Ratzinger’s Faith
The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI
Tracey Rowland
Oxford University Press, $24.95, 224 pp.

Tracey Rowland is a young Australian theologian associated with the theological journal Communio; she also identifies herself as a fellow traveler of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. This book is, as the title suggests, a study of the theological ideas of the current pope, Benedict XVI. Within its pages, I detected two concurrent aims: the first, to outline the pope’s theological development; the second, to defend his theological project against its opponents. The exposition here is scholarly and lucid, the argument somewhat polemical. A word needs to be said about each.

Joseph Ratzinger wrote his first doctoral thesis on the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo, and a second on St. Bonaventure. As a young theologian and a peritus at the Second Vatican Council, he was among those who criticized the rigid secondhand Thomism found in the manualist tradition. He later distanced himself from some of the ideas expressed in the early days of the council, including his own. He decided that there had not been an adequate check on some of the liturgical and ecclesiological innovations occasioned by the council. As a theology professor, he also reacted strongly against the student radicals of 1968, and this seems to have had an effect on the way he thought of the church as an institution. His theology developed partly in opposition to the transcendental Thomism of Karl Rahner, in whose work he found a creeping Kantianism. He eventually aligned himself with the thinkers behind Communio, who were led by Hans Urs von Balthasar. This story has been told before, both by journalists (John Allen and David Gibson) and theologians (Aidan Nichols).

Nichols’s valuable study of Ratzinger’s theology first appeared in 1988, and was reissued and updated in 2005 and 2008 as The Thought of Benedict XVI. Nichols followed a historical trajectory, moving from the earlier work to the later. Rowland’s book takes a thematic approach. In seven chapters, she summarizes Ratzinger’s theology under various rubrics, ranging from his thinking on ecclesiology to his views on moral theology, sociopolitical topics, and the liturgy. Ratzinger emerges from this overview as a staggeringly well-read and creative theological thinker who is deeply indebted to ressourcement theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Balthasar. Her summary of the pope’s thought is as clear and informed as Nichols’s—and timelier.

What is less appealing about Rowland’s book is its sermonizing. Sometimes the problem seems to be that she so closely aligns herself with one theological camp that she cannot give a fair account of others (she does not seem to know much about Rahner apart from what she has learned from critiques of Rahner). Sometimes it’s that she settles for a rhetorical sneer (Is it true that all Catholics have suffered for four decades with parish “tea-party liturgies or cuddle-me-Jesus pop songs”?) or appeals to the authority of writers of doubtful theological competence (for example, Roger Scruton).

The book’s strength is closely intertwined with its weakness. The very careful survey of Ratzinger’s thought is too frequently accompanied by the off-putting sound of an ax being ground.


A Civilization of Love
What Every Catholic Can Do to Transform the World
Carl Anderson
HarperOne, $19.95, 224 pp.

Unlike Rowland’s book, Carl Anderson’s A Civilization of Love is not a scholarly work, but it does share some of Rowland’s outlook. Anderson is the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, a onetime staffer in the Reagan administration, and the founding vice president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America. The main branch of the institute is at Rome’s Lateran University, while Rowland teaches at the Institute’s outpost in Melbourne, Australia.

Anderson doesn’t do any theological heavy lifting in his book. Instead, he offers an engagingly written summary of the social thought of John Paul II and its continuing influence on Benedict XVI. Along the way, he touches on a wide range of topics. In one section he laments the cultural influence of the masters of suspicion (Nietzsche, Freud, et al.); in another, he celebrates the labor theory of popes from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI. In his work for the Knights, Anderson has traveled widely, and he is unabashedly enthusiastic about the work the Knights are doing all over the world. His interest in the ethics of sex and marriage shares the stage here with other interests. He writes about the promise and perils of globalization and the changes in the church caused by immigration. Each of this book’s nine chapters ends with some “thought experiments” for the reader—a device that suggests A Civilization of Love may have been intended for study groups. In any case, it would serve any reader as a good introduction to the social teachings of John Paul II.

