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Daniel E. BurnsAugust 07, 2023
Pope Benedict XVI during Mass in Yankee Stadium in New York on April 20, 2008. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Nancy Phelan Wiechec).

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Joseph Ratzinger permitted himself only once, so far as I know, to speculate publicly as to God’s reasons for having chosen him as pope. He said he thought that in choosing this particular professor from Germany, God wanted to call attention to the intellectual reflectiveness that had once made Germany famous throughout Europe, and to highlight for modern believers “the struggle for the unity of faith and reason.”

The world will spend centuries digesting Ratzinger’s written legacy. While the memory of his life is fresh, though, it seems to me that we might pay special attention to his unique human qualities. One helpful way to begin is to consider all the ways in which he was visibly a professor, even after 45 years of involuntary separation from the classroom and students he loved.

For although Ratzinger’s brilliance as a theological writer is connected to his human qualities as a professor, they are not the same thing. Many excellent theologians have not been professors. Many excellent professors leave no written legacy to speak of. Ratzinger just happens to have had the admirable qualities of both.

In eight short years, Ratzinger allowed us to form some vision of what it would look like for a church to be run in the true spirit of a professor.

Ratzinger and young people

A professor is a type of educator. Today the vices of our educational system and of its educators seem to be an inexhaustible topic of conversation. But professors have their characteristic virtues too, and Ratzinger embodied these virtues to an unusually high degree. For example, most professors love young people. It is surprising how often non-professors forget this, but it is the most striking fact about professors when you get to know them. (Perhaps most college graduates, having taken that love for granted while they were its young recipients, forget later to look backward and ask whether they ever really deserved it.)

Ratzinger always loved young people, especially young adults. Nearly everything he ever wrote or said in public was visibly animated by a concern to encourage—and to answer—the honest existential questions that young people are brave enough to raise. When he expressed concern for the future of Christianity (as he often did), it always came back to the question whether the ancient faith was being passed down in a form that young people could reasonably be expected to build their lives around. When he expressed concern for the future of all humanity (as he also often did), he would concentrate on those miseries of modern life that stand out most in the lives of young people: hopelessness, uncertainty, fear of commitment, reluctance to start a family, flight into drugs, a hollow and debased sexuality.

His very favorite moments in a grueling eight-year pontificate were World Youth Days. There, he could see and greet hundreds of thousands of young men and women who had traveled from around the world to gather in prayer with the successor of St. Peter. At those gatherings, he was particularly moved by the liturgies. These same multitudes of modern young people, supposedly restless and distracted, would all unite in breathtakingly silent prayer to the same God whom Abraham had worshiped in the desert, whose continued presence in the world Ratzinger saw revealed once again in those gatherings.

I believe it was this same love of young people that prompted, and sufficiently explains, Ratzinger’s much-discussed decision to resign the papacy. In his final book-length interview, he suggested that he made that decision soon after his doctor informed him that he would be forbidden from flying to Brazil for the following year’s World Youth Day. It would seem that he reasoned as follows: The world’s youth deserved their annual chance to pray with the pope; if the pope could not attend, then a new pope was needed. To Joseph Ratzinger, it was that simple.

Concern for the young is of course not unique to professors. Politicians, too, are always talking about the young and trying awkwardly to pander to them. But at their best, professors have a healthier relationship to the young than politicians do. We serve the genuine needs of the young and admire their strengths without being blind to their weaknesses (especially their imprudence). 

In eight short years, Ratzinger allowed us to form some vision of what it would look like for a church to be run in the true spirit of a professor. It would offer a sharp contrast to a church run by politicians—that is, by older men desperate for what they imagine will win approval from the young.

Ratzinger's many enduring insights into the nature of education were nourished by his profound experience of the lifelong and sacred bond between teacher and student.

The bond of teacher and student

Ratzinger loved not only young people but in particular his own students, even long after they had ceased to be young. His many enduring insights into the nature of education were nourished by his profound experience of the lifelong and sacred bond between teacher and student, including or especially after the students have become in some sense the teacher’s peers.

Ratzinger left university work in 1977, in obedience to a call to exchange the freedom of the classroom for the burdens of office. Throughout the next 35 years of ecclesial service, he still took a long weekend every year to gather (in person) to study together with those who had once been his students—even continuing to do so, to their astonishment, after he had become pope. After his funeral, I remarked to one of those old students of Ratzinger how strange it was to watch a funeral with no family of the deceased. He responded, “We were his family.”

