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The true Joseph Ratzinger

The key to the true Joseph Ratzinger, and to his greatness, was the depth of his love for the Lord Jesus — a love refined by an extraordinary theological and exegetical intelligence,

German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is pictured in a 2002 file photo. (CNS photo from Catholic Press Photo)

The Joseph Ratzinger I knew for 35 years — first as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, later as Pope Benedict XVI and then Pope Emeritus — was a brilliant, holy man who bore no resemblance to the caricature that was first created by his theological enemies and then set in media concrete.

The cartoon Ratzinger was a grim, relentless ecclesiastical inquisitor/enforcer, “God’s Rottweiler.” The man I knew was a consummate gentleman with a gentle soul, a shy man who nonetheless had a robust sense of humor, and a Mozart lover who was fundamentally a happy person, not a sour crank.

The cartoon Ratzinger was incapable of understanding or appreciating modern thought. The Ratzinger I knew was arguably the most learned man in the world, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Christian theology (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), philosophy (ancient, medieval, and modern), biblical studies (Jewish and Christian), and political theory (classic and contemporary). His mind was luminous and orderly, and when asked a question, he would answer in complete paragraphs — in his third or fourth language.

The cartoon Ratzinger was a political reactionary, discombobulated by the 1968 student protests in Germany and longing for a restoration of the monarchic past; his more vicious enemies hinted at Nazi sympathies (hence the nasty sobriquet Panzerkardinal). The Ratzinger I knew was the German who, on a state visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, thanked the people of the U.K. for winning the Battle of Britain — a Bavarian Christian Democrat (which would put him slightly left of center in U.S. political terms) whose disdain for Marxism was both theoretical (it made no sense philosophically) and practical (it never worked and was inherently totalitarian and murderous).

The cartoon Ratzinger was the enemy of the Second Vatican Council. The Ratzinger I knew was, in his mid-30s, one of the three most influential and productive theologians at Vatican II — the man who, as CDF prefect, worked in harness with John Paul II to give the Council an authoritative interpretation, which he deepened during his own papacy.

The cartoon Ratzinger was a liturgical troglodyte determined to turn back the clock of liturgical reform. The Ratzinger I knew was deeply influenced, spiritually and theologically, by the 20th-century liturgical movement. Ratzinger became a far more generous pope in his embrace of legitimate liturgical pluralism than his papal successor, because Benedict XVI believed that, out of such a vital pluralism, the noble goals of the liturgical movement that formed him would eventually be realized in a Church empowered by reverent worship for mission and service.

The cartoon Ratzinger was yesterday’s story, an intellectual throwback whose books would soon gather dust and crumble away, leaving no imprint on the Church or on world culture. The Ratzinger I knew was one of the few contemporary authors who could be certain that his books would be read centuries from now. I also suspect that some of the homilies of this greatest papal preacher since Pope St. Gregory the Great will eventually find their way into the Church’s official daily prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours.

The cartoon Ratzinger craved power. The Ratzinger I knew tried three times to resign his post in the Curia, had zero desire to be pope, told fellow churchmen in 2005 that he was “not a man of governo [governance],” and only accepted his election to the papacy in obedience to what he regarded as God’s will, manifest through the overwhelming vote of his brother cardinals.

The cartoon Ratzinger was indifferent to the crisis of clerical sexual abuse. The Ratzinger I knew did as much as anyone, as cardinal prefect of CDF and then as pope, to cleanse the Church of what he brutally and accurately described as “filth.”

The key to the true Joseph Ratzinger, and to his greatness, was the depth of his love for the Lord Jesus — a love refined by an extraordinary theological and exegetical intelligence, manifest in his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, which he regarded as the capstone of his lifelong scholarly project. In those books, more than six decades of learning were distilled into an account that he hoped would help others to come and love Jesus as he did. For as he insisted in so many variations on one great theme, “friendship with Jesus Christ” was the beginning, the sine qua non, of the Christian life. And fostering that friendship was the whole purpose of the Church.

The last of the monumental figures of 20th-century Catholicism has gone home to God, who will not fail to reward his good servant.

