Benedict XVI: God’s Rottweiler, the Pope who retired

The first Pope to retire for six centuries has died aged 95.

Pope Benedict XVI greets pilgrims attending a papal audience. Credit: Marion Kaplan / Alamy Stock Photo.
Pope Benedict XVI greets pilgrims attending a papal audience. Credit: Marion Kaplan / Alamy Stock Photo.

On 8 February 2022, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote a letter to the Archdiocese of Munich, whose shepherd he once was. ‘Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life,’ he wrote. ‘In light of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me the knowledge of, and indeed the friendship with, the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death.’

Now the first-ever pope emeritus has passed through that dark door. The eternal judge will meet an ecclesiastical servant who was not just a priest, a long-time cardinal and indeed pope but also a highly respected theologian — and an accomplished amateur musician.

When Joseph Ratzinger was born, on 16 April 1927, in the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn, nothing in his family or the environment around him suggested that he might one day become Pope, the shepherd of the world’s more than one billion Catholics. True, his parents were both Catholics and made sure that young Joseph and his older brother Georg attended church and received their first communion. His father was a police officer and his mother a homemaker: hardly part of the Roman Catholic establishment in Rome or even in Bavaria. But both Joseph and his brother decided to join the priesthood, which Joseph did at age 24, after the mandatory nearly six years of training.

Like all new priests, Fr Ratzinger was sent to serve as a curate in a local parish. But it was already clear that his special talent lay in theology, in particular the field of dogmatics — the discipline that focuses on the Church’s doctrine. In theology, intellectual heavy-hitters often opt for dogmatics, and it was as a theologian with superb knowledge of the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine that Ratzinger made his name.

After completing his doctorate with a thesis on the notion of the people of God in the work of St Augustine and the Habilitation — a second doctoral degree required for professors in Germany — he taught at the prestigious universities of Münster, Tübingen und Regensburg. It came as no surprise when Pope Paul VI appointed Ratzinger Archbishop of Munich and a short time later made him cardinal.

In this new and very different role, Ratzinger dedicated himself to his other ecclesiastical passion: the reinvigoration of evangelisation. He even saw to it that seven new churches and two new chapels were built in his diocese.

It was in his next role that Ratzinger became a global household name. In 1981, Pope John Paul II appointed the German cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Prefect, situated near the top of the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy, is in practice the enforcer of the Church’s doctrine. God’s Rottweiler, the press dubbed Ratzinger, and there was certainly nobody more qualified to constantly assess how different Roman Catholic practices matched the Church’s doctrine as it has evolved over the centuries. Ratzinger was fully aware that being the Vatican’s faith enforcer was not the Church’s most popular job. As he told his fellow Bavarian priests in a letter shortly after being appointed, he wanted to constantly speak the word of the faith into the modern world.

That’s what he also set out to do after being elected Pope in 2005. The quiet theologian was very different from his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II, but his sincerity in wanting a renewed focus on the word of the faith soon won many people over — so many that observers soon began speaking of a new Generation Benedict.

The new Pope, an accomplished pianist who often played the piano in his Vatican lodgings, also set about raising the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical standards, which had been deteriorating to the point that the congregation barely participated in the Mass even though it had been simplified to allow precisely that. The music of the church for which giants like Victoria, Monteverdi Palestrina and Allegri wrote their works had become mostly abysmal.

At the time of Ratzinger’s elevation to the papacy, I was singing in the choir at a Roman Catholic Church in California known for its high musical standards, and even that choir was worlds away from the musical excellence of Anglican cathedrals.

In 2010, Benedict made a papal visit to Britain, whose Westminster Cathedral just happens to have the best music anywhere in the Roman Catholic world — and to the Anglican Westminster Abbey, where he attended Evensong. And Benedict didn’t stop there: he then invited Westminster Abbey’s choir to Rome.

But reforming a globe-spanning organisation now encompassing 1.2 billion people involved not just in liturgy and parish work but in education, caring for the poor, caring for the homeless, running hospitals and much else, is hard work. Like bureaucracies everywhere, the Vatican has phalanxes and infighting, not to mention money expropriated by dishonest officials. And on top of being the head of the world’s largest denomination, the Pope is also head of an independent state.

On 10 February 2013, rumours began circulating among the international media that the Vatican was about to make an unusual announcement. The following day, Benedict announced that he was retiring, the first pope in six centuries to do so. Aged 85, he explained that due to his age he no longer had the strength to properly carry out the papal ministry. As Pope Emeritus, he retired to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery on the Vatican grounds. Still wearing his white papal habit, he continued his theological writings. In 2018, after numerous readers of Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper had inquired about his health, he wrote to the newspaper explaining that ‘with the slow diminishing of my physical strength, inwardly I am on a pilgrimage toward Home’.

In his letter to Bavarian priests in February 2022, he described how ‘even though, as I look back on my long life, I have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings.’ Now he has met his judge, friend and brother.


Elisabeth Braw