The Legacy of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI

George A. Wells

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, popes have become the focus of heightened religious emotion. Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge and a staunch Catholic, has said that the Polish Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, spent his final years of physical and mental decline “acting out a quasi-mystical understanding of the papacy” as “a living icon of Christ-like suffering.” Duffy applauds the resignation of his successor, Benedict XVI, as constituting a precedent that distances itself from such mysticism. Benedict realized that “the pope is a functionary, and when he ceases to be able to discharge this function, then he must consider his position.” Hence “nothing in his papacy is likely to become him so well as his manner of leaving it.”*

The catholic Professor Hans Küng reacted to the resignation by expressing hope that Ratzinger would not try to steer the choice of his successor. But Küng allowed that the pontiff had in effect already done this by having appointed many cardinals who were as conservative as himself. They would never have voted a reformist into office, and so no doctrinal reforms are to be expected from Francis I.

As is well known, Ratzinger was initially open to reforming ideas but became increasingly disturbed by student protests and activism in the 1960s, voiced even by his own theology students at Tübingen, where he was then teaching. He came to think that once people are granted an inch, they rapidly demand yards, and so he insisted that the traditional faith be completely upheld, with no concessions to “modernism” at all. He joined with other German bishops to remove the license to teach Catholic theology from Hans Küng, his friend and former colleague, who had in print disputed the doctrine of papal infallibility.

In 1977 Ratzinger became archbishop of Munich, and in 1981 he was called to Rome to be prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the new name for the old Inquisition, a post he held for twenty-four years. By 1981 he was convinced that the “modernist” invasion of the church was the source of all evil. As a minor example of this attitude, he was impatient with the theologians who regarded demons not as fallen angels but as symbols of the power of evil; he would have none of such rationalist accommodation of the traditional faith to modern ideas.

A striking example of Ratzinger’s standpoint is the Declaration Dominus Jesus, signed by him in his capacity as prefect of the new Inquisition. The English version, published by the Catholic Truth Society in 2000, states that “Holy Mother Church” accepts all the books of the Old and New Testaments “whole and entire.” For “written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit … they have God as their author.” Their teaching is “without error,” and this applies even to passages of dubious attestation to which this document confidently appeals, as when it twice quotes, as authentic words of the risen Jesus, the statement in an appendix to Mark that “he who believes and is baptised will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned.” It is explained that true believing involves “faith” as “a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” It is to be distinguished from the kind of belief to which other religions can rise, for it involves not merely human wisdom, which is “still in search of absolute truth” but “the full submission of intellect and will to God.” To regard reason as the only source of knowledge is to endorse the “subjectivism” of relying on one’s own investigations instead of accepting what is proclaimed by the one Catholic and Apostolic Church. Other Christian communities are “true particular churches” only if they have preserved “the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery.” Otherwise they are not “churches in the proper sense” at all. But even the genuinely true particular ones are not part of the “single Church of Christ.” As for other religions, they may well contain a ray of enlightening truth, but even that derives ultimately from “the mystery of Christ.” “No one … can enter into communion with God except through Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit.” All this is apparently meant as binding for all Catholics, for it “must be firmly believed”—a phrase reiterated in italics throughout.

Unsurprisingly, this Declaration occasioned outrage among many Christians, Catholic and other. At the end of a 2002 symposium on Fundamentalism in Church and Society, which he edited, Martyn Percy, who is (or was) principal of Ripon College Oxford, expressed amazement at the Declaration’s “lack of charity and mercy” and deplored its “sweeping aside of half a century of ecumenical conversation.” He finds its statements “uncannily similar to the bespoke arrogance of so many fundamentalist communities.”

Subsequently, Ratzinger has published three volumes titled Jesus of Nazareth. The first of them, issued in 2007, insists that “the Old and New Testaments belong together” in that “Jesus Christ is the key to the whole.” Other theologians have long since protested that such a view reduces the Old Testament to a book of riddles, the answer to every one of which is “Messiah Jesus.” Ratzinger goes on to reproach scholars, including Catholic ones, who consider “the Gospels’ image of Christ to be the product of manifold layers of tradition, through which the ‘real’ Jesus can only be glimpsed from afar.” Particularly important for him is the fourth Gospel. Jesus’s speeches in it differ remarkably, both in style and substance, from those in the other three, and many theologians have allowed that this Gospel represents an advanced theological development, in which meditations on the status and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if he himself had stated them. Ratzinger is horrified to note that even some scholars whose work he otherwise respects can dismiss these speeches as mere “Jesus poems.”

In the second of these three volumes, Ratzinger discusses the notorious passage (Matt. 27:25), where not just the Jerusalem mob but the whole Jewish people (pas ho laos) cry out when Pilate is minded to acquit Jesus: “His blood be on us and on our children.” Commentators have long protested that this is not credible as history—as if the whole Jewish nation could be here assembled before Pilate—but is an anti-Jewish invention. F. W. Beare, professor of the New Testament at the University of Toronto, speaks for many in his commentary on Matthew when he writes, “It is appalling for a Christian to think of how much suffering has been inflicted on Jews throughout the ages, partly as a result of this completely fictional scene.”

What, then, does Ratzinger make of this verse? For him it represents not the Jews baying for Jesus’s blood but is all about loving, caring relationships! For Jesus’s blood redeems, and so the Jews are in effect here asking: May we and our children please also be thus redeemed? In Ratzinger’s words: Jesus’s blood “does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone, it is poured out for many, for all.” So the words indicate “redemption, salvation.” “Read in the light of faith,” the meaning is that “we all stand in the need of the purifying power of love which is his blood.”

Ratzinger is aware that Matthew, writing after the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies in 70 CE, was not in this passage thinking of all Jews of all future times but of the generation that he knew had suffered appallingly in the Roman destruction of the Jewish homeland. Matthew, he says, “is attempting a theological aetiology with which to account for the terrible fate of the people of Israel in the Jewish War.” What this really means is that, as Matthew saw it, the Jews got what they deserved for having engineered Jesus’s death a generation earlier. Ratzinger of course does not put it like that, but, as Geza Vermes says in his review of the book, what he says here about this “theological aetiology” does “spoil” his argument that the passage is really about love and caring.

It is understandable that the Catholic commentator Clifford Longley, writing (like Eamon Duffy) in the Catholic journal The Tablet for February 16, 2013, could say that “in 2005 the very name Joseph Ratzinger seemed to cast a chill shadow.” In his visit to England as pope, he called for faith and reason to engage in mutual analysis and debate. But how, asks Longley, does such an instruction make sense if both sides are “not free to explore ideas to see wherever they might lead? Can you have a dialogue with someone wearing a gag?”

With such predecessors as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and a church that has characteristically shown itself to be obstinately conservative, the new pope will not be minded to initiate doctrinal reforms. He has indeed already expressed great concern for the world’s poor. The really effective action that he could take in this regard would be to repudiate the church’s doctrine on contraception, which, as Küng noted in a 1992 article, ignores the plight of millions of people, particularly in the third world, for whom “a worthwhile human life is a priori impossible” because the population “is increasing at such a hectic pace that there is no way in which the human investment needed can keep up any longer.” Francis I will continue to express concern for the poor, but the one thing he could do that would make a real difference is out of the question.


* The Tablet (London), February 16, 2013.


George A. Wells

George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the origins of Christianity and on German intellectual history.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, popes have become the focus of heightened religious emotion. Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge and a staunch Catholic, has said that the Polish Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, spent his final years of physical and mental decline “acting out a …

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