Benedict’s Books: Unpacking the Late Pope’s Theological Impact
Six prominent theologians illustrate Benedict XVI’s great contributions to the life and mind of the Church by reflecting upon some of his most significant theological works.
Pope Benedict XVI shuffled off this mortal coil on the last day of 2022, but he leaves behind one of the most impressive and impactful theological corpuses, not just of any recent pope, but of any theological mind in the past century.
His published works spanned more than 50 years, treating everything from ecclesiology to eschatology. But a constant theme, unifying his vision from his time as the young theologian Joseph Ratzinger to his years in the Petrine office, was the centrality of the Person of Jesus Christ.
The Register asked six theologians deeply familiar with Benedict/Ratzinger’s thought — Father Robert Imbelli, Tracey Rowland, Father Emery de Gaal, Margaret Turek, Roland Millare and Christopher Ruddy — to unpack the theological contributions of this monumental Church figure by selecting a single text from his published works and illustrating its significance.
The Spirit of the Liturgy, selected by Father Robert Imbelli.
In the foreword to the inaugural volume of his Collected Works, Benedict XVI wrote: “The liturgy of the Church has been for me since my childhood the central reality of my life, and … it became the center of my theological efforts.” Both Benedict’s passionate love of the liturgy and his profound theological meditation upon the Catholic liturgy’s meaning and implications are apparent in this splendid book.
The book’s title pays explicit homage to the book of the same title by Romano Guardini, published in 1918. Benedict credits Guardini with inaugurating the modern liturgical movement in Germany. Benedict’s hope is that his own book will foster a renewed liturgical awareness and celebration in the post-Vatican II Church. And the heart of that hope is that, through the Church’s liturgy, “Christ unceasingly becomes contemporary with us, enters into our lives.”
There are four interrelated dimensions of Benedict’s liturgical vision. First, the purpose of liturgy is the worship of God. Hence, in liturgical celebration, secularity’s constricted “immanent frame” is transcended. Second, the prime celebrant of the Church’s liturgy is the crucified, risen and ascended Lord. He is ever the Head from whom the Body derives life and mission. Third, the true “active participation” the liturgy requires and fosters is our transformation in Christ. As Benedict writes: “[Christ’s] self-giving is meant to become mine, so that I become contemporary with the Pasch of Christ and assimilated unto God.” Fourth, Catholic liturgy engages and implicates the whole person, body, mind, spirit. Indeed, it embraces the whole of creation and recapitulates all human history.
As Catholics in the United States embark upon a Eucharistic revival, may they come to realize ever more fully what Benedict ponders in the practice of the early Church: “Christians came to see the Eucharist as the presence of the Bridegroom and thus a foretaste of the wedding feast of God.”
Father Robert Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is associate professor emeritus of theology at Boston College. Among his many published works, he explores Pope Benedict XVI’s thought related to the New Evangelization in Rekindling the Christic Imagination.
Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, selected by Tracey Rowland.
A collection of essays on reason, culture and world religious was published as Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions in 2004.
The importance of these subjects had grown over the past century. Along with cultural relativism came religious relativism exemplified in the Buddhist parable about how our understanding of God is like the perception of blind men with an elephant. Some men get hold of the elephant’s trunk, others his ears, yet another his tail and so on; each perceives his bit of the elephant as the whole. According to popularized versions of this parable, the religious traditions of the world are simply human constructions built around different bits of the “elephant.”
Ratzinger’s response to this was something like, “No, absolutely not, nein, non, nie, never”! For Ratzinger, Christianity is the truth that renders mere appearance superfluous. Ratzinger had learned from Romano Guardini that Christianity is not the product of human experience or intellectual speculation; it is not any kind of human construction: It is an event, an encounter with the Blessed Trinity, that comes to us from without.
In Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger also completely rejected the principle of the priority of praxis over truth. This principle lies at the foundation of the liberation theology movement. For Ratzinger, freedom is linked to truth. The truth comes first, and freedom is the fruit of a life lived in the truth. “Mere praxis gives no light.”
A particular version of the priority-of-praxis project takes the form of distilling the “values” of Christ’s kingdom from Christ himself. Here, Ratzinger charts the moves from ecclesiocentricity (the Church does matter) to Christocentricity (we can have Christ without the Church) to theocentricity (we can have some generic supreme being without Christ) and then, finally, we can set aside deism altogether and just forge a social consensus around “the values of the kingdom” — what Ratzinger called regnocentricity. This is a recipe for self-secularization. The end result is that neither the Church nor Christ are needed.
Truth and Tolerance is Ratzinger’s defense of John 14:6 — that Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Tracey Rowland is the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia). She is the author of Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI and a 2020 recipient of the Ratzinger Prize for Theology.
Introduction to Christianity, selected by Father Emery de Gaál.
“… Christian faith really means … acknowledgement that God is not the prisoner of eternity … that he is capable of operating here and now, in the midst of my world … who was born of the Virgin Mary ...”
So says Joseph Ratzinger in his Introduction to Christianity. There is something in the human being that allows a Christwerdung (becoming Christlike) of the individual to come about. This is the great endeavor of history. Dante famously closed Paradiso with the line that God is “the love that moves the sun and all the stars,” leaving human beings not uninvolved.
Franz von Baader coined the formula cogitor, ergo cogito, ergo sum (“I am being thought of [by God], therefore I think, therefore I am”). Divine-human relationality is the recurring leitmotif of Pope Benedict XVI’s theology, thereby overcoming impersonal Neo-Scholasticism, solitary Kantian subjectivism and Hegelian historicism.
