Catholic World Report asked a number of people—theologians, apologists, philosophers, novelists, catechists, editors, journalists—to choose one book (or single piece of writing) by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI that especially influenced, shaped, inspired, and challenged them. Here are their responses.
Christopher R. Altieri
Michael P. Barber
Francis J. Beckwith
David P. Deavel
Conor B. Dugan
Thomas P. Harmon
Andrew TJ Kaethler
Michael D. O’Brien
Carl E. Olson
Robert R. Reilly
Margaret M. Turek
Thomas Weinandy, OFM, Capuchin
Jimmy Akin, Catholic Answers:
The Jesus of Nazareth Series: Over the course of his pontificate, Benedict XVI did something extraordinary. He wrote three books. Popes write official documents all the time (or have them written for them), but Benedict wrote a three-volume series titled Jesus of Nazareth in his capacity as a private theologian. Volume 1 covers the bulk of Jesus’ ministry, volume 2 covers Holy Week, and volume 3 covers the Infancy Narratives. Benedict said he wrote these in his free time, but popes don’t really have free time, which means he made the time to do this. That’s how close this project was to his heart, and his compelling need to complete the project indicates its value. Representing Benedict’s mature thought, the volumes offer page after page of insightful commentary on the gospel story. He writes in an easy, accessible fashion. And he wrestles with questions that have occupied scholars in a way that is open to insights from modern biblical studies but that does not descend into the sterile skepticism of so many works. Though Benedict pointed out that this is not a magisterial work and “Everyone is free, then, to contradict me,” reading Jesus of Nazareth is a joyful, faith-affirming, intellectually stimulating adventure in learning more about the core of our faith—Jesus himself.
Christopher R. Altieri, Contributing Editor, CWR:
Almost everybody who has read Joseph Ratzinger began with Introduction to Christianity or Spirit of the Liturgy. Even those of us who encountered his literary theological genius elsewhere somehow began with one of those works, or both, when we started to make our way into his thought. I can’t recall when I first encountered Introduction to Christianity, but it couldn’t have been much later than the mid-1990s. It is the work of Fr. Ratzinger to which I have returned most frequently, in which I have read most assiduously, and to which I have resolved to return to read fully and closely and carefully again, now that he has exchanged time for eternity. I have an older copy now – I believe the Ignatius Press edition of 2000, with a preface by then-Cardinal Ratzinger – and I look forward to the 2004 2nd edition with further revisions.
Ratzinger was never nostalgic. His 1985 Report, for example, really only hints at how much he knew about how bad things were even then. Ratzinger, nevertheless, was not a laudator temporis acti – one who praises times past – as illustrated by his clear-eyed summary of the state of things in the Middle Ages: “[E]ven in those days,” he wrote, “there was the great mass of nominal believers and a relatively small number of people who had really entered into the inner movement of belief.” The Church was institutionally strong and a constitutive element of society, in a way it is not today. “[F]or many,” he continued, “belief was only a ready-made mode of life, by which for them the exciting adventure really signified by the word, credo, was at least as much concealed as disclosed.”
When I read Introduction to Christianity the next time, I will be trying to understand more about how Ratzinger understood the role of the institution in the life and history of the Church. More precisely, I will be looking to extract whatever implicit premises there may be in his treatment, with a view to preserving and protecting not only believers from themselves, but the Gospel and the Church’s missionary élan as the Church seeks to recover, with God’s help, from institutional sclerosis and moral abdication. We will need to take a hard, unflinching look at his record in those regards, especially insofar as the crisis of leadership and governance in the Church is concerned, of which the clerical abuse and coverup crisis is only the most gruesome and appalling part. Ratzinger was a far better teacher than he was a governor — he admitted as much — and Ratzinger the teacher would want us to learn from his failures in government. Ratzinger thought with the Church. For years, it seemed, he thought for the Church. He teaches us still.
