The Theology and Heart of Benedict XVI

Adapted from Theology as Prayer: A Primer for the Diocesan Priest, by Rev. John P. Cush and Msgr. Walter R. Oxley (Omaha, NE: Institute for Priestly Formation, 2022).

I remember meeting Cardinal Ratzinger on the street when I was a seminarian in Rome in the late 1990s, on my way home from my studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University. I was awestruck when I saw the great theologian, but I mustered up enough courage to speak with him. I introduced myself and told him I was from Brooklyn, to which he quickly responded: “A complex, diverse diocese!” Then he asked me what I would study in my graduate years, to which I said: “Fundamental Theology.” With a kind smile, Cardinal Ratzinger replied: “That is my field. There is no single discipline more needed today.”

Feeling great about myself and my future masters and doctoral studies, I had the audacity to ask the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith if he would be willing to sign my book, a copy of Fr. Aidan Nichols’ The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger (1988), which he kindly did. In my little room in the rectory where I stay in Brooklyn, New York, when I am home from the seminary, I have his book with his note: “To John, With my Blessings, + Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 2. V.97.” I cherish that note and the memory of that day.

We mourn the loss of Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger, 1927-2023), who served as the Supreme Pontiff from 2005-2013. One of the most important things to know, when we try to understand who Pope Benedict is and why he is so important as a theologian, is that many people were already very familiar with Ratzinger’s theology, compared to those who were earlier elected as Pope. Joseph Ratzinger, before he was our Pope, was a famous theologian in Germany and throughout the world. As a professor in universities in Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg, Doctor Ratzinger was a peritus (theological advisor) at the Second Vatican Council, authoring one of the finest theological texts of the twentieth century, Introduction to Christianity (1968),1 among other seminal texts, before being appointed as the Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. In 1981, Pope Saint John Paul II, recognizing the academic brilliance and clarity of Cardinal Ratzinger, appointed the professor turned bishop as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office at the Vatican that seeks to clarify dogma and pastoral practice for the entire Catholic Church. Serving in this role for many years, the future pope became even more internationally known as a clear, concise, doctrinal theologian.

It would be, however, a big mistake to label Ratzinger as just an academic theologian. He was passionate about the faith and pastoral practice. Cardinal Ratzinger is known to be the author of some of the most spiritual texts of the modern papacy, from his encyclicals which covered the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity to his contemporary classic series, Jesus of Nazareth, as well as rooting our faith in prayer through sacred liturgy in his text The Spirit of the Liturgy.2

Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals were, ultimately, on one theme: friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ. In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est (2005), he stated: “If friendship with God becomes for us something ever more important and decisive, then we will begin to love those whom God loves and who are in need of us. God wants us to be friends of his friends and we can be so, if we are interiorly close to them.” The Holy Father followed this up with his Spe Salvi (2007), on Christian hope. In this beautiful encyclical, he illustrates his understanding of the human condition and states:

“Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever — endlessly — appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end — this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable (10).”

Benedict completed his encyclicals on the theological virtues in 2009 with Caritas in veritate, in which he declares that love and truth must be intrinsically linked in the Christian life for the good of the world. He writes: “at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine,” it must be linked to truth if it is to remain a force for good. Without truth, love can become an “empty shell” to be filled with emotional influences which in the worst case can result in love turning into its opposite. Similarly, social action without truth can end up ‘serving private interests and the logic of power.” (3) If one really were to read Pope Benedict’s writings, one would find that he was no dry academic, but a true pastor who wants his people to know and love someone whom he knows and loves: the Lord Jesus! Inspired by the example of Pope Benedict, may we become cooperators with the Truth, He who is Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

  1. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Revised and Expanded Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004). These books were written by the Pope and published in three volumes. The first volume was Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007); the second was Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011); and the third was Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image Books, 2012). He makes it clear in his introduction to the first volume that these books are not part of the Magisterium of the Church but are the work of a private theologian.
  2. Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.)
Rev. John P. Cush, STD About Rev. John P. Cush, STD

Fr. John P. Cush, the Editor-in-Chief of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, is a professor of Dogmatic Theology at Saint Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in the Archdiocese of New York. He is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, Italy. He is the author of The How-to-Book of Catholic Theology (OSV, 2020), Theology as Prayer (IPF, 2022) and is a contributor to Intellect, Affect, and God (Marquette University Press, 2021).