The Last of the Giants?

It is too early to judge the pontificate of Benedict XVI, but Joseph Ratzinger’s brilliance and holiness cannot be denied.

“Church as ours and ours alone is a pointless game in a sandbox.” Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, 1970

This morning, as I watched live video of Pope Benedict XVI flying from the Vatican to the Castel Gandolfo, I felt, for the first time really, a deep sense of sadness. As the Holy Father stepped from the helicopter, his fatigue and frailty appeared quite obvious, even while his gaze seemed as focused and intent as ever. Then, a few moments later, he appeared on the balcony to make his final, brief address as pontiff.

“You know that today is different from others”, he said, “as of eight pm I will no longer be the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. I will simply be a pilgrim who is beginning the last part of his pilgrimage on earth.” Those familiar with the writings Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI will recall the collection of his essays, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion (Ignatius Press, 2005), presented to Cardinal Ratzinger on the occasion of his 75th birthday. The title and subtitle captures, in just eight words, an essential focus of the thought and work of Ratzinger. In his final general audience, given two days ago, Benedict thanked those who had written him notes in recent weeks, reflecting on the meaning of those gestures of love and support:

In this you can touch what the Church is—not an organization, not an association for religious or humanitarian ends, but a living body, a communion of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ who unites us all. Experiencing the Church in this way and being able to almost touch with our hands the strength of His truth and His love is a reason for joy at a time when many are speaking of its decline. See how the Church is alive today!

That passage came to mind as I watched the FOX broadcast of events at the Vatican and Castel Gandolfo. One of the reporters, who was obviously a Catholic, was asked a question about the heart of the Catholic Faith: what is it? She referenced the Church’s rich intellectual tradition and the Church’s stand for human rights, but she never mentioned the person of Jesus Christ. This stood out to me because Benedict himself, since announcing his resignation, has spoken several times about the relationship between Jesus Christ and his Church, a relationship that is all about a communion of life and love.

Perhaps the best example of this can be found in his lengthy and fascinating address to priests and clergy on February 14th, a talk that might be described as a papal history of Vatican II:

Yet only after the Council did an element come to light – which can also be found, albeit in a hidden way, in the Council itself – namely this: the link between People of God and Body of Christ is precisely communion with Christ in Eucharistic fellowship. This is where we become the Body of Christ: the relationship between People of God and Body of Christ creates a new reality – communion. After the Council it became clear, I would say, that the Council really discovered and pointed to this concept: communion as the central concept. I would say that, philologically, it is not yet fully developed in the Council, yet it is as a result of the Council that the concept of communion came more and more to be the expression of the Church’s essence, communion in its different dimensions: communion with the Trinitarian God – who is himself communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit – sacramental communion, and concrete communion in the episcopate and in the life of the Church.


Eucharist. Communion with Christ. Communion with the Trinitarian God.

If I had to list the top three reasons that I entered the Catholic Church on Easter Vigil 1997, those would more than suffice. These are realities that suffuse the work of Joseph Ratzinger and the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, and they should, it goes without saying (but needs to be said, sadly) be the realities that suffuse the lives of every Catholic. 

I’ve never met Ratzinger/Benedict in person, but I first encountered him through two books: one short and reflective, the other long and doctrinal. The first was Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Beliefs (Ignatius Press, 1983), a book that impressed with me its biblical erudition, to the point that I could only conclude the author not only knew Scripture, he truly lived and breathed it. Needless to say, that conclusion has only deepened over the years, especially in light of the three Jesus of Nazareth books, as well as the important 2010 apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini.

The second book was the Catechism of the Catholic Church, of which he was co-editor. It was, after the Bible, the most important book for my wife and I in making the journey into the Catholic Church. It cleared away many misconceptions and deepened my understanding of the organic connections, if you will, between the many beliefs and practices of the Church. The Catechism is notable at this moment because it was, in so many ways, a marvelous example of how Bl. John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger worked together to proclaim and explain Catholic doctrine and practice, as well as to carry out the real mission of the Second Vatican Council, which both attended as theological experts.

