The Real Ratzinger| National Catholic Register

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COMMENTARY: The last of the monumental figures of 20th-century Catholicism bears no resemblance to the caricature created by his theological and cultural foes.

A portrait of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is seen near the altar at the Cathedral of Regensburg, southern Germany on December 29, 2022, during a church service.
A portrait of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is seen near the altar at the Cathedral of Regensburg, southern Germany on December 29, 2022, during a church service. (photo: Florian Cazeres / AFP/Getty)

George Weigel CommentariesJanuary 4, 2023

The Joseph Ratzinger I knew for 35 years — first as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), later as Pope Benedict XVI and then pope emeritus — was a brilliant, holy man who bore no resemblance to the caricature that was first created by his theological enemies and then set in media concrete.  

The cartoon Ratzinger was a grim, relentless ecclesiastical inquisitor/enforcer, “God’s Rottweiler.” The man I knew was a consummate gentleman with a gentle soul, a shy man who nonetheless had a robust sense of humor, and a Mozart lover who was fundamentally a happy person, not a sour crank.   

The cartoon Ratzinger was incapable of understanding or appreciating modern thought. The Ratzinger I knew was arguably the most learned man in the world, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Christian theology (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), philosophy (ancient, medieval and modern), biblical studies (Jewish and Christian), and political theory (classic and contemporary). His mind was luminous and orderly, and when asked a question, he would answer in complete paragraphs — in his third or fourth language.  

The cartoon Ratzinger was a political reactionary, discombobulated by the 1968 student protests in Germany and longing for a restoration of the monarchic past; his more vicious enemies hinted at Nazi sympathies (hence the nasty sobriquet Panzerkardinal). The Ratzinger I knew was the German who, on a state visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, thanked the people of the U.K. for winning the Battle of Britain — a Bavarian Christian Democrat (which would put him slightly left of center in U.S. political terms) whose disdain for Marxism was both theoretical (it made no sense philosophically) and practical (it never worked and was inherently totalitarian and murderous). The cartoon Ratzinger was the enemy of the Second Vatican Council. The Ratzinger I knew was, in his mid-30s, one of the three most influential and productive theologians at Vatican II — the man who, as CDF prefect, worked in harness with John Paul II to give the Council an authoritative interpretation, which he deepened during his own papacy.  

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The Real Ratzinger| National Catholic Register

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