Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Benedict XVI’s Apocalypse

Joseph Ratzinger knew he was living in an age of epochal change. The mystery of his resignation becomes clearer now
Screen Shot 2023-01-03 at 1.52.08 PM

See that? It's a lightning bolt that struck St. Peter's Basilica on the day Pope Benedict XVI resigned. A sign?

I'm reading now the second volume of Peter Seewald's authoritative biography of Benedict XVI. The latter half of the biography deals with the era from 1966 to the present. It gives me much deeper insight into the pain that man carried, and the at times apocalyptic nature of his commentary. I'm glad to be reading this, because as someone born in 1967, I had not fully recognized the depth of the trauma older Catholics like Joseph Ratzinger felt over the destruction of the Church in the postconciliar period. It seems to me that one really can't grasp the meaning of the spiritual drama of Benedict's life, and of our time, without knowing these details.


The standard narrative is that Joseph Ratzinger, who participated in Vatican II as an advisor, was a progressive then, but was so shocked by the chaos the Council unleashed that he became a conservative. It's a half truth. From the book:

‘Certainly I was progressive,’ he said in our conversation. ‘At that time “progressive” did not yet mean that you broke away from the faith, but that you learned from its origins to understand it better and live it better.’

Translating the faith into the present, the search for up-to-date forms in teaching and liturgy, was the first requirement for any advance towards being a missionary church. His difference from other theologians was that Ratzinger argued with the church’s faith and never against it. In a contribution to the journal Wort und Wahrheit in 1960 he wrote: ‘The point is to rescue the
faith from the rigidity of the system and reawaken its original vital power, without giving up what is really valid in it.’ He said in a lecture for Frings that the aim was the one ‘that the pope set for this Council, namely to renew Christian life and to adapt church discipline to the demands of the time, so that witness to the faith can shine with a new brightness in the darkness of this world’.

He understood the word ‘awakening’ as ‘revitalizing’. It was not primarily about reorganization but about inward, spiritual reforms. The church could not win people over by inappropriate adaptation to the world. It would just lose itself.

... For the Council the opposite to conservative was not progressive but missionary. That antithesis expressed what the Council meant and what it did not mean by opening up to the world. It was not to make Christians more comfortable by releasing them to conform with a worldly or fashionable mass culture, but demanded the nonconformity of the Bible: ‘Do not be conformed to this world.’

In other words, his progressivism consisted of wanting to make Catholic orthodoxy comprehensible to the modern world -- not in wanting to overturn those orthodoxies! The book goes on to talk about his shock in the years immediately following the Council to see how people within the Church used "the spirit of Vatican II" as a pretext to dismantle Catholicism. Ratzinger, a good-hearted soul who expected the best from others, had been terribly naive.

Ratzinger, reports Seewald, saw the Council as an attempt to revitalize a faith that had ossified. Again: he really did believe the Council would help modern people to become more faithfully Catholic. He did not see what was coming. More:

Many of the radical reformers supported the view that the faithful should ‘participate’ actively in the Mass and therefore hold a ‘dialogue’ with the priest. They regarded traditional prayers such as ‘perpetual adoration’ or the rosary as negligible devout practices. For example, the Catholic theologian Gotthold Hasenhüttl was soon demanding a ‘radical openness to the world’ whose culmination would be a ‘black pregnant woman pope’. Priests declared proudly that they had removed the cross from their altar, because not every day was Good Friday. Even atheists such as the psychoanalyst Alfred Lorenzer were scandalized by the ‘loss of meaning’. The restructuring cut deep into the human symbols, myths, rituals and cult objects and led to a new sort of Catholic, who no longer had any internal or external images with which to understand themselves and others. [Emphasis mine -- RD] So their religious devotion became a mere technique, abstract rather than vivid, bare speech that was formalistic without vital forms.


That paragraph really strikes deep. It highlights something that is, frankly, diabolical. I mean that literally. Thus the tragedy of Catholicism in the 20th century: it was not wrong (I believe) to want to re-vivify the faith, as Ratzinger and the advocates of réssourcement wanted to do, but they had completely underestimated the bad faith of so many theologians, clerics, and others within the Catholic Church, who wanted to utterly change it, to secularize it. The great villain of this story is Ratzinger's rival Hans Küng, the egotistical Swiss theologian who openly denied basic dogmas of the faith, and who wailed constantly that the Vatican was being mean to him by holding him to account for what he taught and proclaimed. Ratzinger was, in my view, far too kind to and tolerant of Küng, who was a snake, and shamelessly two-faced towards him.