If Cardinal Ratzinger had not been elected pope, he would still be recognized as one of the most significant Catholic theologians of the past half-century. The many discussions of Benedict’s pontificate must take into account, without doubt, his numerous pre-papal writings, which are the (unplanned, of course) foundation and framework for the many writings and addresses of his relatively short pontificate.

For example, Benedict’s motu proprio opening the way for the common, widespread celebration of the extraordinary form of the Latin Mass did not come out of thin air, as a reading of his Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000) amply indicates. His many and varied examinations of secularism, modernity, and relativism were not reactionary or out of character, but the fruit of decades of study and reflection, as can be seen in books such as Introduction to Christianity (orig. 1968) and Truth and Tolerance (Ignatius Press, 2004). In a similar way, his Jesus of Nazareth books pick up and flesh out themes found in the 2000 declaration, Dominus Iesus, issued when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


After Benedict’s election in 2005, it was clear that few journalists and pundits had seriously read and studied his pre-papal writings. So it wasn’t a surprise, I suppose, that most weren’t sure how to handle something such as Deus Caritas Est, which puzzled one New York Times’ journalist so much that he wrote, as if stunned, “The encyclical, titled ‘God Is Love,’ did not mention abortion, homosexuality, contraception or divorce, issues that often divide Catholics.” Shocking! How could it be that a man who had written learned books and essays on Church history, Augustinian thought, Enlightenment philosophy, post-modernism, Scripture scholarship, liturgical renewal, ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, eschatology, ecclesiology, the sacraments, faith and reason, political philosophy, and Church-state relations fail to live down to media expectations? Puzzling, without a doubt.

The general state of affairs hasn’t changed much, especially when the Times trots out Hans Küng for another round of narcissistic papal bashing:

In 2005, in one of Benedict’s few bold actions, he held an amicable four-hour conversation with me at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in Rome. I had been his colleague at the University of Tübingen and also his harshest critic. For 22 years, thanks to the revocation of my ecclesiastical teaching license for having criticized papal infallibility, we hadn’t had the slightest private contact.  … For me, and indeed for the whole Catholic world, the meeting was a sign of hope. But sadly Benedict’s pontificate was marked by breakdowns and bad decisions.

“For the whole Catholic world”? Really? Being accused of insular thinking and “breakdowns” by Hans Küng is like being accused of doping by Lance Armstrong. Especially since Küng plays very loose with facts and misrepresents a number of serious things, such as when he writes, “There was the widespread sexual abuse of children and youths by clergymen, which the pope was largely responsible for covering up when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.” That is simply slanderous, but give Küng credit: he knows his audience isn’t into facts, but into reacting, fuming, venting, and even hating. And then there is this wishful claim: “One shouldn’t be misled by the media hype of grandly staged papal mass events or by the wild applause of conservative Catholic youth groups. Behind the facade, the whole house is crumbling.”

Benedict, of course, has a different perspective. His perspective is not different because he is a company man, or because he is power hungry, or because he is a hater, but because he, unlike Küng, places his faith in Someone greater than himself (I’m not sure Küng can envision such a person). As he told the College of Cardinals this morning:

I have let a phrase of Romano Guardini help me. It was written in the very same year that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council approved the Constitution Lumen Gentium. In his last book, Guardini says, the Church “is not an institution conceived and built in theory… but a living reality…. She lives through the course of time, in becoming, like every living being, in changing…. And yet in her nature she remains ever the same and her heart is Christ”. It seems to me that this was our experience yesterday, in the Square: seeing that the Church is a living body, enlivened by the Holy Spirit and which is really brought to life by God’s power. 

She is in the world but not of the world: she is of God, of Christ, of the Spirit. We saw this yesterday. That is why Guardini’s other famous saying is both true and eloquent: “The Church reawakens in souls”. The Church is alive, she grows and is reawakened in souls  who – like the Virgin Mary – welcome the Word of God and conceive it through the action of the Holy Spirit; they offer to God their own flesh. It is precisely in their poverty and humility that they become capable of begetting Christ in the world today. Through the Church, the Mystery of the Incarnation lives on for ever. Christ continues to walk through the epochs and in all places.

In June 1970, Fr. Ratzinger gave an address in Munich titled, “Why I Am Still in the Church” (published in Fundamental Speeches from Five Decades [Ignatius Press, 2012]). It is essential reading, but one point will suffice: Ratzinger argues that the modern obsession with remaking the Church in our image, in accord with our desires and agendas, finally comes down to one key problem: “the crisis of faith”. There is, he said,

ultimately no opposition between Christ and the Church. … I am in the Church for the same reasons that I am a Christian in the first place. For one cannot believe alone. One can believe only as a fellow believer. … Faith is ecclesial, or it is not faith. … A faith of one’s own devising is an oxymoron. For a self-made faith would only vouch for and be able to say what I already am and know anyway; it could not go beyond the boundary of my ego. Hence a self-made Church, a faith community that creates itself, that exists by its own graces, is also an oxymoron. Although faith demands communion, it is the sort of communion that has authority and takes the lead, not the sort that is my own creation, the instrument of my own wishes.

For eight years, Benedict XVI consistently pointed toward the Church and her head, Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, Hans Küng and Company play pointless games in the sandbox. And the sand is running out.


Judging Benedict XVI’s pontificate is a difficult thing to do, hardly possible on the day it has ended. The key question is: what criteria will be used to judge, and who will do the judging? With that in mind, I conclude this essay with two quotes, both from Mark Brumley, President of Ignatius Press, from whom I learned so much about John Paul II’s thought (when Mark was my professor in the late 1990s) and who has worked so tirelessly to bring the writings of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI to English-speaking readers throughout the world.

First, in a 2005 interview with ZENIT, Mark was asked, “What will Pope Benedict XVI bring of himself and his theological interests to the pontificate?” He replied:

Although Ratzinger the prefect is distinguishable from Ratzinger the theologian, we are blessed in Pope Benedict XVI with a theologian and pastor who has thought and prayed long and hard about Jesus Christ, the Church and her mission to the world.

He will, I believe, continue the twofold task of Vatican II — renewing the inner life of the Church and reinvigorating the Church’s mission in the world. He is committed to a renewal of biblical studies and a deepening of ordinary Catholics’ appreciation of and participation in the sacred liturgy.

He staunchly proclaims the universal call to holiness of Vatican II. He understands the importance of dialogue among Christians and dialogue with world religions and seekers, while he upholds the integrity of Catholic faith and insists on a renewed missionary drive to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

And he knows that in the areas of morality and social justice, the Christian message has not been tried and found wanting, as G.K. Chesterton noted, but has been found difficult and left untried. Furthermore, he sees the threat of radical relativism and many other “isms.”

And today, in a press release, Mark states:

Although Pope Benedict’s pontificate has been relatively short, he has accomplished a great deal amidst profound challenges, both within the Church and in the world. By stressing the “hermeneutic of reform” in contrast to the “hermeneutic of rupture,” he has shown the way forward in clarifying the relationship between the Second Vatican Council and the Church’s Tradition. He has presented clearly, forcefully, thoughtfully, and winsomely “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and he has strengthened the Church’s efforts to evangelize the world. He has sought to deepen the renewal of the Church’s worship and sacramental life by fostering a recovery of “the spirit of the liturgy.” He has appointed and elevated men to the episcopate who perceive the importance of an authentic understanding of the Second Vatican Council, in light of the Church’s Tradition and the “joy and hope, the grief and anguish” of our world (cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 1).  

Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, in reflecting on the (now completed) pontificate, spoke of Benedict as the “last of the giants”, referencing the great ressourcement theologians—de Lubac, von Balthasar, Danielou—who had so much to do with Catholic theology in the twentieth century and in shaping the work of the Council. I think it is an apt description, for Ratzinger is certainly a theological giant. But, as with John Paul II, what continues to impress most is his deep and obvious love for Christ and the Catholic Church. Few of us will be great theologians or popes, but all of us can love the Lord and his Mystical Body.

Again, that is what it is all about: Eucharist. Communion with Christ. Communion with the Trinitarian God.

May God bless His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus of the Catholic Church!

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.