Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI,
Tracey Rowland, Oxford University Press, 2009, 214pp
Tracey Rowland, Oxford University Press, 2009, 214pp
Regular readers of this blog won't be surprised to learn that I disagree with quite a few aspects of Ratzinger's theology. I mean, is the pope a Catholic? And hey, many members of the Roman Catholic Church aren't exactly enthusiastic about the stance taken by the current pope. He is often depicted as a brutalist reactionary bent on undoing the more 'enlightened and open' policies of Vatican II. When Ratzinger succeeded Pope John Paul II one American Roman Catholic complained, it "is like electing Rumsfeld after George Bush" (see here). With that in mind you might think that a sympathetic treatment of Ratzinger's theology would be hard to find. But this is exactly what Tracey Rowland attempts to offer in this book, where she gives an insightful account of some of the key themes in pope Benedict XVI's teaching.
She begins by situating Ratzinger among contemporary Roman Catholic theologians. According to one reading of the pope's theological trajectory he set out as something of a radical, but horrified by the changes instigated by Vatican II he became an increasingly reactionary and authoritarian figure. Rowland argues that this is an overly simplistic reading of Ratzinger's theological development. What he has sought is not in fact a return to the 'glory days' of pre-conciliar Catholicism. Ratzinger was critical of the 'Baroque Thomism' that characterised the thinking of many Roman Catholic theologians in the first half of the 20th century. He especially disliked their dualistic understanding of the relationship between nature and grace, arguing that they had bought into the Kantian dichotomy between the spiritual and the natural worlds. Influenced by Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger preferred a more more Augustinian model in which nature is perfected by grace. It is this basic Augustinian stance that separates him from radicals like Hans Kung and Karl Rahner. In Rahner's thought grace is virtually collapsed into nature to the extent that a person may be an 'anonymous Christian' simply by the light of nature without ever having encountered the gracious revelation of God in Christ.
Ratzinger has devoted the whole of his career to one main aim. Both in his previous role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now as pope he has sought to to stop the Roman Catholic Church accommodating itself to the modern world with its rationalistic mindset. This is what makes him wary of the changes implemented in the wake of Vatican II. He argues that adopting the agenda of the Enlightenment is destructive of the Christian faith, "if the Church were to accommodate herself to the world in any way that would entail a turning from the Cross, that would not lead to a renewal of the Church, but only to her death." His predecessor pope John Paul II endeavoured to forge points of contact with the modern world, attending pop concerts and investing the Enlightenment slogans like "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" with fresh Christian meaning. But Ratzinger is having none of it, preferring the purity of the Latin Mass over liturgical innovations in the name of 'relevance'.
This critique of Enlightenment rationalism does not entail a rejection of reason itself and the fruits of reason in the scientific process. But human reason on its own is not sufficient. Ratzinger argues that reason needs to be enlightened by the logos of God, Jesus Christ if it is not to descend into the nihilistic atheism and mindless consumerism that features so strongly in contemporary European society. Evangelical Protestant will agree with with many of the points made in the chapter on Modernity and the Politics of the West. Further thoughtful reflections on modernity and the Church are found in the two appendices with which the book concludes, The Subiaco Address and the infamous Regensburg Address, which sparked off riots in the Muslim world.
However, before we get too exited, Ratzinger's solution to the problem of rampant secularism in the West is not a recovery of biblical gospel. He commends the example of Benedict of Norcia who fled from the wicked world to found a monastery at Monte Casino (p. 165). So, the current pope's prescription for the church in the face of the challenge of modernity is akin to Hamlet's advice to Ophelia, "get thee to a nunnery". I can't see how that might help. The Church has been not been called to withdraw from the world but to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the nations. Doing so entails faithfulness to the gospel revealed in Holy Scripture and meaningful engagement with the contemporary world. Which is why the Reformers translated the Bible into the language of the people and worshipped God in the vernacular. At its best Evangelical Protestantism has succeeded in being both gospel-centred and missional. Also, Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce and Lord Shatesbury have been at the forefront of social reform, bringing Christian values to bear upon public life.
Rowland is more interested in placing Ratzinger's faith in the context of Roman Catholic teaching than in entering into dialogue with Evangelical Protestant theology. References to Protestant thought are brief and rather dismissive. The scholar is quick to distance Ratzinger's appreciation of Augustine from the Calvinistic understanding of the great Church Father. However, it seems that Ratzinger is sensitive to the Protestant charge that Roman Catholic theology is often far too philosophical and distanced from Holy Scripture. He offers a rich, trinitarian account of revelation in which revelation is not so much about information as the transformation of the person in the life of the Trinity (p. 51). So far so good. But this does not mean that the current pope has jettisoned papal infallibility for the sake of sola scriptura. Roman Catholic Tradition remains on a par with the Bible and the faithful are still subject to the authoritative Magisterium of the Church.
Once more along Augustinian lines, Ratzinger wishes to shift Roman Catholic piety away from an overwhelming emphasis on duty and meritorious good works. He rightly sees this as little more than Pelagian moralism. Instead he proposes a renewed focus on the grace of God communicated to the sinner in a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Ratzinger insists that the antidote to 'Christian Pharisaism' is found in 1 John 4:16. This sounds like music to the Calvinist's ears, until we read that the Benedict XVI's prescription for moving beyond moralism to the love and grace of God is a rekindling of devotion to the cult of the Sacred Heart. Isn't this the problem with the Roman Catholic Church? We agree on so much, the Trinity, the Person of Christ, pro-marriage and pro-life biblical ethics, but where did all this other stuff come from? We cannot swallow the Roman Catholic additions to the biblical account of salvation in Christ that end up negating the gospel of sovereign grace. We reject Roman Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the sake of devotion to our risen Lord himself.
The current pope is intent on not allowing the Church he leads to sell its birthright for a mess of Enlightenment pottage. But what the Roman Catholic Church needs to do is not simply react against the modern world, but reform its doctrines and practices in the light of Scripture. Peter Jones of Westminster Seminary California met Ratzinger at the Vatican when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He gave him the gift of a specially bound copy of the Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (see here). Calvin was a consistent Augustinian in a way that Ratzinger is not. His was utterly gripped by the Church Father's biblical vision of salvation by grace alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone. I don't know whether Ratzinger has ever taken the time to read the Institutes, but if he did and took the Reformer's words to heart, it would have a powerful and transforming effect on his faith. In other words, Benedict XVI's theology could do with a good dose of Calvinism.