The Complex Legacy of Benedict XVI

tags: Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican II

Almost ten years after making history for resigning from the papacy, Joseph Ratzinger—Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—has died at the age of ninety-five, in the Vatican’s Mater Ecclesiae monastery, where he had been living since May 2013.

Born in Bavaria, Germany, on April 16, 1927, Ratzinger had a remarkable impact on the life and intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church, not only as pope, but also as one of the most influential theologians at Vatican II. After publishing major works commenting positively on the documents of Vatican II during the council and in the late 1960s, his insights affected the reception of the council from the 1970s onward, as his anti-progressive views—often expressed with a contrarian spirit—became inseparable from his persona, even after his election to the papacy in 2005.

As a powerful doctrinal policy-maker in the era following Vatican II, Ratzinger was in many ways the alter-ego of Pope John Paul II, whose pontificate is impossible to interpret without considering Ratzinger’s role. After a stint as archbishop of Munich (1977–1981), he was appointed by John Paul II as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an institution reformed after Vatican II. Under Ratzinger’s leadership, it gained greater prominence and generated controversy. His importance and influence was so valuable to John Paul II that the pope turned down his requests to leave his CDF post, which also helped make possible Ratzinger’s eventual election to the papacy.

Already known for revisiting Vatican II interpretations of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI turned his attention to other post-conciliar developments, most notably liturgical reform. He helped himself by remaining something of the theologian-in-chief while occupying the chair of Peter, with no one under him serving as influential a role as he did under John Paul II. Yet he was unable to establish and maintain the distinction between his personal theological views and the theology of the Church, so for many Catholics around the world these came to be conflated. This can be traced in part to his shyness and reluctance to “perform” on the global media stage the way his predecessor did (and his successor does)—something crucial for a pope in the twenty-first century.   

In December 2005, eight months after becoming pope, Benedict delivered a speech in which he laid out his interpretation of Vatican II as a “hermeneutic of continuity and reform” (as opposed to a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”). This soon proved problematic. Response to this framing came to function as a litmus test of orthodoxy for some interpreters of the council, who as supporters of Benedict focused far more on “continuity” than “reform,” rather than thinking of them together as the pope had described. Yet at the same time, it’s hard to find an example of “reform” that Benedict himself proposed that didn’t try to undo changes brought about by Vatican II and the early post-conciliar period.

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