(George Weigel’s column ‘The Catholic Difference’ is syndicated by the Denver Catholic, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Denver.)

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About George Weigel 478 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Funny to be reading from this man forever known for his disrespect and ridicule of Pope Benedict XVI when he wrote the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” in 2009. Weigel called the papal writing on charity, truth and social justice as “incoherent and incomprehensible” marked with “confused mentality.” Weigel thinking along conspiratorial tone ala “The Da Vinci Code” made an analysis of the encyclical in the essay entitled, “The Revenge of Justice and Peace (Or So They May Think),” declaring that some liberal virus has infected the encyclical. Weigel suggested to read it armed with a gold marker and a red marker. The gold should highlight those passages that are authentically Benedict’s (that is, they agree with Weigel); the red is for the passages inserted by the pope’s evil peace-and-justice twin. Otherwise we are stuck with “an encyclical that resembles a duck-billed platypus.” The good Benedict is lucid and moving; the bad Benedict is “incomprehensible” and marked by “confused sentimentality.” that Benedict apparently has not read his own encyclical or that he has signed on to something he does not believe. Weigel wrote that Pope Benedict XVI, “a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include in his encyclical these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household.” He is a gentle soul who signs his name to a document that misrepresents his own theology and its application. If anything, the late Pope was an astute and intelligent man, not the pawn of some interest group.
    Weigel in his commentary on the encyclical showed he simply does not understand and live the Pope’s integrative vision of Christian faith. His notion of “the gift” in human existence is a frontal rejection of our myths of “self-made” men and women. The gift of our shared existence as a human family is grounded, in the Gospel that brings all things under Christ which means everything: our political, social, economic, personal, sexual, familial and professional worlds. The encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” tries to address such integration of our faith in a complex and wide-ranging manner, from the far reaches of theology to the immediacy of our daily lives. Weigel in his pontification on the Pope’s letter rejected the connections among love of the earth, the common good of all humanity, the integrity of sexuality, the Gospel imperatives concerning the use of power and money and the defense of human life at every stage. Weigel advocated selecting what we want to affirm and rejecting what we do not affirm out of our own proclivities, thereby mutilating the Gospels and fragment the truth. Benedict himself cautions against such selectivity like that of Weigel’s, by which we lose sight of this integrative vision of the Christian faith.
    Better to read or reread Pope Benedict XVI’s “Caritas in Veritate” than this hallow and shallow article. Weigel has questionable moral and literary standing in writing this essay.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Weigel. I did not have the benefit of knowing Pope Benedict personally or observing him up close, but from his writings, I knew him very well: a man who knew and loved Our Blessed Lord and who used his immense gifts to communicate this to His Church. We, who lived during this time, can only thank God for this and now, to pray to Pope Benedict for His intercession for Holy Mother Church. May he rest in peace.

  3. In 2005, the same year that Ratzinger was elected as the now-cartoonized Pope Benedict XIV, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons mostly depicting and insulting Muhammad. Islamic protests ricocheted around the world, and ten years later in 2015, a mass shooting took place in the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

    In the West, it is Pope Benedict XVI who is made into a cartoon…

    As part of a long pattern, might hostpry record the continued descent of the Catholic Church and Europe itself? In late 16th-century China, Matteo Ricci found only remnants of Nestorian Christians. In 19th-century Japan, 250 years after St. Francis Xavier, a remnant Church was found, still practicing sacramental baptism, and which sought reassurance from a new missionary and celibate priest that he came from one known as the pope…

    What will be the story in a post-Christian Europe, say, 250 years from now? Islamicized, or fully atheized, or both–a self-consumed cartoon of its former self?

    But! With a vibrant remnant still remembering the Incarnation event at the center of real human history, as witnessed in the Gospel, and whose sacrificial presence is still renewed and extended in the Real Presence…and a growing remnant still reading the Doctors of the Church (ressourcement!) including the non-cartoon, “true,” and evangelizing Benedict XVI (aggiornamento!).

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. The true Joseph Ratzinger | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya
  2. The true Joseph Ratzinger | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers

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