Sunday, January 08, 2023

Farewell Reflections on Benedict XVI

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. 


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. 


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 But you can still visit an archived version of the site to see what it looked like before Ratzinger was elevated to the papacy.

So Ratzinger entered my consciousness as one of the "good guys." John Paul II was a good guy, and Ratzinger was his lieutenant. It felt good to know there were such people at the helm. Still, I had little time to study the man's writings. After all, I was a full time college student with a young family and I was working full time as well. But I also knew nothing about the Traditional Latin Mass or the liturgy wars; I was scarcely aware that there even was a Traditional Latin Mass. This was in part due to a deception practiced in conservative Catholic academic environments where everyone just pretends that the Novus Ordo is the historic Mass: historic discussions about the liturgy are applied to the Novus Ordo, and sacramental theology is presented entirely within a post-Conciliar vocabulary and framework. The Novus Ordo is received as if it were of venerable antiquity while no mention is made of the events of 1969-70. Tradition is praised, but only through the lens of John Paul II or other "safe" post-Conciliar writers. A total outsider, someone who knew nothing about Catholicism, would assume that the Novus Ordo Missae was the historic Roman rite based on the way it was treated. We certainly had discussions about the merit of "traditional" practices, but these were generally about traditional pietistical practices completely abstracted from their liturgical context (e.g., "Is kneeling for communion more reverent than receiving standing?" "Is Latin more reverent than vernacular?"). We argued about the proper role of certain traditional practices based on their perceived reverence—call it their "reverential value"—while completely ignoring the liturgical superstructure all these elements once existed in.


At any rate, I was in my final semester at Ave when John Paul II died. I had loved John Paul II; I wept listening to the coverage of his death on the radio while I drove to school. He had been the only pope I had ever known. 2005 was my first experience of watching a papal conclave unfold along with all the gossip about papabile. As I recall, Ratzinger did not seem to be taken seriously as a candidate. There was considerable speculation about this on campus, and the theological faculty, who followed these things more closely than others, seemed to favor Angelo Cardinal Scola, then Patriarch of Venice, or Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, as the most likely to be elected. The consensus seemed to be that "it would be nice" to have Ratzinger, but that he was too conservative to have a fighting shot—similar to the way today we would say "it would be nice" if Cardinal Burke got elected, while knowing the odds against him are steep.

It was April 19, 2005, midmorning, local time. The white smoke had been seen, but the new pontiff had not yet emerged. I was gathered with other students and faculty in the library of Ave Maria College (which was, of course, then in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the "real" Ave as us Michigan alums tend to think of it). One of the librarians had let some of us students back into his office to watch the on a primitive, severely pixelated live stream. We watched for about ten minutes before seeing the new pope emerge on the balcony. The live stream was so pixelated we could not make out the face of the new pontiff nor read the text on the screen. But the librarian heard the words "Joseph Ratzinger" on the audio feed and yelled, "It's Ratzinger!"

We all shouted in delight like little children. Ah, that day was a moment of pure Catholic joy. I recall how we all ran out of the library, running through the hallways yelling like seniors on graduation day. I ran out into the campus; it was a lovely spring day, warm and bright. Students were randomly hugging each other and shouting, "Papa Ratzinger!" I felt immediate filial devotion to the man. The contrast between the exuberance of that bright spring morning and dreariness of March 13, 2013 couldn't have been more stark.


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:

In the first place, my parish priest—who was accustomed to saying a Latin Novus Ordo—had suddenly been removed because of a "credible" accusation. The investigation dragged on for years and the priest, who was in poor health, died before its conclusion. The charges were never substantiated; my priest died in exile in a monastery in a foreign country, isolated from his flock. The pastor who replaced him had no interest in the Latin Novus Ordo and immediately suspended it indefinitely. First vernacular, then guitars, began to creep back into the liturgy. My parish suffered one of the reverses that are so tragically common in conservative Novus Ordo parishes. I could not fathom this; why would someone hate the Church's official language so much to simply cancel our beloved Latin Novus Ordo without so much as consulting the parishioners? This made me aware of the divisiveness of liturgy within the Church. 

