Normally on the New Year I post a list of what I consider the most important Unam Sanctam articles over the past twelve months. However, given the recent passing of Pope Benedict XVI, I thought it fitting to devote my first piece of 2023 to the memory of the late pontiff. This essay will be longer than most, for which I beg your indulgence, but it is difficult to sum up what I think and feel about this man with anything approaching brevity. Therefore, bear with me, I pray, as it is fitting that I should be allowed a bit of pontificating in an article about a pontiff.
Rather than attempt a topical synopsis of the late pope's thought and legacy, I have decided to opt for the more personal approach of unfolding Ratzinger through my own encounters with him and his work throughout my life.
I. COMING INTO THE CHURCH
As the offspring of a family of Poles and Sicilians, I was baptized Catholic as a baby as a matter of course. But I never saw the inside of a Catholic parish after the day of my baptism for many years. My childhood had no First Communion nor Confirmation. I was scarcely aware of my family's Catholic heritage save for a lone crucifix my mother kept hanging on the hallway wall of our home. I lived a very typical secular upbringing in the 1980s and 90s.
I came to the Lord in the year 1999, albeit outside of any church construct (more through the personal witness of a close friend). After dallying with various Protestant sects, I was drawn to the Catholic Church shortly thereafter and began studying the faith in 2000, with my formal reception into the Church taking place on October 4, 2002.
Suffice to say, I had no idea who Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was. Most people entering the Church from a Protestantized context are focused doctrinal and moral matters, not who staffs various Vatican congregations and dicasteries. For people such as myself, learning about the machinery of the Vatican bureaucracy is generally an afterthought, like an intellectual placenta delivered after the hard work of conversion has been done. I recall my RCIA director gave me a print out of a talk Ratzinger gave on the proper understanding of the role of conscience in ethics, but to be honest it was over my head at the time.
II. THE CARDINAL RATZINGER FAN CLUB
I first truly became aware of Cardinal Ratzinger when I was in college at Ave Maria. The campus had an unofficial Joseph Ratzinger Fanclub; I mean literally, there was a website, also called "The Joseph Ratzinger Fan Club," where you could by Cardinal Ratzinger merch mugs, T-shirts, and hats featuring pictures and quotes of the cardinal. There was a cadre of students on campus who proudly displayed these fun little tokens of admiration. Through this exposure I picked up, by osmosis as it were, that Ratzinger was known as "God's Rottweiler," that he was the head of the CDF and, as such, the guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, and that liberals hated him. That alone made me admire the man. I joined the fan club; I remember I bought a T-shirt with a pic of the Cardinal that said "Putting the smackdown on heresy since 1981." Incidentally, the Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club site would later become the Pope Benedict XVI Fan Club, which is still up today under its original URL www.ratzingerfanclub.com. But you can still visit an archived version of the site to see what it looked like before Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy.
Ignatius Press had the rights to all English language editions of Joseph Ratzinger's works by virtue of Fr. Fessio's longtime friendship with the Cardinal. This copyright extended to his (private) writings as pope, as well. Ignatius wasted no time in inundating the market with new editions of Ratzinger's old works, with a shiny golden "POPE BENEDICT XVI" sticker slapped on the front. Sometimes this marketing zeal bordered on deception: books would be promoted as written by "Pope Benedict XVI," only for the reader to find they were hastily cobbled together collections of Ratzinger's essays from the 1960s. Be that as it may, it was during this Ratzingerian-publishing burst that I picked up copies of some of Ratzinger's seminal works, including Spirit of the Liturgy, but also Milestones and The Ratzinger Report, both of which would be essential in understanding Ratzinger's view of what had happened to the Church in the second half of the twentieth century.
These considerations were becoming timely as the question of the liturgy was becoming ever more pressing in my mind. This came about from a convergence of events:
"Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a “proof” of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a “not yet”. The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future" (SS 7).
Which begs the question: In what sense was Benedict XVI a "traditionalist" pope? Is it right to see him as such?
VIII. MUTUAL ENRICHMENT
This Hegelian approach was also evident in Benedict's liturgical vision. The great liturgical question that occupied the mind of the pontiff was the relationship between the traditional liturgy and the conciliar liturgy. For all his wonderfully lucid critiques of the post-Conciliar regime, Benedict was too much a creature of his age to fundamentally reject the new liturgy. He advocated what we today call a reform of the reform, arguing that the problem was not the new liturgy but the failure to properly implement it; it is the liturgical version of the "Real Communism has never been tried" argument and it sounds just as silly applied to the Novus Ordo. Yet it was a position Benedict argued until his dying breath.
I realize the radical nature of this claim, and I pose it only as a hypothesis. Even so, it is not without ground given Benedict's statements, and I am certainly not the only one who has considered this.
I loved Benedict XVI and always shall. I will ever be grateful for what he did for Traditional Catholics, whatever his motivation. While his writings are not free of problems, whose writing is? He was a man who was right about what was wrong but wrong about what was right. He deserves our respect and requires our prayers. I am grateful for the time we had with him and there are parts of his thought that will always remain with me. Despite his complexities and failures, I am still, and always will be, a member of the Ratzinger Fan Club.