Benedict XVI’s Parting Words and Lasting Concerns

With the passing of Pope Benedict XVI into eternal life, one of the most sobering realizations was something that we all knew was coming on a theoretical level: the truth that nothing new would ever again come forth from the pen of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger.

It is true that the privilege to hear anew from the man who became Pope Benedict XVI will have to wait until, Deo volente, we all meet again on the other side of this vale of tears. And yet, as providence would have it, contemporaneous with the emeritus pontiff’s death, two of his works have appeared in English for the first time: the pontiff’s previously unpublished 2006 Spiritual Testament, and a volume of Ratzinger’s lectures on creation and the Church that were delivered in 1985 yet sat forgotten for decades in an Austrian abbey. In honor of Benedict’s passing and in homage to a lifetime of dialogue between faith and reason with a special eye toward creation and the natural sciences, it seems fitting to reflect on some of Benedict’s key insights that emerge a final time in these newly available works.

Benedict XVI’s Spiritual Testament: A Final Word on the Relationship of Faith, Science, and Scripture

The publication of Benedict XVI’s spiritual testament upon his death was a welcome gift, even if not an entirely unexpected one. Suffering from a rather severe chronic autoimmune disorder, I too have had the occasion to write (and re-write) a few words to be delivered to my family upon the occasion of my passing. It was therefore not surprising to witness the late pontiff looking back on the blessings of his childhood, the gift of his family, and the great love he had for his native Bavaria. What did fascinate me (but in retrospect should not have been surprising given his character and history) was that Pope Benedict dedicated the largest and culminating paragraph of this brief reflection on his life to recollecting two distinct intellectual concerns that remained dear to his heart for a span of over sixty years.

One of these issues revolves around the frequent impression that historical research in the field of biblical studies has undermined the credibility of the gospels. Benedict wrote his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy precisely in order to counter this claim and to demonstrate that we can trust the Gospels as authentic portraits of the real figure of Jesus. The pontiff alludes here once more to the theses of liberal, existential, and Marxist schools of thought that in times past appeared “seemingly unshakeable” yet eventually turned out to “collapse with the changing generations.” Having considered this subject extensively in an earlier monograph, I want to turn my attention to the other recurring theme in Benedict’s intellectual journey that he engaged a final time in his spiritual testament: the relationship between Christian faith and modern science.

Exhorting all the faithful entrusted to his ministry to stand firm in the faith amid that extensive confusion that complicates belief in our secular age, Benedict spoke of discoveries in the empirical sciences in much the same vein as he did in the case of contemporary developments in the field of biblical studies. Over his long life, this keen observer had many occasions to witness advances in science that resulted not in problems for the faith but rather situations in which “apparent certainties against the faith vanished.” In keeping with his longstanding willingness to let the various scientific disciplines speak for themselves while putting them into conversation with the Church’s ancient faith, it is instructive that Benedict specifically alludes here to the common impression that science presents “irrefutable insights to offer that are contrary to the Catholic faith” which in the end have proven “not to be science but philosophical interpretations only apparently belonging to science.” The pontiff presumably had a number of examples in mind here, and one may easily recall illustrations of his engagement with such matters over time: for example, the common claim that the universe is a closed system impenetrable to divine action and the assumption that life’s evolutionary history renders it untenable to maintain any claim concerning human uniqueness.

Here as elsewhere, Benedict’s reservations were never with the empirical findings of science, but rather with the unfounded and often unrecognized philosophical assumptions that lead some to overreach the limits of their respective fields. However, having called out scientism for its shortcomings, in the same breath the pontiff also alluded to another theme that we often find woven into his reflections on the relationship of faith and science: namely, that “it is in dialogue with the natural sciences that faith has learned to understand the limits of the scope of its affirmations and thus its own specificity.” Not only as an academic theologian but especially as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and as pope, Benedict was never slow to acknowledge times past when ecclesial documents “overextended the range of what faith can guarantee with certainty” with the result that “the Magisterium’s credibility was injured.”[1]

Like his predecessor who emphasized that religion and science have the capacity to mutually refine one another and contribute to the other’s flourishing, Benedict here echoes his oft-repeated contention that discoveries in the modern sciences provide a healthy incentive to acknowledge the truth that “the Bible is not a scientific textbook” and that one “cannot get from it a scientific explanation of how the world arose.[2] Far from denigrating the value of Sacred Scripture, contemporary scientific knowledge enables us better than ever to specify the precise nature of divine revelation and to grasp what it is that the Bible is and is not affirming on a given theme. In so doing, Benedict remained persuaded to the end that advances in biblical studies and empirical science were to be illuminated in the light of faith and welcomed as opportunities for witnessing how “the reasonableness of faith has emerged and is emerging anew.”

