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Remembering Benedict — the teacher, the traditionalist
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Pope Benedict XVI will not go down in history as an innovative theologian, as one who cultivated new intellectual ground.

And that's just how he would want it, say scholars who have studied his writings, speeches and sermons.

Rather, Benedict, who stepped down Thursday as bishop of Rome and pope of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, saw his role as recovering the 2,000-year tradition of the church and suggesting the modern world take a look.

That meant a return to biblical roots and an emphasis on liturgy, says the Rev. Joseph Lienhard, a Jesuit theologian at Fordham University in New York.

"His theology was meant as a course correction," Lienhard says. "He wanted to see the Catholic Church renew its way of interpreting the Bible, to return to a richer tradition."

Joseph Ratzinger, the German priest and professor who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, was the first academic theologian to lead the church in 200 years.

Ratzinger often expressed regret he wasn't able to fully develop his theological impulses because service in the church demanded most of his time. Before his fellow cardinals elected him pope, Ratzinger was prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years — the church office charged with ensuring correct doctrine is taught.

Nonetheless, he published in the neighborhood of 90 books as well as scores of speeches, sermons, essays and letters. Much of his work dealt with trends he found troubling, such as the rise of relativism and the ascendancy, for a time, of a liberation theology that called for the church to take a political role in addressing injustice.

Once he became pope, Ratzinger's focus turned in the direction he had suggested in a 2000 speech: "The church must not speak primarily of herself but of God."

His first encyclical, or letter to the church, eight months after becoming pope, was titled "God Is Love."

"Everything has its origin in God's love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God's greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope," he wrote in his third encyclical, "Charity in Truth," in 2009.

His weekly Wednesday audiences in St. Peter's Square became an occasion to catechize the faithful, including a reintroduction to the thinking of the earliest Christians.

Significantly, the last books he wrote as pope were in the Jesus of Nazareth three-part series, the last of which, The Infancy Narratives, was published last fall.

The Rev. D. Vincent Twomey, an Irish priest who studied under Ratzinger in Germany in the 1970s and later wrote a book on him, says the Jesus of Nazareth books help address one of the church's core problems: "the false answer to the question 'Who is Jesus Christ?' "

While the historical-critical method popular among theologians in recent decades shed light on Jesus as a historical figure, it often undermined his divinity. The pope reconciles the two in the three Jesus of Nazareth series, Twomey says.

"That will be one of his main contributions. It's all very profound," says Twomey, author of the 2007 book Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age.

Mass appeals • Liturgy, the way the church worships, was the pope's second great concern, Lienhard says. "He accepted the reforms [of Vatican II] but thought they were being misinterpreted. … He saw that after the council, the liturgy was too noisy and chatty and lacked a sense of reverence and awe of worship."

The pope was gentle every time he celebrated Mass — as if to say, "Isn't this better and a more devout way?" Lienhard explains. He also pressed for Gregorian chant and other traditional music and allowed priests to say public Masses in Latin again.

"Much of the goofiness is gone," Lienhard says.

Monsignor Francis Mannion, a theologian in Salt Lake City, says that if Benedict has a theological legacy, it might be in the liturgy.

"He has emphasized that as a basis of his theology in a way that no other theologians have," Mannion says.

Much of the pope's work was a critique, both of those who saw Vatican II as an opportunity to modernize a church they regarded as anachronistic and, even more so, of an increasingly secular world that rejects the notion of truth.

"He was disappointed … that the council was not taken seriously but what was taken seriously was 'Let's keep changing,' " Lienhard said.

In 1985, as divides grew in the church over Vatican II's meaning, Ratzinger told an Italian journalist that real reform comes only by obedience to Christ.

"Saints, in fact, reformed the church in depth, not by working up plans for new structures, but by reforming themselves. What the church needs in order to respond to the needs of man in every age is holiness, not management."

Benedict often evaluated modern ideologies and fashionable intellectual currents from the perspective of Christian doctrine, says Tracey Rowland, an Australian theologian who wrote the 2008 book Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI.

He had much to say, for instance, "about the relationship between faith and reason and truth and love," Rowland writes in an email.

Regarded as a liberal before Vatican II, where he was a young theologian, Ratzinger later was considered a conservative.

"What looked liberal in 1963," Rowland says, "began to look conservative in 1968."

The truth was that he was never liberal nor conservative, she says. "If one label best sums him up, it is Christocentric."

Ode to tradition • The Rev. Allan Fitzgerald, director of the Augustinian Institute at Villanova University near Philadelphia, says he's not so sure that Benedict will leave a theological legacy.

