The Church in Crisis

Pope Benedict's Theological Vision

In articles about Pope Benedict XVI, much has been made of his experience of student unrest at the University of Tübingen in 1968. Many see that experience as the best explanation of the apparent intellectual about-face that turned the young progressive theologian of the Second Vatican Council into the poster-child of conservative reaction in theology and in church politics. There is something to this, and Joseph Ratzinger was not the only European intellectual to have been deeply affected by the excesses of the fascists of the left at the time. (We all know the definition of a neoconservative: a liberal who’s been mugged.)

But overemphasizing that Tübingen experience may lead one to overlook the deeper continuity in the new pope’s basic theological approach and vision.

In his early seminary and university studies, Ratzinger eagerly benefited from the renewal of theology and pastoral practice that had begun before the Second World War and flourished in the late 1940s and 1950s. He shared the view that scholastic theology “was no longer an instrument for bringing faith into the contemporary discussion,” that theology had to find a new language, a new openness. It could no longer be satisfied with being “encyclical theology,” it needed room to breathe. Ratzinger has described the “feeling of radical change” abroad when he was pursuing his theological studies, “the sense of a theology that had the courage to ask new questions and a spirituality that was doing away with what was dusty and obsolete and leading to a new joy in the redemption. Dogma was conceived, not as an external shackle, but as the living source that made knowledge of the truth possible in the first place. The church came to life for us above all in the liturgy and in the great richness of the theological tradition.”

Impatience with neoscholasticism also led Ratzinger to resist the nearly exclusive emphasis placed on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. The latter’s “crystal-clear logic” he found “too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made.” He far preferred Augustine’s personalism in all its passion and depth. His doctoral dissertation was on the ecclesiology of St. Augustine, and the great saint would remain by far the most powerful influence on his thought, not least in the distinction between wisdom (sapientia) and knowledge (scientia) and on humility as the necessary road to truth. In his Habilitationschrift, his second dissertation qualifying him as a university lecturer, he turned to a subject in the Middle Ages, again avoiding Aquinas by choosing to study the notion of revelation in St. Bonaventure, the great representative of neo-Augustinianism. When his work was criticized by one professor for approaching a Modernist, subjectivist notion of revelation, Ratzinger excerpted one part of it and published it as The Theology of History According to St. Bonaventure (Franciscan Herald Press).

The last chapter of this work helps explain Ratzinger’s basic approach to the situation of faith in the modern world. He himself drew an analogy between the postconciliar mood of the late 1960s and the turbulent years in the mid-thirteenth century when the translation of the works of Aristotle and of his Arabian commentators threatened the structure of traditional theology. In Aquinas’s response to the intellectual crisis, the distinction began to emerge between theology and philosophy and, along with the latter, the sciences of nature, which implies, of course, a certain autonomy for those other disciplines. Ratzinger shows how Bonaventure set himself against this development and continued to insist on the unity of Christian wisdom for which Christ was the center of all knowledge. “Only faith,” Bonaventure wrote, “divides the light from the darkness.” Bonaventure ended in an anti-Aristotelianism that came close to anti-intellectualism, and he was among those who urged ecclesiastical authorities to intervene and censure the Thomist positions.

With these early intellectual influences, Ratzinger located himself within one broad stream of the theological renewal, the one that included figures like Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, great advocates of the return to the sources (ressourcement). He showed little interest in another stream (represented by figures such as Marie-Dominique Chenu, Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx) which, inspired by Aquinas, proposed and attempted a positive engagement with modern intellectual and cultural movements.

At the Second Vatican Council, representatives of both orientations helped to produce the coup d’Église that oriented the council in a direction quite different from that expressed in the schemas prepared by the curia for the bishops’ consideration. Only thirty-five years old when the council began, Ratzinger served as a theological adviser to Cardinal Joseph Frings, archbishop of Cologne. Ratzinger described the prepared texts as reflective of the “anti-Modernist neurosis” that had marked the church’s response to the intellectual and cultural challenges of the previous century; he wrote the speech in which Cardinal Frings began with a clear and firm non placet (“it does not please”) rejecting a text on revelation. At meetings among German and French bishops, Ratzinger joined theologians of the caliber of Yves Congar, Daniélou, de Lubac, Rahner, and Schillebeeckx in exploring ways to have the preparatory doctrinal texts removed from the agenda, and along with Rahner he prepared a text the group hoped could replace them. He enthusiastically praised the decisions taken during the council’s first session as a reversal “epochal” in character, making possible a “new beginning.”