The personal example of Ratzinger’s relationship with his students is more timely than ever. After our own nation’s recent large-scale experiment with virtual education, every parent and student should have acquired some awareness of the reality and importance of the relationship between teacher and individual student. Any enduring, formative benefit to the student’s soul—the kind of formation that most of us have received from one or more of our teachers, and that Ratzinger’s students certainly knew they had received from him—will depend on the health of this human relationship.

Yet the pandemic has left many schools even more eager to adopt technologies that weaken this teacher-student relationship by depriving it of its natural human context. This seems to be true even of some schools that, claiming to share (more or less) Ratzinger’s classical understanding of the human soul and its formation, might be expected to know better. Even if such technologies had been available to him, I cannot imagine Ratzinger choosing to conduct his annual meeting with his Schülerkreis virtually. Rather than lose this in-person connection to his former students, he took the remarkable step of bringing them all up to his papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. The point needs no elaboration.

Ratzinger wrote eloquently and incisively about the educational profession and its role in building up or tearing down a whole society.

The meaning of education

The delicate task of educating the young, like any other difficult job, is understood best by those who have practiced it. Ratzinger wrote eloquently and incisively about the educational profession and its role in building up or tearing down a whole society. His thoughts on the task of education are deeply informed by his own experience and deserve careful attention. For him, politics and culture depend on human formation, while human formation depends on the quality of our educational institutions.

As pope, he showed repeatedly that education (especially higher education) remained close to his heart. He gave only two major addresses on American soil: one to educators, the other to students and young people, and both at Catholic educational institutions (The Catholic University of America and St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers). On his papal visit to Regensburg, he took the even more unusual step of delivering an academic lecture. It began with recollections of his own years as a professor and dean, and it ended by defining the proper task of the modern university. His other speeches and writings circle back again and again to the theme of education.

Our professional responsibility as professors, Ratzinger argued, is tied to the shared task that unites us across all our disciplinary boundaries. We bear “a single, common responsibility for the right use of reason,” not just in our classrooms and offices but in the world beyond. This does not mean that we can solve the world’s problems from the ivory tower; rather, he says, our universities must be places where we cultivate the habits of rational thought that will allow our graduates to approach those problems sanely and humanely on their own. In his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” he gives a long list of our world’s social problems, and he asserts specifically that their solutions must come from the type of rationality that he had said at Regensburg our universities should be cultivating.

To encourage the right use of embodied reason, Ratzinger argued, our universities must above all be cultivating the specific moral virtues that guide healthy reasoning.

And what does that rationality look like? Almost all of today’s educational debates are about curricula or “content,” but Ratzinger’s experience as an educator points him to the deeper stratum of those debates. To encourage the right use of embodied reason, he argued, our universities must above all be cultivating the specific moral virtues that guide healthy reasoning. Courage, in particular, is needed if we are to reason through the very hardest of questions, “the genuinely human questions,” including “the questions of ethics and religion.” The university must cultivate the “courage to accept the full breadth of reason, rather than refuse reason’s greatness.” This courage to reason about difficult and emotionally charged topics must somehow be passed down today from professors to their students, despite the best efforts of our social media and legal environment to encourage intellectual cowardice or doctrinaire conformity.

Socrates is Ratzinger’s model for this intellectual courage. And Socrates’s student Plato provides Ratzinger’s standard for the use of reason that our educators must cultivate. Plato’s rational inquiries spanned our modern disciplines of theology, physics, metaphysics, religious studies, political science, ethics, mathematics, music, poetry, linguistics and communications, among others. Ratzinger points to this broad Platonic understanding of paideia as what inspired our Christian ancestors to build educational institutions, from medieval universities to the American parochial school system (which Ratzinger admired).

The Platonic conception of reason is opposed to the narrow conception of reason that dominates our public discourse and university life today. According to the latter, which Ratzinger traces to Francis Bacon and René Descartes, universities exist to conduct research that serves economic and technological progress. But against this typically modern “self-imposed limitation of reason to what can be experimentally verified,” Ratzinger holds our universities responsible for teaching young people to “re-open reason to its full breadth.” We must help the young direct their God-given reason toward every question that our world presents to them, up to and including the question of God himself.

God cannot, then, be absent from healthy educational institutions. For God is not absent from the world in which their graduates will have to live. And wherever God’s name does get driven out from our contemporary world, Ratzinger often emphasized, the powers that take its place are neither humane nor rational. Ratzinger’s reflections on the concrete place of God in the life of an educational institution are both professorial and earthy, informed by the many decades of experience that began when, as a child, he watched the Nazis removing crucifixes from his public school’s classrooms.