Michael P. Barber, Professor of Scripture and Theology at Augustine Institute Graduate School of Theology:
As a young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger helped shape the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, which declared, “the study of the sacred page is . . . the soul of sacred theology” (§24). No work of his set forth the principles for applying this programmatic statement more elaborately and thoughtfully than Verbum Domini (“The Word of the Lord”), his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (September 30, 2010). Although other works of his get more attention these days, in the end, I believe that it is this crucial document that will be remembered as Benedict’s most consequential. Pope Francis has emphasized that it “remains fundamental” (Aperuit illis §2). Verbum Domini contains this blockbuster line from a speech he gave:
Where exegesis is not theology, Scripture cannot be the soul of theology and, vice versa, when theology is not essentially the interpretation of the Scripture in the Church, this theology has no foundation anymore. (§35)
Benedict warns against the common mistake of confusing “theology” for “theologian-ology,” that is, the study of theologians. As much wisdom as there is in Augustine, Aquinas, or Thérèse of Lisieux—or for that matter, Ratzinger—their works are not “the sacred page.” We will never read them in the liturgy instead of the Bible. Nor is theology merely the study of magisterial documents. Verbum Domini reminds us that, as Ratzinger wrote elsewhere, “The normative theologians are the authors of Holy Scripture” (Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 321). Verbum Domini offers rich reflections on how we ought to study the scriptures so as to avoid the dangerous pitfalls of fundamentalism on the one hand and rationalism on the other while, most importantly, how to preserve their treasures for the life of the Church. If you read one work of Ratzinger’s/Benedict’s, read this one so that you can better read the most important book of all: the Bible.
Francis J. Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University:
There are several works authored by the late Fr. Joseph Ratzinger that have had a profound influence on my understanding of the Catholic faith and its engagement with the challenges of our age: Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, Introduction to Christianity, Values in a Time of Upheaval, and In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. But the one work that stands out is not a book. It is a September 2006 address he gave to his former students after he became Pope Benedict XVI. Often referred to as the Regensburg Address, it became a point of controversy soon after it was first published because of its quotation of a statement made by a late 14th-century Byzantine emperor to a Muslim with whom he was in dialogue: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” What the controversy obscured was the address’s brilliant account of the relationship between faith and reason and how the Church in its self-understanding, development of doctrine, and interpretation of Scripture has over the centuries appropriated and reshaped the best insights of Greek philosophy. For this reason, the attempt on the part of the Protestant Reformers and their successors to de-Hellenize Christian doctrine—to update the faith to conform to what they thought was the Gospel’s pristine kernel, sola scriptura without the philosophical scaffolding that gave the faith its rich creedal expression—inevitably results in the distortion of both faith and reason. After all, writes the late Pontiff, “the New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed.” Thus, we can no more de-Hellenize Christianity than we can de-Semitize it.
Douglas Bushman, S.T.L., author and catechist:
In “Christocentric Preaching”, appearing first in German in 1961 and in English in 1964 (in The Word. Readings in Theology, published by P. J. Kenedy & Sons), Ratzinger displays elements of his supreme command over his exercise of the gift of theology in service to the Church. He knows the difference between the work of theology properly speaking, on one hand, and theologically directed evangelization, catechesis, and preaching, on the other hand. Preaching operates according to what he calls “the kerygmatic principle”, while “Dogma seeks to bind individual statements into the unity of a logical system; preaching aims at leading men into a living encounter with the reality of the phenomenon of Christ. Preaching is not concerned with ontological statements; its main interest is the message of God’s history of salvation with men. Its purpose is to bring about an event, namely, man’s reply of ‘yes’ to the offer of God’s love, which he encounters in Christ.” Those familiar with Ratzinger’s life-work will recognize in this article the seedbed of thoughts that he would elaborate along the path of his theological service to the Church, especially in what he revealed about his motive for writing his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, and in his long essay, “Salvation and History”, in Principles of Catholic Theology. Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology. Starting from faith and in order to be faithful to the Church’s faith, Ratzinger succeeds in forging a theological synthesis of ontological truths about God and the historical nature of divine revelation, which had to be adapted to the human person’s historical condition. Where many others emphasized one to the diminishment or even near-eclipse of the other, Ratzinger always perceives a synthetic unity of dualities: God and man; eternity and history; ontological truth and the truth of love at work in history; personal faith and the Church’s faith. A historical fact confirms both the foundational nature of his concern for a kerygmatic preaching of the mystery of Christ and that he himself considered it foundational. Following his election to succeed St. John Paul II, from among the multitude of works that he had produced to that point, the first iteration of his biography on the Vatican website mentioned only one book. It was Dogma and Preaching.
David P. Deavel, University of St. Thomas, Houston:
The Catholic Church’s seemingly perpetual ability to give birth to new forms of life can be befuddling to outside, and sometimes inside, observers. Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits—the differences have birthed a thousand jokes. But at least they were all members of religious orders. Now we have Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation (which one of its members once told me is “Opus Dei for slobs”), Focolare, and a bunch of other groups that are even more confusing. Why can’t they just join the parish?
“Church Movements and Their Place in Theology” (found in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith) is an essay I have returned to many times for Joseph Ratzinger’s ability to put these new religious movements in context, defend them, and set out criteria by which to decide whether and how these movements will benefit the life of the Church. The context is a history in which the Holy Spirit has raised up people, starting with those desert fathers and mothers, who make “a departure from the solid, interconnected structure of the local Church, a departure from a Christianity more and more adapted to the needs of worldly life, launching into a discipleship with no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts.’” This departure from the institutional structures, though it arose from the failures of the local Churches, created “a new center of life that does not abolish the structure of local Churches. . .and yet does not simply coincide with it, rather it works within it as a stimulating force, and, at the same time, as a reservoir from which may come forth for the local Church truly spiritual clergy, in whom institution and charism are ever anew fused together” (Ratzinger’s emphasis). All religious movements, if they are for the good of the Church, will, he thinks, serve the whole Church, be “rooted in the faith of the Church,” “[create] freedom to serve” the physical and spiritual needs of those in the Church and outside, and become an occasion for “gratitude” and “joy” (again, his emphases) that “Christ is alive, and he sends the Holy Spirit from the Father. . . .”
Conor Dugan, author and attorney:
What a tall order to name and then briefly describe one’s favorite book by Pope Benedict—which one isn’t my favorite?! Certainly, Introduction to Christianity and What It Means to Be a Christian, which I wrote about here, vie for that title. Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life was mind-blowing as well. But ultimately I think I’d name Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium his first interview with Peter Seewald, as my favorite. Why? I read it as a young college student being formed in the faith. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s answers were so profound and yet so simple. Here was a mind equal parts supple and subtle and for whom the faith was anything but an abstraction. His answers there had a tendency to defy the narrow categories and blow open the rigid boxes into which I placed things. So for instance: “How many ways are there to God?” “As many as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one.” And he presented a beautiful vision of the Church and Faith, one “less identified with great societies,” but a living, vital, creative faith providing a simple witness in the world and at the heart of the world so as to draw men and women back to the memory of God and, thereby, discover the fullness of their humanity. His gentle humility—demonstrated in large part by his openness to all the questions—shone out in those pages and he became one of my great spiritual fathers.
Eduardo Echeverria, Sacred Heart Major Seminary:
My favorite book by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is: Einführung in das Christentum: Das Glaubensbekenntnis (München: Kösel-Verlag, 2000); translated by J.R. Foster as Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004): Our culture has “escaped from reason,” and has embraced irrationalism. Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI developed an account of rationality in which faith is an advocate of reason’s truth-attaining capacity, and hence “faith is the ‘yes’ to the truth.” His account, I am persuaded, shows us the way out of irrationalism. This is so because we know that the truth-attaining capacity of reason, indeed, our very orientation as truth-seekers, is underwritten by the truthfulness of the Logos, of creative Reason, who grounds not only the existence of truth, but also that man’s own mind, his own logos, his own reason, has been made to attain truth itself. This view of rationality raises the question: what must reality, including I, as a knower, be like in order that human knowledge be intelligible at all? Ratzinger’s answer to this basic question is a philosophical elaboration of the biblical teaching of the presence of God as Creator, as the Logos, conferring and sustaining the existence of both knower and known. Given the Logos, man’s logos has an intrinsic affinity for truth, the apprehension of objective truth being its purpose—the logos can attain truth, keep it, recognize it, and preserve the recognition. It is the same Logos who guarantees a correspondence between being and knowing, subject and object, the reality outside of us and the laws of thought within us. All of this makes sense if the truth-attaining capacities of the human mind are underwritten by a metaphysical framework—the Logos gives us that framework for trusting our rational faculties.