Recent cultural upheavals aim at material perfection of this world. Ratzinger prophetically counters: Jesus Christ means every age and generation finds its fulfillment in a lived, sacramental relationship with Christ and conformity to his mindset. Ratzinger’s classic introduced a Christocentric shift in theology without succumbing to the temptation of subjectivism. At his deepest, the human being yearns for self-entrustment to the Father with Jesus Christ on the cross.
Father Emery de Gaál, a priest of the Diocese of Eichstätt (Germany), is the chairman and a professor of dogmatic theology of Mundelein Seminary in Illinois and the author of The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI: The Christocentric Shift.
Behold the Pierced One, selected by Margaret Turek.
One of the merits of Ratzinger’s theological legacy is his commitment to overcoming the split between theology and sanctity. Though the notion of a “kneeling theology” or theology at prayer is commonly associated with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger himself promotes and practices a way of doing theology that never distances itself from Christ-centered contemplation. This is borne out most notably in his essay “Taking Bearings in Christology” in Behold the Pierced One.
In this essay, Ratzinger explains that since Christ’s most personal reality is unbroken communication with the Father (in a word, filial prayer), then whoever wishes to understand the Person of Christ must let himself be drawn into Christ’s prayer vis-à-vis the Father in the Spirit. Knowing who Christ is and hence seeing the Father in Christ (John 14:9-11; 1:18) involves participating in the intimate reciprocity of love and knowledge between Father and Son (John 15:9; Matthew 11:27).
For this reason, Ratzinger insists that only the prayerful theologian “begins to see; praying and seeing go together because … love is the faculty of seeing. Real advances in Christology can never come merely as a result of the theology of the schools, and that includes the modern theology as we find it in critical exegesis, in the history of doctrine, etc. All this is important, but it is insufficient. It must be complemented by the theology of the saints, which is theology from experience. All real progress in theological understanding has its origin in the eye of love and in its faculty of beholding.”
Those who participate in Christ’s prayer are drawn into the drama of his filial mission from the Father for the sake of the world and thereby gain an ever-deepening understanding of the One who is himself the interpretive key to the whole of the Scriptures and all of Revelation (Luke 24:27).
Ratzinger’s theological legacy, then, includes a method for the renewal of theology, which aims beyond the good of the discipline per se. He summons theologians to place themselves and their work at the service of the renewal of the Church in holiness, whose renewal, in her turn, is directed to the renewal of all things in Christ.
Margaret Turek is the academic dean and a professor of theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California. She explores Ratzinger/Benedict’s thought on salvation in Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology.
Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, selected by Roland Millare.
Joseph Ratzinger’s “primer of Catholic ecclesiology,” Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, is a small volume with great insight into the nature and mission of the Church. Consistent with all of his works, Ratzinger focuses on the centrality of Jesus Christ and the Holy Eucharist as keys to comprehending the Church. Communion is the interpretive key to unlock the meaning of who we are as members of the Church, which is best understood as the Body or Bride of Christ.
During times in which scandals and rumors of scandals would have us lose faith in the Church, Ratzinger’s ecclesiology is a sober reminder that the Church is herself when we recall that the Church’s origin “is not the product of human willing but a creature of the spirit of God.”
Throughout this work, Ratzinger weaves together an important reflection upon the Church, emphasizing the primacy of the papacy, the relationship between the universal Church and the local Church, and the true essence of the priesthood. Every person in these various hierarchal offices is called to remember that he has been entrusted with the responsibility to enter into the self-giving love of Christ as they carry out his respective office. The purpose of the sacred liturgy and the priesthood is “to make the world as a whole a temple and a sacrificial offering for God. This is to bring about the inclusion of the whole world into the Body of Christ, so that God may be all in all (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28).”
This small book will have a lasting impact that will help a divided Church and society seek reform and renewal in authentic communion. Above all, it reminds the Church that she becomes her true self by becoming more like Jesus Christ.
Roland Millare is the vice president of curriculum of the St. John Paul II Foundation in Houston and author of A Living Sacrifice: Liturgy and Eschatology in Joseph Ratzinger.
‘In the Beginning …’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, selected by Christopher Ruddy.
This slim book punches well above its weight. Reflecting on the first three chapters of Genesis, Ratzinger treats a wide array of themes — e.g., worship as the “inner rhythm” of all creation; sin as a rejection of relationship and truth; responsible environmental stewardship — but three themes strike me as particularly relevant.
First, as the gift of the Logos, who is love, creation isn’t meaningless or random, but purposeful, ordered, rational, beautiful. As Benedict XVI put it in his papal installation homily, “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed; each of us is loved; each of us is necessary.”
Second, Ratzinger contrasts what he calls “Gnostic” and “Christian” worldviews. The Gnostic rejects creaturely dependence and love’s unpredictability in favor of control; the Creator is the ultimate enemy of human autonomy. The Christian affirms dependence and relationality, thereby embracing the risk and vulnerability of love. The believer says “Yes” to creation and recognizes that it is good to be alive.
And, in Christ, this goodness of creation is supremely affirmed. His cross becomes the true “tree of life.” His relationality overcomes our autonomous isolation, his obedience our distrust, his slavery our lust for domination, his love our fear. As mental illness and deaths of despair skyrocket in our “developed” world, could there be any more-needed good news?
Third, at a time when, in Carl Trueman’s words, the self is “plastic” and modernity “liquid,” Ratzinger invites us to accept gratefully our given, embodied selves in all of their limits and goodness.
As Gnosticism makes its seemingly eternal return in its contemporary forms of gender ideology and technocratic control, this book couldn’t be more timely or prophetic. In the Beginning is the work of a loving father: firm, gentle, truly lifegiving.
Christopher Ruddy is associate professor of historical and systematic theology at The Catholic University of America. He has written numerous articles on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, including “The Primacy of Receptivity: Joseph Ratzinger’s Theology of Ecclesial Reform,” forthcoming in The Thomist.
- benedict xvi