One year after the death of Pope Benedict xvi, it is right and natural to consider his legacy. Is he a figure to be entrusted mainly to the masters of the past, or is he a figure who continues to challenge all of us today, especially in these tragic times we are living?
That he is a master of the faith, there is no doubt. We will not soon tire of rereading his “Introduction to Christianity” and his “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy; theologians will be able to delve into his Opera Omnia for a long time, continuing to draw suggestions and guidelines for their reflection and research.
That he is also an eminent witness to life in faith — and to Christian faith in eternal life — is also entirely clear to those who have listened to him in his homilies and his spiritual magisterium, as well as to those who were able to know him closely, following his long inner journey up to his encounter with God.
What I would now like to observe, however, is that Joseph Ratzinger continues to be a precious companion even for those who are living with participation and passion the affairs of life and human history on this earth, with all the dramatic questions that come with it today.
We cannot hide the fact that the path of our world in many aspects appears to us — and is — “out of control”. The ecological crisis, the continuous manifestation of risks and dramatic developments in the field of technology use, of communication, of the applications of so-called artificial intelligence, and lastly, claims of contradictory rights and the upheaval of international coexistence, with the increasingly menacing proliferation of wars... As Professor Francesc Torralba highlighted, upon receiving the Ratzinger Prize on 30 November, Benedict xvi deeply addressed the reasons for the crisis of our time, and proposed to contemporary culture not to reject modern reason, but to broaden its horizons, giving space back to ethical reason and the rationality of faith.
Joseph Ratzinger’s perspective in the face of the failures of human reason was therefore not to deny or limit it, but to expand it, to invite it to courageously seek to understand not only how the world functions but also why it exists and what is man’s place in the cosmos and the meaning of his adventure.
It cannot be denied that this perspective, which is in a certain sense a proposal for dialogue with contemporary culture, has often been met with indifference or sometimes rejected. The mathematician Odifreddi, who professes to be an atheist and often takes provocative positions, but who actually tried to dialogue with Ratzinger, receiving extraordinary and respectful attention in the years after his resignation, defined Benedict xvi’s pontificate as “tragic” precisely because of this aspect: his cultural proposal and openness on one hand, and the lack of response from the “men of culture” on the other.
Personally, I do not agree, because I think that Benedict xvi was not so naive as to expect a quick favourable response. Rather, I think that Benedict’s proposal is farsighted, retains all its validity, and represents, also for the future, a key way for dialogue between science and faith, more generally between modern culture and faith, based on a profound trust in human reason. Even better, it is a main road for Christian commitment in the contemporary world, which cannot avoid the effort of a reflection on the causes of problems and the search for a consensus based on truth, and not on the precarious contingent convergence of interests and usefulness.
In the Christian vision of Benedict xvi, the expansion of reason comes to include the logic of love, which is expressed in the logic of gratuitousness and translates into fraternity, solidarity, and reconciliation. Truth and love are most fully manifested in the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word of God.
Deus caritas est, Caritas in veritate, Laudato si’, Fratelli tutti... The key words of the last two pontificates follow one another with continuity and consistency. The commitment of the Church and of Christians and their responsibility for the destinies of human history in the world require both reason and love, joined in the light offered by faith. Concrete gestures of charity, to which Pope Francis constantly calls us, demand to be placed in the bright and coherent context of the Church’s vision as communion, on a journey in our time towards the encounter with God.
Speaking of the Second Vatican Council in an important and for me surprising letter written three months before his death, for a Symposium organized by the Ratzinger Foundation and the Franciscan University of Steubenville, J. Ratzinger emphatically stated that the Council had proved “not only meaningful but necessary”. And he continued: “For the first time the question of a theology of religions had shown itself in its radicality. The same is true for the relationship between faith and the world of mere reason. Both topics had not been foreseen in this way before”.
Therefore, it initially seemed that the Council threatened the Church, but “in the meantime, the need to reformulate the question of the nature and mission of the Church has gradually become apparent. In this way, the positive power of the Council is also slowly emerging.... In Vatican ii, the question of the Church in the world finally became the real central problem”.
The last Pope who participated in the entire Council and lived it from within leaves us thus a testimony of its enduring relevance and encourages us to continue to develop its seeds and consequences without fear, reformulating the same mission of the Church in the world, engaging reason and faith to collaborate for the good and salvation of humanity and of the world.
His gaze turns towards the future in hope. The service of Benedict xvi continues in the deepest movement of the Church of the Lord, led by Pope Francis and his successors.
By Federico Lombardi, sj