What’s love got to do with it? The life and work of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Centre: Ben Wildflower‘s image of Mary and her words in the Magnificat (Luke 46-55). Among speakers at the 2005 World Forum on Theology and Liberation in Porto Alegre, Brazil, were Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff (left) and Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya (right), both reprimanded by the Vatican in previous decades.

Jim Hodgson

Why write about the death of a former pope and cardinal in a blog about development? Because his condemnation of several liberation theologians in the 1980s and later were attacks on the most vigorous and coherent critique of contemporary development practice – or the ways inequality and exploitation are either maintained or overcome – to emerge from Christians in the late 20th century. And whatever good he may have done will always be overshadowed by the harsh treatment of some of our era’s finest theologians by Ratzinger during his leadership of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). 

When I came to Toronto in early 1984 to work with Catholic New Times, one of my “beats” was to cover the ways the Vatican was contending with liberation theology and its advocates. Over time, such scrutiny was imposed on feminists, defenders of LGBTI people, and advocates of respect for religious pluralism – and continued into Benedict’s pontificate. (Other writers elsewhere are recalling too his role in covering up clerical sexual abuse.)

Over the years, I have had the privilege of meeting many of those who were reprimanded by Ratzinger and his CDF successors. Some found solidarity in the global ecumenical movement and join events like the World Forum on Theology and Liberation, an event held every couple of years since 2003 alongside the World Social Forum.

The central tenet of liberation theology – the preferential option for the poor – is now enshrined in Catholic social teaching. Debates continue, of course, about what we mean by “the poor” as new (and not-so-new) theological “subjects” emerge among those who are marginalized from patriarchal power in churches and beyond, and by political and economic structures that persist. And it’s important to remember that not all of those censured by the CDF had come under scrutiny because of their option for the poor, but also because of their analysis of power in the church (Leonardo Boff), relationships with other religions (Tissa Balasuriya, Roger Haight), rights of women (Ivone Gebara), ecology (Matthew Fox), or defence of sexual and gender minorities (Raymond Hunthausen, Jeannine Gramick, Robert Nugent), among others.

My single encounter with Cardinal Ratzinger came on April 23, 1986 when he spoke to a crowd of about 6,000 people at the old Varsity Arena at the University of Toronto. Outside, members of the Canadian Catholics for the Ordination of Women protested. The event was sponsored by Frank Stronach’s multinational auto parts company, Magna International. The crowd, made up mostly of conservative Catholics, welcomed his criticism of “theologians who abuse their authority as teachers.”

I saw Ratzinger as an obstacle, a foe, and was disheartened when he was chosen to be pope in 2005. 

Pope Benedict: Christian witness to love opens new paths for justice

On a Saturday morning in November 2007, I slipped in to a pew in Havana’s Santísima Trinidad Anglican Cathedral to reflect on the social teaching of Pope Benedict XVI. 

The ecumenical lay education centre known as ISEBIT had welcomed Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the Apostolic Nuncio in Cuba to speak to students. (Bonazzi would later serve as nuncio in Canada and is now the nuncio in Albania.) 

In the context of a class on International Development Cooperation, in which students had been debating issues of humanitarian aid, Don Luigi began his reflection based on Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love).

With Don Luigi’s guidance, I found myself surprised and then intrigued by the pontiff’s approach. “Being Christian,” Benedict wrote in the opening to his encyclical, “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

For Benedict, the heart of Christian faith is in the simple statement, “God is love.” There are many implications: from the nature of God (“God is love” / “Love alone is” / “love makes being” / “love remains”) to “ways to address needs that require love” and “the need of humans for the witness of Christian love that is inspired by faith” and “the charitable action of the church.” 

There is a complex challenge here to those of us who react to what we perceive to be simplistic acts of charity by proclaiming the need for justice. Justice, for Benedict (and Don Luigi), cannot be “over” love: but Christian witness to love opens new paths for justice

At this point, various aspects of Catholic social teaching find their place: 

  • each person is understood within a community of people, overcoming the idea of enemy;
  • affirmation of the human person as subject, not object, not instrument; 
  • encouragement of people to participate passionately for the common good; 
  • the church does not seek power over the state, but to avoid that politics in the “polis” (city) becomes about power, not service; all of our ideas are needed so that the “polis” can function;
  • the church participates “partially” in political life for the sake of a just society.

A student asked about social justice. Don Luigi responded: “Given these commitments, the church participates truly in the building of a just society. It participates and cannot not participate.” 

When we truly love, we cannot help but get involved. 

Later, Pope Benedict would write Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), a 144-page encyclical that is mostly about our collective economic life (with digressions). Its essence is the “principle of gratuitousness” – that being itself is a divine gift, including economic life. “The market is the economic institution that permits encounter between persons” as “economic subjects” who choose to trade goods and services of equivalent value. That, he says, involves trust and fraternity. The market used justly is an application of charity, which is the virtue Benedict believed to be at the core of all things, not “an added extra” tagged on with other activities.

This and other teachings prompted Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Canadian who is prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, to praise Benedict’s embrace of “integral human development,” a phrase used decades earlier by Pope Paul VI. “To develop truly, authentically, people need to treat each other as the siblings we really are, freely and generously and openly,” he told the Globe and Mail after Benedict’s death Dec. 31.

But the debates won’t stop. Ratzinger’s leadership in the CDF failed to model ways of loving or of constructive theological dialogue. By the time of Benedict’s resignation in 2013, the Catholic Church had endured more than 35 years of top-heavy efforts to close the windows that had been opened by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). That Pope Francis has allowed some breezes to blow in dusty corridors is a sign of hope for those of us who still insist that God’s love is for ALL, that the powerful must be brought down from their thrones, and the poor lifted up (Luke 1:46-55).


Some of my 1984 articles focused on the gaps between Roman understanding of authority and Latin Americans’ perceptions of their own reality. Theological reflection followed action by people to transform their reality, and gave rise to questions of how churches should accompany the poor (and other marginalised groups) in their struggles for justice. (I have added the colour photos I took of people attending a mass celebrated in October 1984 by Pope John Paul II at a racetrack near Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.)