Pope Benedict XVI and the ‘German Question’

COMMENTARY: A conflagration may very well engulf the Church within the next year, and there is no fire extinguisher now that Benedict XVI is in retirement.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attends the Mass for the closing of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops Oct. 19, 2014 at the Vatican. The Pope Emeritus will turn 95 on Holy Saturday.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attends the Mass for the closing of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops Oct. 19, 2014 at the Vatican. The Pope Emeritus will turn 95 on Holy Saturday. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

This Holy Saturday the entire Catholic Church will turn its eyes toward Benedict XVI.  

It will be his 95th birthday and his liturgical birthday. Both coincide this year for the last time in the long life of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger (unless he lives until his 106th birthday in 2033). 

In 1927, April 16 fell on Holy Saturday, as it does again this year.  

Chronos and kairos, the temporal and eternal, the civil calendar and the liturgical year, all coincide this week for the most important German Churchman of the last 100 years.  

His birthday falls amid further turbulence from Germany. The “Synodal Path” — the wolf of secularized Christianity pretending to be the sheep of Catholic reform — earns intercontinental rebukes from increasing numbers of bishops. It is ever more clear that Pope Francis has no answer to this German question, despite repeated efforts since 2019 to deter them from their divisive path. And he has no answer because the Church has really only had one answer for 40 years, a shortcut answer: that Bavarian baby who was born on Holy Saturday 1927. 

This week more than 70 bishops — led by four cardinals from three continents — issued an open “fraternal letter” to the bishops of Germany stating that “the potential for schism … will inevitably result” if they do not repent of their “Synodal Path.”  

A conflagration may very well engulf the Church within the next year, and there is no fire extinguisher now that Benedict is in retirement. 


The German Problem Emerges 

The German problem has been preoccupying the Church in matters both sacred and profane for the past 500 years, from Martin Luther’s divisions to the totalitarianism of the 20th century. Despite this, German scholarship and theology has not lost its vigor. The contemporary crisis has roots in the outsize influence that German theologians had at the Second Vatican Council, memorably expressed in the title of a history of Vatican II: The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber.  

The two volumes of Peter Seewald’s comprehensive biography — Benedict XVI: A Lifeabundantly demonstrate that Joseph Ratzinger was at the center of that southward Rhine flow from the late 1950s onwards. The first volume makes clear in detail that Ratzinger, still in his 30s, was already a major participant in the German ferment for reform, though he remained then a junior partner.  

After the Council, the giants of German-speaking theology started a theological journal to advance the “spirit of the Council.” The founders included prominent figures such as Yves Congar, Hans Küng, Johann Baptist Metz, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Edward Schillebeeckx. The German world was moving past the recently concluded Council, such that the “spirit of Vatican II” came to be at odds with the Council itself.  

Thus, in 1972, de Lubac and von Balthasar resigned and left the company of Rahner, Metz and Küng. They founded a new journal, Communio. Father Joseph Ratzinger was a co-founder. Thus was set the German conflict that would last from then until today; the conflict between what Benedict would later describe as a battle for the proper interpretation — “hermeneutic” — of Vatican II, a “hermeneutic of rupture” against a “hermeneutic of reform.”  

Ratzinger was the leading theological voice of his generation in the latter camp. So much did that divide — Concilium/Communio, rupture/reform — mark Ratzinger’s life that at his final meeting with the priests of Rome, just two weeks before leaving office, Benedict gave a very lengthy reflection on the whole history of Vatican II hermeneutics. 


The Ratzinger Solution 

What, then, to do about the German problem in the 1970s, as the “hermeneutic of rupture” came to dominate influential German theology? St. Paul VI watched in horror and helplessness as the “smoke of Satan” infiltrated the Church. The devil was not only in Deutschland, of course, but it was very smoky there. 

The premature death of the archbishop of Munich in 1976 presented Paul VI with an opportunity. His solution to the German problem was to pluck the brightest star of the Communio school and transfer him directly from the theological world of Regensburg to the ancient see of Munich and Freising. He created him a cardinal just a few months later. Even given the tradition of scholar bishops in Germany, it was a bolder move than the future John Paul II selecting Jean-Marie Lustiger for Paris or John O’Connor for New York. 

It was not Ratzinger’s will, as he considered his vocation to be academic theology. 

“In our conversations I asked the pope emeritus whether his departure from Regensburg had been the greatest rupture in his life,” writes Seewald. “Had it been the ‘end of your personal happiness and all your dreams?’ The pope’s voice expressed a melancholy resignation as he answered: ‘You could say that. Yes.’” 

