Joseph Ratzinger, Breathtakingly Brilliant Theologian

COMMENTARY: Both scholarly and yet accessible, Joseph Ratzinger’s Christocentric approach brought a clarity of thought that the Church will still be digesting decades, if not centuries, from now.

Pope Benedict XVI looks around during the audience for the new Metropolitan Archbishops in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, 30 June 2007. The Pontiff pressed China  to respect religious freedom and the Vatican's right to appoint its own bishops, dismissing Beijing's nominees as "illegitimate".
Pope Benedict XVI looks around during the audience for the new Metropolitan Archbishops in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, 30 June 2007. The Pontiff pressed China to respect religious freedom and the Vatican's right to appoint its own bishops, dismissing Beijing's nominees as "illegitimate". (photo: Alberto Pizzoli / AFP/Getty)

Short reflections on the “legacy” of a great and influential person after his passing are always in danger of oversimplification. After all, a person does not reach the stature of a Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI by being simplistic, uncomplicated and unnuanced. 

Sadly, while he was still alive, and during most of his career, there was no shortage of those who sought to pigeonhole him as either an “archconservative” and rigidly doctrinaire “Panzer Cardinal” or, conversely, as a dangerous “modernist liberal.” 

I think most of these caricatures are just so much fiddle-faddle. I say “most of these” because one thing these caricatures get right is their instinctive insight that what most characterized Joseph Ratzinger, and thus where we should look in assessing his legacy, is that he was first and foremost a theologian. Twice he turned down the request of Pope St. John Paul II to become head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he only relented when the sainted Pope stopped requesting and began demanding. 

Ratzinger was an academic at heart and resisted elevation to high office since it would take him away from his beloved books and his scholarly studies. In many ways, therefore, his resignation of the papal office can be viewed in the same light as his own self-evaluation: that perhaps a theologian/scholar is not really the right man for that job in the present moment of ecclesial need. I think he was the right man for the job, a pope I greatly admired, but it is not, I think, his time on the Chair of St. Peter that best characterizes his enduring legacy.

There is little doubt, despite a few sniping naysayers, that he was one of the most important theologians of our time. But where did he fit in the theological spectrum, and why does it matter? 

Dealing with the last question first, it matters greatly where he is to be located theologically since he was one of the most influential of the periti at the Second Vatican Council. It was he who wrote the famous “Genoa speech” of Cardinal Josef Frings that is widely regarded as the discourse that set the tone and established the “agenda” for the coming Council. 

The speech was on the Church in the modern world, and it called into question the standard theological approaches of the day to modern technological culture, which Ratzinger viewed as overly insular and inward-looking. What he advocated for instead was an “opening” to the modern world that took seriously the irreversible cultural changes that could not be ignored, appropriating the “spoils of Egypt” where appropriate, but also raising it all into the higher register of a Christological transformation. 

It was also Ratzinger who penned a voluminous response, at the request of Cardinal Frings, to the proposed schemata for the Council, wherein he criticized most of them for being still too wedded in content and expression to the categories of the old-school theology. 

He called for a deeper emphasis in the drafts on Scripture and the Church Fathers, which alone could give the Council a stronger focus on the reevangelization of the world via a concentrated Christocentric reform of our understanding of the sources of Revelation and, indeed, of the entirety of the Church’s dogmatic teachings. 

A majority of the conciliar bishops, and Pope St. John XXIII as well, agreed with this assessment; and thus most of the original proposed schemata, prepared in advance by the Holy Office, were rejected and sent back for revisions. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Therefore, since the Council was the most seismic ecclesiastical event of modern times, the shock waves of which are still with us today, and since Joseph Ratzinger was clearly one of its most influential players, even as a non-voting “adviser,” it is, I think, important to remind ourselves of his importance, for better or for worse, for all that happened at the Council and all that happened after. And it is only in so doing that we can properly assess his lasting legacy. 

