After the election of Benedict XVI in 2005, one cardinal remarked that if the only consequence of Joseph Ratzinger’s election was that people would now read his books, it would be a success.
Eight years later, as Benedict lays down his crozier, there is more than something to that.
The near-universal assessment of Benedict’s eight years is that he has been an exemplary disciple and a superlative teacher.
“The Holy Father has been one of the world’s, and history’s, great, great teachers of the faith,” said Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, president of the Canadian episcopal conference, in one of many similar assessments.
By the time of his election as pope, Joseph Ratzinger had already been a teacher of rare clarity and depth for more than four decades. German students would flock to the lectures of the young Father Ratzinger, even as English students of a previous century would pack the university church at Oxford to hear John Henry Newman preach.
This limpid teaching continued as pope, but it was exercised in a highly personal way. It would be more accurate to say that, while pope, Joseph Ratzinger continued to be a formidable and friendly teacher, rather than to say that he was a great teaching pope.
The usual instruments of the papal magisterium were not Benedict’s favored instruments. He wrote three encyclicals, and aside from the first half of the first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), they made a limited impact. The panoply of other documents — apostolic constitutions, exhortations and letters employed by Blessed John Paul II — were used only in limited ways. Partly this was because, as his predecessor’s chief lieutenant, Joseph Ratzinger had already made a contribution to the shelves of magisterial teaching produced and judged further additions to that record unnecessary.
Remember: Long before his election as pope, Cardinal Ratzinger had already completed the most enduring project of his life’s work, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Benedict chose instead to use five more personal means of teaching, trusting that, while they were less authoritative, perhaps they were more persuasive. First, pride of place was given to his homilies, with John Paul’s biographer George Weigel judging Benedict to be the “finest papal homilist since Gregory the Great.”
Benedict’s homilies constituted a course in biblical theology, combined with poetic expression and an extraordinary capacity to express the truths of faith in a most accessible manner. Already published in various collections, the homilies of Benedict will be spiritual reading for generations.
Second, and closely associated with his preaching, there were the Wednesday audiences which, over eight years, constituted a course in the Church Fathers, saints, biblical commentary and the art of prayer.
It was surprising to many that Benedict’s Wednesday’s audiences often drew more pilgrims than those of his predecessor. The masterful teaching presented may have been the reason.
Third, returning to form as a professor, there were the great magisterial lectures, echoing the academic tradition of a great scholar addressing an important topic of general interest. There were four great lectures — the "September Speeches," as I've called them elsewhere — at the University of Regensburg in 2006, College des Benardins in Paris (2007), the Westminster Parliament (2010) and the Bundestag in Berlin (2011). All were given on September trips of the Holy Father, perhaps prepared with care over the preceding summer months. A fifth great magisterial lecture, at La Sapienza University in Rome, was published, but not given in person due to protests from narrow-minded professors.
In the September Speeches, Benedict laid out the Christian tradition on faith and reason and the role of truth in public life.
At Regensburg, he explained that faith cannot demand what is contrary to reason, especially in regard to violence.
At the College des Bernardins in Paris, he examined the question from the opposite end, pointing out that reason without faith becomes turned in on itself and unable to answer man’s fundamental questions.
At Westminster, in the place where St. Thomas More was condemned to death, he spoke of the importance of conscience in political life.
In his own national parliament in Berlin, he spoke — echoing St. Augustine — of how politics without truth renders the state a “band of robbers.”
At La Sapienza, had the professoriate been well-mannered enough to receive him, they would have heard Holy Father relate all this to the life of the university. In the magisterial lectures, which were more exercises of Benedict’s professorial mind rather than his Petrine office, the Holy Father laid the foundations for a humane approach to the most pressing public questions of the 21st century.
Fourth, the great biblical theologian wrote books of academic work — three volumes entitled Jesus of Nazareth. Immensely learned, the trilogy demonstrated that scholarly rigor ought not be opposed to the life of faith. The books, which the Holy Father explicitly insisted were personal works and not of his papal magisterium, have had a greater reach and greater impact than any ordinary encyclical could hope to have.
A fifth instrument favored by Benedict was the off-the-cuff format, whether in question-and-answer style or in extemporaneous remarks.
Whether in his annual meetings with priests or in his famous Q&A with children preparing for first Communion, the great teacher was often at his best in conversational mode.
For example, at the end of his final retreat as pope, just a few days before his retirement, Benedict observed the following on the retreat’s theme — “the art of believing, the art of praying.”
“I was reminded of the fact,” Benedict XVI said, “that the medieval theologians have translated the word ‘logos’ not only as ‘verbum,’ but also as ‘ars.’ ‘Verbum’ and ‘ars’ are interchangeable. Only in the two together does the entire meaning of the word ‘logos’ appear for medieval theologians. The ‘Logos’ is not simply a mathematical reasoning; the ‘Logos’ has a heart. The ‘Logos’ is also love. Truth is beautiful. Truth and beauty go together. Beauty is the seal of truth.”
It was a fitting Ratzingerian conclusion — a few words, summarizing in light of the great Tradition the essence of the week’s preaching.
In the Morris West novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, an Italian cardinal is trying to build a case in the conclave for a Slavic pope, proposing a cardinal recently released from a Soviet forced-labor camp. He makes the proposal to a cardinal from the Eastern-rite Churches and receives a wise reply.
“Always,” said Rahamani the Syrian in his pliant, courteous fashion, “always you search for the one necessary gift — the gift of cooperating with God. Even among good men, this gift is rare. Most of us, you see, spend our lives trying to bend ourselves to the will of God, and, even then, we often have to bend by a violent grace. The others, the rare ones, commit themselves, as if by an instinctive act, to be tools in the hands of the Maker. If this new man is such a one, then it is who we need.”
Benedict has been a disciple even more than a teacher. He chose as his motto precisely that: Cooperatores Veritatis. A cooperator of the truth — the definition of both a disciple and a teacher.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.
He was the Register's Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.