Theologians who consider themselves intellectual usually have little use for St. Joseph. There is hardly any reliable information about him to which one could make intelligent thoughts. The Bible does not hand down a single literal quote from Mary's fiancé.
Nevertheless, it occurs in a crucial place in the Catholic Catechism, the authoritative theological textbook for all Catholics. In the chapter about dying.
"The Church encourages us to prepare for the hour of death," it says, "and to entrust ourselves to Saint Joseph, Patron Saint of the Dying." Death as a constant reminder, as an ever-present possibility, as an abiding touchstone of the Conscience. And Joseph as a support.
The head of the commission that worked out the catechism in the 1980s was the then Curia Cardinal Ratzinger. First name Joseph. It is as if he had hidden a delicate dash of touched, even childlike piety in the dry, analytical prose of the lecturer. As if the thought of his namesake had helped him better understand the secret of the farewell.
Ratzinger, the hardliner, the reactionary. They called him Hammer of God, Grand Inquisitor, Armored Cardinal, Rottweiler Ratzinger. Because he represented positions that were measured against church teaching and tradition rather than the zeitgeist. Because he could formulate it so precisely, so unconditionally, so provocatively. Because he often alienated his own people with his conservative theses. But this picture is only half the story.
For all his erudition and cool intellectuality, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was always characterized by a simple, humble, naive religiosity. Even before he thought about Christianity, he had already sensed it. His lifelong research and theorizing only served to rationalize and underpin this emotion afterwards, to reconcile reason and feeling.
For him, the battles he fought were collateral damage, not an end in themselves. His ascent in the Catholic hierarchy, from professor of theology to archbishop to cardinal of the curia and finally to pope, was always accompanied by strange hesitations and hesitations, like those of a dizzy mountaineer. The higher he got, the greater his longing for a contemplative, withdrawn life of quiet devotion. Reverie of a Panzer Cardinal.
Joseph Ratzinger may have been a hardliner. But a soft one.
Ratzinger's trust in God was a constant echo of his childhood, which he considered to be the happiest time of his life. Basically it differs from that of a stylized saint in a medieval legend only in that it really happened that way.
His parents' names were Maria and Joseph. His birth in 1927 fell on Holy Saturday, a circumstance that he regarded less and less as a coincidence and more and more as a coincidence over the course of his life. On the same day he was baptized with water freshly consecrated for Easter. The pilgrimage site of Altötting was less than a quarter of an hour away from his home town of Marktl am Inn, his mother sang Marian hymns while she was washing the dishes, and as children he and his brother Georg Pfarrer played with small toy monstrances, miniature chalices, incense burners and chasubles.
Birthdays were not celebrated in his family. Gifts and a feast were always given to him on March 19th instead. The name day of Saint Joseph.
It was a world in which daily life was permeated by ancient customs. In which the year did not begin on January 1st, but on the first Sunday in Advent. In which a rosary was prayed once a day and confession was made once a month. In which the neighboring towns were called Kirchweidach, Pfarrkirchen, Niedertaufkirchen, Ober- and Unterneukirchen, in some of them there was still a night watchman. In which a life without God and especially without the Catholic Church would not have been meaningless, but unimaginable. A lost world.
Ratzinger strove throughout his life to at least partially revive it. He wished for a rebirth of the natural feeling of security people had back then, especially in postmodern, all too secular Europe. In this sense, Benedict XVI was a Renaissance pope. He himself spoke of "new evangelization".
Accordingly, in his more than 40 books, he shaped a theological approach that he called the "hermeneutics of faith": He rejected the academic fashion of subjecting the Bible to historical source criticism until ultimately nothing remained of its teaching.
Instead, he again called on theologians to be willing to recognize Scripture as a divinely inspired document and, despite all reasonable use of reason, to believe it when in doubt instead of deconstructing it. Even and especially in those places where it is particularly difficult.
In the second volume of his "Jesus" trilogy, for example, he opposed attempts to present the biblical accounts of Jesus' resurrection merely as parables.
"If God exists, can he not also create a new dimension of being human, of reality in general?" wrote Benedict. "Isn't creation actually waiting for this last and highest 'mutation leap'? On the union of the finite with the infinite, on the union of man and God, on the conquest of death?”
Ratzinger's convictions and the linguistic elegance with which he was able to put them on paper quickly attracted attention in the resurgent post-war theological scene. A precocious scholar, who is already called "Bücher-Ratz" at the Freisinger seminary, in contrast to his brother and fellow student Georg, who is known as "Orgel-Ratz" because of his musicality.
Joseph Ratzinger becomes a priest, but he is not interested in pastoral care in any parish. Dealing with strangers makes him too nervous, the shy, unsportsmanlike, brooding ones. He only feels confident in the library.