Furthermore, I had been doing more historical research on the Council at college. I had read Ralph Wiltgen's The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber and was stunned by the real story of the council. The Ave Maria College library had at that time a set of the actual council daybooks (the literal moment-by-moment agenda of the council sessions with records of every episcopal intervention and summaries of what each of the bishops spoke about). I spent a semester pouring my way through these books, literally reading summaries of every speech at the Council. I wrote a term paper on the history of the Second Vatican Councila theme I would return to many times in life—the Council is imperfectly understood when considered only as a collection of teachings; it must be considered as a totality, it's teachings within the context of the historical event in which they are embedded and are the product of. I began to be aware that the divisiveness about the liturgy was grounded in fierce debate about the Second Vatican Council itself: what it meant, and what its role was in the Church today.

Finally, the first two years of Benedict's pontificate saw the emergence of the traditional Catholic blogosphere into the full light of day. I was introduced to Rorate Caeli and The New Liturgical Movement, among others, seeing that these matters were the subject of intense discussion across the Church—even if my college and parish experiences would have me believe otherwise. I started devouring everything I could read on the subject of liturgy and the Traditional Latin Mass. My friend and fellow Ave alum, the now-renowned Dr. John Joy, gave me a copy of Msgr. Klaus Gamber's The Reform of the Roman Liturgy. This book was instrumental in helping me understand the problems with the Pauline reforms from established liturgical principles. But, more germane to this essay, Gamber's book featured a preface by none other than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, wherein he penned his famous words, " the place of ‘liturgy as the fruit of development’ came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it—as in a manufacturing process—with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product." 

I began to connect Ratzinger's thought with Catholic traditionalism, specifically as it pertained to the liturgy. Whether this entirely accurate remained to be seen, but it was enough to recognize that Catholic traditionalists at least viewed him as an ally. I read Spirit of the Liturgy around the same time I read Mosebach's The Heresy of Formlessness; I don't think I need to summarize either of these works (indeed, how could I?) but, like many traditionalists, I found that Ratzinger's principles furnished a theological-liturgical vocabulary to describe the Church's liturgical crisis. 

I, too, began making my meager contribution to this great discourse with this blog, which I launched in the summer of 2007 and began identifying as a traditionalist in the Ratzingerian mold.


At this time there was considerable chatter going on in the blogosphere about an imminent motu proprio from the Holy Father that was expected to liberalize the Traditional Latin Mass. I was at that time in the employment of the Church in the Diocese of Lansing and was already helping my diocesan pastor obtain the celebret required under the Indult, as he had desired to say the Traditional Mass for some time. I had some correspondence and even a phone conversation with Fr. Bisig about getting my pastor trained to say the TLM. As for what was coming from Rome, we knew neither the day nor the hour nor what the anticipated motu proprio would contain, so we continued assuming the Indult legislation would continue indefinitely.

When Summorum Pontificum dropped on July 7, 2007, "we were like men dreaming. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy" (Ps. 126:1). At the heart of Summorum was the admission that the Missal of 1962 was "never abrogated" (Art. 1), and that "the priest needs no permission from the Apostolic See or from his own Ordinary" to celebrate Mass in the traditional rite (ibid). The letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum explained this further, when speaking of the Traditional Mass, Benedict said, "I would like to draw attention to the fact that this Missal was never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted...What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful." This was the true revolution of Summorum Pontificum; Benedict did not legislate the Traditional Latin Mass back into usage; he declared that it had never been legislated out of usage and hence was always permitted. The motu proprio did not legalize the old Mass; it recognized that it had always been legal and invited bishops to do the same.

This is what is so insane about Traditiones custodes. Pope Francis stated therein that John Paul and Pope Benedict "granted and regulated the faculty" to use the pre-Conciliar Missal. This is completely contrary to the point Benedict stressed in Summorum, which was that the old Mass needed neither grant nor regulation to be used. Furthermore, for a document that purports to supersede Summorum, Traditiones custodes does not quote it even once. A charitable reading of these facts suggests that Pope Francis doesn't truly understand Summorum; an uncharitable reading suggests he knows but doesn't care.

But in 2007 that was all still thankfully years in the future. My pastor asked me to review Summorum and make a good faith effort to understand what was required of him to be a sound footing to say the Latin Mass. Of course, the document said no permission of any sort was required, but my pastor wanted to make sure every possible difficulty was tucked away. For example, Article 5 seemed to envision cases where a group of parishioners wants the Latin Mass and asks the priest for it, but it did not seem to envision cases where the priest himself wants to introduce the parish to the Latin Mass at his own initiative. Knowing how divisive such matters could be—and that letter accompanying Summorum had directed bishops to intervene if the implementation of the motu proprio gave rise to conflicts a parish priest could not resolve—my pastor wanted to avoid any such opportunities for grievance. It was decided that it would be best if we could demonstrate that the "stable group of the faithful attached to the previous liturgical tradition" mentioned in Article 5 actually existed. We therefore created a petition asking our priest to celebrate the Latin Mass and circulated it amongst our parishioners. Myself and one other gentleman gathered signatures; we gathered 82, which was considerable for a small country parish. 