Angela Franks, Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. John’s Seminary (Boston):
My favorite book or essay by Joseph Ratzinger is simply the last one I have read. So, without trying to perform the impossible and pick among them, I will here reflect on the latest book that I have taught: Mary: The Church at the Source, a collection of essays (with Hans Urs von Balthasar) on Mary.
In his essay (“Thoughts on the Place of Marian Doctrine and Piety in Faith and Theology as a Whole”) on the place of Marian doctrine and piety, Ratzinger emphasizes the importance of the feminine in the Church and in human society. “In contrast to the masculine, activistic-sociological populus Dei (people of God) approach, Church—ecclesia—is feminine.” The Church is not primarily about action and accomplishment, the forces that drive the engine of the masculine and secular world. Rather, the Church is primarily about reception and contemplation. Thus, the Church is neither “he” nor “it”; the Church is not a large, religiously oriented bureaucracy. The Church is “she,” because the Church is bride. As the recipient of the gifts of her bridegroom, Christ, the Church is personal, and Mary is her type.
This personal element is essential. “In theology, it is not the person that is reducible to the thing [as in the world], but the thing to the person.” The personal and “Marian dimension” of the Church “secures the place of affectivity in faith and thus ensures a fully human correspondence to the reality of the incarnate Logos.” As powerful as Ratzinger’s mind was, and as strongly as he defended the reality of truth, he never fell into empty abstractions. He was too much in love with Christ and his Church for that. In the affective reality of the Marian Church, he sees “the truth of the saying that Mary is the ‘vanquisher of all heresies.’ This affective rooting guarantees the bond ex toto corde—from the depth of the heart—to the personal God and his Christ …” Love dispels error.
The personal realities of God and of the Marian Church are mirrored in the personal depth of the embodied human being. The body is not some “‘purely biological’ dimension” that can be detached from human personal reality and “treated as a thing that man can manipulate as will.” When he treats his body this way, the human person “strikes a blow against his deepest being. He holds himself in contempt, because the truth is that he is human only insofar as he is bodily, only insofar as he is man or woman.” And then the piercing insight: “Since the biological determinateness of humanity is least possible to hide in motherhood, an emancipation that negates bios is a particular aggression against the woman.” In one sentence, Ratzinger drills down into the cause of the culture of death.
In this short essay, all of Ratzinger’s strengths are demonstrated: the clarifying insights, the simple and affective piety, and the ability to range from the highest dogmatic truths to their implications and applications in the world. He was a unique theological voice, and he will be greatly missed.
Thomas P. Harmon, PhD, University of St. Thomas, Houston:
My favorite of Pope Benedict XVI’s writings or addresses is his Regensburg Lecture. It’s a profound lecture, all the more remarkable for being relatively short! I am very interested in the various accounts of what makes up Western civilization and how it develops and the Regensburg Lecture is one of the best in pointing out that the central vehicle for Western dynamism is the relationship between faith and reason. Pope Benedict, like other perceptive thinkers, sees a radical break between antiquity and modernity originated in a rejection of what came before. For Benedict, the rejection is of the relationship between faith and reason that was the fruit of the classical-Christian synthesis. Unlike some other thinkers, Pope Benedict does not see “Hellenization” of Christianity as necessarily a bad thing; in fact, he finds in the “inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry” (#29) a providential design. God himself is by nature reason or logos, and God’s revelation to us is address by God’s logos to the logos that is human reason, in the medium of logoi. The sundering of the rapprochement in the Protestant Reformation is what sets the stage for the modern development of pathological versions both of faith and reason. Without succumbing to a triumphalism that says that the rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was perfect or complete—far from it—Pope Benedict is still able to appreciate the enormously important achievement of that rapprochement and his diagnosis of many of the baneful features of modern life as resulting from successive stages of “de-Hellenization” is a fruitful way of pondering our predicament.