Seewald connects the events in the life of the Catholic Church in the second half of the 1960s to the upheaval happening elsewhere:

On 16 May 1966, while Western Maoists began to gather under the portrait of the ‘Great Chairman’, Mao Zedong ordered the start of the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’, a further ‘eruption of idealism and violence, religious zeal and sadism’, reported the Süddeutsche Zeitung. With the help of the children and
youth organized into ‘red guards’ Mao regained his power after the fiasco of the ‘Great Leap Forward’.
According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, during this period a group of schoolgirls shot dead their headmistress, students drowned their professors, husbands sent their wives to labour camps and sons sent their mothers to the scaffold. Many class enemies were buried alive, others beheaded or stoned. In the province of Guangzxi the hearts and livers of more than a dozen ‘enemies’ of Mao Zedong were torn out and consumed. Fifty years later a contemporary witness said that ‘our whole immune system is corrupt and we as a society are powerless against any kind of disease’. He meant his society had lost its value system and the capacity to empathize. ‘All this has its roots in the catastrophe of that time.’ [Emphasis mine -- RD] On the Tübingen campus pamphlets now appeared denouncing the cross as a symbol of the sadomasochistic glorification of pain. Prospective theologians sang along with ‘Cursed be Jesus!’ According to the contemporary witness Helmut Moll, ‘It suddenly became the practice to celebrate Mass in private houses. Everybody held a glass of red wine.'

About the highlighted part above: this is clearly true about us today, with respect to the evils washing over us. More on this in a second. But for now, think about what this looked like to Father Joseph Ratzinger, a theology professor. It must have seemed like the end of the world. And in a real sense, it was.

The decision by Paul VI to do away with the old mass infuriated Ratzinger at the time:

Many Catholics were deeply unsettled. The reforms had changed the ritual they were used to. They were also reading bad news about the dramatic drop in church attendance and in applications to become priests. An unsuspected problem arose when, on 3 April 1969, Paul VI introduced a new missal for the conduct of liturgical services and at the same time forbade the use of the previous missal (the 1962 Missale Romanum, in which the Mass was celebrated in Latin). Horrified at the head of the church, Ratzinger fumed: ‘Nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy.’


In the book of interviews Salz der Erde (Salt of the Earth) he put forward another argument: ‘A community that suddenly declares what was formerly regarded as the most exalted and holy to be strictly forbidden, and that it is improper to long for it back, raises doubts about itself. For what should people then actually believe about it? Won’t it again forbid something tomorrow that it prescribes today?’ He drew a sober conclusion:

I am convinced that the church crisis we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy, which at times has even come to be conceived – etsi Deus non daretur: ‘as if God did not exist’– so that it does not matter whether or not God exists or whether he speaks to us and listens to us.

Take a look at this, about a speech he gave in the early 1970s, I think it was:

The Cologne speech precisely documents the programme Ratzinger followed as a theologian, bishop, prefect and finally as pope over the next four decades. It is worth quoting in detail, because it gives a clear insight into Ratzinger’s thinking and shows where he saw the problem for the modern church and the options for renewal he recommended. Here it is:

The formula ‘we are the church’ coined during the youth movement has got a remarkably sectarian meaning: the radius of this ‘we’ often only embraces the current small group of like-minded people, who then use ‘we’ to claim a kind of infallibility. In fact, that statement should rule out group self-righteousness. For it is only true if the ‘we’ includes the community of all believers, not just those of today but from all through the centuries. In this ‘we’, the ‘I’ of Christ is implied, which is what has gathered us together as ‘we’. Humanly speaking, what saves the church today is not the often faltering and uncertain rulers, who either retreat into traditionalism or anxiously look to theologians, afraid that they will be labelled as conservative, when they should be brave enough clearly to assert the Creed. What carries the church through such times of uncertainty is the persistence of the faith of communities, in which the union of past, present and future is demonstrated and endures, beyond traditionalism and progressivism: in the reality of a life today lived by the Creed. Perhaps we have to experience the damage done by atheism in order to rediscover how irrepressibly and vitally the cry for God rises from human beings. Then at last we will realize again that human beings really do not live by bread alone; they are not saved just by having an income allowing them to possess everything they desire and freedom allowing them to do anything they want. Then they will realize that free time on its own does not set us free and that having is only the beginning of the whole problem of being. Human beings need something that Western capitalism as well as Marxism is so little able to give. As Romano Guardini never tires of saying, the nature of Christianity is not just an idea or a programme – the nature of Christianity is Christ. When we lose him, no longer want to know him, only shadows remain. Shadows are not alive. What remains is a ghostly Christianity without power or reality. Anyone who wants to be a Christian today must have the strength to decide and the courage to be unmodern – like all children of tomorrow and yesterday. In a time that has called God dead, they must dare to set their roots in the eternal. They must have a living bond with God revealed in Christ.

