as their choice, and the fear was that there would be a clear backsliding from the robust theology that John Paul II and Ratzinger had emphasized towards a more lenient and malleable theology that the progressives desired. In retrospect, we were clearly lucky to have followed Pope Saint John Paul II with Pope Benedict XVI for the next eight years, especially in light of the confusion that the current Holy Father often causes among the faithful.
His predecessor had changed the nature of the Bishop of Rome by traveling around the world, meeting Catholics in their own lands rather than summoning them to Rome. While this certainly paid great dividends in rejuvenating the Church, especially in countries in Africa and Asia where the Church was still nascent, it made the job quite rigorous and difficult for an 86-year-old man. Accordingly, Pope Benedict XVI took the extraordinary and rare step of retiring in office and vacating the Chair of Saint Peter once he felt he could no longer bring enough energy to the job. As someone who has long bored readers here with my lamentations against those who refuse to relinquish power well after their effectiveness has diminished, you can imagine how much respect I have for Pope Benedict XVI’s decision.
Not everything about Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate went perfectly. Like his predecessor, he seems to have had difficulty grasping the enormity of the sexual abuse scandals among the clergy, though he did have the good sense to retire the fiendish Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, only to see his successor rehabilitate him and return him to the fold. And his staunch defense of traditionalism in the Church, while welcome by conservative Catholics like me, was certainly off-putting to progressive Catholics. Pope Benedict XVI seems to have lacked Pope Saint John Paul II’s light touch and ability to put a compassionate face on conservative policy, and it wasn’t surprising that progressive cardinals were allowed to choose his successor. But as we say goodbye to him and commend him to the God he so faithfully served, we can be thankful for both a Joseph Ratzinger and a Benedict XVI who reinvigorated the Church in the post-War and post-Vatican II eras, and have left us with strong defenses of the faith and a better understanding of the Salvation of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Kathryn Lopez at NRO has her usual beautiful and moving tribute to the man, aptly titled “God Was Good to Us Giving Us Benedict XVI.” Jay Nordlinger reminds us that Pope Benedict XVI admired and respected America as a force for good in the world. Luther Ray Abel points out that Pope Benedict XVI had a great deal of affection for Protestant theology, even if he didn’t fully agree with it.