Andrew TJ Kaethler, Catholic Pacific College:
Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity is the book that unlocks all his other publications; it is also the book that unlocked the doors of the Church for me personally, revealing the profound beauty therewithin. Everything Ratzinger wrote was Christ centered and therefore Trinitarian, and this is marvellously elucidated in this book as he explicates the Apostles’ Creed. Herein, Ratzinger sets out the articles of the creed in light of the God who is relation, who is person because he is in communion. He writes, “The profession of faith in God as a person necessarily includes the acknowledgement of God as relatedness, as communicability, as fruitfulness. The unrelated, unrelatable, absolutely One could not be person. There is no such thing as person in the categorical singular.” Without eliding mystery and avoiding a narrow, vapid juridical and rationalist approach, this relational ontological modus operandi reveals how Catholic dogma, doctrine, and ethics fit within the relational fabric of reality. Everything concerns Christ, and he is the human person—Ecce Homo—because he is the Dia-Logos. The way of the Church, the path of redemption, is the way of human flourishing since it leads us into the divine dialogue. Our call to communion is a call to personhood. The sacramental process of becoming an alter Christus, the process of deification, is the path to the fulfillment of our personhood.
Dr. Matthew Kuhner, Vice President and Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry:
Ever since my undergraduate studies in theology, Called to Communion has played a unique role in unveiling for me the essence of the Church and the nature of ecclesial office. Most importantly, though, Cardinal Ratzinger’s claim that authentic ecclesial reform originates in our personal response to the call to holiness has brought unexpected healing during recent years. I found myself teaching ecclesiology at the graduate level for the first time in the fall of 2018, just after the resurgence of the sex abuse crisis vis-a-vis the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the McCarrick affair. It was a heavy time, and the ecclesiology course began with difficulty both for me and for the students: how could we adequately address these failures of the Church’s members, especially those holding ecclesial office? I will never forget how Called to Communion gave us ballast and boldness, how it drew us out of the swirling darkness of counter-witnesses and into the vibrant luminosity of the saints. It confirmed our faith in God and in his Church by reminding us that the Apostles and the saints are the signs of the Church’s triumph over the gates of Hell. This compact but powerful text revealed the importance and the necessity of office in the Church, while at the same time emphasizing that this office has nothing to do with worldly power and everything to do with a participation in the mission of Jesus Christ. Perhaps most strikingly of all, it demonstrated that the highest office in the Church – the office of Peter – is founded upon radical forgiveness in the wake of betrayal, and possesses an intrinsically martyr-ological structure; here the call to holiness in the context of ecclesial office becomes visible and vibrant once again. Called to Communion has impacted me – has healed me – through the convergence of Cardinal Ratzinger’s learning, experience, and personal convictions. In the theological and spiritual wisdom borne of this convergence, I’m convinced that many will find the spark that sets aflame an authentic, lived response to our ecclesial crises.
Matthew Levering, James N. Jr. and Mary D. Perry Chair of Theology, Mundelein Seminary:
Although I have many favorites, the one that stands out most for me is Many Religions–One Covenant. This book constitutes an attempt to think through the relationship between Jews and Christians, in a scripturally faithful way that is also grounded in Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate. The history of the Catholic Church’s relation to the Jewish people is one of the saddest elements of Catholic history. Despite some positive moments, it is fundamentally a story of repeated and often horrific Christian failure to live up to the standards of charity and justice by which the Church, in Christ, measures herself. Ratzinger knows this terrible history, and he raises the urgent questions. Most importantly, he asks whether Christians can still contend that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of all peoples, or whether precisely this view of Jesus led to the persecution of the Jewish people for centuries and must now be relinquished. He explores the meaning of Jesus’ fulfillment (as distinct from negation) of the Torah; he makes manifest the meaning of the covenantal history from Abraham and Moses to David and to the ‘new covenant’ in Jesus; he reflects upon the theological fact that all humans are responsible for the death of Jesus, in light of the divine purpose of the Cross which is reconciliation not retribution; and he inquires into the nature of religious dialogue. What Ratzinger achieves in this book is at least twofold. First, he opens up the entirety of the Bible and displays its amazing richness and coherence as the revelation of personal divine love. Second, he makes clear that love of Jesus must include love of the Jewish people, not demonization of the Jewish people for not following Jesus. But it must also be a love that also is not afraid of proclaiming the truth about Jesus. In short, this book is a model of what Christian theology should be, eschewing patterns of persecution on the one hand and the relativizing of doctrine on the other.