The question raised by this new beginning, of course, was: “What now?” In what form would the council present and interpret the Word of God for its day? The next three sessions of the council were devoted to answering the question, and the sixteen documents of Vatican II are the result. Ratzinger worked closely on the texts on the church, divine revelation, the missions, and the church in the modern world, topics on which he also published learned essays in theological journals. He served on the board of advisers of the new progressive journal Concilium, and contributed an important essay on collegiality to its first volume.

On the principal doctrinal texts the progressive theologians held their ranks, but as the council moved toward its text on the church in the modern world (Gaudium et spes), divisions among them became increasingly apparent. The text was largely inspired by Chenu and followed an incarnational approach, looking in contemporary social and cultural movements for signs of an aspiration for the spiritual to which the church could address her message about Christ. Chenu called these aspirations pierres d’attente, toothing stones, that jut out from a wall in order to mesh with an eventual addition. He vigorously defended the method of reading the “signs of the times” and of responding first of all with a dialogue respectful of the other. It was an extension of the basic Thomist understanding of the relation between nature and grace to the realm of the social and historical.

Joseph Ratzinger was among the German theologians who criticized this draft for neglecting the reality of sin in the world, for confusing the natural and the supernatural, and for its unclear notions of “world” and “church.” Its description of the contemporary situation offered little more than sociological commonplaces to which references to Christ and his work appeared to be tacked on, almost as if embarrassed afterthoughts. The text, he said, indulged “the fiction that it is possible to construct a rational philosophical picture of man intelligible to all and on which all men of goodwill can agree, the actual Christian doctrines being added to this as a sort of crowning conclusion.” He would have preferred that the text begin “from the actual Christian creed, which, precisely as a confession of faith, can and must manifest its own intelligibility and rationality.” Dialogue was substituting for proclamation of the faith. The Augustinian distinction between science and wisdom would have offered a deeper epistemology than that of Aquinas, and greater emphasis on the Cross as the necessary point of contradiction between church and world would have enabled the council to avoid semi-Pelagian language and notions. While some of the Germans’ concerns were met in revisions of the text, Ratzinger’s later commentary on the early paragraphs of Gaudium et spes reveal that he continued to think his main criticisms were still pertinent.

The debate at the council, little noted at the time, reveals where Ratzinger differed from the representatives of the Thomist-like approach. (Despite the many points on which Karl Rahner and he could agree—liturgy, biblical exegesis, etc.—Ratzinger said that “Rahner and I lived on two different theological planets.”) And from Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity (1968) down to the homily he delivered on his installation as Pope Benedict XVI, a distinctive and consistent approach has been visible. Let me attempt a summary.

The church lives today in a state of intellectual or cultural crisis. Once, theology could draw on a common intellectual heritage for the articulation of the Christian vision. This philosophical tradition focused on reality and the search for its truth. Linked up with Christian faith, it enabled theology to plumb the depths of reality and in the end to acknowledge the truth of things as they emerged from the hands of an intelligent and loving Creator. Theology can no longer presuppose that common cultural and intellectual heritage. Through various stages, philosophy abandoned the ontological and metaphysical attitude that once marked it. It became fascinated with phenomena and from emerging natural science borrowed a positivistic interest in facts as they appear; it grounded itself now, not in the reality of things, but in reflections on human consciousness. The rise of historical consciousness moved attention away from reality as created by God to reality as constructed by human beings. With Marx, attention has moved from attempting to understand the world thus created to seeking to change it. “Truth” now refers, not to reality as given, nor to what has been done, but to what remains to be done. Through all of these processes, philosophy has been dissolved into a multiplicity of philosophies.

The tragedy of post-Vatican II theology is that, after dethroning the inadequate neoscholastic vision, it has turned, not back to the ancient wisdom displayed in the church fathers and the medieval masters, but to various forms of modern philosophy. It has therefore lost its critical distance and has become a handmaiden of the various forms of positivism, particularly by linking itself to other visions of the future, either the one liberals hope from technology, or the one Marxists hope from political and economic revolution. The results of this disastrous choice are all around us, in a church that has become indistinct from its surrounding worlds and has lost its sense of identity and mission, and in a world in which the triumph of positivism has led to ever growing dissolution and alienation.

The one response that can rescue us from this slavery to our own works is the presentation of the Christian message as the only truly liberating force. Theology cannot count on any help from contemporary philosophy or the human and natural sciences. In Ratzinger’s writings, there are very few positive references to intellectual developments outside the church; they almost always appear as antithetical to the specifically Christian. There are no cultural or social pierres d’attente. Instead, dichotomies abound, contrasts between the Christian notions of truth, freedom, nature and those current in Western culture. The faith must be presented as countercultural, as an appeal to nonconformity. It can appeal to the widespread sense of disillusion to what modernity has promised but been unable to deliver. It will make its appeal by presenting the Christian vision in its synthetic totality as a comprehensive structure of meaning that at nearly every point breaks with the taken-for-granted attitudes, strategies, and habits of contemporary culture. The gospel will save us, not philosophy, not science, and not scientific theology. The great model for this enterprise is the effort to preach the gospel in the alien world of antiquity and to construct the vision of Christian wisdom manifest in the great ages of faith before philosophy, science, and technology separated themselves into autonomous areas of reflection and activity.

