Pope Benedict XVI, who rose from a distinguished theological career in his native Germany to become the decades-long prefect of the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith and then served as Supreme Pontiff from 2005 until his unexpected resignation in 2013, died on Dec. 31, 2022, at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in Vatican City. He was 95.
To understand his broader spiritual legacy, and specifically what his papacy meant for LGBTQ Catholics, Outreach spoke with Thomas J. Reese, S.J., a senior analyst at Religion News Service who first met the former pope as a cardinal in 1994.
Father Reese was editor in chief of America from 1998 until 2005, when he was pressured to resign shortly after Cardinal Ratzinger ascended to the papacy. He is the author of several books, including Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed him to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The following interview has been edited for clarity, style and length.
Teacher and peritus
Outreach: Most people knew Pope Benedict XVI either as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or as pope, but not as much for his previous academic career. Can you tell us something about his background?
Father Reese: Joseph Ratzinger first came on the scene during the Second Vatican Council when he was a young priest and peritus, or expert. At that time, he was seen as a progressive—a well-known German theologian and a very clear writer. He had written a book called Introduction to Christianity, which was a bestseller in Germany and was one of the books that brought him to the attention of [Pope Saint] John Paul II.
Ratzinger first taught at [the University of] Tübingen, where [the Swiss theologian] Hans Küng found him a job teaching in the theology department there. But Ratzinger was not really comfortable there, especially after the student demonstrations, in 1968, in which students just took over the classrooms and were very disruptive.
And Ratzinger found this very disconcerting; he felt there was no respect for authority and that these students were challenging Catholic doctrine. So he moved from Tübingen to Regensburg, which was a more conservative university. He taught there until he became the archbishop of Munich and Freising.
He was a very popular teacher with some students, who were very close to him even after he left teaching. As archbishop in Munich, for example, he continued to direct student dissertations instead of leaving them out in the cold. He also brought together an alumni group of people who had studied under him. But it was always clear that he was the teacher and they were the students.
A 2013 article from Reuters stated that Benedict was elected to succeed Pope St. John Paul II in order to “reform the Curia.” What is your sense of why he was elected in 2005? Did he succeed in reforming the Curia?
Every pope has been elected to reform the Curia and it’s never happened. I think it was much more that the cardinals were voting for continuity. They saw Cardinal Ratzinger as someone who worked hand-in-glove with John Paul II on issues of church doctrine. And they really thought he was the smartest cardinal in the room during the conclave. They thought it would be really good to have someone who was such a prominent theologian as the pope.
Both Benedict and his immediate predecessor emphasized Catholic orthodoxy and church tradition, which Benedict called the “communion of the faithful around their legitimate pastors down through history.” In what ways did Benedict’s papacy continue and differ from John Paul’s ecclesial vision?
Theologically, Benedict’s papacy was pretty much in continuity with John Paul II. Frankly, Benedict was a much better writer than John Paul II, whose prose was quite dense and difficult to understand. Ratzinger was a much clearer writer and teacher.
One of the most notable things that changed under Pope Benedict was that he closed down limbo. For centuries, the church taught that there was a place called “limbo,” which wasn’t quite Heaven and wasn’t quite Hell or Purgatory. It was a place where souls who had not been baptized stayed. They were decent, good people, but because they hadn’t been baptized, they couldn’t get to Heaven. Benedict basically threw out that theological hypothesis and said that people would be judged by God by how they lived their lives. Pastorally, that was a very good and sensitive change on his part.
The encyclical Benedict wrote that I liked the most was his encyclical on charity [“Deus Caritas Est”]. The first part of it is a philosophical and theological discussion of love in its various aspects. But it was the second part of the encyclical that I thought was remarkable because it focused on the work of the church in charity. It spoke of the three pillars of the church: the Word, the sacraments and the works of charity.
And what I found extraordinary was that he put the works of charity on an equal basis with the Word and the sacraments. It’s really a wonderful text for people working in charity as it gives them a theological foundation for their work.
In his first Easter homily after being elected pope, he referred to the resurrected Christ as the next step in human evolution. When I read that, I just thought, “Wow!” The trouble is he never really developed that idea. How does theology take into consideration the scientific fact of evolution? How do we look upon the church in an evolving universe? How do we talk about Christ in evolutionary terms? It was an extraordinary hint at the possibilities of theology, which might be more in line with something from [Jesuit philosopher] Teilhard de Chardin than from Pope Benedict.
“A very holy man”
Benedict was a prolific author and one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. What, in your opinion, is his greatest theological contribution?
I am afraid that his greatest theological contribution is actually negative. It was his suppression of theological discussion and debate in the church. Basically, after the Second Vatican Council, he and Pope John Paul II thought the church was in chaos and therefore needed a strong hand, and part of that was getting theologians “under control” so that they would no longer criticize papal documents or challenge anything in terms of church teaching.
The Second Vatican Council was an experience of wide and open debate on issues facing the church, and John Paul II and Benedict felt this was confusing the faithful.
