For a member of the Catholic clergy, the election to the papacy represents the zenith of his influence — his pontificate, the period of most influential and consequential activity. This was not the case for Pope Benedict XVI, who died Saturday at age 95. It wasn’t because he was the first pope in modern Catholicism to renounce the papal office. It’s because the zenith of his influence was there even before he was elected pope and it lasted after his renunciation of the papacy. His pontificate was, paradoxically, not the peak but almost an interlude.
Joseph Ratzinger became a brand in the 1970s when his interpretation of Vatican II — which updated the Church’s traditions, including ending the requirement that Mass be said in Latin and opening up the church to non-Catholic Christians — became the alternative to the tumultuous implementation of the reforms which he, as one of the most important theological experts collaborating with the bishops at Vatican II, helped shape and promote just a few years before, but later rejected.
As archbishop of Munich between 1977 and 1981, and later as cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith for almost a quarter of a century until his election to the papacy in 2005, he was the one who said “no” to theological progressivism — in church documents, in bishops’ appointments, but also in blocking the hiring of eminent theologians (his former colleagues) in key posts in universities (Catholic but also state universities, like in Germany). European and North American academic theologians could defend themselves more successfully than Asian and Latin American liberation theologians (or US nuns) could. That is a scar that Pope Francis started to heal.
Even before becoming pope, Ratzinger raised questions relevant well beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church, often with politically incorrect language — for example, about the compatibility between the Western world shaped by Jewish-Christian heritage and Islam. He thought he could make the same pronouncements as pope, underestimating how much the papal office is institutionally unbending and difficult to handle for an intellectual. These provocative statements made him a hero of Catholic conservatives as well as activists and politicians on the right, especially in the United States.
But it would be a mistake to draw conclusions about Ratzinger’s legacy uniquely from what has happened to Catholic conservatism in the United States — the trajectory from the neo-conservatives of the 1980s and 90s to the extremist traditionalists (in some cases Trump-like charlatan priests and bishops) of the past few years. The resurgence of an anti-Vatican II culture, which disputes the orthodoxy of those documents, within the clerical, episcopal, and intellectual ranks of Catholicism is surely part of his legacy in the Catholic Church, amplified by the rise of Catholics, compared to the times of Vatican II, in all sectors of American life, politics included.
But there is more to that. Ratzinger believed that an alternative modernity, alternative to what he called in the 1970s “the Kennedy era which pervaded the council, something of the naive optimism of the concept of the great society” was possible. He was an important and stimulating interlocutor for those Catholics and non-Catholics who didn’t want to live in an eternal post-something, in a rejection of Catholic tradition and of all traditions.
In this sense, he understood before many — and persuaded others, whether they knew it or not — that the prime form of Catholic thought in the post-modern era was going to be political theology. His statements on the need to keep the “Christian roots of Europe; on the indispensability of European culture for the survival of Christianity; on the crisis of liberal political order deprived of the transcendent — all now sound like prelude to what many political theologians and activists, both on the Catholic alt-right and the “woke” left, have brought up in the last few years. But he was a man of order: The shock of student unrest in German universities in 1968 was a caesura in his intellectual trajectory and ecclesial persona.
His most important theological legacy was the attempt to steer the interpretation of Vatican II away from liberal-progressive paradigm. This was successful in the United States, especially from clerical ranks, as we have seen in terms of opposition to Pope Francis and his interpretation of Vatican II. Ratzinger had an encyclopedic knowledge of the tradition and was not interested in offering his own epoch-making interpretations. In this sense, his contribution to the Catholic tradition was more apologetic — that is, defensive — than originally constructive of something new. That was intended. Vatican II had already constructed something new, and the most important emergency was to cement it as part of the teaching of the Church.
The paradox is that some influential Catholics who claim to share his theological views now show contempt not just for some extremist liberal interpretation of Vatican II, but also ignorance and a dismissive attitude toward Vatican II itself — those documents that Joseph Ratzinger helped draft. He was always more effective and adamant in pushing back against leftist liberal-progressives than right-wing radical-traditionalists. He embodies the Catholic story of how a centrist, middle-of-the-road Catholic theology got lost. His decision in 2007 to liberalize the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass was the most consequential decision of his pontificate and contributed to the polarization of Catholicism, especially in the United States. In this sense, Francis’s pontificate still lives in the shadow of his predecessor.
Joseph Ratzinger shaped and enforced for three decades doctrinal and ecclesiastical policies that redefined the culture of the clergy and the bishops. He never believed in structural reforms to solve the Catholic crisis. But he was forced to be a man of government, not just a teacher or a scholar, by the sex abuse crisis: Under his pontificate, the church began to address a new phase of the sex abuse crisis, starting with the (very mild) sanctions against Marcial Maciel, founder of the religious order of the Legionaries of Christ, but also in other cases. This marked a turning point from the era of refusal to acknowledge and manage the crisis typical of John Paul II’s pontificate. It was a partial turning point, given the persistence in him of a “culture war” approach to the issue of abuse, something that in his opinion had invaded the church from the outside and that could be solved, in a counter-Reformation style, by reinforcing discipline and closing ranks.
The death of Pope Benedict signals the end of an era in the Catholic Church. But surely not the end of his influence.
Massimo Faggioli is a professor of historical theology at Villanova University.