Not only is the new pope emeritus one of many theologians trying to make tradition accessible, Fitzgerald says, but also many Catholics are unaware of his teachings beyond the few hot-button issues such as women's ordination or priestly celibacy.

"I don't think people on this side of the Atlantic have ever been given much of a chance to know what he has said or written," says Fitzgerald, who taught for 12 years at the Augustinian Patristic Institute in Rome, including when Benedict was elected.

Theologians and the media tend toward the polemic, and that leaves little attention for what the pope says. "He tried, but I don't think his personality helped a lot," says Fitzgerald, who saw Benedict as a warm scholar, but lacking the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II.

Fitzgerald does see the "new evangelization" promoted by Benedict and John Paul II as holding great potential. That's the term given the church's project to introduce an old faith to a modern culture, tapping new technology and social media when appropriate.

For his part, Fitzgerald is preparing an app for Augustine's fourth-century autobiography, Confessions.

"It's a way," Fitzgerald says, "of trying to say. 'We've got something good. Let's find a way to put it out there.' "

In his last hours as pope, the 85-year-old Benedict showed how to speak about the old in a new way, tweeting his last 140-character-or-less message @Pontifex:

"Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives."

kmoulton@sltrib.com

Benedict's words of wisdom

On religion

"The essence of religion is the relation of man beyond himself to the unknown reality that faith calls God."

Salt of the Earth, interview with Peter Seewald, 1996

On Christianity

"Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction."

"Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), encyclical, December 2005

On the church's mission

"The church's mission and orientation, in every age, is to the duty to bring God to men and men to God. The church's goal is the gospel, around which everything else must revolve."

"The Ecclesiology of the Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium," a 2000 speech

On charity

"For the church, charity is not a welfare activity that could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being."

"Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), encyclical, December 2005

On faith

"The core of faith rests upon accepting being loved by God. And therefore to believe is to say yes, not only to him, but to creation, to creatures, above all, to men, to try to see the image of God in each person and thereby become a lover."

Salt of the Earth, interview with Peter Seewald, 1996

On peace

"Where God is excluded, there is a breakdown of peace in the world."

"Eucharist, Communion and Solidarity," a 2002 speech

On pollution

"This is also the defect of the ecological movements. They crusade with an understandable and also legitimate passion against the pollution of the environment, whereas man's self-pollution of his soul continues to be treated as one of the rights of his freedom. There is a discrepancy here."

Salt of the Earth, interview with Peter Seewald, 1996

On liturgy

"The fact that the liturgy is actually 'made' for God and not for ourselves seems to have escaped the minds of those who are busy pondering how to give the liturgy an ever more attractive and communicable shape, actively involving an ever greater number of people. However, the more we make it for ourselves, the less attractive it is, because everyone perceives clearly that the essential focus on God has increasingly been lost."

"The Ecclesiology of the Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium," a 2000 speech

On authority

"But the church of Christ is not a party, not an association, not a club. Her deep and permanent structure is not democratic but sacramental, consequently hierarchical. … Here authority is not based on the majority of votes; it is based on the authority of Christ himself, which he willed to pass on to men who were to be his representatives until his definitive return."

"The Ratzinger Report," interview with Vittorio Messori in 1985

On women's ordination, contraception, priestly celibacy, divorce

"These are certainly genuine issues, but I also believe that we go astray when we raise them to the standard questions and make them the only concerns of Christianity."

Salt of the Earth, interview with Peter Seewald, 1996

On truth

"Under the pretext of goodness people neglect conscience. They place acceptance, the avoidance of problems, the comfortable pursuit of their existence, the good opinion of others, and good-naturedness above truth in the scale of values."

Salt of the Earth, interview with Peter Seewald, 1996

On paradox

"Life doesn't exist in contradictions, but it does exist in paradoxes. A joyfulness based on willful blindness to the horrors of history would ultimately be a lie or a fiction, a kind of withdrawal. But the converse is also true. Those who have lost the capacity to see that even in an evil world the creator still shines through are at bottom no longer capable of existing."

Salt of the Earth, interview with Peter Seewald, 1996 —

More online

To read speeches, sermons and encyclicals by Pope Benedict XVI, go to: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/index.htm

The Alabama-based Eternal Word Television Network has the English translations of many of the pope's speeches and writings from before his papacy in its library at http://www.ewtn.com/vlibrary/search.asp

Theology • The newly retired pope shifted the church's focus to its biblical roots
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