In the 1960s, after his dissertation and habilitation in record time, he was regarded internationally as a kind of theological Mozart, as a child prodigy in dogmatics, with whom powerful men such as Cologne Cardinal Frings adorned themselves. Frings, one of the most influential strategists at the Second Vatican Council, takes Ratzinger with him to Rome as an adviser. The young professor can then choose the positions and chooses the University of Tübingen. Hans Küng, who is already in Tübingen, welcomes the personnel. At the time, he considered Ratzinger a reformer.
John Paul II later became a Ratzinger fan. He reads his books in the original German and realizes that this quiet intellectual would be a perfect complement to him, the charismatic. In 1981 he put him at the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican authority that has to judge the truthfulness of statements of faith.
Ratzinger is now the chief Catholic dogmatist and will remain so for decades. When his patron John Paul died in 2005, nobody knew the Curia better than Cardinal Prefect Ratzinger. There is a saying in Rome that if you enter a conclave as a pope, you will come out as a cardinal. Ratzinger is the exception to this rule. Its selection is quick and smooth, apart from the fact that the smoke that follows doesn't really want to turn white, but stays grey.
But the enthusiasm of the Germans about the famous man from their midst, the proud "We are Pope" feeling, which unfolds most magnificently at the World Youth Day in Cologne, does not last long. Ratzinger's pontificate contained many controversial statements and writings that cemented his reputation as a reactionary. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he once snubbed the Protestants, whom he denied church status in the document Dominus Iesus.
Now, as pope, he intensifies the Catholic rejection of homosexuality, allows the old liturgy again, wants to pave the way back into the Catholic community for the arch-conservative Pius Brothers and decrees a strict Roman centralism for the church. There are also diplomatic mishaps, such as the notorious speech at the University of Regensburg in which he quotes a medieval critic of Mohammed.
When the most famous German in the world at the time embarked on his third and final trip to his home country in 2011, people in Berlin hardly dared to reserve the Olympic Stadium for the papal mass. For fear there would be too few visitors. Politicians seriously raise the question of whether the Holy Father should be allowed to speak in the Bundestag, and when he finally does, some MPs from the Greens, SPD and Left Party are happy to boycott the historic appearance.
People who would never struggle through one of his hyper-intellectual textbooks take to the streets and demonstrate against his visit as if they were the head of a totalitarian regime. It would be hard to find another pope who has been similarly humiliated by his countrymen.
A few days after the conclave, Benedict compared the moment of his election to the falling of a guillotine: "I thought I had done my life's work and now I could hope for a quiet end to my days," the then 78-year-old told German pilgrims. "I said to the Lord with deep conviction: Don't do this to me! You have younger and better people who can approach this great task with a completely different vigor and strength.”
Although the reference to his age may have been a pretense, because the constant scruples were one of the constants in Ratzinger's career.
When he came to Tübingen, it soon became clear that he and Küng had opposing ideas about the future of the church. Hearts flew to Küng, even the student movement respected the elegant star who drove up to the lectures in the Alfa Romeo. Ratzinger, the pale and quiet loner who never got a driver's license his whole life, became the enemy of the sixty-eighters with his conservative views.
Instead of pursuing the conflict, Ratzinger withdrew and fled to the newly founded University of Regensburg, a cliche compared to Tübingen. In his early 40s, he wanted to give up racing for international reputation and instead settled for a peaceful family life in the provinces. His brother was head of the Regensburger Domspatzen, his sister Maria did the housework for him, the siblings even had their parents' graves moved to Regensburg.
When a little later he was offered the archbishop's chair in Munich, one of the most coveted posts the church has to offer, Ratzinger came up with all kinds of excuses why he had to turn down the offer, albeit to no avail. Just like later when he moved to Rome, which he dragged off for years, although John Paul II pushed.
"I don't think he really wanted to go to Rome," Georg Ratzinger later recalled in his book "My Brother, the Pope". “He actually wanted to persuade the Pope to leave him in Munich and has repeatedly given him good reasons for doing so. But John Paul II only said that Munich is important, but Rome is even more important.”
It is fitting for this unusual life, for this strange mixture of sensitivity and conviction, that this conservative intellectual of all people, with the premature end of his pontificate, accomplished the most surprising and momentous act of reform that the papacy has seen since the proclamation of the dogma of infallibility in 1870.
The fact that a voluntary resignation from Christ's representative office meant a demystification and objectification of this office could not have remained hidden from him as the supreme Catholic dogmatist. He accepted it, to the dismay of many traditionalists who saw him as a rock in the surf of progressive currents. He couldn't help it.
Contrary to the caricature of Ratzinger as a dogged fundamentalist, after much prayer and grueling soul-searching, he decided that he had reached the end of his strength.
