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US Bishop Robert Barron on the significance of the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI for the future of the Church: Why Ratzinger's warning of a "dictatorship of relativism" was right, what makes his writings so appealing, and why he should one day be declared a Doctor of the Church.

Bischof Barron aus den USA mit Mitra und Bischofsstab.

What are your personal memories of Benedict XVI like? Is there anything that stands out in particular? Are there any occasions that you hold in especially high regard?

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.

Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI leaves behind a great body of theological work. What do you consider to be the central significance of his life’s work?

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.

Papst Benedikt XVI. begrüßt die Massen im Stadion in den USA

Is there anything groundbreaking in his work as it relates to the future of the Church? And why do you say so?

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.

What will Benedict XVI always be remembered for in the United States?

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.

What is the relevance of his theological work and pontificate with regard to the Church in the United States and the state of theology there? 

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.

Papst Benedikt XVI. im weißen Haus mit einer riesigen Torte.

Benedict XVI always emphasized the idea that faith and reason belong together. This was one of the great themes of his life. Why is the connection between faith and reason so important? To what extent can Benedict XVI's theology help to make this connection clear to future generations?

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.

The Catholic Church is going through a time of crisis. A wide variety of reforms and structural changes are under discussion that also pertain to matters of faith and morals. Benedict XVI believed that at its core, the crisis in the Church was a crisis of faith. Was he right?

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.

Even before his election as pope, Cardinal Ratzinger warned of a “dictatorship of relativism.” Do you see his fears being confirmed?

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.

Papst Benedikt xvi in den USA im Hintergrund sitzend. Im Vordergrund singt ein junger Mann euphorisch.

Like Pope Francis, Benedict XVI called on the church to embrace "de-worldliness." For both, this an important prerequisite for making the essence of the Church's mission more visible again. Do you agree with this? What should this "de-worldliness" look like?

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.

Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has helped many people around the world to discover, or rediscover, the beauty of faith with his writings and his preaching. What, in particular, makes Ratzinger so helpful when it comes to making the essentials of faith accessible?

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.

Even during his lifetime, Benedict XVI had the reputation of being a great teacher of the Church. After his death, this has been brought up again and again by a variety of commentators. Would you welcome it if one day he were officially declared a “Doctor of the Church”?

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.

US Bischof Barron am Rednerpult

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.