With Pope Benedict retired behind the Vatican’s walls and his former students getting on in years, a new generation of theologians is taking up the challenge of spreading his views on God, faith and modern society.
The ex-pontiff, who stepped down in February, met every year since
1979 with several dozen former students whose doctoral theses he
mentored as a theology professor in Germany before climbing the Roman
Catholic Church’s career ladder to the top.
He was absent when his
students, who have mostly reached or passed retirement age, gathered at
the papal summer residence Castel Gandalfo outside Rome two weeks ago.
But a new generation of scholars joined them there and announced
plans for two conferences in Africa to introduce the theology of
Professor Joseph Ratzinger, as he was known in his university days,
beyond its European context.
“We students of his are old hands who are reaching retirement age or
well beyond it,” Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn told Vatican Radio
after the meeting. “It’s very good to see that a younger generation is
coming along that is bright, very interested and very competent. I think
it’s also a joy for Pope Benedict to see that the students circle that
he started 34 years ago when he was archbishop of Munich will live on.”
“Not only Professor Ratzinger, the pope emeritus, is getting older,
his students are as well,” said Rev Achim Buckenmaier, a member of the
new group. “There is a danger that Ratzinger’s theology will no longer
The new group counts 29 scholars specialised in the former pope’s
theology rather than the older ones in the “Ratzinger student circle”
who wrote their doctorates with him. They met together at Castel
Gandolfo for the first time this year. Its first project will be a
seminar on his writings in Benin next week for French-speaking African
priests and theologians and one in Tanzania next March for English
Benedict was a well-known and widely published theologian before he
was elected pope in 2005. He kept up his writing at the Vatican,
producing a three-volume biography of Jesus that hit the bestseller
lists in several languages.
He signed them “Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict
XVI” to show they were his personal views, not statements of papal
dogma, and open for debate rather than set out as infallible teachings.
Before the conclave that elected his successor Pope Francis in March,
a senior official in the Vatican Curia said the new pope need not be
another theologian. “Ratzinger has left us enough to study for the next
40 years,” he remarked.
Ratzinger is known as a conservative thinker, and his writings
reflect loyalty to orthodox Catholic theology, but he could surprise
readers by debunking some old myths with the latest insights from
In his last Jesus volume, for example, he said there
was no ox and ass at the Nativity and Christ was probably born in a cave
rather than a stable, as Christian tradition says.
He also said a monk’s miscalculation put Jesus’s birth a few years
earlier than it actually happened – a widespread view among academics
that can still surprise average churchgoers.
Buckenmaier, a German-born theologian at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University,
said another hallmark of his theology is his defence of Christianity as
a religion that tempered faith with philosophical reason inherited from
the ancient Greeks.
This link between faith and reason, a recurrent theme in Benedict’s
speeches during his trips abroad, is especially important in Africa
because of the persistence of traditional animist religions there,
“Christianity in Africa is still young, only 100 or 150 years old,
and there is still magical thinking among the people that presents a
challenge for priests and catechists,” he said.
“There is a great
potential for Ratzinger’s theology in Africa,” he said, but the problem
is first to introduce it to priests and theologians there from a very
Buckenmaier, who organised the conferences with Benedict’s last
doctoral student, Bishop Barthelemy Adoukonou from Benin, said the
retired pope wrote for normal readers in his native German, but its
clarity sometimes gets lost in translation. Some translations of his
books made decades ago were updated after he became pope to better
reflect the ideas his theology was putting forth.
“It assumes a cultural background that is quite European,” he said.
Ratzinger also likes to coin new words, which works in German but makes
some concepts very hard to translate.
“Take his term Entweltlichung,”
he said, which literally translates as unworlding. “I’ve seen many
attempts in Italian or English — like liberation from worldliness — but
none get it exactly right,” Buckenmaier said.
“It’s not so easy for an African priest or student to have access to
this,” he said. “So we will have accompanied readings to help them.”