No Restorationist

Ratzinger's Theological Journey

The election of Joseph Ratzinger as pope has evoked reactions of both satisfaction and of dismay. For some, the dismay was quickly reinforced by news of the removal of Fr. Thomas Reese as editor of America magazine. In a time of heightened polarization, it is important to examine more closely the new pope’s theological and spiritual vision, in order to gain greater perspective on his commitments and concerns.

Those who know Benedict XVI only as the Panzerkardinal who turned his back on his progressive past will be surprised to find in Ratzinger’s writings a powerfully coherent and inviting understanding of Christ, humanity, and the church. In his memoirs, Milestones, for example, readers encounter a young Bavarian boy delighting in his first missal and in his early encounters with the church as an intimate, warm community of worship. A passionate desire to know the love of Christ pervades Ratzinger’s writing. To really understand the new pope, an overview of some of the main themes of his theological thinking is imperative, and perhaps the best place to start is with his strong views regarding the liturgy.

In his memoirs, Benedict writes of the joy and wonder he experienced as a boy at Mass: candlelit Advent Masses that brightened dark winter mornings, Easter celebrations in which black curtains opened suddenly to flood the church with light. The church year gave “time its rhythm,” and both liturgy and popular devotions fostered an integrated, even egalitarian Christian culture. There is doubtless some nostalgia here, but I am convinced that this early weaving of liturgy and culture has informed the new pope’s life work, and even his choice of name, Benedict, founder of Western monasticism.

The pope’s conception of liturgy rests on several polarities. First, Benedict believes that liturgy is given before it is constructed. Worship does not start from scratch nor is it infinitely malleable, but comes to us as a divine gift and a human heritage to be cultivated; its form must be respected and not dismantled by “erudite work and juridical authority,” as he once described much postconciliar liturgical renewal. Second, in its legitimate desire to foster “horizontal” relationships among believers, worship must not neglect the “vertical” relationship to God. Both dimensions are essential, but the vertical must give rise to the horizontal, lest the community neglect its primary call to divine adoration and devolve into self-worship. In addition, the liturgy must be cared for as a “plant,” rather than as a “machine.” The latter is lifeless and can be assembled and dissembled at will. A plant, though, is living and requires careful pruning and cultivation. Liturgical reform, then, must be deliberate and organic, avoiding revolutionary and radical acts—even if such acts have roots in early church tradition, as was the case with the Missal of Paul VI.

This vertical and organic conception of the liturgy accounts for then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s surprisingly public criticism of Paul VI’s decision to suppress the Tridentine (Latin) Mass, especially after only six months of transition to the “new” Mass. It also accounts for his desire to have permission universally granted for the Tridentine celebration; as pope, there is now little standing in his way. Convinced that the church’s contemporary difficulties are “to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy,” his papacy will be marked by a much greater attentiveness to liturgy than that of John Paul II. The latter, while famously devoted to the Eucharist, was relatively indifferent to liturgical matters and surprisingly open to inculturation. Such official flexibility is unlikely under Benedict.

Two upcoming events bear watching. The first is this August’s World Youth Day in Cologne. The gathering’s theme, taken from the Magi’s encounter with the infant Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, is “We have come to worship him,” and Pope Benedict will certainly make such “vertical” adoration the centerpiece of his homilies. In fact, the event seems tailor-made for him, and we will get a sense there of how well the theologian and the pastor intersect. The second event is this fall’s Synod of Bishops in Rome on the theme of the Eucharist. Liturgical issues are particularly combustible since they touch on such topics as the ordained priesthood, the availability of priests, the role of women in the church, inclusive language, the church’s mission, and the legacy of Vatican II. Both the content and the conduct of the synod’s deliberations will reveal much about the shape of Benedict’s papacy.

It will not be surprising if Benedict’s liturgical decisions raise charges that he is a restorationist. This concern is the heart of opposition to him in the church. It is true that he has changed his views on several conciliar debates, particularly regarding the teaching and governing roles of the international Synod of Bishops and of national or regional episcopal conferences. Still, his overall theological vision, as Joseph Komonchak explains (page 11), has remained largely constant over the past fifty years. Elsewhere, Komonchak has noted that the standard reading—popularized by Xavier Rynne’s reports in the New Yorker—of the council as a battle between a conservative minority and a liberal majority is deeply flawed. It fails in particular to account for the differences among the “progressives” (of whom Ratzinger was one) that emerged between Thomists and Augustinians toward the end of the council, especially in the drafting of Gaudium et spes. As Komonchak has observed, it is wrong to regard Ratzinger as a restorationist in the sense of one who desires to return the church to its preconciliar, neoscholastic days. If legitimate criticisms can be made about the blurring of his personal opinions with conciliar teaching, nonetheless Benedict was and is a man of the council in his commitment to church renewal through both aggiornamento (an updating of the church in response to the signs of the times) and ressourcement (a return to the sources of the church’s traditions).

This renewal, though, is to be carried out with a particularly strong Christological focus. According to Benedict, Christianity is not about morality or doctrine, but about a person: Jesus Christ, true God and true man. “God is no longer just in heaven; God is no longer the Wholly Other, the incomprehensible One, but he is now also the One who is near us, who has become identified with us, who touches us and is touched by us, the one whom we can receive and who will receive us” (God and the World). Perhaps the key to the pope’s Christ-centered vision is Galatians 2:20: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The Christian, in this view, is “in Christ,” is a “new person” and a “new creation”-even if, as Paul himself writes, such new existence involves lifelong struggle and failure.

Benedict’s ecclesiology follows logically from his understanding of Christ’s unique and universal role in the history of salvation. Christ, the Eucharist, and Mary are the three pillars of Benedict’s understanding of the church. The church’s “first word,” Benedict writes, is “Christ, and not herself. The church is healthy to the extent that all her attention is focused on Him” who remains alive today as the Risen One. Benedict is fond of Augustine’s (and Vatican II’s) insight that the church is a “moon” whose light comes only from the “sun” of Christ. Worship is this communion’s central activity, in which Christ gives himself fully in the Eucharist and believers give themselves fully in thanksgiving. The liturgy exemplifies the self-giving at the heart of all existence (think again of Galatians 2:20), and strengthens believers for their worldly lives. Celebrating Mass or praying privately, the believer is always joined to the holy men and women of every age—“those who believe are never alone, neither in life nor in death,” as the pope said in his installation homily. Moreover, using traditional sexual typologies, Benedict holds that the church is to be like Mary: receptive before active, contemplative and not bureaucratic, seeking only to let God’s will be done.

This theological vision shapes Benedict’s understanding of the church’s relation to the world. Even if he has taken pains in recent years to emphasize that the church must be never a closed sect but an “open church” that reaches out to all of society, it remains true that he sees the future church as likely to be a “mustard seed” or “small flock” in an often hostile world. This church-world tension runs all the way back to Ratzinger’s 1953 doctoral dissertation on Augustine’s ecclesiology. There is, I think, an unresolved pastoral tension in this pope between openness and fidelity, between a genuinely catholic and (often unwieldy) church and the brilliant intensity of a small, counter-cultural movement. This is, perhaps, the same tension reflected by the council, which defined the church as both the sacrament of the unity of the human race and the light of the world.

This sacramental view leads, in turn, to a withering self-critique when the church fails before God and the world. In his recent Good Friday meditations on the Way of the Cross, then-Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of the church as a “boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side,” and of how believers betray Christ despite their “lofty words and grand gestures.” Such failures, he said, cause Christ himself to fall and Satan to rise in laughter. This pope may be stern, but he is not triumphalistic; the church’s journey in history, to paraphrase Scripture, is not one “from glory to glory.”

Finally, Benedict regards many of the calls for the decentralization of church authority as myopic and power-obsessed. Because of his own position in the church, his protestations can admittedly give the impression of a rich man saying that money is unimportant. Still, it is not merely a matter of self-absorption to suggest that how the church treats its own is as powerful a message to the world as all its preaching of gospel values. While it is true, as Benedict told the 2001 Synod of Bishops, that “the church is not uncommonly too preoccupied with itself and does not speak with the necessary force and joy of God, of Jesus Christ,” it is not possible or wise to simply disassociate the church’s life from its structures.

Beyond that, in thinking about the relationship between the church and the world, Benedict has had much to say about the nature of truth. In his 1968 commentary on Gaudium et spes, he wrote that “Truth is the bread without which the mind cannot live.” The human person yearns for truth, that is, for a wisdom that goes beyond visible realities and participates in God’s own knowledge. Encountering the infinite mystery of a God who desires to be known by us, the human person both genuinely knows truth and humbly realizes the limits of his or her own knowledge. When appointed archbishop of Munich-Freising in 1977, Ratzinger chose a seashell as part of his episcopal coat of arms. This seashell recalls Augustine’s insight, when walking along the seashore, that the shell’s “hole can no more contain the waters of the ocean than your intellect can comprehend the mystery of God” (not coincidentally, the pope’s vestments at his installation Mass were embroidered with seashells).

Benedict’s entwining of truth and humility forms a bulwark against what he has called, in a now-notorious (or celebrated) phrase, the “dictatorship of relativism.” In this latter view, absolute truth and creedal faith are seen as fundamentalisms that not only oppress but foster violence. The pope, though, turns this argument on its head. Relativism, in the name of tolerance and freedom, actually enslaves by barring one from the truth that liberates and enlightens. Benedict’s experience of Nazism led him to a fear not of absolutism but of totalitarianism, in which authority and truth are divorced. In his view, the absoluteness of truth—in contrast to the seemingly tolerant relativism that denies the existence of universal truths and/or the human capacity to grasp that truth—is the surest guarantee against the abuse of power.

Still, the pope maintains that the truth is demanding and that teaching it can be daunting. Speaking to the Synod of Bishops in 2001 on the bishop’s duty to proclaim the full truth of the gospel, Benedict noted that the word “struggle” appears in nearly every one of the Apostle Paul’s letters. Teaching the truth demands courage and a willingness to suffer. While a bishop is called to encourage all that is good and to support the weak, he must also remember that “if sometimes it can be just to tolerate a minor evil for the peace of the church, let us not forget that a peace paid for with loss of the truth would be a false peace, an empty peace.”

It is obvious that in defending the truth claims of the church, Benedict has his work cut out for him. As Christianity becomes increasingly global, the church faces challenges both internal (for example, catechesis, sacramental life, the identity and future of its educational and health-care institutions, the role of women) and external (secularization, Islam, the plight of Africa, biotechnology). It is equally obvious that many in the church are worried that the new pope has an overly narrow conception of what constitutes legitimate criticism in the church. At the very least, the “Reform” and “Social Justice” movements in the church, as the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen calls them, have legitimate questions about the new pope’s priorities.

As we address these concerns, it seems to me, emphasizing the intrinsic connection between liturgy and justice will be of primary importance. Liturgical reform, while necessary, must not degenerate into a narcissistic, fussy aestheticism. Moreover, I doubt that European secularization is the most pressing issue facing Catholicism today, when millions of people are dying as a result of disease, starvation, and economic injustice. The church and the world seem to need a St. Francis as much as a St. Benedict. While unduly critical of liberation theology, the new pope is undoubtedly concerned for the poor and their liberation. Still, he holds that work for justice is most effective when rooted in eucharistic intimacy with Christ and his body. I would add that the Eucharist achieves its full measure only when it gathers people together in the justice and peace God wills for them. In promoting this call for true justice, the pope’s challenge will be to temper his Augustinian skepticism about the earthly city with a sense of God’s abiding presence in his world. He will also need to affirm more explicitly that worship and justice mutually reinforce one another.

Justice is also an internal church question. Benedict has a conservative distrust of bureaucracy. If John Allen is correct, Benedict is not likely to expand the activities of the Roman curia. As I have noted, though, Benedict usually sees calls for the decentralization of church authority as so much misplaced introspection and irrelevance in the face of greater challenges. He has even stated that if bishops took their teaching roles more seriously, decentralization would occur automatically. Recent Vatican interventions in the revision of English-language liturgical translations would not have been necessary, in this view, if episcopal conferences had better supervised the work at earlier stages.

But decentralization is not simply a matter of being seduced by the values of “liberal” procedural democracy. Rather, it is ensuring that the voices of all the faithful—what Vatican II called the sensus fidei—are heard and engaged. Much of the legitimate anger and frustration that numerous Catholics—especially women, but even bishops and cardinals—feel toward the church today comes from the sense that their voices don’t count, that they are not being listened to.

The 2001 debate in the pages of America between Cardinal Walter Kasper and then-Cardinal Ratzinger on the proper relationship of the universal and local churches centered on precisely such issues. Kasper argued that growing Roman centralization had usurped the right and duty of local bishops to govern their dioceses and to respond to local pastoral concerns. Moreover, increasing centralization has harmed ecumenical relationships. Despite their own authority problems, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant churches rightfully fear that full unity under present circumstances might, in Kasper’s words, “suppress or swallow up the individual churches and their legitimate traditions.” I would note, too, the frustration of many Asian church leaders—expressed boldly at their 1998 synod in Rome—that the Vatican has stood in the way of a legitimate expressions of inculturation in theology and the liturgy.

Benedict took pains in his installation homily to quote the first word of the Rule of St. Benedict: “Listen.” The pope’s duty to listen will be helped by his unassuming manner. And that might eventually help diminish the cult of personality—and power—that has grown up around the papacy. News reports have mentioned that L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official daily newspaper, has already noticeably decreased its front-page coverage of the pope. These developments give some grounds for hope that Benedict may be less omnipresent than his predecessor.

Benedict’s actions in the first few weeks of his pontificate were by and large open and positive. Surely, the church’s critique of modern decadence and evil, even—perhaps especially—when unpopular, remains an essential part of its mission. But in a Western world deeply suspicious of religious authority, the church’s response must not be a one-dimensional condemnation or mere calls for obedience. The church’s needed skepticism toward contemporary cultures will be fruitful only to the extent that it comes from within those cultures and draws on humanity’s deepest desires for life, freedom, and truth. Sadly, many of the church’s wounds are self-inflicted. How can the church expect to conduct a dialogue, let alone a debate, with modernity when some of its leaders show themselves unwilling or unable to conduct respectful discussion within the church?

Such dialogue is possible when it is undertaken in the trust fostered by friendship. At the conclusion of his installation homily, Benedict spoke eloquently of friendship in Christ, and how it opens the doors to mutual trust. Friends, John’s Gospel tells us, make everything known to one another. Both the church and its pope have much to ask of each other.


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

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Published in the 2005-06-03 issue: 

Christopher Ruddy is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.

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