Pope has proved to be born teacher
Pope Benedict
The pope’s books have been released in several languages. CNS

Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered for many things: the renewal of the liturgy, his enthusiastic support for the extraordinary form of the Mass, his gentle simplicity, his eager willingness to engage a huge spectrum of postmodernity ranging from atheism, to non-Abrahamic religions, to Islam to Judaism to a wide range of thinkers within non-Catholic traditions and dissenting Catholic schools of thought. His deep conviction was that the Catholic faith is a profoundly rational faith since the Word — the very reason of God made flesh — is at the heart of things. As he said in an address at a Benedictine monastery in Italy in 2005, shortly before he was elected pontiff: 

“From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the Logos, as the religion according to reason ... It has always defined men, all men without distinction, as creatures and images of God, proclaiming for them ... the same dignity. In this connection, the Enlightenment is of Christian origin and it is no accident that it was born precisely and exclusively in the realm of the Christian faith. ... It was and is the merit of the Enlightenment to have again proposed these original values of Christianity and of having given back to reason its own voice ... Today, this should be precisely [Christianity’s] philosophical strength, in so far as the problem is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is not other than a ‘sub-product,’ on occasion even harmful of its development — or whether the world comes from reason, and is, as a consequence, its criterion and goal ... In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.”

Born teacher

This is why, I think, he was a born teacher. He has confidence in the Catholic faith that it is a solid and real thing, as well as a flexible and living thing. He strikes the healthy scholar’s balance between openness to new ideas and real intellectual give-and-take on the one hand, while having faith that the Jesus proclaimed by the Catholic Church is the Truth — a Truth who cannot be dismissed by the “dictatorship of relativism” against which he has constantly fought. 

This approach to the Church’s teaching is what led him to found the journal Communio. Unlike many voices after the Second Vatican Council, who were calling to “keep alive the spirit of the council,” Joseph Ratzinger understood that during a council the Church (in the fine phrase of Father Robert Barron) “holds herself in suspense” as she works through the process of making up her mind and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, decides how best to articulate and live the apostolic tradition entrusted to her. But, as G.K. Chesterton said, the purpose of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to bite down on something solid. What Pope Benedict saw was that once the council had reached its conclusions, the task of the Church has been to live in the 50 years since the council was convened, not to live 1962 50 times.

Biblical thinker

The core of Pope Benedict’s thought can be summed up fairly succinctly: the Bible, the Eucharist and social justice, particularly with a concern for the weakest. Because he is a deeply biblical thinker, he has been full of surprises for a culture that is post-biblical and thinks in images rather than ideas.  

Somehow, this gentle man got dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So, when his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) was released, he managed to surprise reactionaries and progressives by actually taking seriously the central message of the Bible — God is love — instead of living out their power fantasies in which the Panzer Pope (depending on how you viewed him) either purged the Church of the impure or crushed the hopes and dreams of forward-thinking people. Similarly, The New York Times expressed bafflement that the encyclical “did not mention abortion, homosexuality, contraception or divorce, issues that often divide Catholics.”  

In fact, Pope Benedict (like his predecessor) did not see his role as being about power but as being a sacrament of the love of God and, supremely, as a pope who taught the doctrine, not the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council. To be sure, he would teach on the pelvic issues in the appropriate time and place, but in Deus Caritas Est and his other encyclicals (especially Caritas in Veritate) he signaled the fact that the Church really is about the love of God and not the culture wars of Western political discourse.

Scholarly pope

Beyond his encyclicals, the most striking thing about the work of this scholar-pope are the books he continued to publish after his elevation to the papacy.  

Early in his papacy, these particularly express his concern with engaging both the Islamic world and a postmodern West that has abandoned faith in the possibility of accessing any truth beyond the individual’s personal desires and feelings. They include such titles as “Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures,” “Handing on the Faith in an Age of Disbelief,” “Values in a Time of Upheaval,” “Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam” and “What It Means to Be a Christian.”  

What is striking about these books is that they are works of private scholarship, not undertaken in his office as pope, but rather as a private theologian. What this means is that Pope Benedict continues to humbly submit himself as a scholar to the push and pull of the scholarly community. This is the mental habit of a born teacher, used to dealing with ideas in the arena of academic debate, as he was used to presenting those ideas in the hope that they will illumine and inform hearts and minds who are seeking to know the truth. 

As his papacy continued, Pope Benedict’s work turned increasingly toward the project of representing the treasury of the Church’s tradition in Scripture and the great spiritual masters of the Christian tradition. We see him delving into this vast pool of riches in such works as “Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church”; “God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office”; “St. Paul”; “The Apostles”; “The Fathers: Volumes 1 and 2”; “Doctors of the Church” and “Holy Women.” 

Setting high standards

But more than any other private work, I think he will be remembered for his three-volume work “Jesus of Nazareth,” which constituted a particularly accessible combination of fine Scripture scholarship, deep meditation, and believing prayer as Pope Benedict modeled for both ordinary believers and Scripture scholars what the work of Scripture scholarship looks like in the third millennium.  

Each book treats the sacred text as what it truly is: the word of God. But each book also makes use of the Church’s rich tradition of scriptural meditation in combination with all that the best tools of modern scholarship has discovered about the cultural and historical background of the events of the New Testaments.  

These tools, too often wielded as weapons of destruction against the biblical narrative in the hands of skeptics and destroyers, are handled skillfully by Pope Benedict to reveal the New Testament’s astonished proclamations that the historical Jesus of Nazareth is, in very truth, the incarnate Son of God and not some misunderstood sage. Illumined by both faith and by very formidable — yet lucid and accessible — gifts as a teacher, Pope Benedict, in these books, sets a standard for Catholic Scripture scholarship that will light the path for decades to come. 

As a scholar and as pope, Pope Benedict has been and will continue to be a treasure to the Church. Let us give thanks for this profoundly gifted and saintly man through Jesus of Nazareth, whom he loves and has served so well. 

Mark Shea writes the Catholic and Enjoying blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea and is the author of “Salt and Light” (Servant, $15.99).