Remembering Benedict XVI: Pope of the Head — and the Heart

Church leaders and thinkers consider his prodigious legacy of faith.

Pope Francis is shown Aug. 28, 2010, in his office at the Vatican.
Pope Francis is shown Aug. 28, 2010, in his office at the Vatican. (photo: L'Osservatory Romano / Vatican Media)
  • Pope Benedict XVI died Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022.
  • Admirers are remembering him as one of the finest theologians of the modern age.
  • Some also recall his personal warmth and kindness.
  • Some critics say he didn’t do enough to root out corruption and, at least initially, clergy abusers.
  • Still, some see him as a saint. 

To the outside world, Benedict XVI is simply the Pope Who Resigned.

But for admirers who dealt with him as a leader or read his work on theology and Scripture, Pope Benedict XVI was both an intellectual force and a warm blanket.

“I will miss Pope Benedict,” Cardinal Seàn O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, said Saturday morning, hours after the pope emeritus died.

Cardinal O’Malley, whom Benedict named a cardinal in 2006, said he appreciated Benedict’s clear communication and outreach.

“In all of my personal interactions with Pope Benedict XVI, I found him to be an engaged leader, thoughtful in his decisions and always committed to the mission of the Church,” Cardinal O’Malley said in a written statement. “… His fidelity to maintaining the truth and clarity of the Catholic faith, cultivating ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and reaching out to inspire the next generation of Catholics have been great gifts to us all.”


Timelessness to His Teaching

In February 2013, after Pope Benedict announced his resignation, Father Roger Landry, a priest of Fall River, Massachusetts, and a frequent Register contributor, was asked by an interviewer how Benedict would be remembered in 10 years. The right question, Father Landry replied, is how he’ll be remembered in 500 years.

When the Register asked Father Landry recently about the former pope’s influence, he focused on his hermeneutics (method of interpretation) and doxology (expression of praise to God).

“His greatest contribution, I think, will prove to be his focus on the hermeneutic of continuity, rather than rupture, in the Church. At a time of theological, liturgical and moral chaos, he grounded us, with new language fit for the time, to the wisdom that preceded us and taught us something essential to be Catholic in any age,” said Father Landry, currently the chaplain at Columbia University in New York, by email.

Benedict understood how to keep his eyes on the prize and helped others do that, too, Father Landry said.

“I have been so deeply influenced by Pope Benedict’s thought and life that it’s hard for me any longer to recognize what originally came from what he has taught me by his writings and example. But one of the most noteworthy has been his doxological preaching — which always keeps our gaze fixed on God, his beauty, love and light — in contrast to moralizing or an excessive focus on things of this world,” Father Landry said. “No matter how big the problems being confronted, he keeps his gaze on the Lord and has helped me do the same.”


Ratzinger’s Approach to God

Theologians contacted by the Register said they appreciate Benedict XVI’s approach to the study of God, which sought to balance faith and reason, rejecting neither new methods of analysis nor ancient teachings of the Church.

As Father Joseph Ratzinger, he spent about 18 years teaching and writing about theology at the university level in Germany, before becoming archbishop of Munich and, later, under Pope St. John Paul II, head of the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The book that first made Ratzinger a worldwide figure is Introduction To Christianity (1968), a restatement and analysis of the Apostles’ Creed.

John Cavadini, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said that the book is still in print in many languages — and said that it “has helped me produce a credible undergraduate introduction to the Catholic faith, both in terms of content and in terms of style of teaching.”

Ratzinger’s writings often come across as more of a conversation than an argument. Cavadini called his approach to interreligious dialogue “unsurpassed” and said he “set a bar for very precise and clear thinking theologically,” with a “laser-sharp focus on Jesus Christ as the unsurpassable revelation of God's love.”

“Not only is he a brilliant theologian, but he is always pastoral in his approach, always trying to help people see what our religion means and why it is important,” Cavadini told the Register by email.

Jesuit Father Brian Daley said he has often used Cardinal Ratzinger’s thought in his teaching and writing, particularly his book on eschatology (or end times).

“I find his writing learned, comprehensive and extremely well balanced. His work is broadly documented, and usually represents a thoughtful synthesis of the best currents in modern Catholic theology. I consider him the most representative voice in recent treatments of the 20th-century Catholic theological tradition,” said Father Daley, an emeritus professor of theology at Notre Dame, by email.


Personal Touch

Bishop Richard Stika, the bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee, who met with Pope Benedict five times, called him “very gentle — a firm and a kind shepherd.”

Cardinal Justin Rigali, retired archbishop of Philadelphia, recalled then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope on April 19, 2005, during a conclave in which Cardinal Rigali participated.

“I can remember when I went up to the Pope and knelt before him to show my respect and offer to him my pledge to be faithful and obedient, the first thing that Pope Benedict said to me was, ‘Happy Birthday, your eminence,’” Cardinal Rigali said in a written statement. “It was my 70th birthday. Pope Benedict remembered that, and that is a memory I will always carry with me.”

When Pope Benedict visited the United States in April 2008, Cardinal O’Malley arranged for an unannounced personal meeting between the Pope and five victims of clergy sex abuse from the Archdiocese of Boston. It took place at the papal nuncio’s residence in Washington.

Cardinal O’Malley gave the Pope a handmade book listing the names of nearly 1,500 victims. When Benedict saw the book, “there was an audible intake of breath,” according to an aide to Cardinal O’Malley who was there.