More Seewald:

And this was also a typical Ratzinger statement: ‘Resentment of everyone and everything contaminates the ground of the soul and turns it into a waste land.’ In order to find an answer to the church’s crisis and not to despair at the current state of affairs, people should identify not with the dominant forces in the church but with its faith and the faithful from every century. The legacy of the saints, the great liturgical traditions – all those gifts from heaven would survive and regain their prestige. They were not simply wiped out, over and done with, because they were not highly valued by a temporary Zeitgeist.'

Reading these words brought to mind my dear friend Marco Sermarini and his Catholic community in San Benedetto del Tronto. I wrote about him in The Benedict Option. This is the part that came to mind when I read the above Ratzinger quote:

After college, the men found they enjoyed each other’s company, and helping the needy, so they stayed together. As they married, they brought their wives into the group. In 1993, encouraged by their local bishop, they incorporated as an official association within the Catholic Church, an association of families they jokingly called the “Tipi Loschi”—Italian for, “the usual suspects.” 

Today, the Tipi Loschi have around 200 members in their community. They administer the community school, the Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton, as well as three separate cooperatives, all designed to serve some charitable end. They continue to build and to grow, driven by a sense of spiritual and social entrepreneurship, and inspired by a close connection to the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, just on the other side of the Sybilline Mountains. As the Tipi Loschi’s various initiatives succeeded (and despite some that didn’t), the association of families came to regard each other as something more organic. 

They began helping each other in everyday tasks, trying to reverse the seemingly unstoppable atomization of daily life. Now, they feel closer than ever, and determined to keep reaching out to their city, offering faith and friendship to all, from within the confident certainties of their Catholic community. This is how they continue to grow. 

“The possibility to live like this is for everyone,” says Sermarini. “We have only to follow an old way to do things that we always had, but lost some years ago. The main thing is not to go with the mainstream. Then, seek for God, and after that, look for others who are also serious about seeking God, and join them. We started with this desire, and started trying to teach others to do the same, to receive the same gift we were given: the Catholic faith.” 

Reading this Seewald biography of Benedict XVI, I can much better understand why he allowed his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, to make that September 11, 2018 speech (I reprinted it here) enthusiastically endorsing The Benedict Option. I was present in Rome when Mgr Gänswein delivered the address, but I had no idea what was coming. My Italian journalist friends had prepared me for it, saying that whatever Gänswein said, I could be sure that Benedict approved every word. Me being me, I expected the worst. What I received was the greatest gift of my professional life.

Ratzinger understood very well the depth, the breadth, and the nature of the crisis of our time. He also knew how defenseless we all were against it without a real faith -- not just a formal faith, a faith of the books and the institutions, but a living, breathing, suffering trust in Jesus. Here's an interview with Seewald from Catholic World Report; this passage I found quite illuminating:

CWR: Why did the young Ratzinger quickly gain so much attention as a priest, professor, and theologian?

Seewald: It was because of the way the world’s youngest theology professor held lectures. The students listened attentively. There was an unprecedented freshness, a new approach to tradition, combined with a reflection and a language which in this form had not been heard before. Ratzinger was seen as the new, hopeful star in the sky of theology. His lectures were taken down and distributed thousands of times throughout Germany.

Yet, his university career almost failed. The reason for this was a critical essay from 1958 entitled “The New Pagans and the Church.” Ratzinger had learned from the Nazi era: the institution alone is of no use if there are not also the people who support it. The task was not to connect with the world, but to revitalize the Faith from within. In his essay, the then 31-year-old noted: “The appearance of the Church of modern times is essentially determined by the fact that in a completely new way she has become and is still becoming more and more the Church of pagans …, of pagans who still call themselves Christians, but who in truth have become pagans.”

CWR: At the time, this was an outrageous, scandalous finding.

Seewald: Certainly, but if you read it today, it shows prophetic features. In it, Ratzinger stated that in the long run the Church would not be spared “having to break down piece by piece the appearance of her congruence with the world and to become again what she is: a community of believers.” In his vision, he spoke of a Church that would once again become small and mystical; that would have to find her way back to her language, her worldview and the depth of her mysteries as a “community of conviction.” Only then could she unfold her full sacramental power: “Only when she begins to present herself again as what she is, will she be able to reach again the ear of the new pagans with her message, who up to now have been under the illusion that they were not pagans at all.”

