My favorite personal memory of Pope Benedict is from the time when I was a scholar in residence at the North American College in Rome. During that sojourn, I was able to assist at many of the outdoor Wednesday audience talks given by Papa Ratzinger. They had to do with the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, and they were, of course, lucidly clear and deeply intelligent. But what stays most in my memory is the obvious personal conviction with which they were delivered. The Pope clearly loved these figures and their teaching. More than once, I was struck by the thought that I was privileged to be in the presence of a real Church Father, someone who stood in the tradition of Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor.
At a time when much of Western theology was sliding toward subjectivism and anthropocentrism, Ratzinger placed an emphasis on Jesus Christ as the objective norm of our faith. What finally stands in the way of the “dictatorship of relativism” is a clear understanding that the Incarnate God stands at the summit of the hierarchy of value.
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Pope Benedict XVI during his 2008 visit to the United States.
I might venture to say that Ratzinger’s theology of God is of greatest significance for the future. In his Introduction of Christianity, he argues that belief in God follows from a keen sense of the intelligibility of the world. This universal patterning can only be explained through recourse to a primordial intelligence that has thought it into existence. Every scientist and philosopher implicitly acknowledges this fact when he speaks of “recognizing” truth, which is to say, “re-cognizing” or thinking again what has already been thought. This is why Ratzinger argues that belief in God is tantamount to the affirmation of the primacy of Logos over and against mere matter. This profound and coherent doctrine of God is supremely important in our time, when a sort of scientism is sadly regnant in the minds of many in the West, especially among the young.
Among scholars, he is perhaps best remembered here for his insistence, first articulated in a discourse in New York from the late 1980’s, that Biblical studies had to move beyond the historical-critical method and recover something of the patristic style of exegesis. Among ordinary Catholics, I would say that he is remembered, fondly indeed, for his simplicity, humility, and kindness—virtues on clear display during his visit to the United States in 2008.
Perhaps his theology is most important in the USA in regard to “Wokeism.” A popularization of the critical theory that flourished in the German and French academies in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Wokeism holds to the relativization of truth claims and the privileging of power as a category of social analysis. Ratzinger stood against both of these assumptions, insisting on the objectivity of the truth and the enduring relevance of beauty, goodness, and love in our understanding of society.
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Benedict celebrated his birthday during his 2008 US trip.
This connection is especially important in regard to the supposed conflict between religion and science. Numerous studies have shown that a major cause of the disaffiliation of the young from organized religion is the assumption that modern science refutes the claims of the classical religions. In arguing, as we saw, that the sciences in fact rest upon a fundamentally religious, or mystical insight, Ratzinger undermined the foundations of this anti-religious rationalism.
Yes. He understood that all structural reforms, as necessary as they are, would accomplish nothing unless and until the society as a whole comes recognize the hierarchy of objective moral truth, at the summit of which is belief in God.
As I suggested above, Wokeism, now so dominant in the societies of the West, is predicated upon precisely this dictatorship. Ratzinger anticipated this in a remarkably prophetic way.
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Bishop Barron: Many Catholics in the US remember Benedict XVI especially for his simplicity, humility, and kindness.
Whatever the Church accomplishes in “the world” rests upon its conviction that what transcends the world is of ultimate importance. Thus, our commitment to political, economic, and cultural reform will prove useless unless it is situated within the context of our preoccupation with the things of God.
Perhaps this is not said enough, but Joseph Ratzinger was an excellent literary stylist. Many, I daresay most, academic theologians write in the turgid style favored by the academy. Though he had a thorough academic training, Ratzinger never lost his lyrical literary gift. This style, so reminiscent of that of the Church Fathers, makes him accessible and attractive to many readers today.
Yes. Absolutely. I can think of no other figure in my lifetime who most embodies the substance and style of a Doctor of the Church.
Word on Fire
Robert Barron is Bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota and founder of Word on Fire. Barron is the best-selling author of numerous books, essays, and articles on theology and spiritual life. He is a popular guest speaker at major international Catholic events. He appears regularly on various TV networks in the US to discuss issues of faith and religion. Bishop Barron's website WordOnFire.org reaches millions of people each year. Barron is one of the Catholics with the largest number of followers on social media. His regular YouTube videos have been viewed over 90 million times.