The Quiet Prophet

on Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation

One of the great surprises following the death of Pope John Paul  II in 2005 was the accession of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to the pontificate. I was one of those (perhaps many) orthodox Protestants who had been indebted to the work of John Paul, having cut my teeth on his important encyclicals during the 1980s and 1990s while teaching at the university and doing public-policy research in Washington, D.C. Following his penultimate encyclical, Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason,” 1998), which in many ways seemed the culmination of a remarkable career, I assumed that his vision would cease, or at best be muted. I was wrong. As it happened, in the years ahead, until Benedict  XVI’s resignation, there remained a wondrous continuity, to Benedict’s great credit.

Benedict is said to be the first academic theologian (narrowly defined) in two centuries to become pope. This should have come as little surprise to those who knew him, for at a very early age Joseph Ratzinger desired to attend seminary. His father, a policeman, had been anti-Nazi in sentiment and was thus not infrequently demoted or transferred in his work. Joseph would mirror his father’s attitudes in this regard; at age 14 (1941), though legally required to join Hitlerjugend (the Hitler Youth), he refused to attend its meetings. Following the war, he studied theology and was ordained a priest. In 1953 he received his doctorate in theology, with a thesis titled “The People and House of God in Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church.”


J. Daryl Charles is the Acton Institute Affiliated Scholar in Theology & Ethics. He is the author or editor of twenty books, including Retrieving the Natural Law (2008), Natural Law and Religious Freedom (2018), and, most recently, Just War and Christian Traditions (forthcoming). He is also co-editor of Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace: God's Gifts for a Fallen World, Volume 3 (2020). He is a contributing editor to Touchstone.

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