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Pope Benedict XVI waves to pilgrims at the end of a papal Mass at Islinger field, in Regensburg, southern Germany, on Sept. 12, 2006.MARKUS SCHREIBER/The Associated Press

Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he also teaches the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas for St. Michael’s College.

God’s Rottweiler has died. The passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI deprives a complex world of a usefully simplistic figure: the arch conservative churchman fixated on defending ancient and sectarian doctrines. Amid the competing appraisals of his life and work upon his death on Dec. 31, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, his long-standing persona remains in full and defining view.

This makes sense, given the ease with which that persona took shape. He was a German old enough to have been a mandatory member of the Hitler Youth, and he was later conscripted to serve in the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. Beginning in the 1980s, he became well-known outside his native Germany and Catholic theological circles as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, responsible for enforcing the orthodoxy of Catholic teachings around the world. This role, and his earlier biography, in turn led to his being regularly referred to as a holy German attack dog.

Indeed, even a simpatico colleague such as New York’s late Cardinal John O’Connor, introducing him at a 1988 academic event in Manhattan, told the audience, “In essence, you are looking at the Grand Inquisitor.” This awkwardly playful joke was perhaps meant to address the controversy of the night before, when a public lecture by then-Cardinal Ratzinger was delayed by protesters calling him “Nazi,” “fascist pig” and “Antichrist,” because of his frequent defence of Church teachings regarding homosexuality.

Elsewhere, his comments about other faiths, notably early in his pontificate and specifically about Islam, only consolidated views of him, whether as divisive and irredeemably regressive, or as bravely committed to absolute positions in defiance of a dominant relativistic ethos. After he resigned the papacy in 2013, even popular culture kept him around, if strictly as an easy foil: The 2019 film The Two Popes portrayed him as an aging Bond villain in all white, living in a mountain redoubt, stroking his cat while whispering darkly and playing the piano as a break from diabolical scheming against his tango-dancing, ABBA-loving, cuddly successor.

God’s Rottweiler, Grand Inquisitor, whatever else Benedict XVI was called, for many critics and admirers alike he was and remains, in effect, a clown, as he described this figure in the opening pages of arguably his most important book, Introduction to Christianity (1968). With debts to philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and theologian Harvey Cox, Ratzinger likens the challenge of being heard as a theologian in modern times to a circus clown trying to warn villagers of an approaching fire. People assume he’s just playing his part and ignore his message. Everything burns down. “Whatever he says, he is ticketed and classified, so to speak, by his role. Whatever he does in his attempts to demonstrate the seriousness of the position, people always know in advance that he is in fact just – a clown.”

But instead of lamenting this, Ratzinger distances himself from the analogy, calling it “a simplification” that self-importantly assumes the theologian “is a man possessed of full knowledge who arrives with a perfectly clear message” while the villagers are “completely ignorant.” But throughout his public life, ironically, Ratzinger was either accused or praised for operating exactly along these lines.

When it comes to the question of belief in God in the modern age, however, doubt is something Ratzinger emphasizes in Introduction to Christianity that “both the believer and unbeliever share.” In turn, he affirms its value: Doubt “saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds” and “prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction.” Moreover, he proposes, doubt creates opportunities for greater searching in every individual. Doubt also creates shared understandings and experiences across what remains the most significant divides between people: whether they believe in God, and how they go about it.

For years now, students I’ve taught in a first-year university seminar on faith and ideas – self-identified atheists, agnostics, Catholics and other Christians, Muslims, Hindus and secularists – have responded positively to this brief selection from Ratzinger’s work. Regardless of their own beliefs, they find in these pages the most challenging and best version of themselves, and the best and most challenging version of others.

Ratzinger also demonstrated the strong workings of doubt in his own life and work. In 1997, after turning 70, he asked John Paul II whether he could resign from his position at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; he was denied. When his 2006 address at Germany’s University of Regensburg offended Muslims around the world because he quoted and was assumed to endorse a highly critical 14th-century Christian account of Islam, he issued a personal public apology within days. In 2010, in seeming stark contradiction with long-standing Catholic teaching, he allowed for specific circumstances when condom use could be understood as a moral decision. And, of course, in 2013 he became the first pope in six centuries to resign, in what historian John T. McGreevy calls “a giant step” away from the absolutist vision of the papacy Benedict otherwise seemed to embody.

In each of these instances, Benedict thought, spoke and acted in ways that went against his persona and against what people with opposing views of him expected. He did so, I think, because he knew he didn’t have full knowledge or a perfectly clear message, and chose to demonstrate as much in full public view. He did so, successively, as theologian, high-ranking church official, and leader of the church itself, out of a willingness to sustain an active doubt in the total rightness of how he, as an individual, was making sense of God, the world, himself and his fellow human beings.

If we are likewise willing to doubt that Benedict XVI was just the admirable or the appalling alpha Catholic clown of our times, we create a little free fresh space in our own thinking and believing lives, as much about him as about ourselves.

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