A Cure for Death
On the Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI
Even the length of his papacy seemed like a prayer, burning with symbolic meaning: “seven years, ten months, and nine days,” as the Vatican stressed in the official announcement of Benedict XVI’s passing. Each of these numbers correspond to perfection, completion, rest — seven, ten, and nine, where nine triples the divine perfection of God’s triune nature. What could it mean?
Joseph Ratzinger began his theological career as an ecclesiologist, writing in his early twenties on St. Augustine’s doctrine of the Church, defending Augustine’s view of the Church as Christ’s Body in pilgrimage, the totus Christus, a body mystically united by the liturgical ligaments, by uniting our hearts to God by the sacrifice of the Mass. He advanced in academic theology through a study of St. Bonaventure’s “theology of history” and for this reason, we can understand him as a medieval Augustinian in the tradition of Bonaventure. Precisely because of his patristic and medieval grounding, he was, however, well-suited to tackle modern, heterodox trends in theology, to bring Christ near to “contemporary man.”
In his most complete and focused scholarly work, Eschatology, Ratzinger argued against modern and protestant errors, that “the intermediate state” (purgatory) was not only biblically warranted, but grounded in “the interim period between the death of the Lord and his rising again.” Just as Christ’s resurrection gives us hope for our own, so does the time between Christ’s death and resurrection anchor the medieval understanding of the intermediate state as a time of purification for the soul before our bodily resurrection. His eschatalogical conclusions would later appear in various ways in his basic anthropological conviction that we are rational by nature because we are made relational, and we are made relational because we are fundamentally made “religious” — homo liturgicus — made for sabbath, for rest, completion, perfection in God.
Out of these early and extraordinary theological labors, and in concert with the Communio-wing of nouvelle theologie, he arrived at a beautiful vision of the soul having an end “beyond itself” — an end which is personal, indeed, the Triune God calling us to communion with Himself. This communion to which we are called is found only in the Catholic Church; it is sustained only in a dialogue with Jesus Christ, who is really present in time, and speaks to us personally in the Eucharist. He speaks of a “love stronger than death” which sustains the life of the soul, in this life, in the separation from the body in death, and until the bodily resurrection. Even Benedict’s last words convey precisely his view of how our souls are sustained in hope: “Jesus, ich liebe dich!”
Such an expression of exuberant love for Jesus the Lord is both utterly childlike, and yet also resonates with the conclusions of some of his most focused and scholarly labor. The Johannine theme, that we must be “born from above,” dominates; if we are to enter God’s rest, His perfection, His eternal life, then the fire of divine charity must enter into our hearts and minds in order to purify us of every impurity.
As he once wrote: “[P]eople have constantly thought – there must be some cure for death.” But they so often look in all the wrong places. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, proclaims that the “true medicine of immortality” exists — the cure for death has been offered to us in Jesus Christ. “In baptism, this medicine is given to us. A new life begins in us, a life that matures in faith and is not extinguished by the death of the old life, but is only then fully revealed."
In his trilogy of encyclicals — Deus Caritas Est, Caritas in Veritate, and Spe Salvi — we see these essential themes which run through his life and thought. Consider the way he begins and ends each of his three social encyclicals.
As he states from the outset of Deus Caritas Est, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (DCE, 1) Christianity is not first and foremost an intellectual system, but an encounter with “the burning bush” of divine charity in Jesus Christ. The flame of God’s love burns in Christ, and makes our hearts burn when touched by this encounter. He concludes, against any “separationism,” that being touched by this fire does not cause a “withdrawal” from the world, as even the saints in heaven become truly close to us in their intercessions for us. (DCE, 42) These “bookends” to his first encyclical frame his fundamental claim that while the Church does not seek to usurp the power of the state, the nations can also be purified by this divine fire. Reprising an early theme of Henri de Lubac, but also St. Augustine, Benedict understood that our salvation was social — no one sins alone, and no one is saved alone.
Similarly, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI begins:
“The search for love and truth is purified and liberated by Jesus Christ from the impoverishment that our humanity brings to it, and he reveals to us in all its fullness the initiative of love and the plan for true life that God has prepared for us. In Christ, charity in truth becomes the Face of his Person, a vocation for us to love our brothers and sisters in the truth of his plan. Indeed, he himself is the Truth.” (CiV, 1)
His evident Christo-centrism was always at the forefront of his thinking about our relation to the order of reality — and especially thinking about the social and civic structures which condition us, and make this encounter with Christ either easier or more difficult. He concludes his second encyclical this way:
“Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is…A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism. Only a humanism open to the Absolute can guide us in the promotion and building of forms of social and civic life — structures, institutions, culture and ethos — without exposing us to the risk of becoming ensnared by the fashions of the moment. Awareness of God's undying love sustains us in our laborious and stimulating work for justice and the development of peoples, amid successes and failures, in the ceaseless pursuit of a just ordering of human affairs.” (CiV, 78)
Benedict famously observes that state power has been usurped by market power, disorienting our social and civic life. This disorientation has occurred precisely because our “structures, institutions, culture and ethos” have excluded God. The exclusion of God from the structures of civic order have, in turn, obscured our ability to know the natural law, but it’s also made it difficult for us to even know ourselves, leaving each of us isolated and lost at the very moment that technology has promised “social connection.”