Here, for the first time, Ratzinger used the term “Entweltlichung” (lit.: de-worldization = detachment from worldliness). With that he followed the admonition of the Apostle Paul that the Christian communities must not adapt themselves too much to the world, otherwise they would no longer be the “salt of the earth” of which Jesus had spoken.

Isn't that incredible? Ratzinger realized that a society that was only outwardly Christian, but whose way of life wasn't deeply Christian, would not be able to withstand the demonic cultural currents of our era. German Christians did not repel Hitler. We Christians of our time are not resisting the demonic deconstruction of our faith and our civilization. Only by forming consciously countercultural communities of believers -- like the Tipi Loschi -- can the Church withstand what is and what is to come. It's like Father Cassian Folsom, the founding prior of the Norcia monastery, said to me in 2015, at the start of my interviews for the book: Christians who hope to come through the trials ahead with their faith, and the faith of their families, intact had better do something like what the Tipi Loschi are doing. And that thing is what I mean by the Benedict Option: forming communities of countercultural conviction in which the traditions of Christianity live in the hearts, the minds, and the practices of the people. There is no escaping modernity; the best we can hope for is to be strong enough to meet it as faithful Christians, and to hold on to our faith in the face of marginalization, even persecution. The people who falsely say that the Benedict Option is about escaping the world should reflect on the fact that the holy Pope Benedict XVI understood it very well -- not as a running-away, but a réssourcement, a return to the sources of the faith, the building of a fire against the descent of darkness and cold. Benedict even approved his closest collaborator going into public and endorsing the strategy.

Seewald himself was re-converted to the Catholic faith he abandoned because of the force of Benedict's prophetic witness. He says of the time after his first meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger, in 1992:

Of course, I would never have dreamed what would follow from that hour. That I would eventually compile four books of interviews with Ratzinger or rather Pope Benedict. I had been expelled from school, didn’t have a high school diploma, had left the Church at the age of 18, and as a juvenile revolutionary I didn’t have much to do with the Faith. However, at some point the cultural and moral decline in our society had made me think. It was clear to me that the disintegration of our standards had to do with the pushing away of the values of Christianity, ultimately with a world without God. I began to look into the questions of religion and found it adventurous to attend church services again. On top of that, I could see that in Ratzinger there was a man who, out of the handed-down Catholic Faith and out of his own reflection and prayer, could provide fitting answers to the problems of our time.

I read that in Volume One of his biography, Seewald quotes Benedict saying:

"The true threat for the Church, and thus for the Petrine service, does not come from this sort of episode: It comes instead from the universal dictatorship of apparently humanistic ideologies. Anyone who contradicts this dictatorship is excluded from the basic consensus of society. One hundred years ago, anyone would have thought it absurd to speak of homosexual matrimony. Today those who oppose it are socially excommunicated. The same holds true for abortion and the production of human beings in the laboratory. Modern society intends to formulate an anti-Christian creed: Whoever contests it is punished with social excommunication. Being afraid of this spiritual power of the Antichrist is all too natural, and what is truly needed is that the prayers of entire dioceses and of the world Church come to the rescue to resist it."

The "soft totalitarianism" of which I speak in Live Not By Lies -- there it is! Benedict saw it clearly. What is soft now will not always remain so, though.

Benedict believed -- correctly -- that if we lose the family, we lose our civilization. In a 2012 speech to the Vatican diplomatic corps, he said:

In addition to a clear goal, that of leading young people to a full knowledge of reality and thus of truth, education needs settings. Among these, pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself. 

Just over a year later, Benedict abdicated the papacy, and the College of Cardinals elected to the Throne of Peter a pontiff who would begin to undo much of Benedict's legacy, and to turn the Church towards affirming many of the values of the post-Christian world. In light of Francis's destructive, chaotic papacy, many tradition-minded Catholics hold a lot of anger in their hearts for what Benedict did, considering him to have abandoned the flock. This bit from Seewald's biography is interesting on that point:

For Stephan Horn, his academic assistant at the time, Ratzinger’s weakness lay in his inability ‘to give direction to anyone. He is too retiring.’ He often just let things take their course. Ratzinger had ‘an almost girlish softness’, said Georg May, who belonged to the generation of 1926 and was emeritus professor of church law:
Anything to do with power, strength, the use of force is completely alien to him. By nature he is a scholar. So his appointments as archbishop and Prefect of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith were actually against his nature. He carried out the duties of these offices, because in his way he is brilliant, but enforcement is not his thing.

