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Bonaventure & Benedict

Today, tucked into the celebration of "the weekly Easter," the Dies Domini, the Church also commemorates, with the entire Franciscan family, St. Bonaventure, theologian and pastor.

In 1959 the young professor, Joseph Ratzinger, published a significant study: The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure. This second thesis, or Habilitationschrift, is required for the aspirant to hold a chair in a German university.

(For an intriguing account of the drama of the dissertation's initial rejection and its refashioning and ultimate acceptance, see Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977.)

In his 1969 "Foreword to the American Edition," Ratzinger writes of his findings:

It became apparent that Bonaventure's theology of history presents a struggle to arrive at a proper understanding of eschatology. It is thus anchored in the central issue of the New Testament question itself. It became clear that the discussion which Bonaventure undertook with Joachim of Fiore -- the remarkable prophet of that period -- led to a change in the concept of eschatology which remains operative even today. Finally, it became obvious that the theology of history does not represent an isolated area of Bonaventure's thought. On the contrary, it is related to the basic philosophical and theological decisions which provided the basis for his participation in the bitter controversies of the 1260s and 1270s.

It was in these controversies that the question of philosophy and theology was handled, as well as the question of Hellenism and de-Hellenization, and the problem of whether faith could be translated into understanding. In many ways, those turbulent years, with the abrupt entrance of Arabian science into  the firmly built structure of traditional theology, are similar to the post-Conciliar mood which we are experiencing at the present time.

It seems to me that Bonaventure could not remain silent concerning Joachim since he was Minister General of an Order that was torn almost to the breaking point by the Joachimite question. Hexaemeron [Bonaventure's last, unfinished work on the "Six Days" of creation] is the answer he gave to this problem as General of the Order. It is a critical discussion with the Calabrian Abbot and his followers. But the discussion is carried on in such a way that Joachim is interpreted back into tradition, while the Joachimites interpreted him against that tradition. Bonaventure does not totally reject Joachim (as Thomas had done); rather, he interprets him in an ecclesial way and thus creates an alternative to the radical Joachimites. On the basis of this alternative, he tries to preserve the unity of the Order.

Does one discern, in these words written almost forty years ago,  a foreshadowing of the theological-pastoral program of Benedict XVI?

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Alright Robert, I'll bite. I would much rather dwell on theological and heretical matters than on the depressing issue above your post.After doing a quick Google refresher on Joachim (Google/Wikipedia = Instant Expert), I have some thoughts on linking Joachim to today's issues.1) Scripture: Joachim's esoterica and today's historical critical study of scripture. One way to explain texts that either seem not to make sense, or seem in conflict with each other is to postulate a deeper meaning that is hidden to almost all (esoterica). Another way to deal with them is to say, yeah, they don't make any sense (or much anyway) and they are in conflict with each other (historical critical). The Church seems invested in avoiding both conclusions and, based on the reviews of the Pope's recent Jesus book and the Sobrino matter, it seems that the struggle is far from over.2) Institutions vs. Communities: Apparently in Joachim's Age of the Spirit, there would be no need for the institutional church. Instead, Christians would live in the justice of brotherhood a la the Fraciscans. I do not read this as a rejection of churches and what they offer (read religious communities), but rather of hierarchies. It seems that many so-called Christians, and even a few Catholics, have clearly moved in this direction, even if the Age of the Spirit did not emerge as Joachim thought it would. Perhaps one way to confront this would be to assert analytically that such communities are not churches. Yet, I daresay that some will see the circularity in an institution asserting its exclusive necessity on its own institutional terms when it is precisely the the exclusive necessity of that institution that has been called into question.3) Age of Spirit vs. Second Coming. Here I will be my most Joachimitish and heretical. It seems to me that it took some theological guts to affirm an Age of the Spirit and therefore deny the importance of the Second Coming, a doctrine that has always seemed rather self-serving on the church's part (of course you need to keep paying us, we are tending the flock until Jesus returns!) and also rather difficult to reconcile with efforts to bring forth God's Kingdom here on earth (why not just wait until Jesus comes?). So I will end with a question, Do you know of any contemporary or modern theologians for whom the Second Coming was of central theological significance?

Joseph,Thanks for "biting" -- as usual, your bite is a mouthful!You say: "the struggle is far from over."I agree, and so did Ratzinger in 1969, when he wrote (as I quote above): it is "a struggle to arrive at a proper understanding of eschatology."Moltmann for one put eschatology at center stage in his "Theology of Hope" (which I admit to not having read for some time). A recent book which I appreciated and which consistently speaks of Jesus as "the coming One" is "The Mystery of Christ " (St. Vladimir's Press) by the Orthodox theologian, John Behr.But, of course, the sense one gives to Christ's "second Coming," is contingent upon what one says about his first Coming. Inevitably, we are faced with the decisive eschatological question: "Who do you say I am?"Buon Appetito!

I recall reading that book with great disappointment. Ratzinger takes awfully seriously medieval accounts of history -- seven epochs in the old covenant matched by seven epochs in the new, etc. Myopic was the word that came to mind.As the recent stale CDF dubia et responsa indicate, Ratzinger has done nothing to enlarge Christian thought at a time when immense new perspectives are opening out, such as those arising in the dialogue with Judaism and with Buddhism. We are going round like monkeys in a circle discussing one after another of Ratzinger's old-fashioned views, which are served up again and again no matter now often they are refuted or relativized by competent theologians. The caliber of Catholic intellectual life is not an elitist concern; I see it as having close connections with the health of our moral and spiritual lives as well.

Father O'Leary,Having followed the link to your own blog post on the Motu Proprio (which you provided on another thread), I wonder if you would agree to the following emendation of the last sentence in your comment above?"The caliber of Catholic blogs and the comments they evoke is not an inconsequential concern; I see it as having close connections with the health of our moral and spiritual lives as well?"

J. O'Leary,Seems unusual to place ecumenical dialog with Jews and Buddhists in the same sentence. The dialog would be so very different. Your last sentence above seems on the mark but is limited by a seeming tendency to remove from the conversation any challenges coming from religious teachers (theologians like Benedict) who may be construed as "old fashioned" meaning not "competent" perhaps because their teachings are uncomfortable. What theologian can be more "old fashioned" than Siddhartha Gautama?

J. OLeary,I thought Ratzingers attention to the seven stages was necessary in order to treat Joachim of Fiore adequately. No one from the Middle Ages could be more au courant than Joachim of Fiore, not even Hildegard of Bingen. In taking this thinker seriously Ratzinger was ahead of his time, not expressing an old-fashioned view.I looked at the book because having an interest in all things Dante I thought there might be something of interest in it. Of course, Bonaventure has a key role in Dantes Comedy. Alas there was only a single Dante-related footnote but it was quite incisive. It concerns a crux of Dante commentary, the pairing in the Paradiso of Aquinas and Siger of Brabant, on the one hand, and Bonaventure and Joachim, on the other, in both cases the linking of an orthodox with a seemingly heterodox thinker. Ratzinger comments: If any of the great Scholastics should form a heavenly pair with Joachim, this would be without a doubt, Bonaventure. He also remarks that any puzzle in these linkings may only be apparent Just as doctrinal problems may have arisen with Joachims followers rather than with the monk himself so also with Thomas and Siger there may have been more common ground than widely assumed. It was a generous interpretation of all four thinkers, on the part of both Dante and Benedict, whether old-fashioned or not.My wan hope is that these views have not yet been refuted by the highly skilled and relativizing theologians to whom you refer.

It so happens that I am teaching a short course on some texts of Bonaventure this Summer. While Bonaventure would not buy into the more extreme versions of Joachimite theology there is no doubt that some of his thinking made a strong impression on Bonaventure. In his Major Life of the Francis, he sees the saint as the "sixth seal" of the Book of Revelation and uses much language from that saem biblical source to envision Francis as the New Man who ushers in the new age of reform in the church. What Bonaventure could not accept is the idea that the Age of the Spirit would abolish all structures, political and ecclesiastical. As Norman Cohn pointed out a long time ago, that impulse went underground after the suppression of the Spirituals only to emerge in the more radical wing of the Anabaptists and, it might be added, in the more outre political thinking of those who out Maoed Mao. It is one of the reasons why I have always felt that utopian thinkers should be given respect but never power since such future oriented apocalypic scenarios are, at root, totalitarian (think of Pol Pot).

If Joachim's views were orthodox, or could without distortion be given an orthodox interpretation, Bonaventure probably chose the right course. If Bonaventure could not be true to both Joachim and orthodoxy, than one has to say that Bonaventure, however wellintentioned, was misguided. Mutatis mutandis, one would say the same about Benedict.

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