This is a “Bonaventuran” theological vision. In the last stages of his intellectual journey, and in the face of the cultural challenge of his day, the great Franciscan responded with a religious concentration on holiness and an eschatological interpretation of contemporary intellectual developments that led him to an “apocalyptic anti-Aristotelianism” that was anti-philosophical, anti-intellectual, and indiscriminate enough to include in its condemnations the effort of Aquinas to engage critically the Aristotelian challenge. There are remarkable parallels between Bonaventure’s final view, as described by Ratzinger, and the basic attitude the new pope has himself adopted in the face of the great changes in the post-Vatican II church.

That Pope Benedict XVI has brought this perspective with him as he assumed the chair of Peter is clear from his homily the day he was solemnly installed. The sermon was at many points a very beautiful and positive presentation of Christianity, and it grounds the hope that this will mark his preaching and teaching. But at two points he also revealed how he sees the world to which Christ must be preached. The first is when he described the many kinds of desert that exist today: “There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore, the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The church as a whole and all her pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert.” The other image is borrowed from the metaphor of the pastor as “fisher of men.” The image supposes, of course, that it is a good thing for the fish to be caught and taken from their natural environment. And to explain this the pope says, “We are living in alienation, in the salt waters of suffering and death; in a sea of darkness without light. The net of the gospel pulls us out of the waters of death and brings us into the splendor of God’s light, into true life.” Beautiful as is the description of what the gospel has to offer, is it the case that apart from Christ the world is only a desert, or “salt waters of suffering and death,” “darkness without light”?

When a bishop complained about some of the books being published after the council, Paul VI replied that the best way to oppose bad books is with good books. Joseph Ratzinger has been of the view that Paul VI’s patient attitude with regard to theological developments after the council failed, and that, as in the thirteenth century, it is the task of ecclesiastical authority to intervene. This appeal to authority has its own roots in the situation of the church in the world since Vatican II. We ask our questions about the roles of religion and theology in a church that, after simply repudiating the whole modern experiment and constructing its own narrow countersociety, attempted at Vatican II to adopt a more nuanced, critical attitude and set of strategies. The world had long since relegated religion to a private sphere and banished theology from serious intellectual consideration. What sort of church could we be, and what sort of theology could we construct, in those circumstances?

The effort to answer those questions has largely divided Catholics since the council, and one element of that division has been the splintering of theology. The subculture of Roman Catholicism has largely been fractured, and this disintegration has made it very difficult to speak of the church as providing a unified community of response to contemporary challenges. Almost everyone agrees that preconciliar neoscholasticism does not provide an adequate theological basis on which to reflect on the challenge; but, after that, the divisions are many and great; the main ones concern the degree to which the modern intellectual developments can be critically appropriated.

Under Ratzinger’s tenure at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Roman reservations about theological pluralism and opposition to theological dissent had their roots in these problems. Ratzinger wanted the church again to be able to pose a real alternative, a set of meanings and values that can stand at a critical and redemptive distance from contemporary culture. It is the importance of their being an ecclesial—not simply a theological or intellectual—response to today’s challenges that led him to insist on internal unity. It is the church, and not theology, that would provide a real alternative; and theologians were often perceived as in fact and, because of their defense of public dissent, in principle preventing the unity that is required for the church’s effective redemptive service in the world.

Such a position is easier, of course, if one does not believe that genuine dialogue with the world is possible, if one believes that dialogue threatens the distinctive speech-act of the church, the proclamation of the gospel in its distinctiveness, the call to the decision of faith. The council, in one of its chief documents, did not think that dialogue and gospel proclamation were incompatible; in fact it could even be said that it regarded dialogue and discerning the signs of the times as essential aspects in proclaiming the Word of God. This requires, of course, a sphere of freedom, a place for discussion, for trying out new ideas, for exploring commonalities, for efforts to reconcile perhaps only apparently contrasting positions. The CDF under Joseph Ratzinger did little to create such a sphere for freedom, as one of its last acts, the removal of Fr. Thomas Reese as editor of America, indicates. We may hope that, with the greater responsibility that now falls upon him as pope, Benedict XVI will recognize that the necessary proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ will include moments for listening not only to the world to which he addresses himself but also to others—of different minds and different approaches—within the household of the faith.

This article was funded in part by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Click here for more on Benedict XVI.

Published in the 2005-06-03 issue: 

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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