RATZINGER'S FAITH: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, by Tracey Rowland

RATZINGER'S FAITH: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, by Tracey Rowland

Michael E. Daniel

'Ratzinger's Faith': an excellent introduction to Benedict XV's thought and writings

The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI
by Tracey Rowland
(Oxford University Press, hardback, 2008, 214pp, $39.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)

'Panzer Cardinal', 'God's rottweiler', 'the Grand Inquisitor.'

A cursory glance of some of the more liberal commentators would have the man (or woman) on the street believe the myth/caricature that Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, was one of the good guys at Vatican II; however, soon afterwards, he abandoned the cause for the renewal of the Church to become a leading conservative.

Upon his appointment as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he assumed the role of John Paul II's henchman, relentlessly pursuing and persecuting those whom he and his backward looking and insular thinking peasant boss from Poland believed had defected, even slightly, from their vision of Church, including Ratzinger's former associates and allies.


In her second book, Dr Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul Institute for Marriage and the Family, Melbourne, clearly demonstrates that the caricature/myth presented above is precisely that: a facile and egregious caricature/myth that fails to take into account the complexity of Ratzinger's thought and key trends that have emerged within his writings spanning almost five decades.

Rowland successfully demonstrates that far from being the conservative his liberal critics imagine him to be, Ratzinger developed his theological position in reaction to the Neo- Scholastic approach which had dominated theological studies in the decades prior to Vatican II, that is, the way in which the thought of St Thomas Aquinas had been commonly interpreted, following, in particular, interpretations by Suarez in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Instead, Ratzinger sought inspiration primarily from the theology of St Augustine.

Ratzinger was particularly critical of the sharp distinction made between nature and grace, faith and reason. Although these distinctions, made in the Counter-Reformation period onwards, were a reaction to a Protestantism which debased human nature and reason, the practical effect was that the logical progression of these divisions was secularism.

Contrary to the traditionalist position, which sees the crisis in the Church as the result of the abandonment of neo-scholastic philosophy and theology, Ratzinger believes that the faith-reason and grace-nature divisions prepared the groundwork for the enlightenment and 19th century rationalism, with Immanuel Kant's pure reason being an integral part of this intellectual pedigree.

Rowland argues that Ratzinger's model is closer to the thought of Aquinas himself and thus more faithful to the Catholic tradition since 'faith presupposes reason and perfects it, and reason, enlightened by faith, finds the strength to rise to knowledge of God and spiritual realities' (p. 5).

Ratzinger has warmly endorsed what he calls the daring new theological anthropology of Gaudium et Spes (par 22) but criticised some sections of the document's drafting. Whilst it attempted to provide a different approach from the neo-scholastic position, Gaudium et Spes maintained its distinctions such that a literal reading of certain sections suggests that 'the Incarnation is a kind of Christian gloss on an otherwise perfect secular humanist canvas' (p. 35).

Ratzinger instead calls for a Christian anthropology which does not allow for an approach that sees secular life as autonomous from faith, such that faith is an intrusion into secular society. However, he acknowledges Gaudium et Spes' observation that atheism is not so much a failure of epistemology as a search for an authentic humanism; thus, atheism must be answered with an authentic anthropology.

Ratzinger's responses to the Neo-Scholastic position can be seen particularly in his approach towards revelation and morality. Rowland argues that his approach to Dei Verbum is, on the whole, extremely positive, since for him, revelation cannot be reduced to a list of abstract propositions and faith an assent to these propositions.

Rather, as Dei Verbum notes, revelation is the revelation of God to humans, and faith is an encounter with and an entering into a relationship with God. Following St Augustine, Ratzinger argues that all the faculties of the soul, namely the memory, the intellect and the will are involved in the reception of revelation.

God of love

Similarly, Ratzinger argues that an over-distinction between grace and nature has fostered an approach which views ethics as being autonomous from faith. The responses to this were Jansenism and a semi-pelagianist approach. The reduction of morality to a casuistical rule-based list of duties and obligations, which often stated or presented minimum requirements for a moral response, laid the groundwork for the secularist reaction.

For Ratzinger, there is a distinctive Christian ethic which is grounded in the Christian belief that God is a God of love who calls humans, in the words of St Ignatius of Loyola (whom Rowland cites), 'to give, and not to count the cost' (p. 76).

It is thus no surprise that Benedict XV's first encyclical is named and explores the concept that 'God is Love' (Deus Caritas Est). Indeed, he goes as far as to argue that history is a struggle between love and the inability to love and that 'refusal to accept the gift of Christianity has tragic consequences for the prospects of love' (p.147).

These Neo-Scholastic distinctions, according to Ratzinger, have also impacted on the liturgical reforms in the wake of Vatican II. An approach that regarded beauty as superfluous rather than integral and which made too sharp a distinction between the outward appearance and inner reality resulted in a reductionist approach to liturgy which largely failed to deliver the renewal of faith the Council envisaged.

Thus, Ratzinger has been critical of approaches, such as 'sacro-pop' music, dance and the exclusion of Latin, that seek to diminish beauty - for beauty points to a transcendent God who is all beautiful.

Whilst the Council called for active participation, what was too often overlooked was that the integral meaning of 'active' was the internal participation of the faithful present, with liturgical participation such as vocalising the responses in the vernacular being secondary.

All too often such liturgies have degenerated into celebrations of the community rather than a community being gathered to worship the Triune God. In celebrating 'community', many communities believed they could make almost any alteration to the liturgy to make it more 'meaningful'. And many bishops would tolerate almost anything except celebrations of what is now known as the Extraordinary Form, commonly called the 'Latin Mass', despite the fact that this liturgy had been celebrated by the Church for centuries.

Such eclectic interpretations of the liturgy can be said to correlate with approaches to ecclesiology, of which Ratzinger is critical, that overemphasise the Council's teaching of the Church as the 'people of God' and which see the Church primarily as a fellowship of local Churches, at the expense of belief in the Church as the 'body of Christ.'

Fullness of the faith

Ratzinger has thus been vigorous in his defence of Dominus Jesus, the doctrinal statement from the Congregation for the the Doctrine of the Faith (2000), underscoring the teaching that the Church subsists only in the Catholic Church and that the Church does possess the fullness of the faith.

Whilst Ratzinger, as Benedict XVI, actively participates in ecumenical events, he is realistic about the possibilities of a reunion with Anglicanism, given changes adopted in recent decades by that communion; instead, he looks forward to an eventual reunion with the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Ratzinger's Faith is an excellent introduction to the thought and writing of Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). Dr Rowland's work manifests a thorough knowledge as well as an adroit analysis and synthesis of his writings and thought.

Whilst this work is not as intellectually demanding of the reader as her previous work, Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II, a full engagement with the ideas contained therein presumes some theological knowledge. The chapters most accessible are arguably the most interesting and those most likely to irritate Ratzinger's liberal critics, namely the chapters on ecclesiology and liturgy.

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