Inside the Mind of Pope Benedict

Tracey Rowland’s excellent exposition of his thought.

If he had not assumed active duties that took him away from his scholarship, would Joseph Ratzinger have ended up as a Doctor of the Church? The case for this proposition is not explicitly made by Tracey Rowland, professor of philosophy and theology at Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute, in her new book Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. But it is hard to avoid wondering what might have been as one reads her excellent exposition of his thought.

“No pope in history has published as much high quality theology on such a variety of topics as Pope Benedict XVI,” writes Sydney Archbishop George Pell in the introduction. Professor Rowland opens her discussion by reminding readers that, in 1992, Cardinal Ratzinger was “appointed an associate member of the prestigious Academie française” whose extended membership includes Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, and Voltaire. “This honor from a completely secular institution in the capital of a country renowned for keeping God out of the public realm…is some indication of Ratzinger’s high standing in the world of European letters,” she writes.

That is, indeed, a useful corrective for American readers. Circa 1992, Cardinal Ratzinger was portrayed in the American press, and especially the New York Times, not as an intellectual but as Pope John Paul II’s chief doctrinal enforcer. He was slandered as “God’s Rottweiler” for being head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which, critics would never fail to note, used to be known as the Offi ce of the Inquisition.

Yet Professor Rowland points out that as an academic Ratzinger held four important university posts in Germany: at the Universities of Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg. In his 30s, he served as a special adviser to Cologne’s Cardinal Josef Frings at the Second Vatican Council. He has engaged in public debates with some of Europe’s leading secular thinkers, including Marcello Pera, president of the Italian Senate, and continental philosopher Jürgen Habermas.

Theology was Cardinal Ratzinger’s first and greatest love, and he excelled at it from the start. He agreed to head the CDF for John Paul II on the condition that he be allowed to continue his private theological writings and he twice tried, and failed, to leave the CDF to return to his old occupation. John Paul prevailed upon him to stay put.

After he was elected pope, Benedict had a striking image placed on his papal seal: a bear with a backpack. It comes from the story of St. Corbinian. According to legend, the saint was traveling to Rome on horseback when a bear attacked and killed his mount. An incensed Corbinian ordered the bear to carry his belongings and the beast obliged. The twist is that Benedict compares himself not to the saint but to the bear. He came to Rome, he is saying, not because he chose this life but because he was compelled to. And he continues to carry that burden.

Benedict considers himself a “confi rmed Augustinian,” writes Rowland, who does a good job of explaining the nature of his disagreement with an interpretation of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas popular in seminaries in the early part of the 20th century known as the “Roman School of Theology” or “Neo-Scholasticism.” The teaching from theological faculties then focused on “tightly defi ned concepts” and “tended to steer clear of any entanglements with the historical dimensions of issues.” The professors saw this ahistoricism “as a virtue,” she writes. But Benedict thought that history deserved more attention.

This created serious problems for him when one of the examiners thought that he detected “Modernism” in the part of the young academic’s post-doctoral thesis that dealt with Divine Revelation. But rather than fi ght over this and lose, writes Rowland, he smartly “decoupled the risqué section from the rest of the document and submitted the remaining uncontroversial sections,” then “sat mute” while two professors loudly bickered over the issue that his new, slimmer thesis didn’t raise.

St. Augustine, Cardinal Ratzinger said in an interview quoted by Rowland, initially interested him “precisely insofar as he was, so to speak, a counterweight to Thomas Aquinas.” But Rowland emphasizes that it was the thought of Neo-Thomists, not the thought of Aquinas himself, against which Ratzinger largely chafed. Ratzinger found that in Augustine’s writing, “the passionate, suffering, questioning man is always right there, and one can identify with him.” His seminary prefect Alfred Laple said that Ratzinger once explained why he was an Augustinian and not a Neo-Scholastic: “An abstraction—he once told me—didn’t need a mother.”

Because of the restrictive theological climate of his university days, Benedict was initially enthusiastic about the promise of the Second Vatican Council. He was one of the bright young theologians encouraging some change, but in diagnosing what went wrong after it, he found an old foe in new clothing.

Professor Rowland writes that Benedict takes strong exception to a “certain Neo-Scholastic approach to the liturgy according to which it is possible to boil down sacramental theology to considerations of form and matter.” She explains, “[P]eople think of the bread and wine as the material of the sacrament, and the words of the institution as its form, and then go on to believe that only these two things are really necessary, that everything else is freely disposable,” and they proceed to toss out far too much.

One inadvertent consequence of Vatican II was the suppression of the Traditional Latin Mass. That view carried the day through the late 60s and the 70s. John Paul II was sympathetic to the traditionalists but his sympathy had limits. A universal Latin indult was long rumored, but never materialized. Cardinal Ratzinger took an ongoing interest in undoing some of the worst liturgical innovations that took place in the name of Vatican II and as Pope finally issued that indult.

Professor Rowland writes that the Pope diplomatically has “stopped short of saying that his predecessor [Paul VI] made a gross pastoral error in his attempted suppression of what is popularly called the Tridentine Mass, but he has come rather close to this mark.” Benedict remarked that “a pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law but is the guardian of the authentic Tradition.”

Ratzinger’s Faith is meant to be an exploration of the Pope’s thinking, not a thematic biography. But Professor Rowland treats Benedict’s ideas with a keen eye to his life, and she largely succeeds in giving us a well developed theology-in-history.

For instance, we learn that Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), grew out of his longstanding grievance with the Vatican II text Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”), which he called the “most problematic of all conciliar texts” because of its lack of serious theological rigor in certain key areas.

The document had tried to “expound spirituality under three aspects: intellect, conscience, and freedom” and, unfortunately, “[n]either the concept of the person nor the idea of love was mentioned.” Professor Rowland explains that “Ratzinger was quite appalled that anyone could attempt to speak of spirituality without thinking that Christian love might have something to do with it.” He pushed John Paul II to fill in the gap and then he decided to make it the subject of his fi rst letter to the whole Church.

Professor Rowland shows us that this was a long-running concern by quoting from an earlier work of Cardinal Ratzinger’s: “becoming a Christian is not taking out an insurance policy. It is not the private booking of an entry ticket to heaven.” On the contrary, and to the point, he said: “[F]aith is nothing but reaching the point in love at which we recognize that we, too, need to be given something.”


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