Of all the judgements passed on Joseph Ratzinger over the course of his long life (1927–2022), the one that most appeals to me is that of Joachim Cardinal Meisner. He said that Ratzinger had ‘the intelligence of 12 professors’ and was ‘as pious as a child on the day of his First Communion’.

Anyone privileged to hear him deliver a homily or a lecture can attest to his erudition and lucidity, his knowledge of the scriptures, facility with biblical languages, and his awareness of historical contexts and philosophical movements. Even his detractors are not so stupid as to call his intelligence and education into question.

The usual form of attack is to construct psychological explanations for why he preferred to take sacred scripture and ecclesial tradition as his moorings, rather than experiment with contemporary social theories as partners for theology. It was said that he found the student protests of 1968 traumatic. In one of his interviews, he said that what he found most traumatic about 1968 was not the behaviour of the students themselves but the fact that Catholic priests handed out Communion to Marxists on picket lines.

Since he was born in 1927, he belonged to the World War II generation, not to the generation of 1968. The heroes of his youth were men like Romano Guardini and Theodor Haecker who had intellectually opposed the Nazi regime. These types stood for truth against ideology.

A generation later, the Frankfurt School of social theory cast a hermeneutic of suspicion around all truth claims and linked truth claims to social status and an alleged ‘authoritarian personality’. The generation of 1968 desperately needed some explanation for what happened in Germany during the thirteen years of Nazi brutality. The narrative it adopted was that reason itself is dangerous. Ratzinger thus ended up spending much of his life defending concepts like reason, truth, and rationality. He coined the expression ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ and complained of the narrowing of the scope of reason. He believed that faith and reason need to work together to mutually purify each other and that cultures become pathological when these two critical couplets are not allowed to play in concert.

Ratzinger also had a strong aversion to mob judgements (Pöbelglaube). He thought calls for the democratisation of the governance of the Church would simply lead to more bureaucracy. A luxuriant growth in committees and quangos would create a new class of professional lay bureaucrats who make it their business to manage, and often oppress, the faithful praying in the pews.

On many occasions he declared that what the Church needed was less management, fewer introspective talk-fests, and more holiness. He understood that democracy does not equate to greater freedom. On the contrary, it means greater uniformity, less freedom for diversity, and trends toward a general levelling down of cultural standards. Committees generate lowest common denominator documents and policies. He never forgot that the strongest opponents of the Nazi regime were strong-minded individuals, including heroic bishops like Clemens August von Galen, who were not afraid to be different and really did not care about majority opinion.

A masterclass in fundamental theology

Ratzinger was the product of the highest educational standards anywhere in the world. The German humanistic gymnasia and the German universities were the bearers of the high culture of classical Greece, Rome, and Christendom, as well as the philosophy of German Idealism and its critics. These institutions produced a man whose academic work was honoured outside the Catholic world by his appointment to the French Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, a cardinal chosen to address the Sorbonne to mark the turn of the millennium, and a member of the College of Cardinals with the ability to go head-to-head with Jürgen Habermas.

Quite simply, Ratzinger’s knowledge of the Western intellectual tradition—from its tributaries in ancient Israel, Athens, and Rome to its current crisis of faith in itself—was both broad and deep. He was a scholar’s scholar, but he also had the ability to convey his wisdom to others much less learned than himself. There is a saying in Rome that crowds would come to see St John Paul II, but crowds came to hear Benedict. His Wednesday audience addresses were like fireside chat tutorials for undergraduates. Anyone with a basic arts degree and familiarity with the Nicene Creed can read his publications and understand them.

Those theologians who opposed his theological vision would often remark that he never created his own system. He never had some big idea that changed the whole discipline of theology. What he did do, however, was to write numerous books, articles and homilies on contemporary theological crises. When these are all pieced together, what one has is a masterclass on fundamental theology.

