The testament book of Benedict XVI — a confirmation
By Roberto de Mattei | 25 January 2023
A media circus has accompanied the publication of several volumes which have appeared since the passing of Benedict XVI. In addition to the two interview books — Saverio Gaeta’s with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Nothing but the truth: my life beside Benedict XVI;1 and Franca Giansoldati with Gerhard Cardinal Müller, In good faith: religion in the twenty-first century2 — there now appears a collection of Benedict XVI’s writings (published as well as unpublished) during his ten years of post-pontificate: What is Christianity? edited by Archbishop Georg Gänswein and Elio Guerriero.3
These books are certainly useful for understanding the personalities of their subjects, all of whom are prominent figures in ecclesial affairs, and constitute in this sense a useful historical contribution, but it is doubtful whether they can offer guidance in the confusion of our time. Above all, a halo of ambiguity shrouds the figure of Benedict XVI, who is presented as the ideal reference point for a conservative front opposing the doctrinal drift of Germany’s progressive bishops. Yet it is well known that Pope Benedict came from that same milieu. How and when did his “conversion” occur?
In a 1993 interview, Josef Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said, “I see no disruption, over the years, in my views as a theologian”4 There is no reversal of positions between the 1955 doctoral student, accused by his professor Michael Schmaus of “dangerous modernism”, and the bold theological adviser to Josef Cardinal Frings at the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965); between the co-founder of Communio (1972) and the professor at the University of Tübingen and Regensburg (1966–1977); between the Archbishop of Munich (1977–1981) and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005); between the 256th pope of the Catholic Church (2005–2013) and the “pope emeritus” (2013–2022) who continued his work in Mater Ecclesia monastery until his death. His theological vision was rich and refined, but the common thread remained the attempt to find an intermediate way between traditional theology, to which he never adhered, and radical modernism, from which he always distanced himself. What changed in Benedict’s long life is not his own ideas but his judgment on the situation in the Church, especially after the Second Vatican Council and the Revolution of 1968.
Josef Ratzinger was struck, almost traumatised, by the moral collapse of Western society and the post-conciliar Church. In his final book, he recalls:
“In several seminaries, homosexual ‘clubs’ were formed that acted more or less openly and clearly transformed the climate of the seminaries. In one seminary in southern Germany, candidates for the priesthood and candidates for the lay office of pastoral referral lived together. During communal meals, seminarians were together with married pastoral representatives, some accompanied by their wives and children, and in some cases, by their girlfriends… One bishop [in the United States], who had previously been a rector, had allowed pornographic films to be shown to seminarians, presumably with the intention of empowering them in this way to resist such behaviour contrary to the faith…”5
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and as pope, Josef Ratzinger could have intervened with a firm hand to crush this phenomenon. If he did not, was it only because he always remained a professor rather than a man of government, or rather because of the weakness of his theological position, unable to identify the errors of Vatican II and post-Council?
The new morality disseminated in Catholic seminaries and universities was the fruit of Vatican II constitution Gaudium et Spes, a document that appears as a manifesto of the “conversion” of the Church to the modern world. But if the Church renounces the Christianisation of the world, it is fatally the world that secularises the Church. The discussion on the correct interpretation of Gaudium et Spes has little significance, because one cannot stem a revolutionary process with the tools of hermeneutics alone, without opposing the process of dissolution with a project of reconquest and re-Christianisation of society.
The ten years that Josef Ratzinger spent as “pope emeritus” coincided with those of Pope Francis’s pontificate, marked by the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (19 March 2016) and the controversies it stirred, including the Dubia (16 September 2016), signed by four eminent cardinals (Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Leo Burke, Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner) and the Correctio Filialis (11 August 2017), signed by more than 200 theologians and scholars from various disciplines. These documents, which have now entered history because of the theological and moral importance of the topics touched upon and the authority of the presenters, could not have been ignored by Pope Benedict, and yet there is no trace of them in the reflections that his book presents. Above all, however, the pope emeritus never saw fit to explain the deeper reasons for his resignation from the papacy, merely observing in his last book:
“When on 11 February 2013, I announced my resignation from the ministry of the successor of Peter, I had no plan whatsoever for what I would do in the new situation. I was too exhausted to plan any more work.”6
The time seems to have come to put an end to any conspiracy theories. The pontiff’s abdication was not due to mysterious pressures, but to “fatigue, physical and mental”, as Archbishop Gänswein explains in great detail in the part of his interview devoted to the “historic renunciation”.7 This fatigue was also a confession of helplessness in the face of a moral crisis that would find new expression in Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, in which morality is reduced to historical circumstances and the subjective intentions of those who perform a human act. This relativism has its origin in the abandonment of metaphysics, which also occurs when the traditional philosophical category of “substance” is replaced with the modern one of “relationship”. In his final book, Pope Benedict expressed himself thus:
“In the course of the development of philosophical thought and the natural sciences, the concept of substance has essentially changed, and likewise the conception of what, in Aristotelian thought, had been designated by ‘accident’. The concept of substance, which had previously been applied to any reality consistent in itself, was increasingly used to refer to that which is physically elusive: to the molecule, atom and elementary particles, and today we know that they too do not represent an ultimate ‘substance’, but rather a structure of relations. With this has arisen a new task for Christian philosophy. The fundamental category of all reality in general terms is no longer substance, but relation. In this regard, we Christians can only say that, for our faith, God Himself is relation — relatio subsistens.”8
Pope Benedict was right when he said that “a society in which God is absent — a society which no longer knows Him and treats Him as if He did not exist — is a society which has lost its guiding principle. (…) Western society is a society for which, in the public sphere, God is absent and no longer has anything to say.”9 But God is not a relation, He is the most perfect Being, and therefore the Supreme Good and Infinite Truth. His proper name is Being (Exodus 3:14). Everything descends from God and everything reports back to Him. He and only He, Being by essence, can solve the religious and moral crisis of our time.
- Archbishop Georg Gänswein with Saverio Gaeta, Nient’altro che la verità. La mia vita al fianco di Benedetto XVI (Edizioni Piemme,2023).
- Gerhard Cardinal Müller with Franca Giansoldati, In buona fede. La religione nel XXI secolo (Solferino Libri, 2023).
- Ed. Archbishop Georg Gänswein and Elio Guerriero, Che cos’è il Cristianesimo, Quasi un testamento spirituale (Mondadori, 2023).
- Richard N. Ostling, John Moody and Nomi Morris, “Keeper of the Straight and Narrow” in Time Magazine (6 December 1993).
- Che cos’è il Cristianesimo, pp 149–150.
- Ibid, p 3.
- Nient’altro che la verità, pp 191–230.
- Che cos’è il Cristianesimo, p 135.
- Ibid, p 154.