Wherever God’s name does get driven out from our contemporary world, Ratzinger often emphasized, the powers that take its place are neither humane nor rational.

The religious source of academic freedom

For a century or more, American religious universities have seen endless discussions of tensions between the demands of academic freedom and of their religious mission. Without denying the possibility of such tensions, Ratzinger chose instead to emphasize the very practical ways in which these two seemingly opposed demands actually depend on each other.

In a neglected lecture called “Reflections on the Task of a Catholic Academy,” Ratzinger (following Joseph Pieper) emphasized that Plato’s own original Academy was a religious organization centered on a temple to the Muses. Academic freedom, he argued, “belongs essentially, not accidentally, in a context of reverence and liturgy. Without these, it ceases to exist.” Only humble reverence for the divine truth can explain why our truth-driven activities of education and research should remain free, liberated from the otherwise pressing demands of economic utility.

Ratzinger’s emphasis on the religious nature of Plato’s Academy is striking because, as he says pointedly elsewhere, Plato’s own reason had taught him not to believe in the literal gods of Athens. But at the same time, he says, the liturgical action at the heart of Plato’s own Academy must have been understood as something more than “merely symbolic social behavior.” Ratzinger’s insistence on returning to our Platonic roots thus helps to clarify a tension that still exists in Christian universities.

A healthy university must indeed encourage questioning about the divine, but it cannot let that questioning overwhelm the religious reverence from which it draws its own vitality and self-confidence as an academic institution. This is the real source of the tensions we experience: Academic freedom depends, in the long run, on some form of religious support. This suggestion of Ratzinger’s would seem to be confirmed by a look at our own country’s religious universities, which generally have been doing a better job of protecting academic freedom against recent attacks than their secular counterparts have done.

Similarly, as Ratzinger insisted at Regensburg, we cannot form students to apply their reason to the broadest range of human problems if their university treats theological questions as somehow outside the realm of rational academic discussion. The life of a healthy university must include the serious study of theology as an academic discipline—even while, as Ratzinger also asserted from his own university experience, atheists and their questions must remain welcome too.

Religious universities have some awareness of how genuine academic inquiry into God can set the tone for a whole campus. Non-religious universities could benefit from the same awareness. Most secular universities still look up to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, University of Chicago and Columbia—all schools that benefit greatly from the lingering traditions of their own Christian foundings, visibly embodied even to this day in magnificent religious architecture and academically rigorous schools of divinity.

Anyone interested today in the future of education will have much to learn from the example and insights of this professor-pope.

Last thoughts from the professor pope

I was fortunate enough to meet Ratzinger twice, both times after his retirement. The first time, I asked him what the job of a Catholic university professor should be today. I wish I could convey how serious and intent he suddenly became, after what had been little more than pleasantries. This was a topic he cared about and wanted to answer correctly.

He spoke immediately about God, about his importance at a time when the very question of God is in danger of disappearing from our universities. He pointed to the fact that this God is not a mere hypothesis or question mark but is supremely rational, and is indeed the source of the rationality that grounds all our academic inquiries. And he pointed to the second fact that, on the other hand, our own human rationality loses its way when it loses sight of this God. The task for us as believing academics, he said to me, is to make manifest both of those two facts—each of us within our own academic specialty.

Our second meeting, in 2015, was the last time he was strong enough to say Mass for the annual meeting of his Schülerkreis—its ranks now diminished with age but also swelled by us younger folk, the “Neuer Schülerkreis,” who had become his students only through his writings. This 88-year-old preached to us with neither a written note nor even a slight hesitation, speaking in full paragraphs for 12 minutes.

The Sunday Gospel was the passage from Mark 7 about what does and does not defile a human being. Ratzinger dwelt for some time on the last item from Jesus’ list of vices that do defile, which he translated as “thoughtlessness.” He emphasized how much our modern technological world encourages the moral vice of thoughtlessness and how hard we have to fight against it. It was perfectly clear that this was not an intellectual telling all Christians to be intellectuals, but rather a professor whose professorial concerns had given him a particular insight into a genuine demand made by the Gospel.

The demands of the Gospel mattered more to Joseph Ratzinger than the demands of the university. But he approached the Gospel as a professor, and it shaped him as a professor. Anyone interested today in the future of education (in the broadest, Platonic sense of the term) will have much to learn from the example and insights of this professor-pope.

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