In 1966, less than a year after the close of the Second Vatican Council, a young European scholar wrote the following words:
“The debate on religious liberty will in later years be considered one of [Vatican II’s] most important events…there was in St. Peter’s the sense that here was the end of the Middle Ages, the end even of the Constantinian age. Few things had hurt the Church so much in the last 150 years as [her] tenacious clinging to outmoded politico-religious positions. The attempt to use the state as a protector of faith from the threat of modern science served more than anything else to undermine the faith and prevent the needed spiritual regeneration. It supported the idea of the Church as an enemy of freedom, as a Church which feared science and progress—products of human intellectual freedom—and thereby became one of the most powerful causes of anti-clericalism. We need not add that, here too, the evil dates far back. The use of the state by the Church for its own purposes, climaxing in the Middle Ages and in absolutist Spain in the early modern era, has, since Constantine, been one of the most serious liabilities of the Church, and any historically minded person is inescapably aware of this.”
The young German priest who wrote those words so long ago was, of course, Joseph Ratzinger— the same Joseph Ratzinger who arrives in the United States next week as Pope Benedict XVI, vicar of Christ.
For anyone familiar with the long development of Joseph Ratzinger’s thought, the news media’s coverage of the man over the last few decades has been uniquely interesting. A few reporters have done him justice. E.J. Dionne did an insightful story on then-Cardinal Ratzinger and his work at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith while he was posted in Rome for The New York Times in the 1980s. Sandro Magister and John Allen do consistently strong coverage today. But over the decades, far too many members of the news media have taken the lazy road of casting him as the “panzerkardinal”—the rightwing doctrine police behind John Paul II’s throne who surprises everyone by his moderation once he’s leading the Church himself.
In fact, few Churchmen have published more work since Vatican II, both scholarly and popular, than the man who is now Benedict XVI. His writing ranges from elaborate theology to very frank and straightforward book-length interviews on the future of Catholic life. Anyone who really wants to understand his thinking firsthand—instead of through his interpreters—might want to start with his little book, Theological Highlights of Vatican II (Paulist Press), written just after the council closed; and then two essays he published in the 1970s as confusion spread quickly through the Church: “The Future of the World Through the Hope of Men” (in Faith and the Future, Franciscan Herald Press, 1971) and “Why I Am Still in the Church” (in Two Say Why, same publisher, 1973). The Ratzinger who emerges from these pages is a committed reformer and a fresh, candid, subtle thinker; but also a man deeply faithful to the Church and realistic about the weakness and evil in the world.
As the Holy Father arrives in America next week, let’s remember that we’re welcoming the successor of Peter. This is a moment of grace. Benedict XVI is a pastor for all of the world’s Catholics, including American Catholics. And he is also a lesson in the cost of discipleship. The course of his life and the development of his thought—as an author; intellectual and teacher; from his time as a seminarian in Hitler’s Third Reich, to young theologian, to bishop, to cardinal, to confidant and close adviser to John Paul II, to his own election as pope—offer a unique window on the course of Catholic life in the 20th and early 21st centuries. He belongs to an extraordinary generation of Catholic leaders who lived through war and genocide, remained faithful to Jesus Christ, never lost their love for the Church and struggled hard to renew her mission to the world; a generation we must learn from and which, when it passes, will not come again.
Printed with permission from the Denver Catholic Register.