Not all popes are great theologians. Yet the present Pontiff can rightly be considered one of the greatest theological minds to assume the Chair of Peter.
Prior to his election on April 19, 2005, Joseph Ratzinger looked forward to a retirement in which he could set to work on scholarly projects that had been placed on the “to do” list on account of his pastoral service to the Church in Germany (1977-1981) and then to the universal Church as chief doctrinal officer at the Vatican (1981-2005). The present Pope has always been at home in libraries and lecture halls where he has delved into historical and doctrinal problems that occupy members of the theological guild. Although erudite in ancient and modern languages, and in all of the main currents of Catholic thought from the early centuries to the present, Pope Benedict XVI has always understood the theological craft to be in service to the faith of ordinary Christians. At the end of a commentary he wrote on Vatican II, where he was an advisor to the bishops assembled in Rome for that historic Council (1962-1965), Father Ratzinger wrote: “In the final analysis the Church lives, in sad as well as joyous times, from the faith of those who are simple of heart.”
Who is Joseph Ratzinger, theologian, pastor, and pope? Born in Marktl-am-Inn in Southern Bavaria on April 16, 1927, Joseph Ratzinger is one of three children born to a local police commissioner and his wife. His brother is also a priest, now retired as the conductor of a famous boys’ choir in Regensburg. (The pope is also a musician and a devotee of Mozart.) After a tour of duty in the German military (1943-1945), which included operating anti-aircraft battery near Munich and policing the Hungarian border, Joseph was captured by the American forces and spent the remainder of the war as a P.O.W. The experience of the Third Reich made a lasting impression on the future pope, who would later identify within Catholic thought a powerful critique of all forms of totalitarian tyranny.
After the war, Father Ratzinger pursued seminary studies in Freising and then doctoral study at the University of Munich, where he wrote a dissertation on the Church as the People of God in the writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo. The research for this thesis would later factor into Father Ratzinger’s participation in the discussions at Vatican II. Leaving pastoral work in 1958, the German theologian assumed the first of a series of teaching posts in the German universities which showed his growing prominence in the academic world: Freising (1958-1959); Bonn (1959-1963); Münster (1963-1966); Tübingen (1966-1969), and Regensburg (1969-1977).
By the end of the 1960s, Joseph Ratzinger became an internationally renowned theologian and a noteworthy contributor to the International Theological Commission established by Pope Paul VI. In 1972, he joined Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Karl Lehmann in establishing the journal Communio in an effort to pursue an analysis of today’s culture on the basis of Vatican II’s vision of the Church and the human person.
A month before his fiftieth birthday, Father Ratzinger was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising, making him the senior member of the Bavarian hierarchy. Resuming pastoral responsibilities now for a diocese of more than two million Catholics, Archbishop Ratzinger still managed to address various theological controversies, including the execution of liturgical reform, the foundations of moral theology, and the right and obligation of bishops to safeguard Catholic doctrine.
By the fall of 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger was summoned to Rome by Pope John Paul II to take up the position of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He would remain in this post for more than twenty-three years and expound on any number of theological topics through lectures, sermons, and interviews. In the famous 1984 interview with Vittorio Messori, the German cardinal noted that the disciplinary functions of his office required “conversations” with eminent scholars like Leonardo Boff and Charles Curran (an American), whose published writings were perceived to have deviated from Church teaching. Yet Cardinal Ratzinger’s service in this period also honored the mandate of his office “to promote sound doctrine in order to provide preachers of the Gospel with new energies.”
One of the key ideas in Joseph Ratzinger’s theology is that the Church is formed by the Eucharist, the chief sacrament that Catholics know to be “the source and summit” of their lives as believers. As dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals, Cardinal Ratzinger demonstrated the power of the Eucharist in the funeral rites for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. The Mass of Christian Burial for the beloved Polish Pope witnessed an unusual coming together of disparate communities and their representatives as the Catholic people buried its pastor. In his homily before an audience of millions, the future Benedict XVI spoke of the Paschal mystery of Christ as a movement “toward the cross and resurrection” which John Paul himself had made during his years of illness.
This eucharistic theme of self-sacrificing love would become the centerpiece of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical “God is love” (Deus Caritas Est). As with St. Paul, the “love of Christ” urges the present Pontiff on in the defense of human rights and human dignity; in the promotion of Christian unity and interreligious dialogue; and in the proclamation of those very gospel values that contribute to a more peaceful world and the advancement of the Kingdom of God in history. Fundamentally, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI has always been, and continues to be, what his episcopal motto expresses: a co-worker in the truth. .”
Father James Massa
Executive Director, Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops