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OPINION|ON RELIGION

by TERRY MATTINGLY | January 14, 2023 at 2:47 a.m.

In a rite before the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Vatican officials placed unique symbols of his pontificate inside his cypress casket, along with a scroll in Latin describing his ascent to the Chair of St. Peter.

"His faith and family upbringing prepared him for the harsh experience of the problems connected with the Nazi regime, aware of the climate of strong hostility towards the Catholic Church," said the English translation of this rogito, or deed. "In this complex situation, he discovered the beauty and truth of faith in Christ."

After deserting the German army without firing a shot, Joseph Ratzinger began his theology studies and, in 1951, was ordained a priest. He emerged as an intellectual voice preaching hope as opposed to mere optimism. The future pope's sobering views on modern Europe would affect his entire career -- as well as debates about his legacy when he died.

"This so-called Christian Europe ... has become the birthplace of a new paganism, which is growing steadily in the heart of the Church, and threatens to undermine her from within," said Ratzinger, in a 1958 lecture. This modern church "is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans, who still call themselves Christians."

Four years later, the 35-year-old priest advised Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne during the historic Second Vatican Council, emerging as a "progressive" on reform issues, yet one who saw painful challenges ahead.

"From the crisis of today the church of tomorrow will emerge -- a church that has lost much," he warned, on German radio in 1969. "As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members."

Ratzinger envisioned a "more spiritual church" with no political mandate, "flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. ... It will make her poor and cause her to become the church of the meek."

These words grew in importance when he became an archbishop in 1977 and then a cardinal. Later, Pope John Paul II made him prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where his orthodoxy inspired liberals to pin a "God's Rottweiler" label on the bookish, even shy, theologian.

Most of all, Cardinal Ratzinger backed the vision of "Veritatis Splendor" ("The Splendor of Truth"), the Polish pope's 1993 encyclical that proclaimed: "In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence, both on the national and international levels."

Preaching as dean of the College of Cardinals, Ratzinger delivered a blunt reaffirmation of his commitment to transcendent truth in 2005 as the princes of the church gathered to elect John Paul II's successor.

"Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be 'tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,' seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times," he said. "We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."

Ratzinger was quickly elected, becoming Pope Benedict XVI. Thousands of Germans flocked to a reception celebrating the enthronement of the first German pope in 500 years -- but only two bishops from his homeland chose to attend.

Old tensions surfaced during Pope Benedict's funeral and the events -- or the lack thereof -- surrounding it, according to atheist Vaclav Klaus, former president of the Czech Republic.

"I'd say it was a 'normal' Mass. But I have to say, I certainly didn't go to Rome for that," Klaus wrote on his blog. "Could it be that today's Vatican didn't like him? Or not just the Vatican, but today's Catholic Church, which-- unlike Pope Benedict -- doesn't want to buck the world today, even though it is so contrary to the Church's millennia of teaching? Wasn't Pope Benedict (and post-Pope Benedict) the bad conscience of today's Church?"

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

Print Headline: Pope Benedict lived with Europe in the rearview

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