One of the victims, who had stopped going to church, found the Pope surprising. “I looked up, and I had the eyes of somebody’s grandfather looking at me. He was a very sincere, humble man,” the victim said later, according to The Boston Globe.

“It was a great privilege for me to be present at this meeting,” Cardinal O’Malley said Saturday, “as the Holy Father, in very personal ways, demonstrated his deep pastoral care for the survivors. Pope Benedict XVI recognized the pain experienced by survivors and all persons impacted by the abuse crisis. He was then, and at all times remained, committed to the Church, supporting their journey towards healing and doing all that was possible to ensure the protection of children, young people, and vulnerable adults.”


Criticism of Benedict

Benedict’s legacy is not uncomplicated. 

As with many Churchmen of the past 60 years, a cloud from the clergy sex-abuse scandal clings to him, at least in the minds of some observers. He generally gets credit for being attuned to the problem earlier than many other bishops. But he hasn’t been above criticism.

In January 2022, a law firm in Munich issued a report and subsequent public statements suggesting that when he was archbishop of the German diocese, then-Cardinal Ratzinger did nothing against four priest abusers and allowed them to continue in ministry, and then lied to the law firm earlier this year about what he knew and when he knew it. Allies of Ratzinger subsequently issued a statement, refuting the accusations and suggesting that he didn’t know the nature of the accusations against the priests or that they subsequently continued in ministry, and saying their denial to the law firm on his behalf that he was at a particular meeting in which one of the cases was discussed was in error. Pope Emeritus Benedict issued a letter expressing what he called “my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness,” without getting into the details of the accusations.

Cardinal Ratzinger preferred university life to church administration. He didn’t want to become head of the Vatican’s office on doctrine, he tried to leave after he was there, and he didn’t want to become pope. Some observers see weaknesses in his approach to leadership and even, in some cases, to theology.

Theologian and author Janet Smith — who told the Register, “I believe myself to be very privileged to have lived during his pontificate” — said Father Ratzinger’s role as an expert theologian during the Second Vatican Council deserves more scrutiny and that his response to corruption in the Vatican while he was pope was inadequate.

But the pluses vastly outweigh the minuses, she said.

“When Joseph Ratzinger was announced as pope and stepped out on the balcony, I immediately fell in love with him — and also felt like an unfaithful spouse, since I had loved Pope St. John Paul II so. They were thinkers of such force and different gifts that I was dazzled by them both,” said Smith, who is also a Register contributor, by email. “The revelations of the corruption in the Vatican, which neither took sufficient steps to eradicate, has dimmed their light somewhat for me. But humility requires me to acknowledge that I cannot think of a harder task, especially for those whose chief gifts were academic.”

She also suggested that at times each man attempted “to engage the modern world in ways that may have led to the obfuscation of some important truths.”

“Nonetheless,” she continued, “there are deeds of men that catapult them above any of their failings, and I believe that Benedict's voluntary embrace of the extremely unpalatable task of dealing with priestly sexual abuse when he was prefect of the CDF outshines the dedication of any other prelate to dealing with the problem and deserves our immense admiration. But his finest deed, in my view, was his recognition that the traditional Latin Mass had never been abrogated, along with the acknowledgement that access to it is a ‘juridical right’ of the faithful. Benedict's deepest desire was that everyone encounter the Truth, who is Jesus Christ, and he knew that the TLM was a privileged place for that encounter.”


Benedict and Jesus

Sister Sara Butler, a theologian, said she especially admires Ratzinger’s Christology (or study of Christ) and his theology of the priesthood, about which she has written in an essay in a forthcoming book called Cambridge Companion to Ratzinger — but also “his humility, his piety and the challenges he set out in his yearly addresses to the International Theological Commission,” on which she served.

“Certainly, his leadership in the production of the Catechism of the Catholic Church must be acknowledged as a major contribution. This was a testimony to his ongoing effort to integrate the teaching of the Second Vatican Council into the Church’s deposit of faith in a way that respects its continuity with the Tradition,” said Sister Sara, a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity and professor emerita of dogmatic theology at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. 

“By means of his comprehensive grasp of the faith as a whole and his insight into the relation between Scripture and Tradition and theological method, he has been a faithful guide to the development of doctrine,” Sister Sara added. “As a theologian-pope, Benedict XVI bore witness to the intelligibility of the Catholic faith.”

Theologian Ralph Martin also highlighted Benedict’s approach to Scripture, which was neither defensive nor rationalist.

“If I were to pick out what I think his most significant contribution to the life of the Church is, it would be his restoration of Catholic biblical scholarship to its traditional place in the life of the Church; i.e., seeking to understand the inspired word of God rather than trying to explain it away to accommodate secular culture,” said Martin, director of the graduate theology programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit, by email. “His three-volume Jesus of Nazareth masterwork and his apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini (The Word of the Lord), enunciate the principles and demonstrate how to apply them in solid Scripture exegesis and biblical theology. This has opened the door and given confidence to a whole new generation of biblical theologians who are restoring people's faith in the truthfulness of God's word. As Pope Benedict said on one occasion: ‘The Catholic tradition ... trusts the evangelists; it believes what they say.’”

For Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Catholic apologist and convert to the faith, the former pope’s greatest contribution to the Church is the life he led.

“What he showed me, both as Ratzinger and as Benedict, was simply a shining and encouraging example of what it means to be a teacher, a theologian and, above all, a saint,” Kreeft said by email. “He was a gentle giant.”