What will people say about Joseph Ratzinger, the man who succeeded John Paul II under his name Benedict XVI. from 2005 to 2013 when the Pope was head of the Catholic Church? It is to be expected that the controversies of his tenure, which were particularly closely observed in Germany, will be highlighted in retrospects of his life. His role as archbishop in Munich-Freising was examined in detail by the Munich abuse report. Ratzinger also seems to have made mistakes. As Pope Emeritus, he repeatedly spoke out on questions of abuse and aroused great displeasure with his reference to the complicity of the 1968 generation. During his tenure as pope, the scandal surrounding the „Pius Brothers“ occurred when Benedict tried to bring the split-off group of traditionalists back into the community of the Church and in the process rehabilitated a bishop, from whom anti-Semitic statements became known in the course of this. The „Vatileaks affair“ will certainly be highlighted again, which may have been responsible for the later resignation from the papacy, as well as the disputes about the „Regensburg speech“, the liturgy and the translation of the Bible, which helped shape Benedict’s term in office. Will the bleak picture of a lost pontificate be painted here?
The continuing interpretation of the time of the Church under Benedict XVI. will only emerge over the next few decades, when the partly specifically German view of his pontificate can be increasingly embedded in the overall context of history. I would like to mention a few points that are important to me personally, starting with my experiences in 2005.
At that time I was studying in my penultimate year in Rome. As students we had witnessed the huge funeral ceremonies for the death of John Paul II. Before entering the conclave, the cardinals celebrated a Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. I stood in the side aisle and saw the cardinals and the potential new pope pass by in the procession. There was all sorts of speculation. In Rome it was assumed that after the long period under John Paul, an Italian would be elected again. Cardinal Scola’s name came up frequently. The Argentine Cardinal Bergoglio, who later became Pope Francis, was also among the candidates. He was considered a largely blank slate. The ranks of curial cardinals, who had been in office for many years, were not considered to have very good prospects. Cardinal Secretary of State Sodano was old and unpopular. The head of the Episcopal Congregation, Cardinal Ré, was a possible candidate because of his experience, but was not appreciated by many. Ratzinger actually fell out of the group of candidates. On the one hand was already old, on the other hand a German. The many years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had divided Catholics in their judgment of him. He was considered an outstanding theologian, but at the same time also a „tank cardinal“, a relentless guardian of Catholic doctrine and morals. At the time of the Pope’s death, Ratzinger was cardinal dean, i.e. chairman of the college. In the line of the procession he led the service at the beginning of the conclave at the end. I saw an old, frail man, black circles under his eyes, delivering a sharp sermon castigating the erroneous tendencies of the time, somewhat the antithesis of the kindly sermon at his predecessor’s funeral that had won him much acclaim. With these two sermons, Joseph Ratzinger had once again impressively reminded the world church public of himself. Here a great figure of theology appeared for the last time to say goodbye to retirement with the new pontificate – at least that was my impression. It turned out differently.
It was a real surprise for us, who had gone to St. Peter’s Square as quickly as possible after the white smoke signal over the Sistina, that the new pontifex was actually Joseph Ratzinger. In retrospect, the choice seems quite logical. Who else could have carried the legacy of John Paul II, which seemed so overwhelming at the moment of the papal election? The College of Cardinals, shaped by the long tenure of its predecessor, opted for a “solid choice”, a well-known candidate who certainly did not stand for sweeping reforms in the church, but did stand for an independent theology, rock-solid teaching and sufficient experience. As a pastor, as a professor of theology and a member of the Council, later as a bishop and supreme guardian of the faith, Ratzinger had fought all church-political battles of the last 40 years and dominated the Catholic Church in its spiritual, theological and organizational foundations like no other. In addition, he was probably believed to be able to react appropriately to some of the difficulties of the late predecessor pontificate.
It should be remembered that Ratzinger is still considered one of the best minds in Catholic theology. His „Introduction to Christianity“ from 1968 is still an unsurpassed basic course on the Christian faith. As soon as the edition is finished, Ratzinger’s complete theological works will comprise 16 thick volumes. I remember the pleasure (uniquely, by the way) with which I read the first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. After the lately very repetitive exhortations by John Paul II, a new style of language and theology came to the fore here, which had not previously been heard from a pope. The Pope was a scholar in the truest sense and received the greatest attention, especially among scholars. His sermons were thoughtful and full of culture, his addresses full of allusions and ulterior motives. During his visit to France, he spoke to the intellectual elite of the lay state on the subject of laicism and received great applause. During his visit to Germany, he gave a speech on the fundamentals of the rule of law that is still worth reading today. In England and before the United Nations, Benedict’s subtle diplomatic streak was greatly appreciated. Here a pope fought with a fine blade. It was precisely this tool that sometimes proved to be his undoing. In the controversial Regensburg speech, Ratzinger aroused great opposition because of an apparently Islamophobic passage. Benedikt had obviously forgotten here that the media attention machine has little interest in detailed and differentiated explanations. One would have to ask which of the journalists present read and understood the speech as a whole.
