To write about my relationship and encounters with Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict xvi , I have to literally write about two thirds of my life. Our paths continued to cross. We met in 1963, exactly 60 years ago, during a conference at the diocesan academy in Stuttgart. At the time he was already a rising star in theology and he held — something we would later grow accustomed to — a brilliant conference on Eucharistic doctrine. I was a stranger, six years younger, preparing for an entrance exam to the University of Tübingen. We later met and collaborated in all the stages of our life, as professors, bishops, cardinals and finally, during the eight years of Benedict xvi ’s Pontificate.
As befits an honest theology, we also held public debates. However, if anyone deduces from this that there was distancing or even enmity between us, then they have understood little, if anything, about theology. In fact, like any science, theology too thrives on discussion, and the way to honour a thinker is by thinking. That said, our relationship was always characterized by mutual respect and, above all, by the common rootedness in the faith of the Church and a shared responsibility for the unity of the Church and the greater ecumenical unity of the Churches. Before last Christmas, on 10 December, so exactly 20 days before his passing, the Pope emeritus wrote me a kind letter, in which our common concern for the crises in the Church, shines through.
The tension in which all honest theology moves, that is, fidelity to the binding apostolic origin and attention to the new issues of the present, again emerges in the letter. In that respect, ever since the lesson he gave at the beginning of his teaching position in Bonn, for Ratzinger the theologian, the theme of faith and reason was decisive. Anyone who met him, even only once, and seriously spoke with him, knows that he was anything but a person forever tied to the past, much less the “Panzerkardinal”, as some have tried to depict him. He was a kind theological thinker, aware of the problems, refined, with great spiritual depth and mild, subtle humour.
Regarding the fundamental tension between fidelity to the origins and attention to the new, and the bond between faith and thought, there was not the slightest disagreement between us. We did however, approach problems from different angles. As a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger was completely moulded by the spirit of the Fathers of the Church, especially that of the West, Saint Augustine, and by the theology of Franciscan theologian Saint Bonaventure. I came more from the study of modern issues, and already in an early essay, I had delved into the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas. It is almost natural that different emphases should result from this, as existed throughout the history of Catholic theology, and is part of the richness of what is Catholic. To have friendly discussions with Joseph Ratzinger and with Pope Benedict was always a pleasant source of enrichment for me. I missed that debate in the last few years of his illness and now I will miss him forever.
The fact that a former colleague became a Pope is a special experience which is probably very rare. For me it was clear from the first moment: now we need loyalty. While still in the Sistine Chapel, the newly elected Pope Benedict said to me: “Now we will walk together on the path of unity”. So it was, and the collaboration worked at its best. There were some difficult moments during the Pontificate in which I was able to somewhat contribute in calming the waters and overcoming difficulties in communication with ecumenical interlocutors, for example with the Declaration, Dominus Iesus, or with Jewish people. This was necessary above all for the unfortunate remission of the excommunication of Lefebvrian and holocaust denier, Williamson. The error was not due to the Pope but rather stemmed from a communication disaster in the Roman Curia, the consequences of which were not easy to overcome given the public outrage.
Now, after the Pope’s death, I happily recall the good conversations that we had on these and other issues. I had the impression that the Pope also liked having a true theological discussion, and reaching a consensus in this way. Now that Benedict has been called back to the House of the Father, a long phase of life has also ended for me. I thus hope that one day we will be able to see each other in Heaven and continue our conversation, albeit in a completely different way.
Cardinal Walter Kasper