The result was they silenced theologians, got them fired from their jobs and told them they could not publish or write. The problem is then you freeze theology and don’t adapt it to be meaningful for people living in the 21st century. I would argue that you can’t keep repeating formulas from the 13th century and have them understandable. We should not just quote Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas—we should imitate what they did in their time.
Augustine took the best philosophical knowledge of his time, which was Neoplatonism, and used it to explain Christianity. Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelianism, which had just been rediscovered in Europe, and used it to explain Christianity to his generation.
The challenge today is for theologians to figure out what ways of thinking explain Christianity to the people of the 21st century. There aren’t many Aristotelians walking around in your local city.
You first met Cardinal Ratzinger in 1994. At the direction of his C.D.F., you were forced to resign as editor in chief of America magazine shortly after his installation as pope. What are your recollections of him and that period?
When I first met him, I was interviewing him for my book Inside the Vatican. He was very gracious. I think his heart was always open to young scholars who were doing work. Those were the people that he really went out of his way to help. I, of course, was not there to debate him. He had a sense of humor and laughed at some of the controversies he had been involved in.
I felt he was a very holy man, and he was one of the few cardinals whom I asked for their blessing at the end of the interview. At the same time, I was very disappointed when he was elected pope.
Benedict and LGBTQ issues
In 1986, Cardinal Ratzinger issued a pastoral letter to Catholic bishops that described the homosexual “inclination” as an “objective disorder” and a “more or less strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil.” These statements, later included in the Catechism, prompted backlash from the gay community, with New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ Catholic group, condemning the letter for its “enormous [amount] of pastoral harm and damage to lesbian and gay people.”
What is your review of the former pope’s record on LGBTQ concerns?
I think that’s a perfect example of the problem with the former pope’s theology. Everyone who hears “objective disorder” in the 20th and 21st centuries thinks you’re talking about a psychological state. The “objective disorder” language is philosophical language, not psychological language. It is speaking in Thomistic categories that are unintelligible to people today.
The former pope is using “ordered” in the same way Aquinas used it. Personally, I would advise people to look more at the writings and recent comments of Pope Francis on LGBTQ people.
Has Pope Francis changed his predecessor’s approach to LGBTQ people?
Pope Francis has not changed the teaching on homosexuality, but he has a much more compassionate approach. He approaches it as a pastor. Pope Benedict approached it as a German professor: “This is the right answer. And if you don’t have the right answer on your test paper, you flunk.”
It came across as unfeeling, un-pastoral and lacking in compassion. There was no gray area. The former pope did not approach these issues as a pastor dealing with human beings who were standing in front of him.
Benedict was criticized for his handling of the church sex abuse crisis during his time as an archbishop in Munich from 1977 to 1982. A February 2022 report from the German church says that the pope emeritus “can be accused of misconduct in cases of sexual abuse” relating to four separate instances of clergy sex crimes. The former pope, in an 82-page response, denied these claims. In a 2019 letter, he linked the abuse crisis to the sexual revolution, “the absence of God” and “homosexual cliques” influencing seminaries.
How would you characterize his record on responding to clergy sex abuse claims?
His record on abuse evolved over time. My guess is that what Ratzinger did as cardinal was to delegate these kinds of personnel issues to people in his chancery. This was not his strong point. He did probably as bad a job dealing with sex abuse in Munich as all other bishops did. Once he got to Rome, he really evolved and learned.
He understood the sex abuse crisis faster than anybody else in Rome, including Pope John Paul II. Benedict listened to the American bishops when they came over and described the problem and what needed to be done.
Here is where the strict German played a positive role in dealing with abuse. I don’t think he missed any sleep at night throwing abusive priests out of the priesthood. The same kind of strictness he applied to theologians he applied to abusive priests. He read their files and said, “It’s obvious that these guys are guilty. Throw them out.” And that was it. We’re all very grateful for him doing that.
Where he was very weak was in terms of dealing with bishops who covered up the abuse and moved priests from one parish to another. It’s now Pope Francis who’s trying to deal with that.
Holiness, humility and faith
How did you view the pope’s decision to resign the papacy in 2013? Does this action set a precedent for future pontiffs?
The pope is certainly going to go down in history because he’s the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years. And that does set a precedent. Future popes who get sick or feel they’re incapable of doing the job will be able to resign more easily because of what Pope Benedict did.
It also shows his holiness, his humility and his faith that the Holy Spirit is in charge of the church. It was very admirable that he did resign. I think Benedict was appalled by the image of John Paul II in his final years as being this very disabled and sick pope who didn’t appear to be capable of doing the job.
Overall, how would you describe his impact on the worldwide church? How should he be remembered by Catholics?
My view is that Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II put the church on hold to bring order into it. I think that was a tragic mistake. The church now is just starting over, trying to continue the creative thinking that was happening at the Second Vatican Council.
You can almost say that Benedict and John Paul’s papacies pushed the pause button on church reform and on its ability to transform and become relevant in the 21st century. So now we’re playing catch up, and the question is whether it’s too late.