Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI: An Introduction to His Theological Vision

By Thomas P. Rausch, Paulist Press.

At the end of this demanding investigation of the theological teaching of the current pontiff, author Thomas Rausch acknowledges his still unanswered questions: “Is Pope Benedict's thinking really characterized by historical consciousness, or does it represent a closed hermeneutical circle constituted by the teachings of scripture, the fathers of the church, and the magisterium? Is his thinking truly open to historical development, to new experience, and to the knowledge that comes from experience? When all is said and done, these questions remain.”

Rausch is not as tough or adversarial towards Pope Benedict XVI as these above words suggest. In fact, his discussion of Benedict's dogmatic theology, interpretation of scripture, and teachings on the nature of Christ (Christology), the Church (Ecclesiology), and the liturgy are well-balanced.

The one major contention Rausch has with Benedict concerns the meaning and interpretation of Vatican II, at which the pope played a role as a theological assistant (peritus) to the then Bishop of Munich. The author does a good job of placing Joseph Ratzinger in the middle of the theologically tumultuous twentieth century, when controversial new theories of, for instance, the way to interpret scripture, hit the young Ratzinger square on. Before the Council, he attended and then taught at seminaries and universities that had some of the most controversial thinkers of the Church.

By the time Vatican II happened, Ratzinger had cast himself in the same block as the great French Jesuit Henri de Lubac. Dissatisfied with the legalistic, spiritually dry neo-scholastic theology of the seminaries of the time, de Lubac called for a “return to the sources,” in French rassourcement.

Along with aggionamento (“bringing up to date”), rassourcement was one of the twin pillars of Vatican II. Much of the shenanigans of the Council, as well as later interpretations of what went on, revolve around which of the pillars a given thinker followed. Throughout his career, Ratzinger has advocated a return to the Bible, the Church Fathers, and liturgy – rassourcement - which is explained quite well in Pope Benedict XVI. To understand Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Rausch shows, demands that one understand this journey to the sources.

Thus the current pope has never let go of the pre-Vatican Church's view of humans, which was centred around Saint Augustine's notion of original sin. Grace, in this viewpoint, is everything. Humans could never build the kingdom of God on earth; the kingdom, represented by the coming of Jesus Christ, could only be brought about by God. Rausch makes the invaluable point that, as an Augustinian more than a Thomist, Benedict is closer to the reformers, especially Calvin and Luther, in his thinking on grace and the nature of human beings. In fact, Rausch notes that Benedict likes Luther and often cites him in his own writings.

Reflecting an Augustinian viewpoint, Benedict avoids great change. Not only has he always denied that Vatican II broke with the past, but he has also lamented Pope Paul VI's rejection of a place for the Latin Mass in the post-conciliar Church.

Rausch's discussion on the philosophical basis to Augustine, and therefore to Benedict XVI's thought, is concise and useful. It enables the reader to see why the media and countless onlookers often regard Benedict as stubborn and unable to change. Following Platonism, Benedict believes in the existence of an intelligible, unchanging, ahistorical truth: “[L]ike Plato, Ratzinger locates the true and the good beyond the world of experience, in the spiritual.”

Thus Ratzinger instinctively opposes the moral and intellectual relativism of contemporary Western society, asserting that Plato's sense of wisdom is the antidote to such thinking. Rausch explains that if in the 1980s Ratzinger was opposed to Marxism and liberation theology because of its subjectivism and attempts to build the kingdom of God on earth (not to mention its rejection of ecclesiastical hierarchy), he began to turn his attention to the “dictatorship of reason” in the mid-1990s, after the collapse of Eastern European communism.

Ratzinger believes that experience of God does indeed bring knowledge of God, but that this is not the subjective theology of American Pentecostals. Rather, the experience of a personal God happens most authentically within the context of the hierarchical, apostolic, Eucharistic Church and its liturgy.

His sense of liturgy, as part of the return to the sources, and his reliance on Platonism and Augustinian theology, informs Ratzinger's opposition to secular salvation narratives such as Marxism, liberation theology, radical feminism, or relativism and skepticism. This Platonism anchors his assertion of, in Rausch's words, “the primacy of the idea.” Rausch defines this as “a 'principle of reception,' with the emphasis always on what is received in its givenness, rather than on what develops or changes in the world of time and experience.” This reflects an already-defined (that is, a priori) schema in the pope's thinking.

Pope Benedict XVI: An Introduction clearly shows the roots to the current pontiff's remarkably coherent, precise, and consistent theology. Rausch's discussion is, unfortunately, incomplete, as the book feels fragmented at times, as we move among widely different topics. Also, Rausch's brief criticism's of the pontiff's thinking are rushed and too brief. Perhaps these shortcomings reflect the depth and breadth of Benedict's thought, which is hard to grasp in its entirety, than any shortcomings on Rausch's part.

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