Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered above all for his literary and scholarly output. Many of his Collected Works (sixteen massive volumes in German) have been translated into several languages and are only now being discovered by a younger generation of theologians. His early classic Introduction to Christianity (1968) has been translated into over twenty languages.
His writings on a vast spectrum of theological and philosophical topics have a clarity and a depth that make his theology inspiring and therefore liberating. His theology also stimulates further scholarly research, since all he could ever do was sketch the contours of the truth. Like a masterful artist, he paints in broad strokes and writes in superb prose, at times almost poetic.
His election as Archbishop and later as Cardinal Prefect put an end to the plans he had, when he decided in 1969 to transfer from the old and famous University of Tubingen to the little-known, quiet backwater that was the new University of Regensburg. Away from the tension and turmoil of Tubingen’s theology faculty, it was his hope that in Regensburg, stimulated by his doctoral and postdoctoral students, he would have the needed academic conditions to research and write the multi-volume Dogmatics (i.e., a full systematic of the doctrine of the Church) he had planned. His election as Archbishop in 1977, and later as Cardinal Prefect, put an end to such a scholarly project. Now future theologians can build on the foundations he has laid.
He long held that the most basic problem in theology today (one which is at the root of the Church’s present crisis) is to be found in an interpretation of the New Testament that, in effect, denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. To develop an interpretation of Scripture that would not only consider the modern, historical-critical methodology of exegesis but would also be faithful to the whole of the Church’s Tradition, he used every minute of his spare time as Pope to write his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth (2006-2013). That work will be his most enduring legacy in the discipline of theology.
His many writings on contemporary cultural issues and political life – as well as his original contributions to the moral issues of the day – remain to be discovered by students of politics and philosophers alike. His historic addresses to politicians in New York (at the UN), London, Paris, and Berlin are regarded as masterpieces of political sagacity. They will remain an inspiration for all politicians of integrity.
A large part of this legacy must be his homilies and his pastoral writings as priest, Archbishop, Cardinal Prefect and Pope, which will continue to provide inspiration for people from all walks of life. This likewise applied to his Wednesday Addresses on the Saints. He chose the Saints as his main topic because he was convinced that the canonized Saints, together with Christian art and music, are the most convincing apology for the Faith that the Church can offer. They also play a central role in inspiring the faithful of every generation to seek the path of holiness.
His encyclicals on Love, Hope and Faith (the latter published under the name of Pope Francis) must rank among the most outstanding ever to come from the pen of a Pope. Caritas in Veritate, his encyclical on integral human development in love and truth, will have a lasting influence on Catholic social teaching.
Perhaps his unique contribution to the renewal of the liturgy is his greatest legacy of all. All his life, he promoted a reform of liturgy according to the spirit and the letter of Vatican II. How pivotal Benedict XVI saw the reform of the liturgy for the life and mission of the Church can be seen from his decision to publish as the first Volume of his Collected Works that on the Theology of the Liturgy (which is Volume 10 in the series).
At the core of that volume—634 pages in the English translation—is his book The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), written while on holidays as Cardinal Prefect. By allowing a greater use of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (the so-called Traditional Latin Mass). Pope Benedict XVI fostered a more reverent and sacral approach to celebrating the sacraments in the vernacular (the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite). Despite certain recent restrictions, that initiative will profoundly transform the way the sacraments are celebrated in the future.
Another of his initiatives with long-term consequences was the creation of the Anglican Ordinariate. Introduced to enable Anglicans to come into union with Rome while preserving the richness of their own liturgical tradition, in time it will enrich the Roman Rite.
His courageous commentary in Dominus Iesus was and is a major contribution to Christology, ecclesiology, and the ecumenical effort of the Church as inspired by the Second Vatican Council. It is a significant part of his ongoing legacy and must be seen against the background of his lifelong contribution to ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox Churches and the other Christian communities.
His original theological contribution to interreligious dialogue will also bear fruit in time. For example, in his address to representatives of the World Religions in Assisi in 2011, he drew attention to the need of adherents of all religions to heed to listen to the voice of sincere agnostics. Their search for truth can help believers “purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible,” thus helping overcome the pathologies—such as fundamentalism—to which religions are often prone.
In his dialogue with Jurgen Habermas, Europe’s leading secular philosopher, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out how much philosophy needed to pay attention to the voice of religions to overcome the pathologies of reason (such as the atom-bomb and IVF). Though initially it caused outrage on account of a quotation taken out of context, his Regensburg lecture on the role of theology in the university led to a new and more intense dialogue with moderate Islam. In Regensburg, he also stressed the intrinsic relationship between faith and reason—the leitmotiv of his life and writings—so necessary if humanity is to become more fully human.
In all his writings, his ultimate concern was to highlight the primacy of God and the gift of man’s salvation through Jesus Christ. That is his final legacy.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!