In this regard, it is important to note that Ratzinger himself came eventually to the view that the Council was a “mixed bag” of successes and failures, stating on one occasion that the Council may have been guilty of being overly fixated on “getting the theology right” and not fixated enough on what the pastoral fallout might be. Stated another way, one could say that the Council was a Council of theologians writing for other theologians, which, though good in itself, was not sufficient for the task at hand.

This then leads to the question of where Ratzinger fits in the overall spectrum of theology of that time. This task of categorizing Benedict’s theological location in relation to the theological landscape of the 20th century is muddied by the fact that there is a lot of anachronistic reading back into those times theological categories, which only later coalesced after the Council into hard and sharp delineations between “Concilium theologians” and “Communio theologians.” 

Theologians like Hans Küng were not yet as radicalized as they later came to be, and the so-called “ressourcement theologians” were a ragtag group of disparate thinkers who did not really articulate a common theological method. Furthermore, even the movement loosely known as “neo-Thomism” had multiple iterations, as the theologian Tracey Rowland has made clear. Finally, what has come to be labeled, derisively, as the “theology of the manuals” was never as awful as its critics made it out be and by the 1950s was itself reforming in very salutary directions.

Nevertheless, it is possible to locate Joseph Ratzinger, both as a pre-conciliar and post-conciliar theologian, in the school of theology known as “ressourcement.” Briefly, ressourcement theologians wanted to move beyond the neo-Scholasticism of the time and to expand our appropriation of the Tradition by “going back to the sources” of Scripture and the Church Fathers. This necessarily entailed the scuttling of the idea, so regnant in the Church for centuries, that all of Catholic theology should be centered in, and be an outflow of, the thought of Thomas Aquinas and the traditions of his commentators. And it was also the view of these theologians, Ratzinger included, that it was only in the Christocentrism of this return to the sources that the modern world could be properly engaged.

Therefore, Joseph Ratzinger’s legacy, and indeed of the Council as well, is tied to the theological legitimacy of this movement, both positively and negatively. 

On the positive side, ressourcement theology succeeded in demolishing the stranglehold that neo-Scholasticism had on the Church and thus opened the doors to more Christocentric approaches to theology, which in turn have led to profound theological engagements with the world that the Church had not seen in centuries. Furthermore, it has led to some often overlooked areas of vitality in the Church, such as the rise of a plethora of new ecclesial movements that are often focused on the laity. 

Finally, it is simply a fact that much of ressourcement theology is simply brilliant and bracing, and one of Ratzinger’s legacies is that he was one of the most brilliant and bracing theologians of them all. Both scholarly and yet accessible, Ratzinger the theologian brought a clarity of thought in all of his writings that the Church will still be reading and digesting decades, if not centuries, from now. 

Negatively, ressourcement theology, in vanquishing the neo-Scholastic edifice, left a vacuum in its wake that has never been filled. Say what you will about the manuals, but they gave the Church a kind of magisterially approved standard theology that held at bay the centrifugal forces that threatened to tear the Church apart. 

Sadly, and despite their brilliance, the plurality of approaches within ressourcement theology have never coalesced into a replacement for that standard theology. Perhaps we do not need one. Perhaps an irreducible theological pluralism is to be desired over an “imposed” theological consensus from above. But it goes without saying that what we have today is not a genuine pluralism of views all revolving around a common center, but a mélange of divergent and often heterodox views. 

Thus, the legacy of Joseph Ratzinger is that of a breathtakingly brilliant theologian who helped to found a movement that exploded the old wineskins of a deficient theology and developed fresh ones that could hold the wine of a new Christocentrism — and in so doing gave us the gift of the Council, which, and despite some traditionalists’ claims to the contrary, is still of profound ecclesial and theological importance. Therefore, it is not a dead legacy but a living one, albeit an incomplete one, and it is now up to those of us in the ressourcement camp to carry it forward. 

Rest in peace, Holy Father. You described yourself as a “humble servant in the Lord’s vineyard.” And now your earthly task in that vineyard is complete. May it continue on with the saints in heaven.