Finally, in Spe Salvi we see the theme of fire, and our need to be united both personally and socially to a goal which is “great enough to justify the effort of the journey.” (SE, 1) The anti-politics of liberal “separationism” detaches us from such a goal, and so disorients us from our proper end, which is God, who is both Absolute Truth, and Absolute Love. Indeed, Benedict XVI reprises all his central themes to specify that this transcendent end which we can know to be God, has revealed Himself as “Charity in Truth” precisely to raise up our hope that “we can face our present.” This hope is not only “formative” for us, but it is “performative,” which is to say it helps us face both personal and political suffering, to act courageously to alleviate the spiritual and material burdens which confront us, our neighbors and our societies. Just as the soul needs to be “born from above,” so too does the social and political order need contact with heaven. Put differently, Benedict’s contemplative Christo-centric vision is not meant to be simply to encourage private piety, and leave “the world” to its own devices. Rather, the Faith “draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet’…but is touched by the future reality.” (SE, 7)
He concludes Spe Salvi with a vision of the Last Judgment, against which every order of justice is to be judged — and again, his theme is fire:
“The fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves.” (SE, 47)
I have spoken elsewhere about a “theo-political paradox” in the social teaching of Benedict XVI — the paradox is that while as often as he upholds the need for natural law to be illumined by divine law, and as often as he upholds our need to be united both personally and socially and civically with our proper end, he also sometimes appears to uphold a liberal separation of temporal and spiritual power. I cannot treat this objection here, except to counter that the overall thrust of his social teaching cuts through this apparent paradox, highlighting the way in which a true humanism in civic life requires an orientation towards the love of God.
There is too much to say, and not everything can be said on the death of a successor of Peter. But the theme of fire I’ve tried to highlight is inseparable from Benedict’s interventions in the Church’s liturgy. As he famously and repeatedly insisted, “the way the liturgy is treated determines the fate of the Faith and the Church." Very soon after the post-conciliar liturgical reforms were implemented, as Ratzinger, he worried about a liturgical degradation, stating in the 1970s that “the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy.” That theme occupied him in The Spirit of the Liturgy and also explains why he thought Summorum Pontificum to be so urgent and necessary. It was not simply for continuity with the past, nor for some aesthetic preference that Benedict became the great defender of the older form of the Mass. In all his most trenchant and profound analyses of sin and disorder in the earthly parts of the Church, Benedict always returned with a singular contemplative diagnosis: post-conciliar liturgical reforms had degraded the liturgy, and so disoriented priests and the people of God alike, making them much more susceptible to the sexual, political and economic revolutions in societies which also had turned away from God. Church in the round was a liturgical error that had profound social and political consequences.
There has been much fraught discussion of Summorum Pontificum — a motu proprio which brought countless souls into more immediate contact with the form of the Mass which has produced the greatest number of saints over the greatest expanse of time. I cannot speak here of how Traditiones Custodes relates to the great liturgical revival that Benedict XVI unleashed, but I can say that nothing of the essential liturgical logic has been abrogated, or undone. Benedict XVI understood that the divine fire is one, and cannot be divided into parts — and likewise, he understood that “personal encounter” with Jesus Christ is never “individualistic” in some modern, protestant sense, but rather the encounter is itself liturgical, an entry into a communion that unites heaven and earth, God and neighbor. The Sacrifice of the Mass is our “Burning Bush,” but it’s us who must be burned, purified, united to divine charity in a way which judges us, but also purifies rather than destroys. This is the high liturgical standard Benedict raised for us — and nothing can change that standard because the standard he sets in his papacy is the very truth of the Mass.
I will not proclaim Benedict a saint, nor a Doctor of the Church — nor will I speak a single word against his resignation, which caused me and many others enormous grief and spiritual turmoil. But there remains the matter of “seven years, ten months, and nine days.” It surely meant something to him. But what?
Benedict’s papacy was neither perfect nor complete, but perhaps he hoped that we would see his pontificate as oriented to the sabbath end. It’s puzzling duration should not only give us pause, but it should make our hearts burn with genuine hope that, united to divine charity in Truth, Joseph Ratzinger — as a man, as a theologian and as a pope — has entered into the happiness of that perfect sabbath which has no end. In this, he has raised our hopes too that the medicine works. Christ is our cure.
Requiescat in pace.