On Dec. 31, the retired Pope Benedict XVI passed away at the age of 95. Born Joseph Alois Ratzinger in 1927 in Germany, he had a distinguished career as a theologian before he was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising and named a cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1977. Following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, Ratzinger was elected pope, and in 2013, he became the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415.
As the University of Notre Dame joins the Church and the world in mourning Pope Benedict’s passing, the University’s faculty experts reflect on his life and legacy.
‘The end of the post-Vatican II era’
“Joseph Ratzinger’s death in some ways marks the end of the post-Vatican II era,” said John McGreevy, the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost. McGreevy has authored four books that explore the people and the impact of the Catholic Church, including his most recent work, “Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis.”
“He was the last living major figure from the council, which is now sliding from living memory into history,” McGreevy said. “As a young theologian he was a major influence on some of the documents at the council; after the council, as a theologian, archbishop of Munich and then Vatican Cardinal, he became a leader of those resistant to further changes made in its name.
“Working with his friend and patron, Pope John Paul II — his predecessor — before his own election in 2005, he helped set the agenda within the Church and sometimes within the wider world for a full 35 years.”
‘Humanizing the papacy’
Clemens Sedmak, a professor of social ethics and director of the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, met Pope Benedict several times as part of the Ratzinger Circle of Alumni, an initiative started by former doctoral and postdoctoral students of professor Joseph Ratzinger. The circle met every year with Cardinal Ratzinger and then Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, the papal summer residence.
“Pope Benedict was a beloved and revered teacher, and his former students thought the world of him — as a theologian, but also as a gentle human being,” Sedmak said. “They liked to call Pope Benedict (who was an avid piano player) ‘the Mozart of theology.’ I was personally deeply impressed by Pope Benedict’s theological brilliance combined with his deep faith and humility. He never forgot his humble origins and remained close to his home and his siblings until their death. He was also a person with a deep sense of beauty, especially through music, architecture and nature. He liked to hike in Austria and he loved Salzburg, sometimes called ‘the Rome of the Alps.’”
Sedmak also believes that Pope Benedict XVI was “misunderstood by many,” particularly since he had to inhabit the role of “guardian of the faith” as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005.
“It is no secret that he wanted to retire several times, but John Paul II asked him to stay,” Sedmak said. “He had shaped the work of the congregation through his theology, probably most notably so in the congregation’s instructions on the theology of liberation. It is also well known that Pope Benedict continued Pope John Paul II’s concern with pluralism and secularization and a Church that would enter compromises with wider society.”
When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, effective Feb. 28, 2013, he took a step unprecedented in modern times, and by doing so “humanized the papacy,” Sedmak said.
“One of the features of Pope Benedict that I treasure is his serenity,” he said. “I was once told by a member of the Ratzinger Circle of Alumni that he had never seen Professor Ratzinger, Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict ‘in a bad mood.’ There was a fundamental joy which he communicated so powerfully during the first months of his pontificate.
“In the last years of Benedict’s life there were also many lessons in humility — and lessons of human fragility and frailty. It was moving to see how Pope Francis showed respect and affection for his predecessor and how Pope Benedict gracefully inhabited the role of ‘emeritus.’”
‘A complicated legacy’
Kathleen Sprows Cummings, the William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and a professor of American studies, said that with Pope Benedict XVI’s death, “Catholics justly mourn a man of unwavering faith, deep conviction and towering intellect who indelibly shaped the church throughout the 24 years he served as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the eight years he spent as pontiff.”
Moreover, she said his surprise resignation in 2013 represented “an extraordinary act of humility” that forever changed the modern papacy. However, there is no question that the retired pope leaves behind “a complicated legacy,” Cummings added.
“In February 2022, following a report that implicated him in the cover-up of sexual abuse during the years he served as Archbishop of Munich, Benedict acknowledged his failure to act decisively at times in confronting sexual abusers, yet anticipated facing the final judgment with confidence and without fear, trusting the Lord to be not only a ‘just judge’ but also ‘the friend and brother who has already suffered for my shortcomings,’” Cummings said. “History, however, is also a fair-minded judge, and when it comes to culpability in the clergy sexual abuse crisis, one that is far less likely to absolve Benedict than the God of mercy.
“For the time being, we await a papal funeral without a conclave — an unprecedented event that mirrors the experience of March 2013, a conclave without a papal funeral.”
‘The God of love’
John Cavadini, a professor of theology and the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, is the editor of “Explorations in the Theology of Benedict XVI,” which examines how Benedict’s writings shaped Catholic theological thought in the 20th century.
The lines of Benedict’s thought come to “a sublime convergence” in his first encyclical, God Is Love, Cavadini said, where Benedict wrote, “Love is the light — and in the end the only light — that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world — this is the invitation I would like to extend.”
“With these sublime words, Benedict sums up, perhaps, his whole pastoral legacy as a theologian become bishop,” Cavadini said. “If, as Pope Francis has said, ‘Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others,’ then Pope Francis — and all of us, too — are well within the legacy laid out by Benedict’s lifetime call to focus on the essentials. He called us to remember why we have a religion in the first place and to evangelize ourselves and our contemporaries by first and foremost allowing the light of God’s love to enter into our own hearts and transform them — to experience love — and by our witness and solidarity with the cares of our neighbor, causing this light of God to enter into the world.”
‘A man of the Christmastide’
Benedict XVI will be remembered not only as the pope who brilliantly defended the intelligibility of the Catholic faith and illuminated it through his many books, but also as the first pope who tackled the abuse crisis in the Church, according to Ulrich Lehner, the William K. Warren Professor of Theology.
“What sets him apart from many popes in history was his unique ability to dialogue with atheist scholars and leaders of other religions,” Lehner said. “Like no pope before him, he explained in lucid prose to the world that Catholicism is not about rules and letters, but about an encounter with the living God, who is love and who loves every person. He believed that the mystery at the heart of the universe was not a cold formula, but love, or as he said in ‘Introduction to Christianity’ in 1968: ‘In a world which in the last analysis is not mathematics but love, the minimum is a maximum; the smallest thing that can love is one of the biggest things; the particular is more than the universal; the person, the unique and unrepeatable, is at the same time the ultimate and highest thing.’”
Benedict XVI was a “man of the Christmastide” — his baptismal name was Joseph — and like Joseph he was never the man of big gestures, loud noises or flashy appearances, Lehner added.
“Like Joseph, he was immersed in quiet prayer and avoided the spotlight, but unlike his namesake had to wrestle with the fact that as cardinal and pope he was pushed onto the stage of world history.
“He loved to compare himself to the legendary bear who carried St. Corbinian’s baggage over the Alps — a parable that symbolizes answering God’s call — albeit with a twinkle in his eyes, because he knew he did not have the strength of a bear,” Lehner said. “The only thing that counted for him was that one day Christ would say to him: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ (Matthew 25:23) — and I am sure he heard those words.”