Seeing the desire was there, my pastor spent some time learning the Traditional Latin Mass and then began offering it at our parish. It has continued being offered to this day. Every time I attend the TLM at my parish, I owe a debt of gratitude to the wisdom of Benedict XVI.


My early days with Benedict were a honeymoon phase of falling in love with the pope's liturgical vision. I dutifully read his encyclicals as well and was particularly impressed by Spe Salvi, his 2007 encyclical on the theological virtue of hope. This encyclical was fundamental to my understanding of note only hope, but faith as well. He wrote that faith and hope are "not just informative, but performative" (SS 4).  It is a vibrant hope that the Catholic (by the very act of faithful hoping) actually changes himself in Christ and brings himself closer to the very object of his hope. We do not hope for heaven in a merely future looking way, but by hoping for heaven we actually bring heaven closer to us and in a way participate in it here and now. Consider this quote:

"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).

Anyone who has ever read my essays on faith or spoken to me in person about these matters will see the echoes of Benedict's thought in my own. To this day I think this beautiful little encyclical is one of Benedict's best theological pieces and is an excellent text to help grasp the meaning of a virtue that many misunderstand.


But as I read Benedict's writings, I began to run across things that were theologically troubling. This was particularly true of his pre-pontifical writings, which were being published in abundance by Ignatius Press. I remember I read a book called Credo for Today: What Christians Believe. This was a collection of Ratzinger's essays, most dating from the 1960s and 70s. The essays that dealt with creation, cosmology, and eschatology were particularly troubling as Ratzinger displayed a distinctly Teilhardian sympathy. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a Jesuit theologian and anthropologist who made striking heterodox claims about the place of evolution within Christian cosmology. It was not merely that Teilhard believed evolution, but that he made it the lynchpin of his entire cosmic system, whereby all creation is in the process of a continual evolution from matter to spirit that will terminate in something called the Omega Point, an endpoint where all human consciousness evolves beyond its current state and is merged into a kind of theo-cosmic singularity with God, which Teilhard called the "Cosmic Christ." It was a bizarre theory, bordering on pantheism, which was repeatedly censured during Teilhard's own life but which became avant-garde in the years after Teilhard's death. 

It is not my purpose here to establish Benedict's Teilhardian sympathies; interested readers should look at my essay "The Solemn Enthronement of Evolution," as well as the fantastic essay by the late James Larson entitled "A Living Host: Liturgy and Cosmic Evolution in the Thought of Benedict XVI and Teilhard de Chardin." But as Ratzinger himself publicly declared himself an admirer of Teilhard's thought, this is no innovative conclusion of mine; we have it from the late pope's own words.

Now, I point this out not to criticize the late pope, but as a necessary step in my own story with him. I wondered how a man who, in other regards, demonstrated such a tender affinity for the Church's liturgical tradition could embrace a theory as bonkers as Teilhard's. There were other oddities I found throughout the writings of Benedict as well. There has been a tendency among Traditionalists to view Benedict XVI as a theological traditionalist whilst Pope John Paul II's pontificate was more egregiously modernized. However, as James Larson once pointed out to me, it is actually easier to find theological novelties in the writings of Ratzinger than it is in JP2. 

Which begs the question: In what sense was Benedict XVI a "traditionalist" pope? Is it right to see him as such?


Teilhard de Chardin's theory is a type of vitalism. Vitalism is the idea of a successive, evolutionary emergence of new properties out of a prior substrate, a process Teilhard referred to as the "complexification" of matter into spirit. Benedict, too, ultimately viewed matter as but a "moment in the history of spirit," a "prehistory of the spirit" (see his essay "Creation" in Credo for Today, pages 43-47). It is a view that is essentially Hegelian, of the stormy conflict between matter and spirit ultimately resolving in the emanation of a new and higher reality in which the limitations of our current order are resolved in a synthesis at the Omega Point.

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. 

