The global impact of a German pope

January 10, 2023

Pope Benedict XVI is greeted by U.S. President George W. Bush during a welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington April 16, 2008. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY (OSV News) — Very few figures within the contemporary Church have influenced it as deeply and for as long as Pope Benedict XVI, who died Dec. 31, 2022 at 95.

The lasting legacy of Joseph Ratzinger — whom author George Weigel told OSV News was “one of the most consequential Christian figures of modern times” — will be a part of the universal Church for generations to come.

Joseph Ratzinger will go down in history linked to the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965), of which he was first one of its protagonists in the shadows and later one of its most consequential interpreters.

When the council opened in 1962, Father Ratzinger, only 35 years old, was one of the stars of the new German theology. Joseph Cardinal Frings, then head of the German bishops’ conference, took Ratzinger to the council as an expert, and in that position, he played a fundamental role in the development of the conciliar documents on the Church, revelation and sacred Scripture.

“The council’s purpose was to give a new, fresh, compelling articulation to the ancient truths of the Catholic faith,” Weigel told OSV News. “And during the four years of Vatican II, Joseph Ratzinger was one of the three most influential theologians helping to shape both the bishops’ reflections on these ancient truths and in formulating that fresh presentation of those truths.”

After five years as archbishop of Munich, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was called to Rome by Pope John Paul II, with whom he had crossed paths at the council — when John Paul was still known as Karol Wojtyla. As the Polish pope set forth to implement Vatican II, Ratzinger became his closest collaborator on those same subjects on which he had previously influenced the council as an expert.

The council opened new paths for the Church, especially in three areas: the relationship of faith with science; the relationship of the Church with the liberal state; and finally, the links of the Catholic Church with other religions. On these three issues, the differences between the teachings of the previous councils and that of Vatican II were so striking that it seemed to many that the Church had taken a leap into the void.

Faced with interpretations from all sides that Vatican II was a “rupture” with tradition, Ratzinger, first as a theologian, then as John Paul II’s adviser, and finally as Pope Benedict XVI, defended an interpretation of continuity. He explained this a few months after he was elected pope in a speech delivered on Dec. 22, 2005.

The truths taught by Vatican II, he argued, were already present in the doctrine transmitted by the Church. Vatican II only took care to make them explicit, thus maintaining a continuous evolution of Catholic doctrine. In keeping with the council, Ratzinger wanted Christ to be at the center.

“Ratzinger at Vatican II was convinced that the Church’s address to the world, the Church’s proposal to the world, had to be less ecclesiocentric and more Christocentric,” said Weigel, Pope John Paul II’s biographer and author of “God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church.”

“The Church had to offer a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, not simply a meeting with the institution of the Church,” Weigel said. “I think this will be something the Church continues to learn from in the decades and centuries ahead.”

The Catechism: a gift to all Catholics

Pope Benedict XVI’s contribution, first as a cardinal and later as pope, to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is widely viewed as one of the most important magisterial acts since the 1962 to 1965 Second Vatican Council. Arranged in four main parts, the catechism sought to clarify and re-propose the Church’s doctrine in accord with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

As CDF prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger chaired the drafting commission, which spent six years compiling the catechism at Pope John Paul II’s request. He later described its publication in October 1992, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, as “a miracle.”

As pontiff, Benedict XVI went on to approve a new Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in June 2005 (published in English a year later), which condensed the catechism’s contents in a more concise and accessible form around key questions. It was followed by a youth edition, known as YouCat, in 2011.

The aim, Benedict explained at the time, was to provide a deeper understanding of the Church and a “new impulse for evangelization.” He desired an “authoritative, reliable and complete text on the essential aspects of the Church’s faith,” which also contained “only the essential, fundamental elements of Catholic faith and morals, simply expressed.”

“The Catechism itself should be seen as the final act of Vatican II reforms,” Father Roberto Regoli, professor of Church history at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, told OSV News. “And the role of Benedict XVI was central to this, in coordinating and defining the Catholic Church’s faith and pastoral doctrine for new times.”

Benedict and a ‘Church for all’

In an effort to revitalize the Catholic Church, particularly in Europe, Pope Benedict XVI issued guidelines in July 2007 allowing a wider use of the 1962 Roman Missal. His apostolic letter “Summorum Pontificum” was widely seen as a bid to heal wounds with traditionalist Catholics who often weren’t allowed to practice this form of worship in their local churches. As a result, some turned to the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist religious order in irregular communion with Rome after its founder, the late French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, ordained four of his priests bishops without permission resulting in his excommunication.

The pope said his initiative drew from earlier work by John Paul II, who had allowed diocesan bishops the ability to permit the celebration of the older form of the Latin Mass, and which was intended as a gesture to those “attached with such love and affection to earlier liturgical forms which deeply shaped their culture and spirit.”

The motu proprio, however, was opposed by some Catholics who described it as a rollback of Vatican II reforms.

In November 2009, Benedict also made pastoral provisions for Anglicans who had requested to join the Catholic Church but who desired to keep their Anglican heritage. His apostolic constitution, “Anglicanorum Coetibus,” offended some Anglican leaders. However, it also came at a time when many Anglicans, including those requesting full communion with the Catholic Church, saw Anglicanism permit unilateral ordination of women and increasingly adopt positions at odds with traditional Christian morality, making ecumenical relations more difficult.

Today, the Catholic Church has three ordinariates for these Catholics of the Anglican tradition — one for the United Kingdom, one for North America, and a third for Australia and Pacific Rim countries.

Benedict XVI also had a special affection for African Catholics.

In the fast-growing African church, which had tripled in recent decades to around 146 million members, Benedict took steps to address crises stemming from worsening poverty, AIDS, religious fundamentalism, as well as from what he described in an October 2009 message as the “toxic spiritual garbage” of Western materialism.

In November 2011, in the apostolic exhortation “Africae Munus,” Benedict reflected on themes and issues discussed during a Synod of Bishops two years before. He offered African Catholics “guidelines for mission” in becoming “apostles of reconciliation, justice and peace.” The exhortation was issued during a papal visit to Benin, Benedict’s second to Africa after a pilgrimage to Cameroon and Angola in 2009.

The pope that showed the world how to step down with dignity

There have not been many popes in history that have stepped down from office — indeed Benedict XVI decided on something that seemed unthinkable in the modern papacy.

Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 to resolve the Great Western Schism after serving as pope for nearly nine years, was the last one to step down before Benedict XVI.

“I think (Pope Benedict’s resignation) was an honest decision by an honest man who really believed that he had reached the end of his physical and perhaps intellectual capacity to give the Church the leadership it needed,” Weigel told OSV News. “I think it was also an act of quite striking humility.”

The decision was shocking both outside and inside the Vatican.

Today, almost a decade after Benedict’s resignation, abdication from the papacy is seen as something the Church can expect. Pope Francis himself admitted in a recent interview for Spanish ABC magazine that he had prepared a resignation letter in the event of health problems.
It was Benedict XVI that showed the way of this “first” in the modern history of the papacy, offering a lesson in humility and giving an example of what it means to be a pope emeritus.

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI also brings us back to where we started in this discussion of the pontiff’s global legacy — his Second Vatican Council heritage. Before the council, it was not the norm for bishops to retire.

After the council, it became common — though not with the papacy. With his resignation as Bishop of Rome, Benedict built upon Vatican II’s understanding that episcopal leaders could, and perhaps should, relinquish their role in governance — setting a precedent for how future pontificates can approach their time in office. Now, upon his death, many are already calling Benedict XVI “the great.”