One can, for example, go to his publications to find out what he thought about the merits and limits of the historical-critical method; what he thought about the nature of revelation and its relationship to tradition; why he thought that logos must always precede praxis and what goes wrong when this relationship is flipped; what he thought Plato got right and wrong; what was his understanding of the human conscience and its role in moral theology; and dozens of other issues. When the dust finally settles on the current era and a new generation of leaders emerge who care more about the truth and the memoria ecclesiae than about opinion polls and Catholic Inc., the masterclass in fundamental theology is likely to be Ratzinger’s most enduring legacy.

The singularity of Christian worship

A further and almost as important legacy will be his contributions to the documents of the Second Vatican Council—especially to Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. He attended the Council as a theological advisor to Cardinal Frings of Cologne at the tender age of 35. With his death we have the end of the Conciliar generation. There are no more living legends who can recall what happened in the committee rooms and the cafés.

As Pope Benedict XVI, he was quite sympathetic to the grievances of those who were distressed by the decisions of the Council, especially those who found folk liturgies intolerable—though such liturgies were not actually mandated by the Council itself, but by bureaucracies put into position by the Council. In God and the World, he acknowledged that such people had been ‘treated like lepers’ and he thought that this was unfair. On 7 July 2007, he famously offered them the olive branch of a rehabilitation of what he called ‘the extraordinary form’ of the Roman Liturgy. He hoped that the two Roman Rites—the new Missal of 1969 and the Tridentine liturgy with a few accretions—would have a mutually beneficial effect on each other.

Benedict liked the idea of the scriptures being read in the vernacular, but he acknowledged that in many parts of the world the Missal of 1969 had given rise to what he called ‘parish tea party’ liturgies. These were self-centric forms of worship focused on the celebration of the local community, not worship of the Holy Trinity. He compared them to the Hebrews’ worship of the golden calf and he could completely understand why people ran away from those kinds of liturgies. He also opposed rock music, comparing it to the music of Dionysian cults of ancient Greece. His criticisms of the rock music industry were quite similar to arguments made by the English philosopher Roger Scruton. Both men saw the industry as an attempt to provide young people with an experience of self-transcendence that can only be had in Christian worship.

Ecumenical efforts

Another ecclesial group for which he worked hard during his pontificate was the international network of Anglicans who wanted to return to full communion with the Catholic Church while bringing some of the Anglican patrimony, especially the liturgical patrimony, with them.

The end result was the creation of ‘Ordinariates’ in the United Kingdom and other countries of the British Commonwealth, including Australia, so that such Anglicans could be in full communion with the Catholic Church but continue to enjoy their solemn liturgical traditions. They could join the Catholic Church in parish groups rather than one by one. No doubt his personal appreciation of the scholarship of St John Henry Newman (whom he beatified) was part of the backstory to his enthusiasm for efforts on this front.

He also worked to improve relations with the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. In his homilies and other public statements, he was acutely sensitive to their theological positions and historical grievances.

Tenderness and tact

On a personal note, when I was awarded the Ratzinger Prize for Theology I sent Pope Benedict a ‘thank you’ note inside a Christmas card. For the card itself, I decided against an image of the nativity. I thought he had probably seen them all. Instead, I chose a card that featured a cat sitting on a windowsill looking out onto a snowy meadow, at the end of which was a village church with a light glowing inside. I knew that he loved cats and this particular cat looked as if he could possibly be thinking about the meaning of Christmas.

I sent the card and wrote my letter in German, apologising for any mistakes in the grammar. I explained that I had learned German from a nun who had learned it from Papua New Guineans who in turn had picked it up from German missionaries. I received a response saying that even more than the beautiful picture of the village church and the ‘pensive cat’ (his description), he enjoyed the story about how I came to learn German.

My late colleague Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini could tell stories of meetings with Ratzinger during the days when Ratzinger was the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). According to Nicholas, Ratzinger would serve him coffee and Bavarian cake while the two talked about bio-ethical issues. It always seemed to me interesting that Nicholas would mention the coffee and cake, as if it were some kind of special treat. But one Spanish archbishop later remarked to me that for him the most distinctive thing about Ratzinger was his ‘exquisite manners’. He apparently behaved with each visitor as if he had all the time in the world to chat with them, and conveyed the idea that attending to their comfort and concerns was his joy and his duty.

For his own relaxation he played the piano, and during his lunch hour in his CDF days he often went for a walk around the precinct of St Peter’s Basilica. Roman seminarians would talk about how on these walks Cardinal Ratzinger would bend down to pet the stray cats who live on the streets of Rome and as a result they often followed him on his walk. Such was his fame as a cat lover that the Benedictine monks at Pluscarden Abbey (on the edge of the North Sea) sent a letter to him during his pontificate allegedly written by their own famous cat Baxter and Baxter got a formal letter of reply from Pope Benedict.

I mention these stories and impressions because they too are part of the composite picture of the man, though they speak more to his affective than intellectual side. Since he argued that ‘love and truth are the twin pillars of all reality’ any account of his life that left out the affective side, and only mentioned his defence of truth, would be lopsided.

A love of the truth

So why did Benedict suffer from so much negative publicity? Why did some journalists refer to him as ‘Der Panzer Kardinal’? My own impression is simply that he loved the truth and would not allow nonsense to be fed to his sheep on his watch.

Someone once described a particular bishop to me as a man who had no interest in theology and did not care what his seminarians were taught in theology classes. This was because he was taught rubbish when he was a seminarian, but he said his prayers and took the sacraments seriously and all the rubbish simply washed over him. He came out of the experience thinking that what really mattered was a person’s prayer life—not what a person was taught in class.

Ratzinger, however, was not the kind of person who could tolerate intellectual nonsense—and there was plenty of this about in the Church in Germany. He once used his episcopal authority to thwart an academic appointment of Johann-Baptist Metz, a scholar who had been traumatised by the events of World War II and who fell under the influence of the philosophy of Ernest Bloch, a Marxist philosopher. Ratzinger had no time for Marxism of any sub-species and in his many statements against it his strongest criticism was not, primarily at least, that it was atheistic or materialistic, but that it had the wrong attitude toward truth. It gave priority to praxis, and in Ratzinger’s judgement, ‘mere praxis gives no light’.

A particular version of the ‘priority of praxis’ project takes the form of distilling the ‘values’ of Christ’s kingdom from Christ himself. Here Ratzinger charted the moves from ecclesiocentricity (the Church does matter), to Christocentricity (we can have Christ without the Church), to theocentricity (we can have some generic supreme being rather than Christ), and then, finally, we can set aside deism altogether and just forge a social consensus around ‘the values of the kingdom’: what Ratzinger called regnocentricity. This distillation process—marketed under the banner of the ‘Weltethos Projekt’ by Hans Küng—was regarded by Ratzinger as a recipe for the Church’s self-secularisation. The end result (regnocentricity) means that neither the Church nor Christ are necessary. They can be ‘filtered out’. From the 1970s onwards, Ratzinger resisted this slippery slide into the religion of mere philanthropy.

Thus, while there are some Catholics who want to hook up elements of Christian teaching with contemporary social theories—including, in some cases, social theories with Marxist pedigrees—Ratzinger took a lot of flak for not only opposing this, but in many ways making it his life’s work to be a bulwark against it. Positively, however, he would simply say that he was defending and preserving the memory of the Church for future generations, protecting it from corruption. This is, after all, one of the responsibilities of bishops and the primary responsibility of the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. This responsibility, then, increases in such magnitude with the papacy that he described the burden of the Petrine Office as ‘martyriological’.

If in the future Benedict XVI is canonised and declared a Doctor of the Church, he may be remembered as one of the greatest scholars ever to occupy the Chair of Peter, a master of fundamental theology—but, nonetheless, a man who never lost the piety of his Bavarian childhood and a man for whom the responsibilities that went with holding the keys of St Peter were truly martyriological.

This article was originally published on the ABC Religion & Ethics website is reproduced with permission.

Main image: Pope Benedict XVI during his visit in Croatia in 2011. Photo by Roberta F on Wikimedia Commons.