Cardinal Müller: Benedict XVI Will Be Remembered as a ‘True Doctor of the Church for Today’

Speaking with the Register, the German cardinal theologian reflects on the profound legacy of the late pope emeritus.

Benedict XVI, pictured in 2010.
Benedict XVI, pictured in 2010. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano / Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Gerhard Müller has paid tribute to the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, describing him as a “great thinker” and a “true Doctor of the Church for today.”

The prefect emeritus of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith also described the late Joseph Ratzinger, who died at Dec. 31 at 9:34 am in Rome, as a man of great sensitivity, humor, and humility who possessed “deep wisdom as a partaker in God’s love.”

In this interview with the Register, the German cardinal theologian — who founded the Benedict XVI Institute to make available Joseph Ratzinger’s collected works — discusses Benedict XVI’s legacy to the Church, responds to some of his critics, and reflects on how his passing might affect the highly criticized German Synodal Path. 


Your Eminence, what is the greatest legacy of Benedict XVI in terms of theology and doctrine?

The best books are his Introduction to Christianity and Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life and his Jesus trilogy for a well-educated general public, while the books on Augustine and Bonaventure require an academic theological education for a better understanding. Also readable for everyone are his uplifting and faith-strengthening numerous homilies, which are also easily accessible in the Collected Writings (16 volumes).


How would you like him to be best remembered, both doctrinally and, more broadly, as a priest, bishop, cardinal and pope?

In all his positions and all his tasks, he was a great thinker and personally a believing Christian. He is a true doctor of the Church for today.


Which of his encyclicals is, to you, the most profound and helpful, and the one that resonates with our times?

I think his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), because here the sum and culmination of the self-revelation of the Triune God in his essence, and the relationship of the three divine persons, is presented to contemporary man at the highest magisterial level. 


Joseph Ratzinger was a great proponent of the “hermeneutic of reform and continuity,” arguing that Vatican II did not represent a radical break but a more pastoral reformulation of old truths and earlier doctrine, applying the teachings of early Church fathers to the contemporary world. How helpful was that perception of the Council in your view?

This is evident, since no Council has the task of founding a new Church or of supplementing, correcting or completing the unique and complete revelation of God in Jesus Christ. One only has to read the introductions to the two dogmatic constitutions on Divine Revelation and the Church. Then one sees how the Council itself inserts itself into the entire Catholic doctrinal tradition and, above all, affirms that the magisterium of the Pope and the Bishops, and thus also the Councils, are not above the Word of God, but serve its true interpretation (Dei Verbum 7-10).


Some of Joseph Ratzinger’s critics have argued that his theology could at times be incoherent as he tried to reconcile contradictory positions (e.g., modernity with tradition), while others say he was too rigid and conservative, unwilling to adapt the Church to the times. What do you say to these critics?

Only ideologically narrow-minded ignoramuses can mean that. St. Irenaeus of Lyon, whom Pope Francis has declared Doctor Unitatis (Doctor of Unity), speaks against the Gnostics of all times who want to imprison the mystery of God in their limited minds, and that with and in Christ all the newness and unmatched modernity of God has come into the world. Modernity is not identical with the anti-metaphysical immanentism of the Enlightenment and the anti-human ideologies of the philosophical and political atheisms of the last three centuries. Only the Christian faith is modern, that is, up to the level of the real basic questions about the meaning of life and the moral principles of its formation. For no theory and no human being can redeem us and offer us support in life and in death except the Word of God, who in his Son assumed our humanity and through his cross and resurrection redeemed us from sin and death and gave us the hope of eternal life (Gaudium et Spes 10; 22). 

We are not slaves but citizens in the city of God, sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father in Christ and friends of God in the Holy Spirit.


What was Joseph Ratzinger like as a person? What personal attributes and qualities will you best remember? 

He was a very fine person, very sensitive, humorous, humble and, above all, a man of deep wisdom as a partaker in God’s love.


What effect do you think the death of Benedict XVI will have, if any, on the German Synodal Path? 

I am afraid that these protagonists of an anthropology far from Christ won’t be impressed by one of the greatest Christian scholars of our time, because with them, if the Holy Spirit does not directly cause a deep conversion of hearts, an atheistic ideology suffocates every seed of supernatural, revealed faith.