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Benedict XVI: Servant and Witness of the Truth


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When Charles de Gaulle died in 1969, the then French president, Georges Pompideu, announced it by saying “Le général de Gaulle est mort; la France est veuve.” (General de Gaulle is dead, France is a widow). These are the only appropriate words to say today after the death of Benedict XVI. We cannot say directly that the Church is a widow, because her spouse is Christ, but we can say that she has lost one of her most faithful sons.

In an age of practical atheism, rapid secularization and scandals everywhere in the Church, it is difficult to think of more loyal servants of Christ’s Church and to Truth in our day than Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger.

Chesterton said that God put saints in the world who contradicted their age. In times of filthy opulence, God sent St. Francis of Assisi with his message of radical poverty. In times of separation and heresy in the Church, he sent St. Ignatius with his army of missionaries and intellectuals faithful to the Pope. In our times of relativism, God sent a humble and timid – but always faithful – servant of Truth.

It would be a disservice to Ratzinger (and a dishonor to his memory) to oppose his papacy and his ideas to those of Pope Francis. They generally saw each other as the natural continuation of the other. Where Ratzinger saw the “dictatorship of relativism” that leads man to build himself a golden prison consumed by his ego, Bergoglio sees the “throwaway culture” that leads man to treat others as means, forgetting his duties of justice and charity towards them.

It would also be a disservice to present Ratzinger as a hero of the right or of conservatism for two reasons: 1) Because, like any self-respecting Catholic thinker, he escaped such qualifications and 2) Because it does not honor the magnitude of his work.

Ratzinger is a class of his own. Without exaggeration, along with Newman, perhaps the most important Catholic thinker since the Reformation.

Those less knowledgeable in Church history may not know that in his early years as a theologian and priest, Ratzinger was considered a sort of theological enfant terrible because of his association with the nouvelle theologie, a new theological current that sought to recover the influence of the Church Fathers on Christian doctrine.

Ratzinger, together with other theologians associated with the movement (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Romano Guardini, Cornelius Faber, Karl Rahner, Jean Danileou, Henri de Lubac, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, among others) were fundamental in the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council. However, among this large group of theologians, there was a great difference: some understood the Council as an organic development in the doctrine and history of the Church, others as a reforming rupture to remake the Church in an “authentic” way.

Fortunately, the first interpretation of the Council prevailed, and Ratzinger became the main post-conciliar authoritative pen. Had he not, the Church would probably have suffered the same fate as the traditional Protestant denominations of lesbian bishops and empty churches.

It must be said that his election as pope in 2005 came as no surprise to many. He was John Paul II’s right-hand man for decades.

But unlike the Polish saint, Ratzinger would quickly be martyred by public opinion. And he always suffered in silence the attacks of the press, more interested in his red shoes and in calling him a Nazi than in his profound theological work and his love for the Church.

If we were to keep the image of Benedict XVI offered by the progressive press, we would think that he was a man whose mind remained in the 50s. A poor old man incapable of adapting to the times and incapable of reforming the Church to that end. A stubborn dogmatist who cannot see how souls are slipping through his church’s fingers.

As usual, this image is false. By reading him, listening to him preach or listening to those who were close to him, one can see the real Ratzinger: A gentile in love with Christ and, therefore, with the Truth.

Ratzinger understood that the dialectic between faith and reason prevents contradiction between them. Reality is one, truth is one. And so it is with theology and liturgy. Both point to the community of the faithful towards Christ. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Ratzinger saw clearly that the liturgy was not a pompous ornament to our faith, but the preferred expression of that point of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Man was created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord.

This clarity led him to pay special attention to keep intact the doctrine of the Church and to ensure that the liturgy was a true expression of the Truth, Way and Life that we profess.

But he was attacked for wanting to faithfully preserve the faith we received from the Apostles, from within and outside the Church. “What is truth?” cried the world like the second coming of Pilate. And from within, a silent opposition to his financial and penal reform of the Church was forged, which cost him his health. Tired, because the yoke of the Servus Servorum Dei is heavy and its burden unbearable, he resigned. 600 years had passed since a pope had resigned. A courageous and humble decision. Two of the virtues that always shone heroically in Ratzinger.

And, as Pope Francis said, in the silence of prayer, Benedict XVI supported the Church. A little less than a year ago, the Pope Emeritus published a letter in which he said:

Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my “Paraclete.” In light of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death.

In his magnum Opus, Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger begins by quoting Kierkegaard on the paradoxicality of Christianity. It is, almost, a cruel mockery. He said in a homily in 2008 that the priest’s calling is to “bring the Gospel to all, so that all may experience the joy of Christ.” But therein lies the paradox of Christianity: The priest is ipse Christus, but one cannot be another Christ without nailing oneself to the Cross. One cannot be a witness of Love without suffering for that Love.

From the time he was a young priest and then an important bishop, cardinal and the pope, Benedict XVI always seemed aware of this paradoxical dimension of the Christian vocation that is more clearly expressed in the priestly vocation: We came to be signs of contradiction. The world, to paraphrase Ratzinger, tells us that we are made for comfort. But we are made for greatness, for God himself. But God can only be reached through the Cross.

For some, their Cross is the crown of martyrdom. For others, some sickness. For others, persecution. Ratzinger’s Cross was perhaps more humble: that of suffering in silence the incomprehension of being faithful to Christ and to his Church.

But the Father who sees what is done in secret will thank him. Today I hope that the gates of Heaven will open and Our Lord will repeat the words of that parable: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.” (Mt 25:23).

Edgar is political scientist and philosopher. He defends the Catholic intellectual tradition. Edgar writes about religion, ideology, culture, US politics, abortion, and the Supreme Court. Twitter: @edgarjbb_ // Edgar es politólogo y filósofo. Defiende la tradición intelectual católica. Edgar escribe sobre religión, ideología, cultura, política doméstica, aborto y la Corte Suprema. Twitter: @edgarjbb_