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Pulse
4 January 2023

On 31 December 2022, at 08.34 GMT, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died at the age of 95, after spending about nine years since his resignation in 2013 at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery within the walls of the Vatican. A single bell was heard ringing from St Peter’s Square in Rome after his death was announced.

Ordained priest in his native Bavaria in 1951, Joseph Ratzinger very quickly established himself as a highly regarded theologian. At the age of 35, Ratzinger served as peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the most significant ecclesiastical event in the twentieth century, whose impact is seen beyond the Roman Catholic Church. Ratzinger contributed significantly to the preparatory discussions of a number of the official documents of the Council.

Ratzinger was appointed archbishop of Munich in 1977, and then made cardinal only three months later. From 1981 to 2005, Ratzinger was appointed by Pope John Paul II to Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose ‘proper duty … is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world; so it has competence in things that touch this matter in any way.’ Ratzinger discharged his responsibilities in enforcing doctrinal purity so dutifully and tirelessly that he was given the nickname ‘God’s Rottweiler.’

After the death of Pope John Paul II in April, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the 265th successor of Saint Peter – the first German pope in nearly a millennium. He chose as his pontifical name, Benedict, which means ‘blessed’, in honour of Pope Benedict XV, who guided the Church through the uncertainties and turbulence surrounding the First World War. In addition, Benedict XVI states that ‘The name Benedict also evokes the extraordinary figure of the great “patriarch of western monasticism”, St. Benedict of Norcia, co-patron of Europe with Cyril and Methodius.’

On 11 February 2013, however, less than ten years as the pontiff of the largest Christian Church in the world, Benedict announced his resignation, citing ‘lack of strength of mind and body’ due to his advanced age. He became the first pope to take the initiative to resign since Pope Celestine V in 1294. Although Benedict’s brief eight-year reign was marred by the priest sex-abuse scandal, he made significant contributions especially with regards to setting the directions for the Roman Catholic Church and the promotion of Christian unity.

I first encountered the works of Joseph Ratzinger more than thirty years ago when I was doing doctoral research on the Swiss-German Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose works have greatly influenced Ratzinger. Thanks to the industrious efforts of Ignatius Press (and the wonderful archives at the Vatican website), I was able to read most of Ratzinger / Benedict’s works that have been translated into English.

Benedict’s ouvre is truly amazing, with about 70 books, countless essays, papers, lectures, addresses and letters, and three papal encyclicals on a wide range of theological topics. In addition to this huge body of work, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church – a truly magnificent compendium of Catholic doctrine – can also be counted among the great legacies of the later pope emeritus.

There are therefore many aspects of Benedict XVI’s theology that can be fruitfully explored in this tribute. In the very limited space of this article, however, I would like to reflect very briefly on just aspect of Benedict’s theology.

AN ECCLESIAL THEOLOGY

The first is the profoundly ecclesial character of theology of Pope Benedict XVI.

This is evident not only in the fact that Benedict is steeped in the writings of the early Fathers of the Church as well as those of the medieval schoolmen, such as Bonaventure, the subject of his Habilitationshrift. It is also evident – in a more fundamental sense – in his conception of the ‘reciprocal compenetration’ of the Bible, the rule of faith and the Church, the undeniable ‘interwoven relationship between Church and Bible, between the people of God and the Word of God.’

Nowhere is Benedict’s insistence that theology must be truly ecclesial, that it must be shaped by the Church’s interpretation and appropriation of Scripture, than in his critique of the modern historical-critical approach to the Bible. To be clear, it is not so much the emphasis on the importance of studying the historical aspects of Scripture that Benedict has difficulties with, but the often unquestioned philosophical, epistemological and historical assumptions that modern biblical interpretation has inherited from the Enlightenment.

