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I would love to see him declared a Doctor of the Church

Cardinal Kurt Koch pays tribute to the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. The Swiss Cardinal emphasizes the significance of Joseph Ratzinger for the future of theology and the Church. A conversation about Benedict’s great legacy with regard to theology, his contribution to the renewal of the Faith, the consequences of his resignation for the Petrine Office, the false clichés and true greatness. Questions by Markus Reder.

Pope Benedict XVI the new Cardinal Kurt Koch with the red biretta at a mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on 20 November 2010.

What are your feelings with regard to the passing of Pope Benedict XVI?

First and foremost, of course, it grieves me to know that it will be possible to meet Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI here on earth, and to be enriched by conversation with this fine human being, profoundly devout Christian, brilliant theologian, and wise bishop. In faith, however, we can be sure that although someone who has been called home to the eternal life of God might be taken from us permanently, he is nevertheless given back to us in a new way, and that he is even closer to us now than he could have been in his earthly life. He will doubtlessly continue to accompany the Church he spent his whole life serving by praying for us from his place in eternity. So combined with grief is gratitude for the rich life and work of the departed, both in spiritual and human terms. And finally, mingled with the sadness is also joy, particularly over the thought that Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI is now able to encounter in person the face of the Lord whom he searched, and whom he brought closer to us with his personal witness to the faith and with his theological reflections.

His entire pontificate was centered around the renewal of the Church in the light of faith.

Side profile of Pope Benedict XVI before a completely black background.

What was the significance of Benedict XVI’s pontificate? How would you evaluate it, and what is its place within Church history?

It seems to me that God often grants us a Pope whose ministry is especially significant for the given moment in history. Karol Wojtyła became Pope at the time when Eastern Europe was under the oppressive rule of cruel dictatorships, and as Pope John Paul II he contributed significantly to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and thus to the end of communist rule in the East. In contrast, Joseph Ratzinger served as Pope during an era in which the deep crisis of faith and in the life of the Church in Western Europe became more and more apparent. In this situation, his primary concern was to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to restore the sense of the resplendent beauty of the Catholic faith. As demonstrated by his three encyclicals, he was always focused on the very heart of the faith, and his entire pontificate was centered around the renewal of the Church in the light of faith. His eight years of service as Pope were a pontificate of proclaiming and renewing the faith.

Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI leaves behind an entire lifetime of theological works. What is this Pope’s legacy when it comes to theology?

<The sixteen substantial volumes of his “Collected Works” (in German) are the outward expression of his passionate love of theology, which is characterized by three features in particular: First, as shown by the motto he chose at his ordination as bishop – “Collaborator of the Truth” –he was deeply convinced that man is not only in need of the truth, but is capable of receiving the truth. For this reason, faith is dependent on its being understood by reason, and the mission of theology is to safeguard man’s sensibility to truth, and if necessary, to awaken it. The theology of Joseph Ratzinger revolves around the dialogue between faith and reason, and that is primarily because God himself <em>is reason, is Logos. Secondly, God is not only Logos, but also creative love. This is the central concept running through all of his theological thought, which he concisely stated all the way back in 1958: “The Christian faith relates everything to the worship of God, but in no other way than through love of neighbour.” Thirdly, this message is to be found above all in Sacred Scripture, which is the foundation of his theological thought. He loved Scripture in its indissoluble unity between Old and New Testament and led people so deeply into the Gospel with his theology and preaching that, in this elementary sense, his theological work may be called entirely evangelical.

To learn how to see and know him once more in all his greatness and to renew faith in Christ was of fundamental importance to Joseph Ratzinger.

Pope Benedict XVI greets people in Altötting on 11 September 2006. He shakes hands with adults and children.

Which of these aspects points the way forward for the Church?

Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI played a key role in making theology worthy of the name it bears; this is only the case when theology teaches about God, and when the question of God lies at its very core. According to his diagnosis, human beings today suffer from a condition that makes us hard of hearing, or even deaf in relation to God, and because of this, there was no greater priority for him than to reopen the way for people today to approach God who speaks to us and communicates his love to us. For as Christians, we do not believe in just any God, but rather profess the God who has shown us his true face in his Son Jesus Christ. To learn how to see and know him once more in all his greatness and to renew faith in Christ was of fundamental importance to Joseph Ratzinger. This is also the reason why, as Pope Benedict XVI, he worked so hard to find the time and energy despite the exhausting demands of the Petrine ministry to write his three-volume work about Jesus of Nazareth, and thus, to bear witness to the Messiah as the Successor of Peter in the “Caesarea Philippi” of today. Just as Sacred Scripture made up the soul of his theology, he also understood the liturgy of the Church as the life-giving soil that keeps the Gospel alive, and believed that the authentic existence of the Church depended on celebrating the liturgy in the proper form and, above all, on making the primacy of God a tangible experience. The preeminence of the question of God, the centrality of Christ, and the priority given to the liturgy as the lifeblood of the Church and of theology were three core concerns of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI that also point the way for the future of the Church – and must continue to do so.

The preeminence of the question of God and the centrality of Christ also formed the primary guidelines in the ecumenical work of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.

Does he leave behind a specific ecumenical legacy? And if so, what is it?

Ecumenism, as Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI saw it, is in essence the effort to restore the unity of the Church as that communion which lives in fidelity to the Gospel and the Apostolic Faith. The unity of the Church can therefore consist in nothing other than unity in the Apostolic Faith, which is imparted and entrusted to every new member of the Body of Christ at Baptism. Since there can be no unity apart from this faith, he deeply believed in ecumenism as a matter of faith, and not a political agenda that could be achieved by making compromises. He perceived the deepest foundation of ecumenism in the high-priestly prayer of Jesus, in which he prays to his heavenly Father for the unity of his disciples. The prayer of Jesus is therefore also the internal locus of unity for Christians, and the more they allow themselves to be drawn into this prayer, the more they will also be one among themselves. Prayer is the true heart of the entire ecumenical journey and also the most important guide to the shared mission of all Christians, which they can authentically carry out only in ecumenical fellowship, and which consists of going out into today’s largely secularized societies and proclaiming the presence of the living God and his human face in Jesus Christ. Consequently, the preeminence of the question of God and the centrality of Christ also formed the primary guidelines in the ecumenical work of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, who considered it the “impelling duty” of the successor of Peter to “work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers.”

Pope Benedict greets a crowd from the balcony. The Pope is seen from behind, raising his hands in a joyful greeting.

Did interreligious dialogue change under Benedict XVI? What significance did his pontificate have for the Church’s relationship with Judaism and the Islamic world?

Even in his days as a fundamental theologian, Joseph Ratzinger dealt extensively with the existence of other religions. And then as Pope, living as we do in a world that is drawing ever closer together, he understood how important the matter of the encounter between religions and cultures was, and thus interreligious dialogue became a major concern of his. The special significance of this dialogue was made manifest at the October 2011 gathering in Assisi, where, following in the footsteps of his predecessor John Paul II, he called together the Christian churches and the other religions – as well as agnostics – so that they might commit themselves, in a new way, to working for peace in the world, coming together to testify in public that the twin sister of religion must never be violence, but always peace, which can flourish only when religious freedom is respected and supported. As is to be expected, the question of truth was foremost in his mind even in his encounters with other religions. This conviction of his also led him to say certain things – like his famous quote about Muhammad at his lecture in Regensburg or his rewriting of the Good Friday intercessory prayer for the Jews in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite – that initially resulted in great irritations and protests among Muslims and Jews, but which after in-depth discussions ended up bringing about a strengthening of interreligious dialogue. These very controversies, among other issues, allowed the Pope to contribute to the deepening of interreligious dialogue and ensure its continuation. This is particularly true when it comes to the conversation between Christians and Jews, a matter that was especially close to Pope Benedict XVI’s heart, and a dialogue that he cultivated by his personal commitment to bringing to life the spiritual heritage shared by Judaism and Christianity.

He saw no contraction between being deeply rooted in tradition and being open to the forces of renewal; there were rather two sides of the same coin.

Exhibition room at the house where Benedict XVI was born, with a case displaying the bishop’s crozier that Joseph Ratzinger used during his time as Archbishop of Munich and Freising.

Where did Benedict XVI surprise you – as a theologian, as a person, as Pontiff?

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope on April 19, 2005, it was a great surprise – perhaps for no one more than himself, since what he truly longed for was to retire to his beloved homeland of Bavaria and write his book on Jesus. And then, just as surprising as the start of his pontificate was the end. The fact that he was personally considering the prospect of abdication from his office is something he implicitly acknowledged by visiting the tomb of Pope Celestine V, and in his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World, he addressed it explicitly: “When a Pope realizes clearly that he is no longer physically, mentally, and spiritually capable of carrying out his role, then there is legally the possibility, and also the obligation, to resign.” But another major reason why so many people were taken by surprise by the idea that Pope Benedict XVI, of all people, would take this new step in the history of the Church, for the most part unknown and with future consequences that are far from entirely foreseeable, was because he was so firmly committed to the great Tradition of the Church, was so thoroughly versed in it, and had lived his life based on it. By taking this step, which traditionally had only ever been taken in the most extremely exceptional of cases, Benedict made it abundantly clear that he saw no contraction between being deeply rooted in Tradition and being open to the forces of renewal; that these are rather two sides of the same coin, and he was therefore was quite capable of surprises, albeit those that were thoughtfully and prayerfully considered.

You are the protector of the Neuer Schülerkreis (new circle of alumni) Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. Does the death of Benedict XVI change anything about the mission of these circles of alumni?

The circle of alumni is made up of doctoral and post-doctoral students from the years when Joseph Ratzinger taught at the universities in Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg. What has united these scholars more than anything else is their commitment to Joseph Ratzinger, the person and the professor. It was the members of this circle who came up with the idea to create a new circle of alumni, which was then founded in 2008. The new circle is made up of young theologians who have discovered the depth and the beauty of Joseph Ratzinger’s theology, who have written academic works on his theology or who are currently doing so, and who are committed to studying the theological oeuvre of Joseph Ratzinger and continuing his theological approach. Since these young men and women are convinced that the theology of Joseph Ratzinger will be a helpful guide even in the third millennium, the mission of the new circle of alumni will not change in any fundamental way with the death of Benedict XVI. They do, however, believe that it is their responsibility to advance and deepen his mission consistently and to help bring to bear the treasures of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s theological thought through public conferences and other means as they seek viable answers to the significant questions of today and in view of the new challenges in society and the Church.

Those who did not know the real person, theologian, bishop, and Pope either in person or from his writings, but relied on the image of him presented in the media, have, to a large extent, accepted the distorted clichés about who he was that were disseminated in individual media offerings, particularly in German-speaking countries.

Pope Benedict XVI is welcomed at the synagogue in Rome on 17 January 2010.

When Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope in 2005, many in the German-speaking world were surprised to find out how highly regarded Ratzinger was in the Church around the world. How do you explain this curious discrepancy between the Ratzinger clichés that existed and still exist in German-speaking areas and the way he is perceived in other parts of the world?

With regard to the Second Vatican Council, Joseph Ratzinger once keenly observed that there had actually been two councils: the true council of the bishops gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica, and the virtual council that took place in the media, and that in terms of public perception, the virtual council emerged as the stronger one. Something analogous to that might be said about the person and the ministry of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. Those who did not know the real man, theologian, priest, bishop, and Pope either in person or from his writings, but relied on the image of him presented in the media accepted, to a large extent, the distorted clichés about who he was that were disseminated in individual media offerings, particularly in German-speaking countries. In addition to this were certain individual theologians whose constant and sweeping criticism helped to paint a negative picture of Joseph Ratzinger, for instance, by making a distinction between the former “progressive” theologian and the “conservative” cardinal without taking into account the fact that an academic professor and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have different roles and responsibilities in the Church. Moreover, the latter is one of the most difficult and uncomfortable, yet important responsibilities in the Church, one that constantly exposes the holder of the office to public criticism. Finally, one needs to bear in mind that in Germany, people often have a clear conception of so-called “German character”, which is likewise often absolutized to such a degree that any German who does not conform to this “character” conceived in this way is subject to massive amounts of criticism. But then, when after the papal election an entirely different person than the one depicted in various media appeared in public and it also became clear how much joy over the Pope’s election was expressed in other countries and on other continents, many earlier clichés about the person of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI that were common in the Church and in the wider public were rendered void or at least started to fall apart.

Joseph Ratzinger was not only an outstanding theologian and scholar, but someone who constantly placed himself in the service of proclaiming the Catholic faith. And in doing so, he always saw the Faith as the ultimate measure and criterion of theology and preaching, and not the other way around.

Pope Benedict XVI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I (right) during a procession at the start of Vespers.

Already during his lifetime Benedict XVI had the reputation of being a great teacher of the Church. Do you think that he might also be venerated officially as a Doctor of the Church one day?

The decision to declare a theologian a Doctor of the Church lies ultimately with the Pope; and it is not for me to anticipate whether a future Pope will make such a judgment. But this is something that I, along with many other people, would love and hope to see happen. For Joseph Ratzinger was not only an outstanding theologian and scholar, but someone who constantly placed himself in the service of proclaiming the Catholic faith. And in doing so, he always saw the faith as the ultimate measure and criterion of theology and preaching, and not the other way around. Convinced as he was that what is true is simple, and that only that which is simple is true, he always defended and protected the faith of the so-called “simple believers”. Since the faith that is reflected in theology is lived within the faith community of the Church and is therefore the faith of the Church, one of the ways in which he always distinguished himself was by his desire to believe and to think along with the faith of the Church. In this sense, he did not strive to develop his own “original” theology; rather, he always oriented his theological thinking towards the true origo of the faith, namely the revelation of God in the history of salvation, most of all in Jesus Christ, and the transmission of that revelation in the living tradition of the Church. This basic attitude is what makes for a true Doctor of the Church, and as such we may rightly hope that Pope Benedict XVI will one day join the ranks of great theologians who have sat on the papal throne, such as Leo the Great and Gregory the Great.

After the death of Benedict XVI, the College of Cardinals is not gathering for a conclave. His successor, Pope Francis, has already been in office for [...] years. This situation again brings to mind the historic magnitude of Benedict XVI’s decision to abdicate. How much has the Petrine Office changed as a result of his abdication?

After Pope Benedict XVI’s official abdication, there were not a few critical voices to be heard claiming that this move had secularized the Petrine Office. I am quite convinced that it is actually the opposite. I view his abdication from office as both a courageous and, in particular, a humble act. Admittedly, it can only be comprehended if one really understands who he was and how he understood the ministerial office within the Church. As a theologian, a bishop, a cardinal, and as Pope, Joseph Ratzinger never put himself in the spotlight, but always placed himself entirely in the service of whatever task was entrusted to him at the time. This characteristic trait of his is a fundamental reason why he wanted to and was able to place the Petrine Office into other hands when he became convinced that he was personally no longer capable of faithfully exercising it. Pope Benedict XVI thus put into concrete terms what the scholar David Knowles wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica about the papacy in general, that it was the “only institution that has continued without interruption since the early days of the Roman empire,” and that “the office has always been greater than the personality, and it persists.” The courageous and, at the same time, humble retreat of the person from the office did not harm the office, but highlighted once more how beautifully necessary it is.

I am happy to remember Pope Benedict XVI as theologian of above-average intelligence and, above all, as a wise pontiff with a modest and humble humanity and a deep faith, and I thank the living God for having given him to us.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, at left, greets Pope Francis after a consistory on 27 August 2022 at the Vatican. Behind him stands Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Prefect of the Papal Household.

You worked very closely with Pope Benedict XVI. How will you remember him? Is there any particularly memorable incident from your time together, perhaps one that characterizes Benedict XVI in a special way?

In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI invited me to speak on the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council at a gathering of his circle of alumni at Castel Gandolfo over which he himself was presiding. I was very surprised by the invitation, and quite perplexed, as Joseph Ratzinger the young theologian had participated in the Council as a peritus and is more familiar with the events and the content of the Council than anyone else. Consequently, going there as a speaker, I felt like a piano student who had been asked to play for Mozart. I expressed as much in my introduction, and proposed that I only read an abridged version of my presentation so that there would be enough time for discussion and also for Pope Benedict XVI to offer his own comments. But rather than agreeing to my suggestion, he wanted me to present everything that I had prepared. I mention this episode only because I recognize in it a characteristic trait that always distinguished Pope Benedict XVI. He would never let his counterpart know, or even indicate in any way, that he was superior in knowledge or intellect, but always took everyone seriously, listened attentively to what they had to say, and thus showed himself to be thoroughly open to dialogue. I am happy to remember Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI as theologian of above-average intelligence and, above all, as a wise pontiff with a modest and humble humanity and a deep faith, and I thank the living God for having given him to us. May Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI live in the eternal peace of God in the communion of the saints that was so important to him, and with them, aid the Church with his intercession, as he did these last few years at Mater Ecclesiae monastery.

A portrait of Cardinal Kurt Koch

Cardinal Kurt Koch is Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity. He was appointed to the College of Cardinals by Benedict XVI in 2010. The Swiss theologian is regarded as an outstanding expert on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.