Dear friends, you have to bear with me this week. Yes I realize this is a much longer post than usual, with a lot of historical information. I do feel a need to share it, at least for an objective and correct historical perspective on the recently deceased former Pope. If you find it too long, you can simply move down to the final paragraph: an observation by the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, SJ in the National Catholic Reporter on December 31, 2022. Thomas Reese is senior analyst at Religion News Service and a former editor-in-chief of the weekly Catholic magazine America.
Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger (16 April 1927 – 31 December 2022) was Pope Benedict XVI from 19 April 2005 until his resignation on 28 February 2013. Since his death, there has been an abundance of articles about him. I would like to share an historical perspective about his theological focus. Nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler,” he remained a hero to many theological conservatives. U.S. Catholics make up about 20 percent of all U.S. adults. The church has grown increasingly polarized in the past few years, and the faction that has opposed Pope Francis’ agenda has been strengthened.
Joseph Ratzinger – later Benedict XVI – has been the inspiration for the conservative far right polarizers. Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings were prolific. He generally defended traditional Catholic doctrine, values, and liturgy, like the old style “Tridentine” Latin Mass. No one was more important in helping Pope
John Paul II – Pope from 1978 until his death in 2005 — turn Catholic Church leadership, especially in the United States, right of center.
On 25 November 1981, Pope John Paul II, appointed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the CDF, formerly known as the “Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office,” the historical Roman Inquisition. Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the CDF from 1981 until 2005, when he became Pope Benedict XVI on 19 April. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s pronouncements as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
mark for posterity his theological positions.
As an historian, I have collected a summary of his major
condemnations of contemporary theology and theologians. They offer important perspectives on the theology of Pope Benedict XVI.
(1) October 4, 1983: Notification to Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle, Washington that an apostolic visitation of his archdiocese would be conducted, focused primarily on liturgy, the education of seminarians, clergy formation, the
marriage tribunal, and ministry to homosexuals. (The process ended with the
appointment in 1985 of an auxiliary bishop, Donald Wuerl, later archbishop of Washington. He was controversially named an auxiliary bishop and given primary responsibility over many areas of archdiocesan governance.)
(2) August 6, 1984: “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of
Liberation.’” Although applauding efforts to promote social justice, it criticized
theologians who borrow “uncritically” from Marxist ideology, reducing salvation to the liberation of the poor from worldly oppressors.
(3) March 11, 1985: Notification on the book Church: Charism and Power by
Brazilian Franciscan Father Leonardo Boff, who argued that the church’s current
hierarchical structure was not that intended by Christ and that authority can
spring from the community of the faithful. The notification said the book was
“dangerous” and Father Boff was ordered to refrain from publishing or speaking publicly for one year.
(4) March 22, 1986: “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation,” a
second document on liberation theology providing guidelines for the theology’s
development, insisting that it have as its goal the liberation of people from sin, not
simply from sinful social structures.
(5) July 10, 1986: Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Ratzinger head of a
12-member commission charged with drafting the Catechism of the Catholic
Church. The text was released in French in 1992 and in English in 1994.
The Catechism strongly reflects and supports a pre-Vatican II theology.
(6) July 25, 1986: The suspension of U.S. Father Charles E. Curran from teaching Catholic theology because of his dissenting views on several issues in sexual ethics. The Vatican declared that Curran could no longer teach theology at the Catholic University of America and that he was neither suitable nor eligible to be a professor of Catholic theology. Father Curran later was given a full tenured professorship at Southern Methodist University and has published personal accounts about his
experience with the Catholic Church and his viewpoint on the actions of Catholic Church authorities.
(7) September 15, 1986: Notification about dangers in the book The Church With a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry by Dominican Father Edward Schillebeeckx. The notification warned that the book was “in disagreement with the teaching of the church,” particularly regarding ordination and the possibility of lay people presiding at the Eucharist. However, the doctrinal congregation did not apply any penalties to the Belgian-born priest, because he had already retired
from teaching. Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) became my theological mentor in 1968, when he was my professor in Nijmegen.
