Published January 3, 2023
In the days since his death on December 31, several commentators have expressed the hope that Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI and then Pope Emeritus, will eventually be named as a Doctor of the Church. In light of those hopes, I thought it would be interesting to revisit a conversation I had with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when I was preparing Witness to Hope, the first volume of my two-volume biography of Pope St. John Paul II.
It was September 20, 1997, and we spoke, as we usually did, in the cardinal’s office in the Palazzo Sant’Ufficio. As always, the cardinal was dressed simply in a black house cassock with no pectoral cross. After discussing several other matters, I asked him about John Paul II’s recent decision to name St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, a Doctor of the Church, after petition to do so had been received from (if memory serves) well over two thousand bishops, in a campaign led by a retired auxiliary bishop of New York, Patrick Ahern. The decision had caused some controversy, as that rare title was typically given to distinguished theologians.
When I asked Cardinal Ratzinger, point-blank, “Why is Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church,” the cardinal laughed (which he did readily, caricatures of his personality notwithstanding), and refraining from any comment on the bluntness, even impertinence, of my question, he began to speak—in complete paragraphs, as was his wont. The following is a direct transcription of his response, which I think sheds light on his own concept of holiness and its many expressions:
We have had distinct forms of Doctors of the Church, even before Anthony of Padua. We have on the one hand the great scholastic Doctors, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, who were professors and academicians and great Doctors in the scientific sense; in the patristic period we had great predicators who developed doctrine not in theological discussion but in predication, in homilies; we also have Ephraim, who developed his theology essentially in hymns and music. Now in these times we have new forms of Doctors and it’s important to lift up the richness of the different means of teaching in the Church. We have Teresa of Avila with her mystical experiences and her interpretations of the presence of God in mystical experience. We have Catherine of Siena with an experiential theology. And now we have Thérèse of Lisieux, who [created] in a different…way a theology of experience.
It is important, in our scientifically minded society, to have the message of a simple and deep experience of God, and a teaching about the simplicity of being a saint: to give, in this time, with its extremely action-oriented approach, to teach that to be a saint is not necessarily a matter of great actions, but of letting the Lord work in us.
This is also interesting for the ecumenical dialogue. Luther’s doctrine of justification was provoked by his difficulty in understanding himself justified and redeemed through the complex structures of the medieval Church. Grace did not arrive in his soul and we have to understand the explosion of ‘sola fide’ in this context: that he discovered finally that he had only to give fiducia, confidence, to the Lord, to give myself into the hands of the Lord—and I am redeemed. I think in a very Catholic way this returned in Thérèse of Lisieux: You don’t have to make great things. I am poor, spiritually and materially; and to give myself into the hands of Jesus is sufficient. This is a real interpretation of what it means to be redeemed; we don’t have to do great things, we have to be confident, and in the freedom of that confidence we can follow Jesus and realize a Christian life. This is not only an important contribution to the ecumenical dialogue but to our common question—how can I be redeemed, how am I justified? [Thérèse’s] “little way” is a very deep rediscovering of the center of Christian life.
The other concept is that from the cloister, far from the world, one can do much for the world. Communion with Christ is presence to Christians all over the world. Everybody can be “efficient” for the universal Church in this day. This is also a new definition of “efficiency” in the Church. We have so many actions, and we have to discover that “efficiency” begins with communion with the Lord. This idea, that the heart of the Church is present in all the parts of the body, is a good correction to a merely pragmatic Church, an “efficient” Church in the external sense. It’s a rediscovery of the roots of all Christian action.
She also had a new idea of heaven, of the relationship between eternity and time. To be present on earth and to do good on earth is my heaven. We have a new relationship between eternity and time: heaven is not absent from earth, but a new and stronger presence. Eternity is present in time, and living for eternity is living in and for the time at hand. By living a Christian life we are more present to earth, we are changing the earth; we can speak about a new eschatology here, which is an important doctrine.
This dialectic of presence and absence is a very great doctrine. The subtlety of Thérèse is also wonderful in dealing with some of the demands for new Marian dogmas. She wrote, “Don’t always speak about the privileges of Mary, speak about her as being as we are.” There are some wonderful texts [along these lines] and these are very helpful corrections against these [hyper-Marian] tendencies…
That was Joseph Ratzinger, twenty-five years ago, on the vocation to holiness and its many forms and modalities in the Church; on time and eternity; on handing oneself over in confidence to the Lord; on the irreducible Christocentricity of the Christian life. In remembering that conversation from a quarter-century ago, I cannot help but think that Ratzinger was allowing me a glimpse into his own deep interior life: the life of a man aptly described by Cardinal Joachim Meisner as having “the mind of twelve professors” and the clear piety of a child making his or her first Holy Communion.
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.