God’s Project: The Timely Translation of a Classic Ratzinger Work on Creation

As providence would have it, roughly coinciding with the release of his last spiritual testament, The Divine Project is a remarkable collection of Ratzinger’s lectures on the above topic that has just been released in English for the first time. In contrast with Benedict’s spiritual testament, this is not a previously unknown text, as it has been available in German and Italian for over a decade and proved instrumental in my most recent book’s quest to detail how Benedict’s theology illuminates the many important issues that evolutionary theory poses for Christian belief. This next section will tease out some key insights of this gem from the treasury of Ratzinger’s wisdom, some of which had not previously caught my eye.

In setting out to read these lectures a few years ago in their original German, it did not take long for me to realize that the content of the first four chapters overlaps significantly with another magnificent work on the theme of creation: the collection of Ratzinger’s 1981 Lenten homilies published under the title In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. In the hopes of finding something new or at least a fresh angle into the same subject in this more recent text, I naturally set out to compare the content and style of each (and to ensure that the differences in question were not just the result of translation issues).

As the Italian adage goes, traduttore, traditore. Every translator is necessarily a traitor, for it is never possible to perfectly render the content and style of a work’s native language into our own tongue. As it turned out in the case of these texts, though, translation was not the primary source of the variations between them. The English renderings of both texts were wonderful. What intrigued me was my reaction upon encountering the new translation of this work in my native tongue. The text is a transcription of Cardinal Ratzinger’s live presentation of the material, and pondering it made me feel as if I were on retreat with Ratzinger rather than reading his words in my recliner. As all professors can attest, we are often required to deliver the same material time and again to different audiences and in a variety of formats. When this happens, often what proves most valuable pedagogically is the occasional impromptu comment that occurs to one only as the words are coming out of his mouth. This was my experience in reading this text: it was as if I were able to “hear” the same beloved refrains from the “Mozart” of contemporary Catholic theology sounding again in a slightly different key.

Before embarking into any discussion of specific passages, Ratzinger characteristically sets up his inquiry by pausing to clarify the proper hermeneutic for the topic at hand: “How, indeed, can we properly understand a biblical text—not coming up with ideas of our own, but remaining honest with ourselves as interpreters of history—and yet, without doing violence to the text, inquire into its relevance for the present?”[3] In his posing this question, we find one of the “greatest hits” of Ratzinger’s theology: the crucial importance of facing challenges to the faith head-on without letting preconceived notions cloud our judgment while at the same time remaining confident in Scripture and allowing it to animate our lives.

As mentioned above, Ratzinger was never shy of drawing attention to occasions in times past when the Church did not always put her principles into practice in an exemplary fashion. Thus, he writes here of the apparent dichotomy between Scripture and science noting that, “after Galileo, it was an astonishingly long time before theologians really began to grapple with the question of how the Christian, in the midst of this opposition between two spiritual and intellectual realms that really should be one and the same to him, can be both intellectually honest and genuinely faithful.”[4] Part of the reason for this delay had to do with the fear of a slippery slope that would ensue if the Church were to accept heliocentric or, later, evolutionary theory. By opening the path to acknowledging advances in these domains as compatible with faith, Ratzinger grants that doing so could easily contribute to “the impression that the faith of the Church is like some kind of jellyfish, where there is nothing solid to grab onto, nothing firm at the center of it all that can be built upon.[5]

While he is sensitive to the above concern, Ratzinger’s humble and steadfast quest for the fullness of the truth would not allow him to ignore the challenges that came clearly into focus with Galileo and Darwin. Aware that theological greats like Augustine had already provided the hermeneutical tools to understand Genesis’s opening chapters in a figurative manner, the cardinal emphasized the importance of pinpointing the sacred author’s precise intentions, distinguishing the sacred text’s literary form—the symbolic imagery it deploys—from the precise message that these were intended to convey. When it comes to the issue of creation over a span of seven days (Gen 1–2:3), for example, Ratzinger is emphatic that the purpose of this literary device is not scientific in nature but concerned rather with the worship of Israel in her own day. As was the case elsewhere in the ancient Near Eastern world, creation accounts in antiquity were meant “to provide a rationale for religious worship, meaning that the message they wish to convey is that the ‘why,’ the purpose, of creation is worship.[6] Accordingly, the “rhythm of seven” that we encounter in Genesis 1 has cosmic significance insofar as it reveals that the universe exists for the glorification of God and that Sabbath—the seventh day—is “the ultimate goal of creation.”[7]

Ratzinger applies the same exegetical principles to the next movement of Genesis’s creation account with its depiction of Adam’s origin “from the dust of the earth” (Gen 2:7). In the context of examining the text’s revealed truth in this live lecture, Ratzinger could not help but confront the issue: “All well and good, we might say, but is not all of this ultimately refuted by our scientific knowledge of man’s descent from the animals?” The cardinal’s response to this question—and the additional nuance that appears in this newly published edition of it—is remarkable. Stressing “the inner unity of creation and evolution, of faith and reason,” Ratzinger unpretentiously remarks that “more thoughtful minds have long recognized that this is not a matter of either-or,” and that “we cannot really say ‘creation or evolution’ . . . as these two things are responses to two different questions.” In contrast with the English translation of his 1981 homily on the subject, however, the rendering of this slightly later work also includes Ratzinger’s preferred alternative to the either-or scenario he had just rejected: “What we should actually be saying is ‘creation and evolution,’” he now adds.[8] It is worth recalling the words that he immediately proceeds to add upon articulating this principle:

The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God does not in fact tell us how a human being comes to be; rather, it tells us what a human being is. It tells of man’s deepest origin and sheds light on the project that undergirds his existence. Conversely, the theory of evolution attempts to recognize and describe the biological processes at play, but it cannot explain where the “project” of man comes from, his inner origin or his particular nature. To that extent, what we are faced with here are two complementary—rather than mutually exclusive—questions.[9]

Just as he appreciated St. John Henry Newman’s nineteenth-century theory of doctrinal development, so here Ratzinger shows his appreciation for Darwin’s contribution to the “increasing understanding of the historicity of all things, the idea that all things had become what they were . . . whereby things that previously appeared unchanging now appear to be the products of a process of becoming, applied to the human realm as much as it did to nature.” This text powerfully illustrates Ratzinger’s willingness to confront new scientific data and weave it into his theological ruminations; in this case, the newfound conviction that “the universe was not something like a big box, into which everything was placed in a finished state, but was rather more comparable to a living, still-growing tree, gradually lifting its branches higher and higher into the sky.”[10]

From here, Ratzinger explicitly turns his attention to “the question of evolution and the mechanisms involved in it.” Importantly, this thinker had no qualms with the age of the universe or the role played by chance in the evolution of life, casually observing, “It was by this means—by the accumulation of transcription errors—that the entire world of living things came about, including man. We are the product of a random accumulation of errors.” Ratzinger deems this “an incredibly profound diagnosis and itself an image of the human person,” after which he characteristically asks, “How then are we to respond to this?[11] What ensues is the same approach that Benedict and John Paul II consistently followed over many decades: respect for the “principle of autonomy” that allows the natural sciences to operate according to their respective methods without theology seeking to fix their conclusions in advance.[12] Ratzinger tells us that it “remains the business of the natural sciences to explain the particular factors by which the tree of life grows and expands” and that the questions of when, where, and precisely how life evolved on this planet are not matters that pertain to the substance of the Catholic faith.[13]

What does touch the heart of the faith is the issue of whether biological evolution and chance’s role in it are all there is to our world and to the life of man in particular. Thus, immediately after affirming that all life is the result of gradual evolutionary processes, he can immediately add that mankind’s gradual origin does not denigrate his dignity and that man is “indeed a divine project and not an accumulation of transcription errors . . . not a mistake, but is willed” as the fruit of divine love.[14] Reading this response in connection with Benedict’s last spiritual testament, what he is up to is clear: allowing science to help theology understand its proper scope while calling on theology to illumine evolutionary theory in the light of faith by distinguishing the science of evolution itself from the unwarranted naturalistic assumptions that all-too-often accompany it.


This reflection has been my meager attempt to draw out just a few of the key threads of Benedict’s thought that have recently appeared in English coinciding with the pontiff’s passing into eternal life. Ratzinger has given the Church with many treasures over the years, but I hope that reading my words will inspire readers to read these two important texts for themselves. They rank among his most personal insofar as in reading them one is able not only to encounter some of the motifs dearest to the pontiff’s heart, but moreover to get a privileged feel for his particular voice and mode of expression

In the end, Jesus Christ remained the central focus of Benedict’s spiritual testament, his lectures, and his entire life. In this connection, it is especially noteworthy how Ratzinger periodically pauses his reflections on creation and human origins to note that their ultimate meaning lies in the New Adam and his Paschal Mystery. Like the grain of wheat, Ratzinger is fond of recalling, man must die with Christ in order to become what he was designed to be, for Christ is “the ultimate manifestation of the human project, from the point of view of the Passion, considering how, as we gaze on the Pierced One, we are gazing at God’s project with regard to man.”[15] Towering intellectual that he was, Ratzinger did not see his theological musings as a mere theoretical affair, for his own words and deeds manifested a profound conviction that the ultimate answer to the meaning of man “is not found in a theory but following Jesus Christ, in living this project with him who is the answer.”[16

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, “Exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church,” in Opening Up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation, edited by José Granados, Carlos Granados, and Luis Sánchez-Navarro (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 126–36 at 126.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 4.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, The Divine Project: Reflections on Creation and the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2022), 15.

[4] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 17.

[5] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 22.

[6] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 51.

[7] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 48.

[8] The above lines are drawn from Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 77–78. Intriguingly, the same formula Schöpfung und Entwicklung (“creation and evolution” or, alternatively, “creation and development”) appears in the original German of Ratzinger’s texts from 1985 as well as 1981 even as this additional phraseology is missing in the English edition of In the Beginning at 50.

[9] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 77.

[10] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 78.

[11] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 83.

[12] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, §§13, 77.

[13] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 83–84.

[14] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 84.

[15] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 84.

[16] Ratzinger, The Divine Project, 85–86