The Ratzinger solution was a shortcut. It did not so much seek to move Germany from rupture to reform, as it did to appoint a singular German shepherd to watch over the unruly flock. A personal rupture for Ratzinger was Pope Paul VI’s attempt to put Germany back on the path of authentic conciliar reform. 


John Paul II Doubles Down 

The Ratzinger solution for the German problem was effective. As Seewald shows in his second volume, Ratzinger was immediately drawn into the German controversies, opposing an appointment for his former colleague, Johann Baptist Metz. He would soon be engaged in the controversy over Hans Küng. No matter the position anyone took on the issues, Ratzinger’s presence ensured that it was not a narrow-minded conservatism that did not comprehend what Metz and Küng were up to; he was not only their equal in theological competence, but, in fact, was superior. 

Karol Wojtyła had watched the German problem from next door in Poland. Conversant in German theology — he spoke German in his decades of private meetings with Cardinal Ratzinger — he knew that there had to be a German solution in Rome, not just Germany. And so, immediately upon election at pope, he wanted Cardinal Ratzinger in Rome. When Ratzinger declined the position of prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education in 1979 on the grounds that he had only been two years in Munich, John Paul agreed to wait.  

Two years later, in 1981, he prevailed on his friend to become prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This time, Ratzinger agreed. Despite several attempts to retire and return to his theological work, John Paul insisted that Cardinal Ratzinger remain to the end. He was at John Paul’s side for the battles over liberation theology — influenced by prominent German voices in Latin America — the Catechism, abortion counseling, ecumenism and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. 

In 1988, when John Paul appointed Joachim Meisner as archbishop of Cologne, the German party of rupture was incandescent with rage; hundreds of prominent theologians expressed their lack of confidence in John Paul and Ratzinger. Thus Cardinal Ratzinger did not calm the German waters entirely; the Rhine still roiled. But he ensured that it remained within its banks


Pope and Protégé  

Upon election as pope, Benedict did not need to find a personnel solution to the German problem. The solution was now sitting on the throne of Peter. On his visits to Germany, the German bishops had to listen to one of their own challenge them. 

In his final visit, he addressed the bloated bureaucracy of Germany’s immensely rich Catholic institutions. He was unsparing: “The Church in Germany is superbly organized. But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in the living God? We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit.” 

The language was diplomatic, but the message was blunt: Drawing a paycheck from the Church does not make one Catholic.  

Benedict did not need a theological adviser as pope. But when he took the decision to abdicate, he knew that the 35-year service he had rendered as chief German shepherd was coming to an end. So he provided for the succession by naming Cardinal Gerhard Müller as the new prefect of the CDF in July 2012, by which time he had already decided to abdicate. The bishop-theologian was already in charge of publishing Ratzinger’s lifetime works. No one could replace Ratzinger, but in Cardinal Müller the Germans were being watched over by one of their own, who knew them — and followed Ratzinger.  


Pope Francis  

Pope Francis was cross with Cardinal Müller for his evident lack of enthusiasm for Amoris Laetitia, so he sacked him in 2017, elevating in his stead Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the respected Spanish theologian.  

The Holy Father had removed the personnel answer to the German problem. No longer would Germany’s bishops have one of their own to contend with. To the contrary, in returning Cardinal Walter Kasper to prominence and making Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich the most powerful German prelate in Rome, Pope Francis empowered the German problem. In defenestrating Cardinal Müller, he got rid of the German solution. 

The German party of rupture saw the change in the correlation of forces and began to press their advantage. With a Jesuit-formed pope and Jesuit-formed prefect of doctrine, the Germans knew that they would have plenty of room to run. No matter how orthodox a Jesuit of that generation, their leaders have spent a lifetime of accommodating theological dissent and moral corruption as a simple means of survival. 

The result is the German “Synodal Path.” Pope Francis has tried repeatedly to shut it down. But a Jesuit pope without Ratzinger or Ratzinger’s protégé simply cannot do it.  


A Warning? 

In his last act as pope, Benedict wrote his encyclical on faith, Lumen Fidei (officially issued by Pope Francis). He did not know who his successor would be, but he did have Cardinal Müller in place. He gave a final warning to the party of rupture. 

“Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity,” Benedict wrote. “Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole” (48). 

The integrity of faith is being ruptured anew. The flock is being divided and scattered. And the German Shepherd is in retirement with no one to replace him.