Despite his being “conservative” and “traditional,” his was a well-rounded Roman Catholic orthodoxy that had no place for the “five solas” of evangelical faith.
Neither progressive, nor conservative. Joseph Ratzinger (1927-2022) was a Roman Catholic theologian at the service of his Church and who became Pope (Benedict XVI) even though he dramatically resigned from the office in 2013.
Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) was one of the towering figures in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology. His life intersected with some momentous events of the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century.
Born in 1927, his impressive biography includes having been a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), holding various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957-1977), being Archbishop of Munich (1977-1981) and Cardinal, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), to eventually becoming Pope (2005-2013), and since 2013, after his resignation, Pope Emeritus following the sexual abuses scandals, the opaque financial maneuvers, and the appalling intrigues within the Vatican.
His Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly depth. Needless to say, one cannot think about seriously dealing with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his work.
A recurring comment is that Benedict XVI has been an “orthodox” pope. This reputation has attracted some evangelical appreciation. In itself, being orthodox, i.e. upholding the Trinitarian confession of faith of the early church, is not a distinct feature of any single Pope because it is part of his service.
The pope, or any pope, is to be orthodox. Bonifacius VIII, the pope that introduced the papal tiara in 1300 (indicative of the temporal power), was orthodox. Pope Leo X, the one who excommunicated Martin Luther in 1521, was orthodox.
The best and the worst Popes were orthodox. Indeed, all 266 Popes since Peter (taking for granted that Peter was the first Pope) have been orthodox. The business of the Pope is to be orthodox in this sense.
It may be true that Benedict put a special emphasis on orthodoxy, but he has interpreted his orthodoxy in a Roman Catholic way, like all previous Popes. He has been praying daily to Mary, he has granted indulgences, he has canonized new saints, he has maintained the church-state profile of the Vatican, etc.
Nicene Christianity is always colored by subsequent developments in Christian doctrine and practice. It never stands in isolation, nor does it exist in an abstract way. Benedict’s pontificate has been a peak of Roman Catholic orthodoxy after Vatican II.
Ratzinger’s theology epitomized the catholicity of Roman Catholicism in its post-Vatican II outlook. The motto of the theological journal Communio with which Benedict was associated since 1972 neatly sums up his theological vision: ‘a program of renewal through the return to the sources of authentic tradition’.
In other words, aggiornamento is done through “ressourcement” (i.e. the fresh rereading of biblical and patristic sources) since the two belong together.
It is true that in his catechetical efforts, Benedict has been dealing with the Bible much more than his immediate predecessors. His speeches have largely been Biblical meditations and his late writings on Jesus have defended the historicity of the Gospel accounts.
Much of his reading of Scripture, however, was driven by post-biblical presuppositions that come out of ecclesiastical tradition rather than Scripture itself.
The heavily sacramental interpretations of Gospel stories and the over-arching interpretive grid that sees the relationship between Biblical teaching and Roman Catholic practices in terms of linear continuity, are only two examples of “how” Biblical Benedict’s magisterium has been.
During his pontificate, the point that distinguished Roman Catholicism from the Protestant tradition was no longer whether the Bible is accessible to the people, but “how” it is to be read and lived out.
There is still another aspect to bear in mind. The Pope’s most famous (and criticized) speech, i.e. the 2006 Regensburg lecture, was not about Islam, but revolved around the need to keep the Hellenized combination of “faith and reason” which the Roman Catholic Church holds onto.
In denouncing the threats to the “classic” synthesis, Benedict indicated the “sola Scriptura” of the Reformation as a major breach that eventually caused theological liberalism and present-day relativism.
It is interesting that a “Biblical” Pope would have such a low view of the Reformation’s formal principle that brought the Bible back to the center of the life of the Church.
For him the "Scripture alone" principle of the Reformation was unthinkable. The "Christ alone" was to include the mediation of the saints and of Mary.
In his eyes, evangelicals were a bizarre phenomenon, between the sect and the new religious movement. This is to say that, despite his being “conservative” and “traditional,” his was a well-rounded Roman Catholic orthodoxy that had no place for the “five solas/solus” of evangelical faith.
Ratzinger tried to renew the Roman Catholic Church “from within” with no intention to change any of the non-biblical, if not anti-biblical dogmatic commitments of his Church (e.g. Trent, Marian dogmas, papal infallibility). He stood in the line of many well-intended Roman Catholic theologians and leaders calling for moral and spiritual “renewal” at no cost for the doctrinal, sacramental, and hierarchical structure of Rome.
Leonardo De Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy). He is a theologian and an expert in Roman Catholicism. He blogs at VaticanFiles.com.