The timing and intent of Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a “New Evangelization” have as much to do with his theological and pastoral pedigree as they do with the state of affairs in which the Church lives. His early contributions to the topics of revelation, human history, and the relation between the two—which brought the young Joseph Ratzinger both praise and charges of championing “dangerous modernism”—today assist the Church in engaging modern ills with the enduring truths of the Gospel.
Of course, with a mind as expansive as Pope Benedict’s, no one event, or even a series of them, can be said to be “the” development that defines him. Certainly, his upbringing in Catholic Bavaria, his forced participation in World War II as a teenager, and his days among bomb-damaged seminary buildings studying St. Augustine, Henri de Lubac, Romano Guardini, Martin Buber, and so many others all influenced who the man is today. Still, not every encounter with the past has equal influence.
Joachim of Fiore, St. Bonaventure, and salvation history
In the mid-1950s, Father Joseph Ratzinger began work on his second doctoral thesis—a standard requirement of the German theological academy. The study would introduce him to a dramatic moment in Church history, when rumors of the world’s end and the coming of a new age clashed with Christian orthodoxy. The players in this drama were Joachim of Fiore, an eccentric 12th-century Italian abbot; St. Bonaventure, a 13th-century leader of the Franciscan Order; and an overly idealistic group of Franciscans known as Spiritualists.
Ratzinger concluded that Joachim, Bonaventure, and the events of the 13th century brought to the Church a “new theory of scriptural exegesis which emphasizes the historical character” of Scripture. This new theory was, notably, “in contrast to the exegesis of the Fathers and the Scholastics which had been more clearly directed to the unchangeable and the enduring.” In finding value in such a view, Ratzinger aligned himself with a school of theologians that sought fresh approaches to orthodox Christian theology.
Evidence for this new view of revelation came from available notes from lectures by Bonaventure given in response to the followers of Joachim, the mystic whose writings had enthralled a troubled Europe. This attraction came, in large part, from how Joachim wove worldly activity into salvation history, and the particular way in which he structured this interplay with biblically-inspired numerical schemes.
For instance, Joachim’s numerology broke ranks with a long-held Augustinian view of time that divided world history into seven ages. For Augustine, these seven ages corresponded to the six days of creation—with the cosmic clock now ticking in the sixth age (which dawned on the first Easter) while moving towards the seventh age (which would bring the eternal Sabbath rest).
Joachim saw history in a Trinitarian light, which encouraged his readers to envision an age of the Father, corresponding to the Old Testament; an age of the Son, corresponding with the New Testament; and a yet-to-come new age of the Holy Spirit, which would complete the process of revelation. For some of Joachim’s followers, this new age would be one of spiritual awakening—of a new reality with no need of the Cross.
Joachim’s death in 1202 and an ecclesial condemnation in 1215 didn’t diminish his following. Quite the opposite occurred. Because Joachim seemed to imply that the year 1260 would herald the Second Coming, soldiers, kings, and clerics of the age couldn’t help but wonder if the world was indeed ending. Were Muslim invasions signs of the Apocalypse? Were the growing mendicant orders proof that God was preparing a people for the eschaton? And if so, how should one respond to—or work to bring about—this coming of a new age?
With this heightened expectancy, and for reasons related to Trinitarian dogma, 13th-century theologians denounced Joachim’s writings. But for some Franciscans, Joachim had merely stated the obvious: History as it had been known since the time of the Apostles had come to an end with the coming of Francis. Joachimist elements within the Franciscans became known as the Spiritualists, and they found themselves at odds with just about everyone else in their order and the Church.
In 1257—three years before what many thought would be the Second Coming—the deeply divided order elected Bonaventure of Bagnoregio as their Minister General. In his new role, Bonaventure was given the task of steering the entirety of his flock to orthodoxy—which he accomplished. Indeed, as a pastor, he intervened with sensitivity to the range of expressions and beliefs within the order. As a leader entrusted to protect the work of his beloved Francis, he deftly negotiated ecclesial suspicions and Spiritualist fervor by discarding what had been condemned and retaining those elements of Joachim that had value. As Ratzinger will demonstrate, Bonaventure found much in Joachim worth salvaging.
For instance, we learn that Bonaventure employed a division of world-history that had similarities to Joachim’s. Ratzinger found this particularly important because in adopting some of what Joachim suggested, Bonaventure not only provided the Spiritualists a road home, he also shifted Christianity’s theology of history from an Augustinian view, which fixed Christ at “the end of the ages” to a new interpretation with Christ firmly in “the center of the ages.”
Ratzinger tells us that, thanks to Joachim, the placement of Christ at the midpoint of history allows Bonaventure to emphasize the “historical character” of engaging Scripture because, while all ages relate to the center, all ages are different. This is where Ratzinger received criticism for holding a “dangerous modernism,” which he writes about in his memoirs, Milestones. The exact charge by one of his advisors—and supported by other theologians—was this: In championing Bonaventure’s historical character of biblical exegesis, Ratzinger would open the door to “the subjectivization of the concept of revelation.” That is, the meaning of revelation would be reinterpreted by each generation to the point of irrelevance to the human person.
This is, of course, not what Ratzinger proposed, and after polite revisions and a heated battle among his advisors, Ratzinger’s doctoral thesis on Bonaventure was accepted. He was free to present his findings to the wider, ecclesial world.
