In his first public message Pope, Benedict XVI referred to himself as a "simple and humble laborer in the Lord's vineyard." In the new Pontiff's mouth, words like these are anything but boiler-plate. They sum up the spirit of a man of the Church who placed his ministry as a bishop under the motto "co-workers of the truth" (3 Jn 8).
Benedict's ideal as a Christian, a priest, and a theologian has been to serve the irradiation "of the light of Christ" into the whole world—"not his own light but that of Christ" (Message to the Cardinals, April 20, 2005). The new Pope follows in Peter's footsteps with the deep conviction that the Papacy "is not about honor, but about a service to be performed with simplicity and availability, in imitation of our Teacher and Lord, who did not come be served, but to serve (cf. Mt. 20:28) and, at the Last Supper, washed the Apostles' feet and commanded them to do likewise (cf. Jn 13:13-14)" (Message to the Cardinals, April 22, 2005).
Ratzinger was often branded a "progressivist" before Vatican II.
During Benedict's almost twenty-five year tenure as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the media relentlessly painted him as a "hard-line conservative." The characterization has stuck, and everyone seemingly agrees that the "Panzerkardinal" has ascended the throne of Peter—to the delight of the Right and to the equal, but diametrically opposite, dismay of the Left.
It is true that as head of the CDF, the then Cardinal Ratzinger defended traditional Catholic positions on issues about which large majorities in Western countries fancy themselves "progressive.'' What both liberals and conservatives tend to miss about the former Prefect of the CDF, however, is that he was not imposing his own temperament or opinions on the Church, but rather bearing witness to the Church's faith that God has entrusted it with a universal saving message whose faithful proclamation is its very raison d'etre.
Neither an autocrat nor a crowd-pleaser, the new Pope eludes every effort to capture him in the stale narrative of "liberals" and "conservatives" upon which journalists have relied to interpret the post-Vatican II Church. In his own deepest self-understanding both before and after his election to the Papacy, Benedict has never been anything but a "co-worker of the truth."
For Benedict, being a "co-worker of the truth."—whether as a simple Christian, or as the Prefect of the CDF, or as Bishop of Rome—is about representing something, rather, Someone, greater than oneself. It is about dying to ego and rising as a sacrament of Christ. It is about becoming what the Fathers liked to call an "anima ecclesiastica," a person with the soul of the Church. If Benedict XVI has been a scandal, it is not because he is an authoritarian bent on domination—those who have known him unanimously praise his modesty, courtesy, and capacity for listening—but because he somehow bears in his own person the scandalous reality of the Church itself. His first statements as Pope are suffused with the deep conviction that the Papacy is a ministry of unity for Church and world that is bestowed and sustained solely by the grace of the Risen Lord.
If Benedict—and the Church—have been concerned about sex and reproduction, it is not because they are too ‘hung up’ to appreciate the glories of the sexual revolution…
The motto "co-worker of the truth" not only captures Benedict's Christian character, but also sums up the spirit of his theology (for him, character and theology fuse into one). We cannot understand the new Pope if we forget that he was both deeply influenced by, and in turn deeply influenced, the mid-century renewal of Catholic theology that sometimes goes by the name of "," a French word meaning "return to the source." Insofar as they returned the then reigning Neo-scholasticism back to the great Tradition of Catholic theology, ressourcement thinkers like Joseph Ratzinger, , , and (one could also include re-discovers of the authentic like and Joseph Pieper) were often branded "progressivists" before the Council. Since the Council, the same men have often been dismissed as "conservatives," or even "reactionaries."
What explains this sudden shift in perceptions? Not a change on the part of these theological giants, but a failure on the part of much of mainstream Catholic theology to grasp the point of the Council that their work prepared. True, Vatican II aimed to break the Church out of its self-imposed isolation from the world—not, however, by remaking the Church in the image of the Enlightenment, but by returning to its Source, the Risen Christ, ever the same and ever new in the Church's tradition. Although different from John Paul II in temperament and style, Benedict fully shares his predecessor's conviction that Jesus Christ not only reveals God, but in doing so also reveals man. He can receive the papacy as a service of unity because he receives it as a pure service of that double revelation.
For Benedict, the Church has the right to speak to all men and to all that is in man only because the Gospel the Church proclaims is not a human opinion, but the revelation of the Logos that holds the world together. The Church, and the believers in it, are the "salt of the earth" only because they are called, beyond any merit of theirs, to be "co-workers of the truth." But when Benedict forcefully denounces the "dictatorship of relativism," he is not propounding any fundamentalist exclusivism. He is seeking to make himself and the Church transparent to something greater than merely human opinion or ideology.
Benedict XVI is at least equal to John Paul II in his passionate and intelligent love for the human person, for the person's mysterious essence as a capacity for the Infinite, and for the reason and freedom that express that capacity. If Benedict—and the Church with him—have been concerned about sex and reproduction, it is not because they are too "hung up" to appreciate the glories of the sexual revolution, but because they know that they have a mandate from Christ to safeguard the humanity of man, which threatens in our day to become the plaything of technology that is driven by powerful political and commercial interests.
For Benedict, the Gospel the Church proclaims is not a human opinion, but the revelation of the Logos.
The great German poet Hölderlin begins one of his best-known poems by observing that "where there is danger, what saves grows, too." Although written over two-hundred years ago, these lines nicely capture the situation in which we find ourselves today.
On the one hand, the history of the last century has given us more reasons than ever to despair of ourselves. Even under the frenetic cheerfulness of American life there lurks a secret, half-acknowledged nihilism.
On the other hand, the last century has also given us a series of extraordinary Christian witnesses who have offered to our despairing hearts the hope of being able to begin again from the Origin, the Risen Christ who is the true "fountain of youth."
Benedict XVI, like John Paul II, is one of these witnesses. He both understands the "danger" of our time with unmatched depth and subtlety and knows with his whole being "what saves": the joy given by a truth that is one with the redemptive presence of God in our suffering flesh. The remarkable look of gratitude and joy with which the new Pope greeted the world from that balcony overlooking Saint Peter's Square says it all: Christ has risen from the dead, and so the last word is not brokenness, but wholeness—a holy wholeness of which the Church is the sacrament for the life of the world.