Reflections by the President of The National Catholic Bioethics Center on the Occasion of the Announced Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI
The National Catholic Bioethics Center has always felt a special affinity for Pope Benedict XVI. When Josef Ratzinger served as the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the highest doctrinal body in the Church, he twice addressed Bishops gathered in Dallas, Texas, at a Workshop on bioethics organized by The Center, in 1984 and 1991. On both occasions, his addresses reflected on the true role and primacy of conscience and of its relationship to the magisterium of the Church, which Ratzinger said is ultimately there to serve conscience.
Less than a week before the Pope Benedict’s announced resignation, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, the ambassador of the Vatican, read a personal letter from the Pope to the Bishops at our most recent workshop, the twenty-fourth, on February 5th. Despite all the burdens of his office, he never let up on fulfilling his duties, and this letter to his brother Bishops gathered in Dallas was another one he faithfully carried out.
When I first the heard the news from Europe, before sunrise here in the United States, I was stunned. But after the reality settled in, I could not help but smile and think to myself, “How admirable is his commitment to duty!” If he was convinced he could no longer fulfill the heavy duties of his office because of his age and increasing frailty, then for the good of the Church, he would simply resign.
Josef Ratzinger is a man of great humility with a profound sense of duty. I was blessed to have a number of interactions with him when he served as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I would like to recount one of them now.
Regnery Publishing House had, years earlier, published a book entitled The Lord written by one of Ratzinger’s favorite German theologians: Romano Guardini. It was a book that sold consistently well for decades and the publisher wanted to come out with a new edition. On one of my trips to Rome, Al Regnery asked me to request of Ratzinger a new introduction for the book. I demurred. The Cardinal Prefect was a rather busy man. My friend persisted.
The next time I was with Cardinal Ratzinger, at the end of our business, I asked if he would consider writing an introduction to a new edition of Guardini’s The Lord. To my utter amazement, he said, “Yes.” He had great admiration for Guardini, he told me.
Not surprisingly, the introduction never arrived. Several months later, I had another trip to Rome and another meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger. In the Palace of the Holy Office, one is moved through several beautifully appointed waiting rooms as those ahead are received by the Prefect to deal with their issues.
Finally I was ushered into his reception room. As I walked through the door, he rose and walked toward me saying:
“Ach, Herr Professor, ich hab’ solch ein schlechtes Gewissen!” [“Ach, Professor, I have such a bad conscience!”]
I was thoroughly taken back by this, saying: “You, Your Eminence, have a bad conscience?!”
“Yes,” he said. “I told you I would write a preface to Guardini’s The Lord, and I didn't do it!”
I rather sheepishly said, “Well, I could not believe you said you would do it in the first place. You are so busy.”
“No. No,” he said. “I told you I would write it. When are you leaving Rome?”
“This evening,” I responded.
“Ach, if it were tomorrow morning, I would have it to you before you left!”
I did indeed receive the “Introduction” to The Lord from him a few weeks later and translated it for publication with the new edition of the work. He kept his word, busy as he was. He fulfilled his duty to an individual of no significance! I was simple member of the faithful. Also, I must point out the high regard in which he held Romano Guardini; Cardinal Ratzinger certainly saw that writing the introduction would help advance the work of a brilliant theologian and would serve as something of an homage to him. Ratzinger said he would write it, and he did! In any event, I now have a special leather-bound copy of The Lord on my book shelf, sent me as a gift by the publisher. And when I began reading Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth I took particular note of his recognition of Roman Guardini’s The Lord as the inspiration for his own work.
Benedict’s profound intellect has been applied to dogmatic, moral, ascetical and liturgical issues throughout his adult life. With respect to bioethics, I have already mentioned that he twice addressed our bioethics workshop for Bishops. But of particular importance in this area is the fact that he presided over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as it worked on and formulated Donum Vitae for the approval of
Blessed John Paul II and its publication in 1987. The Church’s moral principles articulated in that document remain unassailable as the surest guide available in our day to address the complex and difficult moral issues arising from advances in microbiology and “reproductive technologies.” The magisterial, bioethical instruction known as Dignitas Personae of 2008 builds on that foundational document but certainly does not surpass it.
At the absolute center of Benedict’s teaching as a preacher, seminary professor, archbishop, Cardinal Prefect of the doctrinal congregation, and Pope is the person of Jesus of Nazareth. All of his writings are profoundly Christocentric. The personal encounter with Jesus is what must guide our lives now and prepare us for the future. Jesus, Love Incarnate, must also serve as the foundation for the social order in which we live. The holy Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church and of our lives as Catholics as the Second Vatican Council taught us. It is the source and summit of our lives because it is there that we encounter Jesus Christ Himself.
I have at this very moment of writing pulled from my briefcase the Pope’s signed letter to the Bishops gathered in Dallas which was read just one week ago by his Nuncio. It contains consistent themes of his life as a priest, bishop and pope, with Christ at the center:
The Church’s age-old engagement in the areas of health care, teaching, research, and ethical reflection continues today in changed circumstances, yet with constant concern for what remains essential: fidelity to the Gospel and the light of the natural moral law, and commitment to honoring the God-given dignity and worth of every human being at every stage of life. This commitment is evident above all in the dedication with which so many of the faithful have devoted their lives to the care of those who are lonely, marginalized or excluded, seeing them as “those who are the first with a claim on our attention and the most important for us to support, because it is in them that the reflection of Christ’s own face is seen”
- Benedict XVI's declaration of the Year of Faith (internal quote taken by Benedict from Porta Fidei, 14) .
With today’s announcement of the Pope’s resignation, The National Catholic Bioethics Center rededicates itself in love to its service of Jesus of Nazareth, to his sick and suffering, and to his faithful servant, Benedict.
John M. Haas
|Dr. Haas meets with Pope Benedict and shows His Holiness |
the first copy of a recent NCBC publication