by Lorenzo Bernasconi

The passing of Joseph Ratzinger, alias Pope Benedict XVI, marks the end of an era for the Catholic Church. In addition to being a religious leader, Ratzinger was an influential figure on the cultural and political level, and it is precisely from a political perspective that I would like to try to draw a brief portrait of the late pontiff, focusing, rather than on strictly speaking biography, on his way of reading modernity and interpreting his role as the head of the Church, understood as a center of spiritual, but also cultural and media power.

The legacy of John Paul II

A Bavarian born in 1927, Ratzinger was a theologian, university professor and archbishop of Munich until John Paul II appointed him prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981. That quarter century spent in the Vatican at the top of the powerful congregation would later serve him well when, in 2005, he was elected by the conclave as Wojtyła's successor, ascending to the papal throne.

To take the place that was John Paul II's would have been a challenge for anyone: in the twenty-seven years of Wojtyła's papacy, during which the entire world had been shaken by social, economic and political earthquakes (from the Chernobyl disaster, to the collapse of the USSR, to the attack on the Twin Towers and the Argentine bond crisis) the public image of the Church had been inextricably linked to the face and eloquence of the Polish pontiff.

The advent of the Internet and new information technologies, moreover, had revolutionized on the communicative level the very institution of the papacy, transforming the successor of Peter into a true frontman of the Church, able - and in duty - to communicate constantly and in the first person with hundreds of millions of faithful, as well as with the media circuit and with political and religious leaders around the world. Reflective and introverted, Benedict XVI did not possess the communicative talents of his predecessor, but in five decades spent in the shadow of the St. Peter's Dome he had developed a clear overview of the Church and thoroughly understood the changes that had taken place in the global scenario since the 1970s.

The crisis of the Church, the crisis of the West

Ratzinger was aware of how that "position of advantage," which the ecclesiastical institution had enjoyed for more than a millennium, had entered a crisis. If still in the first half of the 20th century membership of the Catholic Church was deeply rooted in the national culture of most European states, and if practically throughout the Western world the Church-Institution was still perceived by politics as an inescapable interlocutor, in the second half of the century things had decisively changed.

Not only had the Church lost influence and credibility in an increasingly secularized West, but the West itself had begun to lose ground in many areas - from technology to demography - to the newly emerging powers, the vast majority of which lacked a Christian cultural background and were impermeable to the "good tidings."

Pope Benedict, realizing that modern Catholicism could no longer count even in Europe - complicit the influx of millions of non-Christian immigrants - on the cultural hegemony of the past, chose to focus his preaching/communication (the two aspects often overlap) on theological and doctrinal aspects habitually left in the background by his predecessors, returning frequently to the fundamentals of the Catholic faith, with a very dense argumentative style that is not always immediately understandable.

Seen in perspective, however, Ratzinger's appears to be a reasonable choice: if in an almost monochurch context it was in fact sensible to work more on the engagement of the faithful, taking for granted the "fundamentals" of the faith and entrusting its transmission to widespread religious education, in a world in which Catholics find themselves living side by side with those who profess other faiths it becomes essential to provide believers with the necessary tools to elaborate at a rational level and in an organic way the bases of their own beliefs. That is, to give them an overall and coherent picture of its fundamental contents, so as to foster a mature and conscious adherence that allows them to give reasons (another typically Ratzingerian theme) for their religious belonging.

The conservative pope

Such an approach earned the German pope the label of conservative theologian, even though - ironically - during his university years Ratzinger was repeatedly accused of excesses in a progressive direction.

Of a conservative view it would make more sense to speak in reference to the political Ratzinger, although Ratzinger's conservatism should not be interpreted, in my opinion, as a dogmatic position or as a reflection of his individual political leanings, but rather as the natural consequence of his peculiar intellectual approach, characterized by a combination of pragmatism and rationalism, on which I would like to say a few words.

If in the famous 2006 Regensburg speech, which so irritated the Islamic world, some read an entrenchment in dogma and a closure toward non-Catholics, on closer inspection the philosophical core of that passage in Benedict XVI's speech can, if anything, be reduced to a call to the tribunal of reason.

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In other words, Ratzinger veiledly pointed out that one cannot disregard, in attributing value to a cultural or religious phenomenon, the examination of its material and tangible consequences: where the introduction of a given culture or faith causes a substantial increase in violence and a generalized worsening of living conditions, one cannot refrain from questioning the compatibility of the new value system with the fundamental needs of human beings.

In this sense, I believe that even the constant denunciation of the risks associated with relativism - perhaps the theme most often touched upon by Ratzinger in his eight years of pontificate - should not be interpreted as an a priori rejection of modernity, but rather as a warning call from an intellectual who has realized how a society, when found bereft of a core of shared values around which to build some form of collective identity, is doomed to crumble, eventually suffocating in chaos and civil war (of which the urban suburbs of Europe are already giving us some glimpses) or dictatorship. Similarly, Ratzinger's emphasis on the right not to emigrate, and thus on the need to foster the development of poorer countries, is also a offshoot of this rational-pragmatism.

The rationalist pope

In essence, in his perspective, love of one's neighbor cannot disregard a rational analysis of possible actions and their consequences, and the emotional impetus dictated by the religious imperative must be balanced with careful reflection in order to avoid causing greater evils (e.g., the duty of welcome must be balanced with the recognition of objective limits beyond which it is impossible to guarantee the resilience of the receiving society, but also with the need to prevent mass migrations from leading to the disintegration of society in the countries of origin of the flows).

And, again, always from this intellectual approach derive his frequent meetings with representatives of other religious denominations, including non-Christian ones, and with exponents of the agnostic-atheistic galaxy, in the belief that the rationality common to all human beings constitutes a solid basis on which it is possible to dialogue with anyone, regardless of differences in religious matters. At the same time, Ratzinger never failed to emphasize the difference between Christian religiosity and other types of spirituality, revealing a typically Greek-based conception of dialogue as an encounter between different people who remain conscious of their diversity, in a cultural horizon that is light years away from any Hegelian-style syncretistic temptation.

The pope emeritus

In February 2013, as is well known, Benedict XVI relinquished the post of pontiff in light of his advanced age and poor health. The conclave elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who assumed the name Francis, and Ratzinger, now pope emeritus, retired to a convent within the Vatican walls.

Pope Francis, so different in character and formation from his predecessor, chose to steer Peter's boat on a different course, but I will deal with this in detail elsewhere; what is certain is that the unprecedented coexistence of two popes within the Vatican walls has not been without consequences, also from a media point of view.

The silent but cumbersome presence of Benedict XVI has in some ways been an objective limitation on the freedom of maneuver of the new pontiff, whose very legitimacy has been questioned by some members of the most radical Catholicism. With Ratzinger's demise, Francis, who was elected pope nearly a decade ago, is now the sole, lone and undisputed pontiff of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church.

Whether Bergoglio, as leader of the Christian people, will do better or worse than his predecessor is a matter solely for Catholics. However, the conservative galaxy - including those who, like the writer, move from a non-religious perspective but share Benedict XVI's aptitude for rational analysis and long-term vision - has today lost a thoughtful, brilliant and intellectually honest interlocutor. And it is by no means a foregone conclusion that Francis, who - legitimately - seems to have other priorities, intends to pick up Benedict's baton and reserve for the conservative world the same attention devoted to it as his predecessor.

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Research Fellow at the Machiavelli Center for Political and Strategic Studies, formerly worked as a consultant at European Parliament, Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Chamber of Deputies and Ministry of Economic Development. M.A. in Philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan.