What is Christianity? The Last Writings 
By Pope Benedict XVI.
Ignatius Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 230 pages, $24.95.

Reviewed by Ryan Patrick Budd.

At the lowest point in his life, when everything was falling in ruin, King Saul of Israel knew whom he really wanted to see. He’d never listened to the man while he was alive. But, in truly dire straits, Saul sought out the prophet Samuel by having recourse to a medium (1 Sam 28:3–25):

She said, ‘An old man is coming up; and he is wrapped in a robe.’ And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.”

This story, which has puzzled theologians for at least 2,500 years, powerfully evokes the regret many of us feel for the missed opportunities to benefit from our elders’ wisdom.

Fortunately, we don’t have to engage in necromancy to have Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, speak to us from beyond the grave. This little “old man, wrapped in a robe” may someday be viewed as the conscience of a century. This precious volume entitled What is Christianity? The Last Writings collects the aging Ratzinger’s writings in retirement at the monastery Mater Ecclesiae.

The contents of What is Christianity? defy a succinct description. Chapter one, comprised of two works, concerns the most basic questions: How love must motivate missionary work, and the very concept of religion. In chapter two, Benedict discusses tolerance, dialogue with Islam, and Christian liturgy. Chapter three republishes Benedict’s (in)famous essay on Christianity and Judaism first published in Communio and subsequent correspondence with Arie Folger, at the time chief rabbi of Vienna. In chapter four, Benedict returns to three of his own most prominent themes: that “Faith is Not an Idea, but a Life,” the Catholic priesthood, and the meaning of “communion.” Chapter five treats the sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Chapter six collects miscellaneous essays and speeches.

If there is a discernible thread running through this collection, it is “faith is not an idea, but a life.” In his essay on missionary work, Benedict puts the question squarely: “The question of missionary work confronts us not only with the fundamental questions of the faith but also with the question of what man is” (emphasis added). 

He thus contrasts contemporary secular “intolerance,” which “aim[s] to achieve the extinction of what is essentially Christian,” with the authentically Christian idea of Christ’s Body:

Man’s bond with Christ is not only an I-Thou relation but creates a new We. Communion with Jesus Christ introduces us into the Body of Christ, in other words, into the great community of all those who belong to the Lord, and therefore it extends beyond the boundary between death and life.”

Pragmatist morality, seen in this light, makes man “smaller, not greater, when . . . there is no longer room for a gaze that is turned toward God.” In this sense, he notes that the First Book of Kings depicts Solomon’s religious tolerance “as an abandonment of wisdom and as a fall into the utter folly of idolatrous worship”—the idolatry of man considered in himself, rather than man considered in relation to God and his neighbor. In Benedict’s view, Christianity answers both imperatives by forging the “new We” of horizontal-and-vertical, human-and-divine communion that transcends the boundaries of time and of life and death.

As a Catholic, Benedict sees this communion as ultimately found in the Eucharistic sacrifice:

For the Catholic faith in the Eucharist, the entire process of Jesus’ gift in his death and Resurrection is present, a process without which these offerings could not exist. Body and Blood are not things that can be distributed; rather, they are the person of Christ who offers himself.”

For Benedict, conformity to this offering represents the fullness of life, the perfection of the “new We.”

Speaking directly to the sexual abuse crisis, Benedict notes that internalizing this perspective—as opposed to merely institutional, law-and-policy based initiatives—is the only real answer to the problem. For, as he says, 

The particular feature of the moral teaching of Sacred Scripture lies ultimately in the fact that it is anchored to the image of God, in faith in the one God who manifested himself in Jesus Christ and lived as a man. . . . Faith is a path, a way to live.”

In this sense, Benedict deplores as misguided responses to the abuse crisis that have characterized the Church as ultimately a man-made and man-governed reality: “The crisis caused by the many cases of clerical abuse drives us to regard the Church as a failure, which we must now decisively take into our own hands and redesign from the ground up. However, a Church that we build can offer no hope” (emphasis added). Speaking even more bluntly, he says that “the idea of a better Church of our own creation is really a proposal of the devil.” 

In support of this controversial thesis, he points to the continued presence of holiness amidst the all-too-obvious sin within the Church. He responds with great force to those who focus only on the reality of sin, saying, “Unwillingness to notice [such witnesses of faith] is a symptom of a slothful heart.” Sloth, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is the sinful habit of holding “sorrow for spiritual good.” It is a species of despair, where spiritual goods are found lacking in the balance compared to both material goods and evils.

Saul’s pathetic trip to the medium, then, forms a typological picture that well describes Benedict’s view of merely institutional responses to the Church’s crisis. Rather than returning to the truth, Saul doubles down on his willful error by engaging a necromancer. Unwilling to truly repent, Saul tries to exercise raw power. In this, he represents the prototypical tendency we usually ascribe to “modernity,” but which is in fact deeply ingrained in humanity’s fallen nature: The tendency to exercise power rather than submit to truth. 

Exposing and repenting of this tendency forms, in a certain sense, the core of conservative political and cultural sensibilities. The lessons Benedict teaches us apply equally to life inside and outside the Church. The priority of truth over raw power lies at the heart of all genuine renewal.

I count myself among those who, “brought up at the feet” of Ratzinger during my own conversion to Christianity, did not appreciate him enough in the years that followed. I vividly remember the experience of hearing of his death. May this little book cause many of us, like Saul, to recognize the wisdom of this great man before, as in Saul’s case, it is too late for it to profit us.

Ryan Patrick Budd is research assistant to Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and author of Salvation Stories: Family, Failure, and God’s Saving Work in Scripture, forthcoming from Emmaus Road Publishing.

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