Michael D. O’Brien, novelist and artist:
Of the many luminous works by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (2005) stands out as especially significant for me, articulating much of what I personally thought or had intuited about the emerging state of the world. It is both warning and encouragement. Written shortly before his election to the Papacy, his reflections on the displacement of the Christian roots of Western civilization by Enlightenment philosophies apply not only to Europe and the Americas but to all of mankind at this stage of history. Moreover, it is written not only with his ever-lucid, serene mind, but with a prescient wisdom about our future if we should fail to recognize what is happening. He teaches that faith in Christ makes all things possible, despite the apparently overwhelming odds against it. Embodying his characteristic integration of brilliant intellect and spiritual discernment, this book is also infused with the sense of the prophetic.
Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR:
Daughter Zion was the first book by Joseph Ratzinger that I read, back in 1995 or so; it is a short but marvelous work on the Blessed Virgin Mary. I saw immediately the Scriptural depth, theological clarity, and incisive style that marks the amazing body of work produced by the great German. I was an Evangelical Protestant at the time, but was fast moving toward the Catholic Church. Introduction to Christianity was a textbook in my Master’s in Theological Studies program, and the most difficult and, in some ways, the most influential of his books for me (I still chuckle over the title: yes, an “Introduction” if you are very well-versed in modern European thought, culture, and philosophy). The Jesus of Nazareth books are bracing, warm, and both insightful and challenging. The “interview books” with Peter Seewald are remarkable, and are vital historical and theological documents. And The Spirit of the Liturgy is rightly considered one of his most important works; again, the Scriptural depth is always present. But I want to highlight Dominus Iesus, the August 2000 Declaration “On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church”, written as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is a towering and brilliant document that upholds, defends, and presents a Catholic understanding of Christology, ecclesiology, ecumenism, and interfaith dialogue is both calm and firm. It draws a deep and abiding line in the often wildly shifting sands of theological debate (or, so often, shallow speculation and heterodox emoting). These words, in the conclusion, are so understated that their urgent and continued call might be missed. But they must not be overlooked:
The intention of the present Declaration, in reiterating and clarifying certain truths of the faith, has been to follow the example of the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the faithful of Corinth: “I handed on to you as of first importance what I myself received” (1 Cor 15:3). Faced with certain problematic and even erroneous propositions, theological reflection is called to reconfirm the Church’s faith and to give reasons for her hope in a way that is convincing and effective. … The revelation of Christ will continue to be “the true lodestar” in history for all humanity: “The truth, which is Christ, imposes itself as an all-embracing authority”. The Christian mystery, in fact, overcomes all barriers of time and space, and accomplishes the unity of the human family…
Dr. Edward Peters, Sacred Heart Major Seminary:
It is impossible to pick just one book of Ratzinger/Benedict for a “most influential” list. Any list I might suggest would be chronological, however, and would start with his Theological Highlights of Vatican II (1966), a short work that helped me appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the conciliar treatment of several topics important for clear thinking in these cacophonous days. And, lest monographs be disproportionately registered here, I would also nominate two of his many vital essays, first, the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion” (1992) on the relations between particular churches and the universal Church; and second, his “Doctrinal Commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem” (1998) on categories of infallibility. These two short dicasterial documents are crucial for understanding the canon law that rests on the doctrinal principles enunciated therein.