The papacy seemed to have rejuvenated Joseph Ratzinger at first. His public appearances in the early years exude freshness, but also restraint. Apparently he had carefully observed his predecessor’s conduct of office and learned his lessons. The papal calendar was straightened out and, above all, the number of private audiences was reduced. It was also important to Benedict to avoid, if possible, the personality cult that had taken on excessive proportions under John Paul. Ratzinger probably saw himself as what he had claimed in his speech after the papal election, as “umile servitore” (“humble servant”) in the Lord’s vineyard. The ring kiss, which was still obligatory under his predecessor, was no longer practiced. The function of the pope, his office, should be above the specific person of the office holder. Benedict had already made this idea clear with the papal name, which evoked a long Roman tradition. The obligatory welcome drives at the general audiences, where the pope drove through the crowd in an open car, were much shorter. Attempts were made to curb permanent filming and photography on St. Peter’s Square. Prayer together, the liturgy and the sermon should be the focus of attention, not chasing a snapshot of the Pope. At the World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, which was organized in the usual manner, the new pope seemed inhibited and impersonal compared to his predecessor. Benedict was never a pope of the masses, but one who saw the best possibility of action for himself in smaller circles.
Did Benedict want to reform the Church? This question is not easy to answer. As a youth, Joseph Ratzinger was still aware of the last days of the Catholic youth movement. Ratzinger was shaped by the beginnings of this movement, which aimed at a stronger internalization and maturity of individual Christians, at a new approach to spiritually and socially active faith. He was always concerned with a church that finds the strength for inner renewal in its own tradition. In this sense he was one of the staunch promoters and advocates of the Second Vatican Council, but not in the way that a part of the German public understood it. In a speech on the correct form of interpreting the Council, Benedict XVI. made this clear. Reform is always reform from the center, a form of spiritual renewal and awareness, not just tinkering with structures.
In this way, Joseph Ratzinger, while still a cardinal, devoted himself particularly to the concerns of the liturgy. For him, the church service should refer to the “mystery”, that is, to the presence of Christ. This is how Ratzinger made it clear in his book “Vom Geist der Liturgie”, a world bestseller, published in 2000. Worship was meant to speak for itself and therefore had to retain its origins and history. It reflects the prayer tradition of the Christian generations from the early Church onwards. Benedict was therefore critical of everything that was newly invented in the liturgy or at least without tradition. He therefore implemented two concrete measures as Pope: firstly, he issued new guidelines for the translation of Bible and Mass texts, which should bring them closer to their origins, and secondly, the use of the Tridentine Rite, i.e. the pre-Vatican liturgy, was relaxed under certain conditions Conditions allowed. This had been one of the conditions for overcoming the schism with traditionalist groups. However, this project caused considerable uneasiness and culminated in the crisis surrounding the (then non-existent) recognition of the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius. The liturgy of papal services also changed. She became stricter and more traditional. In the final phase of the pontificate, however, the inclination towards the traditional sometimes led to a museum-like staging that tended to distance the pope and the faithful from one another.
The visible, slow torpor in the papal liturgy also took place in the leadership of the Vatican. Benedikt did not show a lucky hand in some of his personnel decisions. Above all, he promoted long-time confidants from his time in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, such as Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who did not cut a good figure as state secretary and thus second man in the Vatican. Ratzinger’s previous collaborator, the Freiburg priest Georg Gänswein, became private secretary. His successor as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was the colorless Cardinal Levada, who was later replaced by Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the editor of the Ratzinger Complete Edition. In the Congregation for Rites, the conservative Cardinal Sarah caused a lot of discussion and trouble at the bishops‘ conferences. The „Vatileaks“ revelations, in which the Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi described spicy events inside the Vatican State, gave a one-sided, bleak insight into the life of the Papal States and conveyed the image of a pope who no longer had his „shop“ under control Has. However, even Nuzzi personally attested no unfair intentions on the part of the Pope. In fact, Benedict wanted to clear up some difficulties. For example, after the revelation of serious crimes by their founder, he prescribed a downright drastic cure for the “Legionnaires of Christ”, a conservative community of priests who were strongly promoted by John Paul II. Benedict XVI was also the first pope to openly address the hushed-up issue of abuse. He met with victims of abuse, established his own institute for prevention and processing, had the canonical regulations tightened up significantly and made the reporting of abuse cases a „top priority“ for the Vatican, probably out of mistrust of the clarification will of many local bishops. There is no denying that, in retrospect, some things still appear to be insufficient and half-hearted. At least the problem was no longer concealed.
What remains of Benedict’s pontificate? My personal assessment is that above all the theological content, sermons, speeches, encyclicals and publications such as Ratzinger’s trilogy „Jesus of Nazareth“ will still be read in future decades. The Pope has always endeavored to maintain good relations with Judaism and the Orthodox Churches. The Protestant churches were less close to him. Some of his decisions on the liturgy have since been reversed by Pope Francis. Benedict always remained a European thinker. The upgrading of the universal church community, which is so close to the heart of his successor, was less important for him. As a personality, Benedict remained important above all to conservative Christians and Catholic intellectuals. His state visits, for example to Great Britain, France and Turkey, have shown him to be a sensitive diplomat and mediator. He was not a pope who was the first to win hearts, but who wanted to stimulate thought and internalization, a man of research, tradition and theology. Future generations will judge its historical role. At the moment it seems that his pontificate marks only a transition between the charismatic John Paul II and Francis. However, I do not want to rule out that in the future this pontificate will be given much greater importance, precisely because it did not so much chase after news or the good press, but rather ensured the stability and solidity of the institution of the „papal office“.
In one at least, Benedict XVI. already made history. In 2009 he visited the Italian city of L’Aquila. There he prayed at the tomb of Celestine V, the pope who had resigned his papacy in the 13th century and had retired from the ministry. There, at the grave, Benedict deposited his pallium, the archbishop-papal symbol of dignity. In 2013 he actually succeeded Celestin and gave up his position. His example will probably set a precedent.