null / Credit: Vatican Media
Vatican City, Jan 5, 2023 / 12:00 pm (CNA).
Pope Benedict XVI — especially during his extraordinary career and ministry as a theologian and professor — was not only one of the towering intellects in global Catholicism but also one of the most prolific.
In his nine decades of life, Joseph Ratzinger wrote more than 60 books and more than 1,300 articles, essays, and academic pieces; three encyclicals; and four apostolic exhortations. The writings range from profound theological tomes to general audiences to spiritual reflections, to encyclicals, to more popular books and book-length interviews. They cover fundamental and dogmatic theology, biblical exegesis, spiritual theology, cultural commentary, and catechesis on virtually every possible aspect of the faith.
It is a daunting task to begin reading his work, not merely because of the sheer volume but also the intimidating subject.
Here are five suggestions for a Benedict reading list. They span decades and topics, but each has been chosen as emblematic of his teachings and each is also accessible to the average reader. Any list is subjective, of course, but this is a potentially helpful place to start wandering through a holy and profound mind.
“Introduction to Christianity” (1968)
Written when Father Ratzinger was still in his 30s, “Introduction to Christianity” remains even now one of his most essential works. Like his trilogy, “Jesus of Nazareth,” written many years later, this relatively short work was intended to be a “basic” primer on Christianity that anyone can access and appreciate. Based on a series of lectures, this is also a work that reflects his own intellectual and spiritual explorations in the years just after the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and includes many of the themes that became pillars in his subsequent theological writings and concerns, such as relativism, historicism, subjectivism, the forgetting of God, and the need for the Church to proclaim Jesus Christ to a modern world thirsting for the encounter with the divine.
“Christian faith,” he writes, “really means … acknowledgement that God is not the prisoner of eternity … he is capable of operating here and now, in the midst of my world.”
It is notable that the work appeared in 1968, in the year and at a time of immense upheaval. The toxins released then are still felt today, such as the social and sexual revolutions, the rejection by so many in the Church of Humanae Vitae, the grotesque interpretations in some Catholic corners of the Council, and the rise of cynicism and mistrust of institutions.
“Introduction to Christianity” is the perfect place to start any serious reading of Ratzinger to situate ourselves with a clear understanding that Jesus Christ is the answer to every question in every age and that we are called to have a sacramental relationship with him.
“The Ratzinger Report” (1985)
A book-length interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, “The Ratzinger Report” presents a series of interviews conducted over several days. Like the later interview books that Pope Benedict did with Peter Seewald, this book was a blunt and valuable assessment of the Church in the 1980s and some six years into the pontificate of St. John Paul II. Ratzinger had been prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for almost four years at that point, and his thoughts are especially focused on the immense challenges facing the Church.
The topics are wide-ranging, including the true spirit and letter of Vatican II; the Church as God’s Church, not the laity Church; the papacy, the episcopacy, and the role of bishops’ conferences; liberalism, relativism, and the permissiveness of modern society; the dignity of the liturgy, the Eucharist as the heart of faith, and the difference between solemnity and triumphalism; liberation theology, Marxism, and capitalism; and evangelization and why Jesus is the only Savior.
While published four decades ago, in a different era, “The Ratzinger Report” is extremely relevant to understanding Ratzinger’s thought that would find later expression in his time as pope and in appreciating as he did the dangers facing Catholicism. The themes would be revisited many times in the coming years, but of particular interest is his focus on the Second Vatican Council. Far from rejecting its labors, Cardinal Ratzinger instead called for a proper interpretation and implementation, citing the “hermeneutic of rupture” and the invocation of the “spirit of Vatican II” that have created such havoc and dissent within the Church.
He and John Paul worked to cement the “hermeneutic of continuity and reform” that the Council requested, but he also understood that to be a project stretching into the future. That included a recognition of the direction of the relationship between the Church and the world.
“It is not Christians who oppose the world,” he says prophetically, “but rather the world which opposes itself to them when the truth about God, about Christ and about man is proclaimed. The world waxes indignant when sin and grace are called by their names. After the phase of indiscriminate ‘openness’ it is time that the Christian reacquire the consciousness of belonging to a minority and of often being in opposition to what is obvious, plausible and natural for that mentality which the New Testament calls — and certainly not in a positive sense — the ‘spirit of the world’. It is time to find again the courage of non-conformism, the capacity to oppose many of the trends of the surrounding culture, renouncing a certain euphoric post-conciliar solidarity.”
He also anticipates the inevitable course of Western culture, with its sexual and moral libertinism in the name of a false and diabolical freedom: “Fecundity separated from marriage based on a life-long fidelity turns from being a blessing (as it was understood in every culture) into its opposite: that is to say a threat to the free development of the ‘individual’s right to happiness.’ Thus abortion, institutionalized, free and socially guaranteed, becomes another ‘right’, another form of ‘liberation.’”
“Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today” (1996)
Published a decade after “The Ratzinger Report,” this relatively short work was described by its author as a “primer of Catholic ecclesiology.” Indeed, Ratzinger focuses on the nature and the mission of the Church, but as he always did when speaking and writing on the Church, he goes to the very heart of things: only by embracing a Christocentric and eucharistic life can we truly understand the Church. That deep but accessible Christological lens for approaching the Church brings with it immense ramifications for the believer.
Divided into five chapters with an epilogue, “Called to Communion” looks at: The Origin and Essence of the Church; The Primacy of Peter and the Unity of the Church; The Universal Church and the Particular Church: The Task of the Bishop; On the Essence of the Priesthood; A Company in Constant Renewal.
It is possible to see in this work the immense achievement of Ratzinger’s own doctoral dissertation on the theology of St. Augustine as well as his reflection spanning the decades since. He builds on St. Paul’s description of the Church as the Body of Christ to help the reader understand the proper role and function of its members.
“Called to Communion” also confronts the major theme in Ratzinger’s writings on true and false reform in the Church. It is a question especially pertinent to today in the frequent calls to remake the Church in our own image, exemplified by the German Synodal Path. As he writes: “What is great and liberating about the Church is not something self-made but the gift that is given to us all. This gift is not the product of our own will and invention but precedes us and comes to meet us as the incomprehensible reality that is ‘greater than our heart’ (cf. 1 Jn 3:20). The reform that is needed at all times does not consist in constantly remodeling ‘our’ Church according to our taste, or in inventing her ourselves, but in ceaselessly clearing away our subsidiary constructions to let in the pure light that comes from above and that is also the dawning of pure freedom.”
“Salt of the Earth” (1997)
The first of four book-length interviews that Ratzinger gave to German journalist Peter Seewald — with “God and the World” (2002), “Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and the Signs Of The Times” (2010) and “Last Testament: In His Own Words” (2016) — “Salt of the Earth” followed in the footsteps of “The Ratzinger Report” both in style and many of its themes. Seewald was granted the opportunity to sit and interview the then-cardinal for an hour a day over the course of several days, but he also had the valuable permission to ask difficult questions from a cardinal who had not received the questions ahead of time. The result is a book, like “The Ratzinger Report,” that is filled with blunt but charitable assessments of the state of the Church and the world.
Two aspects of the book are especially valuable. First, it begins with his own personal reflections on his family and then his progression to being a priest, theologian, and bishop. Second, the interview was given shortly before the end of the 20th century and the start of a new millennium, meaning that he was able to consider the crises of the past, the challenges for the future, and the hope of a new millennium.
Seewald raises a host of questions, including the great moral controversies as well as the so-called “canon of criticisms” always thrown at the Church: celibacy, women’s ordination, and remarriage for divorced persons. Ratzinger’s answers are important in expressing again that there is a fixation on the criticisms by liberals to the great detriment of the mandate to proclaim the Gospel.
“There is too little attention to the fact that 80 percent of the people of this world are non-Christians,” Ratzinger replies, “who are waiting for the gospel, or for whom, at any rate, the gospel is also intended, and we shouldn’t be constantly agonizing over our own questions but should be pondering how we as Christians can express today in this world what we believe and thereby say something to these people.”
There is also a remarkable restating of Ratzinger’s fundamental thesis that we must not as Christians abandon the pursuit of truth. Truth, he says, “has to remain the central category. As a demand on us that doesn’t give us rights but requires, on the contrary, our humility and our obedience and can lead us to the common path.”
“Jesus of Nazareth” (2007, 2011, 2012)
The first in a trilogy on the person of Jesus Christ, “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration” was the first book written by Pope Benedict XVI after his election. It was followed by “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” (2011) and “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” (2012).
Pope Benedict brings all his decades of study and prayer to the immense task of revealing Christ to the modern reader and draws upon a vast array of sources to weave a compelling narrative that is also arguably the most accessible of all his writings. It is also notable for the pontiff’s declaration in his introduction that this is in “no way an exercise of the magisterium.” Instead, this is a book by Joseph Ratzinger and a believer’s “personal search for the face of the Lord.” He adds: “Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.” For a theologian who has made Christ the center of all things, it was a daunting task to do justice to the subject matter, and it took years of work, starting in 2003.
Benedict looks at the whole of Jesus’ public ministry, including Jesus’ baptism, the Sermon on the Mount, the meaning of the parables, the Calling of the Twelve, the Confession of Peter, and the Transfiguration. Throughout he asks the question, “What did Jesus actually bring?”
Benedict replies: “God. He has brought God! He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature — the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises … He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about where we are going and where we come from: faith, hope, and love.”