Matthew Ramage, Benedictine College:
In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. Like many of our late pontiff’s writings, the four homilies collected in this volume are delightful to read because they are profound yet written in accessible prose. One of the reasons I love the book is because many hallmarks of Ratzinger’s thought appear here in such a short space. For example, there’s his humble and bold willingness to face serious questions head-on, like whether the opening chapters of Genesis are true, what the easily misunderstood concept of original sin means, and how to understand evolutionary theory in the light of faith. As a biblical theologian, I also appreciate that these homilies offer an easily imitable example of how to penetrate the essence of difficult Bible passages by distinguishing the essential point they intend to teach from the literary devices that the sacred author deploys to convey it. This book is one of the best places to witness Ratzinger carefully attending to Genesis’s figurative literary genre and detailing why understanding this is crucial for seeing the harmony of faith and science. It also contains a classic illustration of Ratzinger’s characteristic emphasis on approaching the Old Testament in light of the divine pedagogy—Israel’s centuries-long journey towards Christ, who alone reveals the full meaning of creation and Scripture. Steeping myself in these principles and exploring how Ratzinger applies them continues to reaffirm my confidence in the truth of the faith and makes me ever eager to share it with others.
Sally Read, writer and poet:
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy was one of the first theological books that I read. While much theology left me confused (and sometimes still does!) I found Ratzinger’s style to be lucid and involving. In fact, his analysis and exploration of the liturgy in historical, cosmological, and theological terms had great influence on my decision to become a Catholic. His description of heaven and earth meeting through liturgy, his explanation of liturgy in time, are essential parts of my formation. Benedict XVI was my greatest catechist. His ideas might have been among the most complex that I read. And yet they never felt like heavy reading. There is no one like him for gentle lucidity. For a logic so intense, it sometimes seems more like mysticism.
Robert R. Reilly, author:
The 2006 Regensburg Lecture had a huge impact on me. It is a brilliant, concise explication of the “relationship between faith and reason” and of the terrible things that can happen when that relationship is out of whack. It is a work I have cited innumerable times in my writings. In fact, the book I wrote about Islam, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, was really an exploration and a defense of what Benedict XVI said at that time. Only a small portion of the Lecture addresses the subject of Islam, but, in it, is the priceless quote from Emperor Manuel II Paleologus that “not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” Benedict pointed to this as “the decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion.” It is decisive because it presumes that God is reason. If He is reason, then it is immoral to employ force against conscience. Benedict’s profound exploration of God as Logos influenced me far beyond my works on Islam. It permeates every subject on which I’ve written, including music and human sexuality. I’m going to cheat by sharing my favorite quote from Benedict XVI, which is not one from the Lecture, though it could have been. It crystallizes what is at stake in one’s understanding of the status of reason. He said:
There are only two options. Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of creative Reason that is at the beginning of all things and is the principle of all things – the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom – or one holds the priority of the irrational, inasmuch as everything that functions on our earth and in our lives would be only accidental, marginal, an irrational result – reason would be a product of irrationality. One cannot ultimately ‘prove’ either project, but the great option of Christianity is the option for rationality and for the priority of reason. This seems to me to be an excellent option, which shows us that behind everything is a great Intelligence to which we can entrust ourselves.”
John Sehorn, Augustine Institute:
I received my copy of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration as a gift from my pastor on September 7, 2007. The occasion was my first Reconciliation, in preparation for reception into full communion with the Church the following day. But Jesus of Nazareth remains a favorite of mine for more than this personal reason. It has deeply shaped how I read the Bible, and particularly the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’s public ministry. It’s not so much the exegetical details, many of which are certainly debatable, and on some of which I have taken Benedict at his word when he wrote in the Foreword, “Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.” Rather, it’s how Benedict read the Gospels: historically, canonically, ecclesially, trustingly. He read them in search of the face of the Lord Jesus, whom he loved, as we know, to his dying breath. It’s also what Benedict saw in the Gospels. At their heart we find the revelation, by the Holy Spirit, of Jesus as the unique Son of the living God, his Father. And, to our astonishment and joy, the Gospels invite us to share by grace in Jesus’s sonship. There is no gift more precious, and I am profoundly grateful for the ways Benedict helped me recognize and treasure it. The dignity of divine sonship was restored to me in that first Reconciliation, mere minutes after receiving this book. I now pray that its author experiences that sonship in beatific glory.
