Sixteen years ago this week, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany was elected to become Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. He chose the name Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict succeeded the late pontiff John Paul II, who has since been canonized as Saint John Paul II.
Pope Benedict was a strong and principled pontiff, never afraid to articulate the truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church. As it happened, his elevation to the papacy arrived contemporaneously with a rise in activism among individuals identified as LGBT and a corresponding increase in sympathetic support for LGBT issues among the mainstream media. Homosexuality and marriage were preeminent topics of discussion throughout Benedict’s papacy, both in the church and the culture.
Then Cardinal Ratzinger assumed the papacy after one of the most accomplished careers in the modern history of the Church. A brilliant theologian and thinker, Ratzinger distinguished himself throughout his priestly vocation. Ordained a priest in 1951 in his native Bavaria at the young age of 24, he embarked on an academic career that saw him appointed a full university professor at age 31. After distinguishing himself as a professor at several universities, Ratzinger was selected to consult to the Second Vatican Council. A prolific writer and lecturer, he originally was seen as a reformer, but grew very wary of the Marxist leanings of some fellow reformers and the student movements that he correctly believed were on a path to radicalization. By the mid-to-late 1960s, he had already gained a reputation as a learned scholar and by then come to embrace traditional Catholic teachings. Indeed, Ratzinger felt that the drift toward Marxism by students, as well as a general lack of respect for authority, were driven in part by liberal ideology that had gained currency in theological circles. Increasingly, he distanced himself from such ideas. His 1968 book, Introduction to Christianity, is one of the most important and widely read Christian books of the 20th Century discussing the doctrines of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that form the basis of the Apostle’s Creed.
In 1977, Ratzinger was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freisang by Pope Paul VI. Later that same year, at the age of 50, he was named a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Ratzinger’s skill as a Catholic theologian continued to be highly regarded. Just four years after being named a Cardinal, Pope John Paul II named him Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one of the most important leadership positions within the Catholic Church. As Prefect, Ratzinger unhesitatingly gave a principled defense and reaffirmation of traditional Catholic doctrine, including teachings on critical theological issues such as marriage, birth control and homosexuality.
During his time as Prefect, Ratzinger also grew in stature among his fellow Cardinals. In 1993 he was named Cardinal Bishop of Velletri-Segni. Five years later, he was named Vice Dean of the College of Cardinals and in 2002 became Dean of the College.
His visit to the United States in April 2008 came at a providential time when the issue of same-sex marriage was prominently in the news. The California Supreme Court had already heard oral argument on the validity of statutes adopted by voters defining marriage as solely the union of one man and one woman. Anticipating an adverse ruling, backers of traditional marriage, including the California Catholic Conference, had already by that time collected sufficient voter signatures to propose a state constitutional amendment (Proposition 8) enshrining the traditional definition of marriage in the state constitution. A couple of weeks after Pope Benedict’s visit to the US, the California Supreme Court issued a 4-3 ruling invalidating the traditional marriage statute. It was a short-lived invalidation, however, as Proposition 8 went on to be adopted by California voters in November 2008, shocking the liberal establishment the world over.
People of faith throughout the world owe Pope Benedict a tremendous debt of gratitude for his resolute, principled and unwavering defense of marriage as a one-flesh, conjugal union of one man and one woman, ordained by God at the beginning of time. No matter the source of challenge, no matter how powerful the push back, no matter the threatened consequence, no matter the pleadings from liberal clerics, Pope Benedict answered with clarity and conviction. God is the author of marriage. Marriage is the union of one man and one woman and has been since the beginning of time. It will always be so. It can never be anything else.
Perhaps one of his most important contributions to Catholicism and to the culture was his principled criticism of what he referred to as the “dictatorship of relativism,” calling it the core challenge facing the church and humanity. He eloquently said, “Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of education is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own ego.” Same-sex marriage, he noted, was a prime example of relativism.
For reasons that remain largely shrouded in mystery, Pope Benedict unexpectedly decided to retire as pontiff in February 2013. Such a resignation was virtually unheard of, becoming the first pope to resign without pressure in over 700 years. Indeed, in the modern era every pope has served until his death. Though he was said to have suffered various health ailments, including a heart condition that required a pacemaker, Benedict did not exhibit the debilitating physical infirmities that impacted his predecessor, John Paul II, in his latter years.
Pope Benedict attributed his decision to resign to deteriorating strength and the physical and mental demands of the papacy. The resignation may have been presaged years earlier by attempts to resign as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in order to focus on writing and scholarship. Each attempt was rebuffed by Pope John Paul II. However, as Pope himself, he needed the permission of no Vatican authority to step down from the papacy. Upon his resignation, Benedict assumed the title of Pope Emeritus and was replaced as pontiff by Pope Francis.
Ironically, Pope Benedict continues to serve the Catholic church with distinction. Though he is now 94 years of age and would have been the oldest living pope in history, Benedict continues to write, publish and receive visitors. Last year he published a book reaffirming his belief that the Catholic Church must maintain its historic discipline of clerical celibacy. Just three months ago, he and Pope Francis both received their COVID-19 vaccinations.
We take this occasion to celebrate Pope Benedict’s papacy and thank him for his service to the Catholic Church and to humanity. We wish him good health and a continued good life in retirement as Pope Emeritus. His papacy was marked by clear leadership and steadfast and resolute communications reaffirming the truth of the Church’s core beliefs. Though there were strong critics, nobody could profess confusion under Benedict about where the Catholic Church stood on important contemporaneous issues. Sadly, since his retirement, confusion has gained a foothold in the public’s understanding of the Church’s core beliefs and commitments.