When Benedict announced his resignation in February 2013, his health was so bad that his companions feared that he would not survive the following summer. It turned out differently. And so, at the end of his life, the theologian Ratzinger, after having held all the highest offices in the church, invented a completely new one: that of a papa emeritus, a pope emeritus; a figure that not only could never have existed for centuries in terms of power politics, but which is also formally unresolved in canon law to this day.
Benedict created facts. Retained his papal name, wore papal white, continued to be addressed as "Holy Father." At the beginning, at the invitation of his successor, he even appeared in public from time to time, around 2014 at the canonization of John Paul II. And he wrote texts – here a greeting, there a contribution to the debate – which always triggered a worldwide echo, less because of its content than because of the sheer incomprehensibility of the constellation. Can an ex-pope: still express himself? Isn't that necessarily disloyal to the new successor of Peter, isn't that a shadow papacy that has to confuse the church and even tear it apart?
The reactions were particularly angry when Benedict published an essay on the nature of the Catholic priesthood in January 2020, in which he defended celibacy. Clear case of "disobedience", said the "Zeit", and the "Deutsche Welle" warned of a "division" - as if Benedict had not simply unfolded in the text what has been valid church doctrine for centuries. The fact that Pope Francis, the supposed reformer, had his own adherence to celibacy reaffirmed as a reaction to Benedict's text was lost in the noise. The story of the war of the popes over the future of the church sounded too exciting.
But even media imagination will hardly stop the development that Benedikt initiated. Not so long ago, ordinary bishops of the Catholic Church could resign. Only the Second Vatican Council opened up this possibility. Even then, many reacted without understanding. Today bishops emeritus are taken for granted. It is difficult to see why this should not soon also apply to emeritus bishops of Rome.
In any case, anyone who met Benedict in the last years of his life did not encounter a jealous know-it-all who spoke nasty about his successor - behavior that is otherwise by no means unusual among retired churchmen in Rome. Instead, the emeritus became more and more a hermit, quiet and withdrawn, becoming more and more frail over time, the voice at some point only a breath, the view clouded.
His retirement home, the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican Gardens, was not a nest of resistance, but a place of contemplation. Visitors, who were admitted less and less over time, had to report to the Vatican's Porta Sant'Anna. A Swiss guard drove them in an electric golf cart past several security checkpoints up the Vatican hill to the famous Lourdes grotto. There the Pope Emeritus used to pray the rosary every evening at 7 p.m., walking up and down in the first few years after his resignation, later on an upholstered bench.
From here, Benedict could see the dome of St. Peter's Basilica shimmering in the sunset, and in good weather the Alban Hills could be seen on the horizon. When asked what he was praying for that night, he said, "For unity. That the Church does not crumble.”
The fact that he himself contributed more to the disintegration of the church in his last few months than most other people, he didn't see this bitter punchline, didn't want to see it. The Catholic abuse scandal began during his tenure as Pope, and as much as he has since condemned and punished the crimes committed by priests against children and young people, it became clear towards the end of his life that Benedict himself had played his part in the cover-up and the had been concealing.
When the Munich law firm Westpfahl-Spilker-Wastl presented their report on how to deal with sexual abuse in the archdiocese of Munich-Freising in early 2022, the authors also accused the former Munich Archbishop Ratzinger of not having acted decisively enough against the perpetrators in several cases. These cases may be difficult for the public to assess without inspecting the files: but in the days and weeks that followed, everyone was at least able to convince themselves that Benedict, otherwise so scrupulous, lacked even the slightest hint of self-criticism on this central point of all things.
In a statement he disturbed with the most absurd relativizations. Benedikt once wrote that one of the perpetrators at the time "was noticed as an exhibitionist, but not as an abuser in the strict sense". The crimes “consisted of exposing one's own genitals in front of prepubescent girls and performing masturbation movements (...). In none of the cases was there any contact.”
Particularly devastating: Benedict gave the experts verifiably false information about a crucial management meeting in the Archdiocese of Munich in 1980, which dealt with a controversial case, claimed twice that he had not taken part in the conversation - and the minutes of the meeting, the could be found in the archive, refuted.
The fact that he found not a word of regret for what he personally could have neglected in dealing with these cases, at least in the good way, tarnishes his life record forever.
Nonetheless, his era will long linger in the hearts of believers thanks to his theological legacy. In addition to his academic "Introduction to Christianity" and his encyclicals, people will especially honor the three "Jesus" books, which have also found wide circulation outside the theological faculties and which he himself considered to be his most important work.
In them, in the midst of all the learning, the personal, devoted, unconditional faith shines through most clearly, which distinguished Joseph Ratzinger even as a small boy and which he does not seem to have lost even in old age.
"When I try to imagine what paradise might look like," said Benedict XVI. in the last year of his pontificate, "then the time of my youth, my childhood, always comes to mind. In this context of trust, joy and love we were happy and I think that in paradise it must be similar to my childhood and youth. In that sense, I hope to 'go home' one day, towards the 'other world'."