Cardinal Ratzinger, Theologian in Residence





February 20, 2013

By Cornelius Sullivan


After his abdication as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church Cardinal Ratzinger will continue to be what he has always been, Theologian in Residence. He has realized that he can no longer be a visible apostle.


Not yet a Bishop or Cardinal, looking like the actor James Dean, Father Joseph Ratzinger was a young behind the scenes theological adviser even before the Second Vatican Council began.


Last Thursday Pope Benedict reminisced about those times speaking to the clergy of Rome, he told of how Cardinal Frings of Cologne asked him in 1961 to write about “The Council and the World of Modern Thought”. (In 2005 Pope Benedict made his first foreign trip as Pope to Cologne World Youth Day.) Frings presented the text to the public and was then summoned to Rome by Pope John XXIII. Benedict said Cardinal Frings, “was afraid he had perhaps said maybe something incorrect, false, and that he had been asked to come for a reprimand, perhaps even to deprive him of his red hat. Pope John came towards him and hugged him, saying, 'Thank you, Your Eminence, you said things I have wanted to say, but I had not found the words to say.’ Thus, the Cardinal knew he was on the right track, and I was invited to accompany him to the Council.”


Benedict has been the preeminent theologian serving the Church ever since.


My list of his enduring contributions begins with the emphasis on the importance of beauty. I often quote his one short sentence that is so big, “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” 1.


Benedict, the scholar, does not mention the Church’s academic tradition, he points out two realities were the Faith is en-fleshed and that inspire pilgrimages, to Assisi because of Saint Francis, and to the Sistine Chapel for sacred art.


Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar spoke of beauty in a way similar to Benedict when he said, “Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past -- whether he admits it or not -- can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” 2.  


About sacred art and linking the trinity of beauty, truth, and goodness, that link that Balthasar and Benedict have understand, John Saward said, “Robbed of sacred art, the Christian can become blind to the beauty of Divine Revelation. And that is disastrous, for, when sundered from beauty, truth becomes correctness without splendor and goodness a value of no delight.” 3.


Benedict has written eloquently and repeatedly about the importance of Sacred Art, Sacred Music, and reverent liturgy.


Secondly, I have noticed that Pope Benedict has developed what I call a “Theology of the Face”, (not analogous to Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, a collection of thematically linked writings from many years), but a theme that Benedict has embraced and spoken about repeatedly, the face of God. That phrase has now become a part of the Mass. A journalist has written, “(Pope) Benedict explained that Dante's Divine Comedy had inspired him to write his first encyclical on love. (Deus Caritas Est) In the inner light of Dante's paradise, we do not encounter a still brighter light, but instead the gentle face of a human being: the face of Jesus Christ. The fact that God has a "human face" is the moving climax of Dante's journey from hell to paradise. 4.


And Benedict has made pilgrimages to Turin to see the image of the man on the Shroud and in 2006 to Manoppello in the Abruzzi Mountains to see the “Holy Face” of Jesus on cloth. He said, “Should we not see in God’s hiding of himself the true catastrophe of the world, and therefore all the more loudly and urgently cry out to God that he show his face to us?” At World Youth Day in 2007 the headline was, “ Pope Urges Youth to Search for God’s Face”. He called his book Jesus of Nazareth his “Search for the Face of the Lord”.


Benedict’s Theology of the Face is in tune with his idea that the revitalization of the Faith should be a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and not a philosophical system or an institutional advancement. It is not unrelated to John Paul’s Theology of the Body in that both have to do with the dignity of the human person, and that both are in opposition to the materialism of Enlightenment philosophy, and to the idea that truth is relative.


Another theme of Benedict’s reign has been his assertion of the compatibility of Faith and Reason and of his recognition of the tyranny of relativism.


Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was asked by his fellow Black Ministers how he chose which laws to break for righteousness. He said the ones that violate natural law. The Catholic Church has been the consistent voice, supported by natural law, in opposition to Enlightenment’s materialistic attacks on the value of the individual human person and its attacks on the body coming from Cartesian dualism that separated mind and body.


Another legacy of Pope Benedict, that is ongoing and is still developing, involves the fruits of his trip to England. It looked to be an imminent disaster, with even threats of his arrest, and many demonstrations, but he captivated the island. It was a moving visit where the culturally advanced British relished the intellectual depth of his words. It was the first state visit of a Roman Pontiff since the Reformation. He did not see Queen Elizabeth as the head of the church that broke from Rome because of the king’s divorce. He praised Her Majesty for keeping “a noble vision of the role of a Christian monarch” and she acknowledged his moral presence in the world.


We have seen Pope Benedict’s joy and he has many times surprised the world with his boldness. Viva Benedetto.


1. The Ratzinger Report  Messori, 1988.

2. Hans Urs von Balthasar , The Glory of the Lord: A Theological

Aesthetics: Seeing the Form, #1, 1982.

3. John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, Ignatius Press 1997.  

4. Paul Badde, Inside the Vatican Magazine, March, 2006, page 8.