Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI by Tracey Rowland

Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI,
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.

8 comments:

mshedden said...

I am not Catholic but I am not convinced the best way forward for the current Pope is through Calvin. Wouldn't he be better served by a more catholic vision of the faith and a less Catholic one? Even if he digested Calvin I am not sure it would allow for different forms of church to exist in the world. Unless digesting Calvin means becoming Presbyterian but than we are just dreaming.
What I really wanted to comment on was the "get thee to a nunnery" line. I think it is fitting that Benedict ends up exactly in the same spot Alistair Mcintyre did at the end of After Virtue. I think both of them think two things are against us right now that suggest now is not the time to be a cultural changer. The first is that churches lack practices that are powerful enough to make us aware that we are in fact different. The totalizing narrative of the modern world is something the church currently doesn't seem capable of facing.
But examples of when the church has succeeded at this is when the culture had enough shared practices and language that a Christian like Wilberforce was capable of speaking in a Christian way in culture that took him seriously. Nowadays we have Jim Wallis (I am not a fan) and he is not even taken seriously but only as he conforms to dominate message of culture. Without shared commitments this might not be the time to be "bringing Christian values to bear upon public life." Which is why I am glad the pope here is more anabaptist than reformed.

Paul Tyson said...

Yes, I think ‘get the to a nunnery’ and rather two dimensional comments about Ratzinger’s preparedness to allow the Latin mass again do not really do Benedict XVI much justice. As the previous post comments, the question of how one engages with the modern world is no easy question and the RC church under the last 2 popes has endeavoured to take nuanced and thoughtful stances on these matters. Vatican 2 had some very pro-modern tendencies, some remarkably open tendencies towards non-RC Christians, a strong re-focusing on the role of the Bible for every believer, and, via Guardini de Lubac and others, some very nuanced appreciations of the cultural crisis modernity is deeply in. Trying to sort through these powerful currents after Vatican 2 has been no easy task for the mother ship (RC), and, as an interested outsider, I think they have done remarkably well.

As an anabaptistish Evangelical I think we do well to look for points of contact between our heritage in radical non-conformism and the RC church’s post Vatican 2 very strong interest in re-vitalizing the church as an alternative community to the culture of modernity. What it means to be church, in, but not of, modern (ie liberal, pragmatic, consumeristic) individualism is a question we Evangelicals have not managed very well at all. Tracey Rowland’s book is, I think, very helpful for non RCs in pointing out some of the inner terrain of the RC struggle with being an alternative community of Christ within the contemporary world.

Augustinian Successor said...

The pope and the papacy is the Antichrist.

NO justification by faith alone, NO unity.

It is really that simple. Forget the rest. These are 'side-shows.'

In other words, what Ratzinger need is a good dose of Luther. When he does, that'll be the end of him literally (the death of the Old Adam) as well as ecclesially as the pope.

The Roman Church cannot be reformed anymore can it undo its irreformable character. This is the whole point.

If this is not grasped, then evangelicalism will continue to lose its savour. Then, revival is NOT the answer ...

Augustinian Successor said...

"nature is perfected by grace ..."

Nature is NOT perfected by grace ... no, that's not the Augustinian model. Nature is DELIVERED by grace so that it can truly once again be nature. Human nature is not perfected by grace, it is rescued, redeemed, freed by grace. This Luther maintained and upheld as an Augustinian legacy.

If one wants to talk about perfection, then one must observe the distinctio between 'ontology' and 'eschatology' - the 'now' and 'not yet.'

Now nature is not yet perfect, although one could speak of healed from the empirical, experiential perspective ... the outward appearance. But nature is already in a sense healed or perfected already, completely, but this is still for the present time hidden from view.

At the end of the day, without a truly Augustinian and catholic worldview, it's really difficult for the modern day evangelical to try to positively engage with the Roman Church without at the same time undercutting, compromising and weakening his own claims.

Augustinianism is a whole package. You cannot just affirm predestination but ignore the sacramental part like baptismal regeneration, or the Real Presence or even the liturgy.

Augustinian Successor said...

One must not confuse Catholicism with Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism is a branch of Christianity just as Romanists are Christians and the Roman Church is a Church. But the distinction between true and false or at least the distinction between what is truly catholic and what is not as seen from the perspective of the Gospel and Scripture must be in front.


Practically speaking too, one cannot approach engagement with the Roman Church without a real continuity with the catholic tradition. Evangelicalism lacks this continuity. The consequence is that one approaches the issue of catholicity and catholicism as a *sectarian*.

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks for your comments, gentlemen. I admit my "get thee to a nunnery" jibe, was something of a cheap shot, but this is a blog rather than a serious theological journal, so cheap shots are allowed. Besides, Ratzinger does commend solitude and withdrawal from the world in the Subiaco Address. I freely admit that Evangelicalism has not always succeeded in faithfully engaging with the world. Some have opted to retreat into a cultural cul-de-sac that is virtually akin to Protestant monasticism. Others have all too willingly allowed the world to set the agenda of the church. I believe that David Wells offers a penetrating analysis of this problem in Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World. I was going to say something about this in the review, but it was already rather long.

In response to Augustine's Successor, in saying that 'grace perfects nature' I was trying to summarise Ratzinger's theology as stated on p. 37 of the book. I agree with him that grace does not destroy the created order, but rescues it from sin and its entropic results. Of course, grace perfects nature redemptively and the created order will only be perfected at the parousia.

Wally Morris said...

I remember when the Catholic Church was still trying to decide who the next Pope would be after John Paul II. Somewhere I read that the next Pope would be called Benedict [this was before a new Pope had been chosen]. When the Cardinals chose Ratzinger to be the new Pope and his name came to be Benedict, I was surprised and interested. So I did more reading {I wish I could remember where I was reading this info], and it also said that the new Pope would be the last Pope before some "super-Pope". Not sure what to make of this, but interesting.

cantueso said...

I read that some of you want him to study Luther and some would rather recommend some Calvin, but remember: he has no time.

So your recommendations should include some basic work on PR management.

Now the world is again all in uproar because the Vatican published how they mean to fight priests who abuse minors and bishops who ordain women all in once sentence as if they were more or less the same thing.