Benedict XVI: Doctor of the Church

Perhaps it may seem a bit premature, but here goes: Benedict XVI should be declared a doctor of the Church.

There are, if I count correctly, 33 such esteemed doctors, the most recent being St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who died in 1897, and the most recently declared being St. Hildegard of Bingen, who died in 1179 but was declared a doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict in October of 2012. Benedict XVI would be No. 34 (assuming no others are named beforehand).

A doctor of the Church must be holy. Check.

Joseph Ratzinger was, in heart and mind, an academic, a man deeply in love with the truth, a man made to teach. But then he was named an archbishop in 1977 and, in 1981, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, overseeing the faith, morals and doctrine of the Church. And, finally in 2005, he was elected pope.

What does this have to do with holiness? I would submit that Joseph Ratzinger suffered a kind of white martyrdom, leaving what he loved the most, a quiet life of learning and teaching, to undertake what the Church needed the most. I am sure that he hated, as prefect of the CDF, being called “Rome’s Rottweiler” as much as he disliked the unpleasant task of drawing theologians’ toes up to the doctrinal line. And if ever a man availed himself of the Room of Tears, it was the newly elected Benedict.

Even under the superhuman pressures of the papacy, Benedict continued to write — that is, to teach — providing an enormous spiritual-intellectual legacy that we have only just begun to appreciate.

And that gets us to the other two qualifications for a doctor of the Church: depth of insight in writings and a sufficiently large number of writings that the Church can wholeheartedly recommend as revealing the authentic Catholic Tradition.

His Jesus of Nazareth series alone would, I suspect, qualify him on both counts. But as a casual scroll on Amazon, through the pages upon pages of books by Joseph Ratzinger and then Pope Benedict XVI makes clear, the treasury of his writings overflows.

I have not had the time to read nearly as much of Benedict’s writings as I would like. But every time I read something I am astounded at the depth and breadth of his understanding, especially his profound grasp of the history of the Church — not only as an institution, but how the Church has interacted with Greek and Roman philosophy, struggled to evangelize in a hostile pagan empire, built a new civilization — Christian Europe — on the rubble of that collapsed empire, invented the university, wrestled with the Reformation and confronted newly minted, hostile modern philosophies, and tangled with secular movements out to erase the Church from history. There seems to be no time or subject, in this 2,000-year drama, that Benedict has not penetrated.

I recall my first brush with his brilliance. I had just written a book (with Jonathan Witt), A Meaningful World, which laid out, in great detail, what we thought to be a new and important approach to demonstrating the existence of God through the intelligibility of the universe. Our argument was, to boil it down, that science itself depends on the pre-existing, deep intelligibility of the universe. The universe seems to be constructed, layer upon layer, to be known by rational creatures like us. A randomly contrived universe simply couldn’t be like that.

And then I read Pope Benedict’s "Regensburg Address." O humility! The Pope laid out in a few paragraphs what it took us 250 pages to articulate — and set it in the context of the history of philosophy and theology.

In my most recent book, Worshipping the State, I set out a very careful historical argument showing — I thought, in a very novel way — that it was the Church itself that had invented the distinction of church and state and that modern liberalism (which likes to pose as the church-state inventor) was actually in the process of destroying it.

And then I read Benedict’s Without Roots, The Dialectics of Secularization and Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. O humility squared! Scooped again.

You get the picture, so there’s no sense drawing any more humiliating examples. Everywhere I stepped upon previously uncharted territory, I found it well- and deeply-trod with Benedict’s footprints. I would have been far better, and gotten far deeper, if I’d only come to him first. And I know I’m not the only one who has had this experience.

That’s the sign of a great teacher, a great doctor of the Church. 

This is the seventh and final part of a series on the papacy of Benedict XVI.

Follow the links for Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.