It's very easy to understand the anger of Catholics suffering from Francis's papacy. If I were still Catholic, I would likely share it. But I wonder if Benedict understood something about his mission that the rest of us don't. I heard from a priest friend this morning a theory that Benedict's mission was to suffer on behalf of the faith -- to suffer from the Church. That Benedict, not John Paul II, is the pope of the Third Secret of Fatima. That somehow, in his renunciation, and subsequent humiliation and abuse, Joseph Ratzinger played a mystical role in the drama of salvation -- especially as that drama reaches a crescendo with the approaching Great Apostasy of the West.

If this theory is right, then the Catholic Church may be in its Good Friday moment. Imagine what the followers of Jesus must have been thinking, having watched the man they believed was the incarnation of the All-Powerful God, allowing himself to be publicly humiliated, falsely convicted, stripped, beaten, tortured, and then murdered in the most shameful and sadistic way. They must have been disoriented at best. At best! Could it be that Joseph Ratzinger, for reasons known only to himself and to God, followed a similar path? And that he did so because, as Jesus alone knew, it was only by being a sacrificial lamb that the Enemy could be defeated?

I think it is certainly possible. In a thin book published a few years ago, the influential philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote:

When he was still a young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger studied the thinking of Tyconius, a theologian of the fourth century, who said that the body of the Church is divided into a dark and evil church and a righteous one. In the present state, the two bodies of the Church are inseparably commingled, but they will divide at the end of time.

The Church, the future pope wrote in 1956, is until the Last Judgment both the Church of Christ and the Church of the Antichrist: “The Antichrist belongs to the Church, grows in it and with it up to the great separation, which will be introduced by the ultimate revelation.”

I'm wondering this morning whether or not BXVI believed it was his mission to purify the Church before the End by allowing the mystery of iniquity to reveal itself fully. No, I'm not saying Francis is the Antichrist. The Antichrist will be a political leader. I'm saying that the forces rapidly reshaping the West by destroying what's left of its Christianity, even within the Catholic Church, are the forces that will ultimately draw history to its close. I think it is possible -- this is speculation! -- that the gentle Benedict at last conceived of his mission as pope as drawing out evil, in allowing Hell to do its very best, so it can ultimately be defeated. The Anglican bishop N.T. Wright wrote in his simple book about Revelation that this is the apocalyptic scenario that the final book of the Bible puts forth: that only after evil has done its very worst, and the demon has exposed itself fully, can it be destroyed once and for all.

I want to make myself clear: I'm not saying that is what happened, and is happening, here. I'm saying it's a possibility. In a 2016 interview, Paul Badde of EWTN as Mgr Gänswein about the famous St. Malachy medieval prophecy, according to which Benedict XVI would be the last pope before "Petrus Romanus" would lead the Church into the Last Days. Gänswein said: "Indeed, when looking at the prophecy, and considering how there was always a sound reference to popes mentioned in its history – that gives me the shivers." He added that it was not required that Catholics should accept the prophecy as valid, but that it is a "wake-up call."

Benedict himself had this to say about the Malachy prophecy, in one of his final Seewald interviews:

Along with Gänswein's more positive judgment on the Malachy prophecy, it is interesting to think about what Benedict is not saying here. That is, he's not outright denying it. That's not the same thing as saying he believes in it, of course. Still, Gänswein credits the Malachy prophecy enough to be afraid of what it portends.

I have more to say about this, but it will have to wait for later. The more I learn about Joseph Ratzinger in his death, the more I am coming to recognize that he was truly an apocalyptic figure -- and I am drawn into the great mystery of his self-sacrifice. Again: more later. I decided that I need to be in Rome for the great pope's funeral. It is a world-historical moment which, if that's not clear now, it soon will be.

Oh, one more quick thing, before I forget. Back in 2002, when the abuse scandal broke worldwide, a Catholic priest friend who was very plugged in to the Vatican (he has since died), told me that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, overseen by Cardinal Ratzinger, was being overwhelmed by reports from US dioceses, sharing what they all knew. Ratzinger had privately described the fax machine (this was 1992) in the CDF office as "an open sewage pipe". My friend, who was a fierce critic of Church corruption, told me that it's a common mistake to think that the Vatican knows everything. In fact, he said, Ratzinger's office knew very little about the scale and degree of the corruption, because bishops around the world had not told him or anyone else in the Vatican. In other words, he was as shocked and overwhelmed by the revelations as many outsiders were. Plus, Ratzinger was facing the fact that he worked for a pope, John Paul II, who was not eager to face the hideous facts. It is not a coincidence that Ratzinger's CDF finally began to move against the evil Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, only after John Paul II entered his final decline.

Benedict chose not to speak out to criticize his successor's papacy. Looks like he might be speaking loudly from the grave, though: