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Pope Benedict XVI, former head of the Roman Catholic Church, dies at 95

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 12/31/2022 Jeffrey Cimmino
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Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI, one of the Catholic church’s most eminent modern theologians who upheld orthodox church teaching against numerous challenges in the late 20th century and shocked the world by his resignation as supreme pontiff, has died at the age of 95.

The man perceived as a strict enforcer of church teaching was somewhat uneasy about becoming pope, and soon after his election in 2005, then-cardinal Ratzinger told a group of German pilgrims he “started to feel quite dizzy” when he realized he might be chosen as the new pope. He began to pray.

“I told the Lord with deep conviction, 'Don't do this to me. You have younger and better [candidates] who could take up this great task with a totally different energy and with different strength,’” said Ratzinger.

“Evidently, this time he didn't listen to me,” he joked.

Ratzinger had no lust for power, according to William Schmitt, the headmaster of a Massachusetts Catholic school who studied under Ratzinger's patronage.

“He would rather be in his parish in southern Germany than be a pope,” said Schmitt.

Beyond his humble, pastoral nature, Ratzinger was known for his sharp mind and firm opposition to what he saw as dangerous philosophical currents. Ratzinger set the tone for his papacy in a homily on the eve of his election, denouncing the “dictatorship of relativism” that he said characterized modern society, rejecting objective truth and valuing only self-centered desires.

Ratzinger’s answer to this dictatorship was not, however, an all-out war on the bogeyman of modernity. Though Ratzinger and his papacy were marked with various labels — Ratzinger the conservative, Ratzinger the traditionalist — the main theme of his papacy and his theology, as evidenced by his writings and homilies, was pastoral: He sought to bring people into close relationship with Jesus Christ.

Schmitt said Ratzinger was committed to the truth without being harsh.

"The thing that amazes me about Cardinal Ratzinger is his real clarity and absoluteness about truth and what you knew and what you believed, and at the same time a kind of gentleness in regards to the people around him or the use of power," said Schmitt.

Ratzinger was a prolific theologian, writing dozens of books over the course of his life, including many for a popular audience, such as the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. The Catholic faith, according to Ratzinger, looked to Christ as the center of the Christian life, and thus the mark of adult faith was “friendship with Christ.”

The centrality of this relationship with Christ in Ratzinger’s thought goes back to his earliest days as a theologian. He wrote his 1953 dissertation about Saint Augustine, a bishop and theologian of the early church perhaps best known for his autobiography, The Confessions, an intimate account of his struggle with sin and his conversion to Christianity. Ratzinger later said that the The Confessions topped the list of the books he would take to a deserted island.

But Ratzinger's Christocentric message was closely connected to his devotion to the sacred liturgy, which Ratzinger once said “has been for me since my childhood the central reality of my life.”

In 2007, Benedict addressed the celebration of the liturgy in an apostolic letter, Summorum Pontificum, which allowed broader use of the traditional Mass that preceded the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Without rejecting the council’s reforms, Benedict accommodated the appreciation of the Latin liturgy that he saw in younger people. The effect of this letter is notable today in the United States, where traditional parishes are growing.

Ratzinger brought his considerable talents as a theologian to his position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican body tasked with defending Catholic doctrine, between 1982 and 2005. During his time at the helm of this institution, Ratzinger earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler” for his firm adherence to church teachings and his role censuring priests and theologians who strayed too far from orthodoxy.

He also drew the ire of left-wing Catholics for investigating proponents of liberation theology, a controversial far-left school of thought centered primarily among some priests and theologians in Latin America. Conservatives praised him for opposing liberation theology, as well as reaffirming the church's teachings on human sexuality, including its opposition to contraception.

As head of the CDF and later as pope, Ratzinger also had to confront the sexual abuse crisis gripping the church. While he led the CDF, Ratzinger regularly examined abuse cases and “arguably was probably the most knowledgeable man on the abuse crisis,” according to biographers Greg Erlandson and Matthew Bunson.

In 2010, Ratzinger biographer John Allen wrote that Ratzinger became “a Catholic Elliot Ness” as pope, referencing the law enforcement official who took down Al Capone. He pointed to Ratzinger’s meetings with victims of abuse, embracing “zero tolerance” policies, and publicly apologizing for the crisis. But some victim advocates felt he did not do enough to address the crisis.

After his resignation, Ratzinger published a controversial essay on sexual abuse in the church, which included language that hearkened back to his homily on the eve of his election as pope. Ratzinger argued the roots of the crisis were in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which fought for “all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.”

The primary factor explaining why the epidemic of abuse spread through society and the church, he argued, was the absence of God in Western society. A world without God could not have any real concept of truth, and therefore could not have any genuine moral system, and so previously unthinkable actions became permissible, Ratzinger claimed.

Papal biographer and Catholic writer George Weigel argued Ratzinger’s letter “vividly illustrated his still-unparalleled capacity to incinerate the brain circuits of various Catholic progressives.”

But while Ratzinger undoubtedly opposed progressivism, he also resisted temptations of Catholic tribalism that would have pitted him against his successor, Pope Francis.

“The Pope is one, it is Francis,” Ratzinger said in 2019. “In the end the awareness that the Church is and must remain united has always prevailed. Its unity has always been stronger than internal struggles and wars,” he continued.

While Ratzinger's contributions to the church as a theologian and pope were monumental on their own, his shock resignation, the first by a pope in almost six centuries, only broadened his legacy.

Ratzinger’s resignation as pope in 2013 prompted speculation that he did not willingly relinquish his role. In its aftermath, however, he denied speculation he was forced to step down, writing to an Italian newspaper, “There isn’t the slightest doubt about the validity of my resignation from the Petrine ministry.”

He wrote two letters in 2017 that addressed his resignation, writing in one that he understood the pain his decision caused for many in the church, but also expressing consternation that his resignation led some to be angry toward his papacy.

Ratzinger’s death capped off a life of public service to the church, ranging from his time as a theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council to his tenure as the 265th Roman Pontiff.

He was born in Marktl, Bavaria, Germany to Joseph Ratzinger Sr. and Maria Peintner, who had met through a singles ad placed in a Catholic newspaper by Ratzinger Sr. in 1920. As a teenager, Ratzinger was a member of the Nazi Youth, as was required. He generally was not faulted for his brief, coerced affiliation with the Nazis. Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in 2005 called his life “an open book of sensitivity against bigotry and anti-Semitism.”

Overall, relations between the Catholic church and Judaism remained amicable during Ratzinger's papacy, and he firmly condemned anti-Semitism. Many Jewish leaders were concerned when he lifted the excommunication on a Holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop, but the Vatican quickly denounced the prelate's views.

Ratzinger was educated at the University of Munich, graduating in 1951, and that same year was ordained a priest at the cathedral in Freising, Germany. He became archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, was made a cardinal that same year, and became dean of the College of Cardinals in 2002. Since resigning as pope on Feb. 11, 2013, he has held the title of pope emeritus and lived at Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in Vatican City.

He is survived by his older brother, Georg Ratzinger, who is a priest and musician.

For Fr. Joseph Fessio, the editor of Ignatius Press who wrote his doctoral thesis under Ratzinger's direction, the deceased pope is on par with saints such as Augustine.

"He has made such a contribution with his vast and deep knowledge, not just of theology, or just of philosophy, or just of literature, or just of history, but of art, and culture, and music, and he’s put it all together in his own person and in his writings, so I think he’s a modern day Father of the Church," Fessio told the Washington Examiner.


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Original Author: Jeffrey Cimmino

Original Location: Pope Benedict XVI, former head of the Roman Catholic Church, dies at 95


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