For the future pontiff, Bonaventure’s appreciation of Joachim’s dynamic theology of history seemed an obvious reality for the medieval Church, and it should to us. By the 12th century, it was clear that history had not been idly waiting for the Second Coming, nor was the Church. History was in motion. It was unpredictable, bloody, and brought to humanity new realities—some of them surprisingly wonderful, but many replete with loneliness and desolation and, thus, always in need of Christ.
At the end of his thesis, Ratzinger makes a statement that may very well define his pontificate. He notes that while for Bonaventure it is true that for now “the breath of a new age is blowing, an age in which the desire for the glory of the other world is shaped by a deep love of this earth on which we live,” what remains vital for both Augustine and Bonaventure, irrespective of their differences, is the pastoral exhortation that Christians must attend to the needs of the here and now—“that the Church which hopes for peace in the future is, nonetheless, obliged to love in the present.”
The unchanging Gospel and the New Evangelization
Thus, the central reality of the Church is the point of contact between revelation and our individual and communal moments of the present. Joachim and his followers, however, offered a tempting, and false, alternative path—one that still has its adherents. In the 1970s, Ratzinger wrote in his opus on eschatology that “the hope aroused by Joachim’s teaching was first taken up by a segment of the Franciscan Order, but subsequently underwent increasing secularization until eventually it was turned into political utopia. The goal of the utopian vision remained embedded in Western consciousness, stimulating a quest for its own realization and preparing the way for that interest in concrete utopias which has been such a determinative element in political thought since the 19th century.”
This is not the only reference to Joachim one finds in Ratzinger’s later writings. His work on eschatology will return to Joachim, and many of his texts, talks, and homilies will raise the specter of the paradise-is-in-our-reach worldview that Joachimist thought unleashed.
To counter the resulting Western hope for better living through chemistry, economics, and political revolutions, Pope Benedict, like Bonaventure, offers Christ’s unchanging Gospel of love. In Caritas in Veritate, his third and most-recent encyclical to the Church, the Holy Father writes that “[t]he Church’s social doctrine illuminates with an unchanging light the new problems that are constantly emerging.”
Indeed, when one examines Ratzinger’s post-Vatican II commentary on revelation or his pontifical homilies and encyclicals, one repeatedly finds him insisting that the unchanging light of Church doctrines—which participate in and shine forth from the unchanging light of revelation—has the power to elevate whatever that the Church encounters. For Benedict XVI, then, evangelization is what takes place when revelation slips through history. Like a ship’s bow cutting the seas, revelation lifts and aerates. It also divides, because revelation offers a choice—it offers an encounter with a Person, and, should we wish, we need not stay and get to know Him.
In announcing the upcoming Year of Faith—which is inherently linked with New Evangelization—the Holy Father notes that “[o]ne thing that will be of decisive importance in this Year is retracing the history of our faith, marked as it is by the unfathomable mystery of the interweaving of holiness and sin. While the former highlights the great contribution that men and women have made to the growth and development of the community through the witness of their lives, the latter must provoke in each person a sincere and continuing work of conversion in order to experience the mercy of the Father which is held out to everyone.”
In other words, the call to New Evangelization is not a new reality for the Church. Rather, it reminds the Church of its command from Christ to offer eternal truths, to struggle and give witness to these truths, and, thus, to sacramentally embrace the ills of any age with divine doctrines—and to do so not with idyllic plans for a happy tomorrow, but with the Cross of sacrifice and by loving in the present.
Pope Benedict repeatedly reminds us that Christian love, when authentic, is sacramental because it offers transformative hope and meaning. Whether the Pontiff speaks of eros and agape, global economics, or global ecologies, or he attempts to shift the anthropological understanding of marriage, life, and death, he offers what might be called sacramental social doctrines—teachings that in themselves foster necessary shifts in what he has called our inner attitudes. In transforming these attitudes, people and cultures can live, love, work, buy, and sell with a greater concern for their neighbors, their labor force, and their ecosystems. In offering the Christian proclamation that God is love, men and women can grow to understand that marriage is not a societal celebration of sentimental or biological urges. Rather, marriage exists for reasons that transcend the happy couple. It is meant for the conception, nurturing, and protection of future generations, all in the particular, gender-inclusive bond of love between a woman and a man. Reacquainting the modern world with such truths—and doing so firmly and with charity—is one facet of New Evangelization.
What New Evangelization is not, the Pontiff has expressed quite clearly, is the fruit of human planning. It is not the ushering in of a new, worldly Christian kingdom—the collapse of Christendom should have taught us this. And it is certainly not a Joachimist fervor that denies the Cross, or ignores the will of the God who mounted it. Indeed, the New Evangelization is a pastoral response to a world that grew up Christian, learned about history as progress from Joachimist worldviews, and now suffers angst without the life source of Joachim’s original foundation—Jesus Christ. The New Evangelization is also a reminder to many of the faithful, especially in the West, that the Church of 2050 will, outwardly, look unlike the Church of 1950.
In laying out his thoughts on New Evangelization in 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger speaks with Bonaventurian force when he teaches that “[n]ew evangelization cannot mean: immediately attracting the large masses that have distanced themselves from the Church by using new and more refined methods. No—this is not what new evangelization promises. New evangelization means: never being satisfied with the fact that from the grain of mustard seed, the great tree of the Universal Church grew; never thinking that the fact that different birds may find place among its branches can suffice—rather, it means to dare, once again and with the humility of the small grain, to leave up to God the when and how it will grow (Mark 4:26-29).”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!