(8) October 1, 1986: “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the
Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” The letter called for “special concern and
pastoral attention” to homosexuals, but also for clarity that homosexual activity
is fundamentally immoral.
(9) February 22, 1987: “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and
on the Dignity of Procreation,” clarifying the church’s position on assisted
fertilization techniques and other biomedical issues, reaffirming teaching that
an embryo is human from the moment of conception and that conception is moral
only in the context of traditional sexual intercourse within marriage.
(10) February 16, 1989: Notification regarding the moral rule of “Humanae Vitae” and
pastoral duty, saying couples who find it difficult to follow church teaching about
birth control “deserve great respect and love,” but the church is firm in teaching that contraception is an “intrinsically disordered act” that is prohibited without exception.
(11) October 15, 1989: “Letter on Certain Aspects of Christian Meditation,”
cautioning Catholics about using Buddhist, Hindu and other meditation techniques
that place the focus of prayer on the self rather than on God.
(12) May 24, 1990: “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,”
underlining the important role theologians have in clarifying, explaining and
exploring church teaching, but also calling on theologians who disagree with
church teaching not to use the mass media to publicize their views or try to pressure for change in the church.
(13) January 31, 1992: Notification on the book The Sexual Creators, an Ethical Proposal for Concerned Christians by Canadian Oblate Father Andre Guindon. The
Vatican said the book presented questionable views on premarital sex, homosexual
relationships and contraception.
(14) March 30, 1992: “Instruction on Some Aspects of the Use of the
Instruments of Social Communication in Promoting the Doctrine of the Faith,” reaffirming church law requiring prepublication theological review and approval of manuscripts dealing with church teaching.
(15) May 28, 1992: “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some
Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion,” emphasizing the essential bond
between the local church and universal church, particularly through recognition of
the authority of the pope.
(16) July 23, 1992: “Some Considerations Concerning the Response to
Legislative Proposals on Nondiscrimination of Homosexual Persons,” saying, “It is not unjust discrimination to take sexual orientation into account” when making laws
concerning “adoption or foster care, in employment of teachers or athletic
coaches, and in military recruitment.”
(17) September 14, 1994: “Letter to Bishops Regarding the Reception of Holy
Communion by Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful,” saying the church
cannot ignore Jesus’ clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and
reaffirming that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics may not receive Communion.
(18) October 28, 1995: Response to questions about the doctrine contained in the
apostolic letter, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” saying the church’s teaching that
women cannot be ordained priests belongs “to the deposit of faith” and has
been taught “infallibly” by Pope John Paul II.
(19) January 2, 1997: Notification on the book Mary and Human Liberation by Sri
Lankan Oblate Father Tissa Balasuriya, saying the book contained heretical
statements regarding Mary, original sin, Christ’s redemptive role, and papal
infallibility. The Oblate was excommunicated, but reconciled with the church a
(20) May 30, 1997: Revised “Regulations for Doctrinal Examination” of
theologians and their work, encouraging a more direct role for the theologian’s bishop or religious superior, allowing the possibility of naming an advocate and an
adviser for the theologian, and permitting face-to-face meetings between the
theologian and congregation members.
(21) August 15, 1997: Publication of the final Latin “typical edition” of the
Catechism of the Catholic Church, containing some corrections and additions to
the 1992 text, including an acknowledgment that science has not determined the cause of homosexuality.
(22) June 24, 1998: Posthumous notification concerning the writings of Indian
Jesuit Father Anthony De Mello, saying some of the priest’s views “are
incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm.” It particularly cited
those views presenting God as an impersonal cosmic reality, organized
religion as an obstacle to self-awareness and Jesus as one master among many.
(23) October 31, 1998: “Considerations on ‘The Primacy of the Successor of Peter
in the Mystery of the Church,’” saying that, although Pope John Paul called
for an ecumenical discussion of how primacy could be exercised in a united
church, “the full communion desired by Christ among those who confess to be his
disciples requires the common recognition of a universal ecclesial ministry,” and
the Catholic faith holds that that ministry belongs to the Pope.