The book is admirably free of polemics, but it is also complacently uncritical of the teachings it presents. Anderson has lots of answers (mainly John Paul II’s), but not many questions, and he steers clear of any ambiguity. He insists on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, as well he should, but keeps this discussion to a rather high level of abstraction. He does not address the predicament of people who, for various reasons, have entered into second marriages without benefit of canonical intervention. That is a huge pastoral problem. One could argue that many of the “inactive Catholics” noted in a recent Pew study are people who aren’t allowed to receive Communion because of “irregular” marriages. As any parish priest could attest, most people in this situation become inactive. A few years ago the German hierarchy tried a new approach to this problem and got a firm rebuff from Rome. But the problem remains, and it leads to several vexatious questions. For example, is a canonical process the best way to handle such situations? Is there no possibility that we could learn something from the very different way in which the Christian East treats such cases? One does not need to answer all of the possible questions definitively in a book like this one, but Anderson should at least have mentioned some of them. Instead, he passes discreetly over every perplexity.

101 Questions & Answers on Popes and the Papacy
Christopher M. Bellitto
Paulist, $16.95, 177 pp.

Christopher M. Bellitto’s little book about the papacy is divided into two parts. The first presents the history of the papacy; the second addresses a range of issues connected with it. The information is well organized, the style economical. Bellitto is not dismissive of the standard critiques of the papacy; his response to them is always honest, respectful, and straightforward.

Although there is nothing in this book with which I would disagree, I would like to ask Bellitto a question related to the book’s section on the College of Cardinals. Question Number Sixty-Six asks if the pope could appoint a woman as a cardinal. Bellitto rightly points out that according to current canon law those who are made cardinals must be in priestly orders: women cannot be ordained priests, so they can’t be made cardinals. But why wouldn’t it be possible to appoint a woman as cardinal after she had been ordained as a deacon? After all, until the arrival of the 1918 Code of Canon Law, there were deacon cardinals, and many theologians now think there is no reason women couldn’t be deacons even if they cannot be ordained as priests. The possibility of women cardinals may not be as remote as it seems.

101 Questions & Answers on Popes and the Papacy is a handy source of reliable information, though not as interesting as Eamon Duffy’s recent Saints and Sinners (which Bellitto has made good use of). My only criticism of this lively little book is that its bibliography is rather modest and there is no index. An index is a sine qua non for a book full of facts. The time lines and the list of popes don’t make up for this omission.


Saving the Holy Sepulchre
How Rival Christians Came Together to Rescue Their Holiest Shrine
Raymond Cohen
Oxford University Press, $27.95, 320 pp.

In one of his journals Thomas Merton noted that in the Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulchre there is an inscription that reads: Resurrexit non est hic (“He is risen. He is not here”). “How true! How true!” Merton commented sardonically, as he thought of the squabbling monks who maintain the church. In this excellent book, Raymond Cohen, a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a longtime resident of the city, explains how the church, which was almost reduced to rubble in a 1927 earthquake, was finally repaired with the reluctant cooperation of the three religious communities (Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Latin) that maintain the church, along with three other communities (Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox) that share minority status within its precincts. The event that finally got the rebuilding process going was the 1964 visit of the late Pope Paul VI to Jerusalem, a visit that included his famous meeting with the Patriarch Athenagoras.

It is useful to remember how ancient this church really is. As Cohen points out, a trained eye can see in this building hints that speak of “first-century Herodian, second-century Hadrianic, fourth-century Constantinian, eleventh-century Byzantine, twelfth-century Crusader, nineteenth-century neo-Byzantine, and twentieth-century masonry.” While each community jealously guards its own space and all three must agree on how to maintain the common areas (according to an agreement hammered out under the Ottoman Turks in 1787), simple decisions can create labyrinthine difficulties. It was only on my fifth or sixth visit to the city that I discovered that one can get to the roof of the church via steps in the souk, where, to my astonishment, there are little cells housing Ethiopian monks.

It took Raymond Cohen to write a book like this. First, as a Jew living in Israel, he is proud that this important monument is located in his city. Second, as a scholar of international relations, he is particularly good at untangling the complex relationships among the several religious communities concerned with the church itself and (just to mention modern times) the Ottomans, the European powers that advanced Catholic interests in the face of Greek nationalism and Armenian grievances, the British during the Mandate period, the Jordanians, and the Israeli government. In that sense, this is not only a book about architectural restoration, cultural history, and social tensions between religious traditions, but also a study in diplomacy. I think it is a true mark of Cohen’s scholarly detachment that he never allows himself to become exasperated at the petty squabbles he narrates with such skill.

The most astonishing thing I learned in this highly informative work is that in the late 1930s the Latins had a plan to rebuild the church from the ground up as a Latin church with wings for the Greeks and the Armenians. Their plan began with a totally unwarranted assumption—namely, that the Axis Powers would win the war and Palestine would become an Italian colony. The plan’s engineer was Archbishop Gustavo Testa, an ardent Fascist, who later became a cardinal and head of the Congregation of Oriental Churches. He accompanied Paul VI on his historic visit to Jerusalem. One of the incidental benefits of the Allied victory is that this crazy plan (and, judging from the model, a truly hideous church) never came to fruition.

Pilgrims who visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today enter a building that is chock-a-block with competing theologies and wildly differing views on aesthetics. The truly ugly aedicule erected in 1808 is still over the tomb; the pompous marble iconastasis is there in the Greek Katholikon; the Latin decorations are in that standard Italian Franciscan art à la moderne; the Armenian mosaics often seem to be more about nationalism than faith; the Copts still have their little space behind the aedicule. As readers of this wonderful book will learn, every square meter of the entire building was squabbled over until, miraculously, some accommodations were made.

A Mended and Broken Heart
The Life and Love of Francis of Assisi
Wendy Murray
Basic Books, $25.95, 304 pp.

Wendy Murray has read widely if somewhat uncritically in those tangled early sources of Franciscan hagiography in order to write a life of St. Francis that will appeal to Evangelicals. According to her publicity editor, Murray “slices through the bowdlerized version of Francis’s life promoted within the Catholic tradition and reveals instead a saint who was in every way a real man.”

Murray gets the basic facts right, but her interpretation leaves much to be desired. Recent Franciscan historiography has turned its attention to Francis’s own writings rather than relying mainly on writings about him. What happens when one looks at Francis through the lens of his own words? One thing becomes quite clear: Francis was a perfectly orthodox Catholic who took very seriously the reforming impulses of the Fourth Lateran Council that he himself attended in 1215. Francis had a robust belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (pace the Cathars), a strong respect for ordained priests, an unswerving fidelity to the bishops and the pope. He was insistent on regular auricular confession of sins and the reception of Holy Communion. In short, he wanted his followers to live “more catholico”—in the Catholic manner.

The question, then, is how best to describe a person who was both a model of orthodoxy and a charismatic innovator. And how to capture his prophetic ability to send clear but gentle messages to the powers of his day? The best answer may be the one offered years ago by David Tracy: Francis was, in the strict sense of the term, a “classic”—he possessed, and still possesses, a “surplus of meaning.” His own times learned from him as we continue to learn today.

We know that Francis is a classic by the way he draws people in from every quarter, by the way people look at him to see their own major desires reflected. Paul Sabatier wanted to make him a Protestant avant la parole; Nikos Kazantzakis wanted him to be a religious version of Zorba the Greek; Franco Zefferelli filmed him as a medieval hippie; Leonardo Boff reads him as a precursor of liberation theology; and many, many biographers have viewed him through the rose-colored glasses of pop romanticism. We can add Wendy Murray to this latter company. She has not written a bad book, but, as I read it, all I could think of was a plaster garden statue.

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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Published in the 2009-03-13 issue: View Contents
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