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A Benedict XVI reader’s guide

Reports after the death of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI on Dec. 31 have noted that he was one of the leading theologians of his era.

Throughout his adult life, he wrote works not only addressing debates within the Catholic Church, but also seeking to make the tenets of Catholicism intelligible to inquirers.

Following his death, many people will be turning to his works ⁠— some for the first time. Where should they begin?

Here’s a brief reader’s guide to the just some works of the trailblazing German thinker who left the academic world he loved and accepted onerous duties in Rome, serving first as the Vatican’s doctrinal czar and ultimately as pope.

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Benedict's 'spiritual testament'

Shortly after he died, the Vatican published Benedict XVI's “spiritual testament,” written in 2006.

Here's an excerpt:

At this late hour of my life, as I look back over the decades I have traversed, I see first how many reasons I have to be thankful. Above all, I thank God himself, the giver of all good gifts, who gave me life and led me through many tribulations; whol picked me up often when I began to slip, again and again giving me the light of his face. In retrospect, I see and understand that even the dark and arduous stretches of this path were for my salvation and that He guided me well there.


Finally I humbly ask: Pray for me, that the Lord will admit me into the eternal abode, in spite of all my sins and shortcomings. My heartfelt prayer goes out to all those entrusted to me, day after day.

‘Introduction to Christianity’ (1968)

One obvious place to enter the theological world of the man who became Benedict XVI is his 1968 work “Introduction to Christianity.”

The book was written in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council —  in which the young Joseph Ratzinger participated enthusiastically as a theological adviser ⁠—  and published in the year that anti-establishment protests shook the Western world.

As other theologians attempted to infuse theology with revolutionary politics, Ratzinger took a different approach. He chose to focus instead on the Apostle’s Creed, explaining how the foundational statement of Christian belief could still serve as a sure guide for Christians in the modern world.

Looking back on the work 30 years after its publication, Benedict said that if he were writing it again, he would devote more space to interreligious questions.

“But I believe that I was not mistaken as to the fundamental approach,” he wrote, “in that I put the question of God and the question about Christ in the very center, which then leads to a ‘narrative Christology’ and demonstrates that the place for faith is in the Church. This basic orientation, I think, was correct.”

The ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ trilogy (2007-2012)

Some readers find the “Introduction to Christianity” difficult to get to grips with. Perhaps a better place for the general reader to begin is the three-volume “Jesus of Nazareth,” which Benedict XVI began before his election in 2005 and somehow managed to complete while serving as pope.

In the trilogy, Benedict XVI offers the fruits of what he describes in the introduction to the first volume as his “personal search for the face of the Lord.” While acknowledging the findings of modern biblical exegesis, he seeks “to present the Jesus of the Gospels as the real Jesus, as the historical Jesus in the real sense of the expression.”

The three volumes walk the reader through the life of Jesus, from his infancy (the subject of the third volume), to his public ministry (the first volume), and his death and Resurrection (the second volume).

‘Milestones’ (1998)

In his autobiography “Milestones,” Benedict XVI offered a highly readable account of his life, from his childhood in Bavaria, southern Germany, to his appointment as Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977.

Among the most interesting passages are those recounting his experiences during the Second World War, when he was drafted into the military, deserted, and was briefly held as a prisoner of war by Allied forces.

Book-length interviews (1997-2016)

Beginning in the late 1990s, the future pope engaged in a series of wide-ranging conversations with the German journalist Peter Seewald. They resulted in four book-length interviews — “Salt of the Earth” (1997), “God and the World” (2002), “Light of the World” (2010), and “Last Testament,” (2016) — that shed light on Benedict XVI’s life and theological vision.

The conversations, which are candid and at times surprising, tackle topics that remain controversial in the Catholic world today, such as women’s ordination, contraception, and priestly celibacy, as well as larger questions about the Church’s response to the challenges of modernity.

Spe Salvi (2007)

Benedict XVI wrote comparatively few encyclicals, issuing just three in his eight-year pontificate (the 19th-century Pope Leo XIII produced 90 during his admittedly long pontificate).

Benedict’s first, Deus caritas est (2005), was a well-received reflection on Christian love. His last was Caritas in veritate (2009), on charity and truth.

In between, he wrote Spe salvi (2007), a meditation on Christian hope. The encyclical touches on perennial questions such as the meaning of suffering, ultimately offering a profoundly hopeful vision of human existence.

“It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater,” he wrote.

“It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.”

On sexual abuse

In April 2019, as the Church grappled with the fallout of the McCarrick sexual abuse scandal, Benedict penned "The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse," an essay addressing the crisis:

A society without God — a society that does not know Him and treats Him as non-existent — is a society that loses its measure. In our day, the catchphrase of God’s death was coined. When God does die in a society, it becomes free, we were assured. In reality, the death of God in a society also means the end of freedom, because what dies is the purpose that provides orientation. And because the compass disappears that points us in the right direction by teaching us to distinguish good from evil. Western society is a society in which God is absent in the public sphere and has nothing left to offer it. And that is why it is a society in which the measure of humanity is increasingly lost. At individual points it becomes suddenly apparent that what is evil and destroys man has become a matter of course.


A paramount task, which must result from the moral upheavals of our time, is that we ourselves once again begin to live by God and unto Him. Above all, we ourselves must learn again to recognize God as the foundation of our life instead of leaving Him aside as a somehow ineffective phrase. I will never forget the warning that the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote to me on one of his letter cards. “Do not presuppose the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but present them!”

'Dictatorship of relativism'

In his final homily before the 2005 conclave which saw him elected pope, Benedict coined one of his most well-knownphrases, as he talked about the "dictatorship of relativism" in the world:

How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An "adult" faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceipt from truth.

We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith - only faith - that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.

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