(24) May 31, 1999: Notification regarding School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine
Gramick and Salvatorian Father Robert Nugent, barring the U.S. team from
further pastoral ministry to homosexuals, saying they advanced “doctrinally
unacceptable” positions “regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the
objective disorder of the homosexual inclination.”
(25) June 26, 2000: Publication of a 43-page booklet containing the complete
“Message of Fatima,” including the so-called “third secret” given to three
Portuguese children in 1917. In his commentary, Cardinal Ratzinger said the third
part of the message is a symbolic prophecy of the church’s 20th-century
struggles with evil political systems and of the church’s ultimate triumph.
(26) August 6, 2000: Dominus Iesus, a declaration on the “exclusive, universal
and absolute” value of Jesus Christ and his church for salvation.
(27) September 14, 2000: “Instruction on Prayers for Healing,” noting the
importance of believing that God wants to free people from suffering, but encouraging local bishops to be vigilant that the services do not become occasions for hysteria or focus more on the so-called gift of healing possessed by certain
individuals than on God.
(28) January 24, 2001: Notification on the book Toward a Christian Theology of
Religious Pluralism by Belgian Jesuit Father Jacques Dupuis, warning that
although Father Dupuis’ intentions were good his 1997 book contained ambiguous statements and insufficient explanations that could lead readers to “erroneous or
harmful conclusions” about Christ’s role as the unique and universal savior.
(29) February 22, 2001: Notification regarding certain writings of Redemptorist
Father Marciano Vidal, a Spanish moral theologian. At the congregation’s
request, the priest agreed to revise several of his books to emphasize the church’s
official position on contraception, homosexuality, masturbation, abortion and
(30) May 18, 2001: Letter to all bishops “regarding the more serious offenses,
‘graviora delicta’ reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith.” The letter said Pope John Paul had given the congregation juridical control
over cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests, classifying it as one of
several “graver offenses” against church law. The other offenses include acts
committed by priests against the sanctity of the Eucharist and against the
sacrament of penance.
(31) August 5, 2002: Publication of the declaration of the excommunication of
seven Catholic women from various countries who had “attempted” to be ordained
Catholic priests. The congregation had sent them a warning July 10 asking them to
indicate their “repentance for the most serious offense they had committed.”
The Vatican said the ordaining bishop had already been excommunicated.
(32) January 16, 2003: Doctrinal note on the participation of Catholics in
political life saying that while Catholics are free to choose among political
parties and strategies for promoting the common good, they cannot claim that freedom allows them to support abortion, euthanasia, or other attacks on human life.
(33) February 7-14, 2003: Revised norms issued for dealing with “serious offenses”
against the sacraments; the new norms included an expedited process for
laicizing priests guilty of sexually abusing minors.
(34) July 31, 2003: “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal
Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” reaffirming church teaching
requiring compassion for homosexuals, but saying legal recognition of gay unions is
contrary to human nature and ultimately harmful to society.
(35) July 31, 2004: “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the
Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” saying the
subjugation of women is the result of original sin and not of God’s original design
for creation. Rather than ignore the God-given differences between men and
women, the church calls on them to collaborate for the good of the family, society
and the church.
(36) December 13, 2004: Notification regarding the book Jesus Symbol of God by
U.S. Jesuit Father Roger Haight, which said the book contained “serious
doctrinal errors against the Catholic and divine faith of the church,” particularly
regarding the divinity of Jesus and the universality of salvation in him. The Jesuit was forbidden to teach as a Catholic theologian.
(37) February 11, 2005: Statement and commentary reaffirming church teaching that
only priests can administer the anointing of the sick and saying the doctrine
must be “definitively” accepted by Catholics.
As Thomas Reese S.J. wrote in the National Catholic Reporter on December 31, 2022: “What matters is that after the Second Vatican Council open discussion was suppressed by Ratzinger under the papacy of John Paul. If you did not agree with the Vatican, you were silenced. Yet, without open conversation, theology cannot develop, and reforms cannot be made. Without open debate, the church cannot find ways of preaching the gospel in ways understandable to people of the 21st
And so…we do move forward with knowledge of the past and hope for tomorrow.