The man once known as Josef Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany and regarded as the Catholic church’s most brilliant and influential theologian of the late 20th century, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, was laid to rest at the Vatican last week at age 95.
Citing age and diminishing mental agility, he had resigned the papacy in 2013, the first pope to do so voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294,.and thus he died as “pope emeritus” during the reign of his successor, Pope Francis.
Without question Ratzinger the theologian had significant influence on the evolution of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, convoked by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and guided to its conclusion by Pope Paul VI in 1965..
The Council crystalized many currents of reform that had long been “in the air,” including the promotion of ecumenical dialogs between the Vatican, the Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and other Protestant denominations, and outreach to Judaism, Islam, eastern religions and even non-believers.
Pope John Paul II named Ratzinger Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, often known as “the Holy Office.” This made the German cardinal the main arbiter of theological questions and the defender of the faith against heresy. During the Council, Ratzinger had been counted among “the progressives;” in his official role in the Holy Office he made a hard turn toward conservatism.
He considered moral relativism, which meant the denial of any objective truth, as the central problem of the 21st century. Like the great 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, Benedict believed in the essential harmonizing of faith and reason. Both, he argued, came from God, and consequently they could be blended into a marriage.
Stereotypically, mainstream media, and even some Catholic publications, portrayed Benedict XVI as an arch-conservative in faith and morals and his Argentine successor, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio who as pope took the name “Francis,” as almost “a flaming liberal.”
The contrasting stereotype, however, breaks down. Francis, like Benedict, has stood rock solid against abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia. And also against the ordaining of women to the priesthood. Moreover, the two men developed a close and supportive friendship with both of them living in the Vatican and occasionally dining together and dialoging on the burning issues of church and world. (For an intimate look at their friendship, see the movie “The Two Popes,” directed by Fernando Meirelles.)
Francis’ has displayed a more free-wheeling style: engaging journalists in informal banter, dressing in a simple white cassock and brown shoes, riding in the front passenger seat of a modest Fiat. Benedict seemed to relish the formal trappings of the traditional papacy, wore hand-crafted red shoes and rode in the back seat of a limousine.
Benedict had his own charming side, though. He played piano quite credibly, preferring the classical repertoire of Mozart and Bach, and he loved the cats who lived in the Vatican gardens and often stopped to pet them.
Both popes long championed friendship with Christ as the touchstone of Christian commitment and urged in writing and in preaching conversion of the soul to Christ so that “God may be all in all.”
Each collaborated with their predecessors in the writing of an encyclical. Benedict completed an encyclical begun by John Paul II, “Deus Caritas Est” (God is Love). And Francis completed an encyclical begun by Benedict, “Lumen Fidei” (The Light of Faith), expressing deep gratitude to Benedict for his reflections.
John Patrick Grace covered the Vatican for The Associated Press from 1968 to 1973 during the reign of Pope Paul VI. He writes this column from his home in eastern Cabell County.