Getting to the heart of Pope Benedict's theological thinking
A Guide for the Perplexed
by Tracey Rowland
(T & T Clark International, 2011, 160pp, $29.95, ISBN: 978-0-56703-437-3. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Hardly a week transpires without some element of the media either praising, but more often than not, criticising statements made by Benedict XVI. However, there is the sense when reading most of them that few if any writers really understand the complexity and nuances of the Pope's thought. This volume addresses that challenge.
Although extensive reference is made to Benedict's written works and other texts such as his addresses, A Guide for the Perplexed treats the subject matter thematically complementing Dr Rowland's previously published work Ratzinger's Faith, reviewed in an earlier issue of AD2000, which unlike this volume is designed for a more general readership.
The work commences with a consideration of the Romantic antecedents to Cardinal Ratzinger's thought. As with Rowland's earlier book, central to the understanding of this thought is the Pope's preference for Augustine over the neo-Scholasticism of his formation that was then the predominant theological methodology. Of particular concern was the ahistorical nature of Thomism, which Benedict argues was not well equipped to deal with the existential crisis of the twentieth century. Instead, he preferred a personalist approach.
Also discussed in Chapter One is the Pope's endorsement of what has been described as the "Hermeneutic of Continuity." As with Ratzinger's Faith central to Rowland's analysis is the understanding that there is a continuity of thought – albeit with certain developments – in Cardinal Ratzinger's writings that is, he was not a liberal in the 1960s who became a conservative at a later stage. His approach and that of the Communio school are perhaps most evident in their assessment of Vatican II which they argue is part of and needs to be interpreted in the light of and within the context of tradition, instead of being a rupture with the past.
Tracey Rowland's second chapter considers the incarnation in the light of humanist culture. Of particular interest is her consideration of Benedict's understanding of culture. For him, Christianity is not simply one of a number of cultural expressions nor is any culture neutral. He thus regards modernity as problematic in relation to Christianity rather than as a benign force.
Arguably one of the most engaging chapters in this work is the third, "Revelation, Tradition and Hermeneutics". Cardinal Ratzinger saw a clear link between the ahistorical nature of Scholastic theology and its divorce between belief and people's affective dimensions with its emphasis on dogma as being a set of propositions to which one had to assent.
For him, the heart of revelation is Christ Himself who calls humanity into relationship with him: dogma explains aspects of Him with whom believers are in relation, a vision of revelation consistent with that of Dei Verbum (1965). Drawing on scholars such as Newman - one of his favourite theologians - Benedict also recognises the importance of development of doctrine, which requires an understanding of the historical context.
The importance of history also underscores his critique of biblical scholars such as Bultmann who accepted very little of the Gospel narratives as being historical. Cardinal Ratzinger argued that such an approach placed the preaching above the event, which it regarded as almost incidental. However, he is also critical of historical approaches that would strip away any meaning from revelation by relativising it to the culture of the time.
The next chapter, "The Theological Virtues", explores the Pope's thought on the virtues of faith, hope and love. In these chapters, extensive reference is made to his encyclicals. Rejecting a notion that a commonly agreed anthropology can be devised either without reference to these virtues, or treating them as an addendum, Benedict argues that humanity cannot be understood apart from them. In many respects, the greatest denial has been of the virtue of hope - that is the hope for union with God in heaven - with a vague optimism, which believes that the task of Christianity is simply to make the world a better place.
Chapter 5 then explores the link between history and ontology in the wake of Martin Heidegger's thought, which explores material from Cardinal Ratzinger's Principles of Catholic Theology, arguing that he believes this to be at the heart of the crisis of faith. Part of this crisis is found in the infiltration of Marxist ideology into Christian thought. The final chapters consider his thought in regard to Christianity and other faith traditions and his vision of unity, manifested arguably most recently in his response to the request for Anglicans to be received into full communion with the Church while retaining elements of their liturgical heritage.
As with Dr Rowland's two earlier books, Benedict XVI is the product of thorough and meticulous scholarship. The author displays an adroit understanding not only of Benedict's works (both as Pope and before) but also those of his intellectual antecedents and secondary sources about his thought. Of particular note is the author's skill in synthesising the Pope's considerable output.
This work is arguably the most comprehensive and up to date survey of Benedict's works available, although it presumes some prior theological background on the part of the reader.