Benedict needed to reconcile the two liturgies without denigrating either. He accomplished this through his idea of mutual enrichment. This concept is found in Summorum Pontificum and its accompanying letter, in which Benedict expresses his hope that the two liturgies (which he coined as "Extraordinary" and "Ordinary" forms of the Roman rite) will enrich each other. This is a profoundly different from how traditional Catholics received the document. Traditional Catholics embraced Summorum as a liberation of the Traditional Latin Mass; Benedict viewed it also as an opportunity for the Traditional Mass to enrich the Novus Ordo and for the Novus Ordo to enrich the Traditional Latin Mass. He viewed it as a two-way exchange. It can be argued that the reverence of the TLM bled over into certain NO liturgies; I witnessed this at diocesan parishes where both forms were celebrated. But in what sense did Benedict hope or expect the Novus Ordo would "enrich" the Traditional Mass? What would a penetration of any aspect of the new rite into the old look like concretely?

It is hard to say. But, judging from Benedict's thought, I personally believe he envisioned a Hegelian synthesis where the mutual enrichment of the two "forms" eventually led to the emergence of a new "third" liturgy, in which all of what Benedict considered to be the best aspects of both "forms" was preserved. Thus the schizophrenia of the Roman rite introduced by the Novus Ordo would be reconciled with the emergence of a new liturgy that did not negate but transcended the others, showing both the Traditional Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo to be but "moments" in the meta-development of liturgy, both constituting a kind of liturgical "pre-history" to whatever the coming liturgical synthesis brought forth. 

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.


In time, I thus came to see Benedict as a multi-faceted individual. He was a man who obviously had a deep love for the old liturgy, but could only bring himself to go so far with it (it is notable that he never celebrated the Traditional Mass publicly during his pontificate). Even his support for the TLM had to be packaged within a larger Conciliar apologetic. He seemed to me a man who did the right thing but for the wrong reason—which, to be honest, is not terrible. St. Paul rejoiced that Christ was bring preached "whether in pretense or truth," (Php. 1:18) and I similarly rejoice in whatever good Benedict did for whatever reason.

But my deep reading of Benedict's theology made it impossible for me to think of him as a bastion of orthodoxy. He was capable of striking theological novelties. As a theologian, he falls into the same category as Hans Urs von Balthasar (another hero of Ratzinger's); Balthasar is a theologian whose writings are full of novelties. Taken on his own terms, his thought represents a revolutionary departure from theological tradition. But, taken relative to other contemporary theologians such as Rahner and Teilhard, Balthasar appears orthodox. The radicals make him seem safe. Similarly, Benedict XVI appeared as a stalwart defender of tradition compared to the Marxs, Mahoneys, Küngs, and James Martins of the Church. But, taken on his own terms, he was quite a revolutionary thinker who proposed many novelties.

It is ironic that Benedict the "traditional" pope committed what is undoubtedly the greatest papal novelty of the modern era—the resignation of the papal office, an event that ushered in so much mischief for the Church. Whatever Benedict's physical condition, it is hard to imagine our situation today would not have been better had he stayed the course. Dr. Kwasniewski has said somewhere that, while we cannot know the mind of God, history seems to suggest that the Lord does not look kindly on papal resignations. The past nine years has been an unremitting train of catastrophe; it is difficult not to see these disasters as directly proceeding from Benedict's resignation. The pope may have been buried this week, but he died in 2013.


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. 


Unknown said...

Well said!

Aaron said...

Wow your conclusion seems so balanced and outlandish to me. My daddy wounds would have me frothing at the mouth and blaming B 16th for everything wrong with the church like I blame my father for all my life problems. Click bait scandal blogging would make me have to come to terms with myself less.....

Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts about the controversy around his thesis? Have your read it and can describe where and how it departed from established understandings?

Boniface said...


What thesis are you referring to? His Habilitation thesis on St. Bonaventure and Divine Revelation? If so, I have not read it. I have only heard Ratzinger's own synopsis of it.

Anonymous said...

I have read of references to St Augustine also- not that I could describe any details- my only thought - that it was audacious to volunteer any change of interpretation.

And as I write this I realize his own works were later given a spin of intent contrary to the original intention.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the Ordinariate Liturgy could be considered as a “ mutual” enrichment of the traditional and NO liturgies envisioned by Pope Benedict. (Not that I am a fan of that idea of “mutual “ enrichment)