Margaret M. Turek, S.T.D., Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University:
It is not a single book or essay of Ratzinger’s that has had the greatest impact on my theology but one crucial insight, which is the key to discerning “the newness of the Christian concept of God”: namely, that the Cross event is the height of God’s self-revelation. This insight is evident in so many of his writings but perhaps most notably in two: the essay “Jesus Christ today” (Communio, Spring 1990), and his masterwork, Jesus of Nazareth. In the former, Ratzinger explains that “he who sees Christ, the Crucified One, sees the Father, and the entire Trinitarian mystery. For we must add, when one sees the Father in Christ, then in him the veil of the temple is truly rent, and the interior of God is laid bare.” Nearly twenty years later, in Jesus of Nazareth, he reiterates this insight: “On the Cross, Jesus is exalted to the very ‘height’ of the God who is love. It is there that he can be ‘known,’ that the ‘I am He’ can be recognized [cf. Jn 8:28]. … What we find here is not metaphysical speculation, but the self-revelation of God’s reality in the midst of history.”
To my mind, there is no more compelling invitation to theological reflection than to contemplate, with Ratzinger, the mystery of God by beholding the “pierced one” (cf. Jn 19:37). To see into the heart of the Cross event is to perceive it as a dramatic epiphany, shaped in response to sin, of the mystery of the eternal Trinity. It is to grasp that Christ’s passion of love in human form is not merely a condescension which disguises or obscures the divine glory; rather it is better seen as a consummate in-person “face” or image of the glory of God (cf. 2 Cor 4:4-6; Jn 1:1-18). And if it is precisely as the crucified one that Christ is the Lord of glory, then in gazing on this glory we see not only what God is truly like but also what we ought to be like and are enabled to become by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 3:18).
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap., author and theologian:
I very much appreciated Benedict’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy. I found it a foundational text for appreciating and understanding the Church’s liturgy that has come down to us through the ages. It struck me that every priest and seminarian should be required to read and study this work. In doing so, I think it would help alleviate much of the rancor that exists in our present “liturgical wars.” His sound learning and wise counsel would calmly prevail.
Amy Welborn, author and editor of many books on faith and spirituality, including Friendship with Jesus and Be Saints! with artist Ann Engelhart:
In the months after my husband’s sudden death in February, 2009, I read a lot of Widow Books. You know, Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and the like. Somewhere along the way, Ratzinger’s Eschatology was recommended. I’d read Ratzinger – by then Pope Benedict XVI – and of course appreciated him deeply. But I’d mostly read the interviews and papal homilies. Nothing too heavy. But I took the advice, found the book, started reading, and in that theological treatise found more peace than any of the Widow Books had offered.
How strange, in a way, but not really. For Eschatology is just like all of Ratzinger’s other works: deeply theological, but also rooted in and directed towards very real human questions, explored and answered with openness and ultimately a bracing, assuring confidence. What was the point of this if it end? What happens now? Where are we going?
The answer: To belong to him, to be called by him, is to be rooted in life indestructible.
A few years before this, though, there had been something else. A blog reader from Long Island, whom I’d never met, dropped me an email. Had I seen Pope Benedict’s dialogue with children who’d received their First Communion? She knew I appreciated Benedict’s wisdom from what I’d written on my blog, she was an artist, she thought the dialogue would make a wonderful children’s book, and would I be interested in working with her on it?
Earlier this week, Ann Engelhart emailed me again, a decade and a half after Pope Benedict XVI’s clear, simple, yet profound words to children brought us together in a wonderful friendship and inspired the first of the four books we’ve created together: Friendship with Jesus. I can’t put it any better than this myself: “His papacy changed my life and lead me to many adventures of faith, not the least of which was collaborating with you and creating an important and lasting friendship. God bless him. Rest In Peace, and thank you, Joseph Ratzinger.”
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