According to Benedict, the wholesale discounting of supernatural phenomena, the hermeneutics of suspicion vis-à-vis the Church, and the assumption of the ‘evolution’ of individual texts associated with the modern approach must be summarily rejected. In the same way, Benedict argues that the approach that modern exegetes have favoured – in the name of pursuing a ‘scientific’ methodology – which attempts to study the biblical texts apart from their original ecclesial, spiritual and liturgical contexts must also be called to question.

In a lecture entitled ‘Biblical Interpretation in Crisis’ (1988), Joseph Ratzinger laments that ‘Modern exegesis … completely relegated God to the incomprehensible in order to be able to treat the biblical text as an entirely worldly reality according to natural-scientific methods.’

This approach taken by modern scholars, which is governed by the dictates of secularism and modern science, and which has resulted in a reductionist understanding of what may be deemed to be historical, is seen especially in how the Jesus of the Gospels is approached and understood in some sectors of contemporary scholarship.

In a series of reflections entitled, On The Way to Jesus Christ, Ratzinger explains his concerns thus:

[I]t is assumed that history is fundamentally and always uniform and that therefore nothing can take place in history but what is possible as a result of causes known to us in nature and in human activity. Aberrations from that, for instance, divine interventions that go beyond the constant interaction of natural and human causes, therefore cannot be historical … According to this assumption, it is not possible for a man really to be God and to perform deeds that require divine power – actions that would disrupt the general complex of causes. Accordingly, words attributed to Jesus in which he makes divine claims and the corresponding deeds must be ‘explained’ … [E]verything in the figure of Jesus that transcends mere humanity is … thus not really historical.

For Scripture to be read and understood aright, the Church must practice what he calls a ‘hermeneutic of faith.’ This approach presupposes that faith is itself a way of knowing and that the knowledge of faith is governed by a certain inner rationality. In his address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 2003, Ratzinger argues that:

Faith has a contribution to make with regard to the interpretation of Scripture … To reduce all of reality as we meet it to pure material causes, to confine the Creator Spirit to the sphere of mere subjectivity, is irreconcilable with the fundamental message of the Bible … Faith itself is a way of knowing. Wanting to set it aside does not produce pure objectivity, but comprises a point of view which excludes a particular perspective while not wanting to take into account the accompanying conditions of a chosen view. If one takes into account, however, that the sacred Scriptures come from God through a subject which lives continually – the pilgrim people of God – then it becomes clear rationally as well that this subject has something to say about the understanding of the book.

Benedict demonstrates the ‘hermeneutic of faith’ – which takes seriously historical questions but without ever subjecting Scripture to an alien metaphysical framework – in his masterful trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth. This bold and momentous work is an example par excellence of Benedict’s ecclesial theology. It is – as Benedict puts it – a ‘personal search for the face of the Lord’, which is conducted by reading the Gospels under the tutelage of the Church.

CHURCH IN THE WORLD

After the death of Pope John Paul II, at the Mass before the Conclave, celebrated to prepare the 115 cardinals (‘the princes of the Church’) to select the next pontiff, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, uttered these now famous words in his homily:

We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate standard consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

The text on which that homily was based was Ephesians 4:16, where the apostle Paul warned Christians that they ‘must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine.’ Instead, they ‘must grow up’ in Christ and in love.

By the expression ‘dictatorship of relativism’, Ratzinger is referring to the abolition of truth that is so pervasive in (but not limited to) western societies and cultures. The culture of relativism has reduced issues such as abortion, euthanasia, sexuality, marriage, and family to the status of cultural conventions and personal preferences, stripping them of the moral truths on the basis of which they are originally grounded.

Benedict calls the Church, in this homily and elsewhere, to prophetically address this poison that would erode the very foundations of society.

In Truth and Tolerance (2004), he states that ‘relativism … in certain respects has become the real religion of modern man.’ He warns that although on the surface, relativism may suggest tolerance – a virtue that is prized above others in modern society – in reality, it breeds intolerance.

In Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity and Islam (2007), Ratzinger explains:

In recent years I find myself noting how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends towards intolerance. Political correctness … seeks to establish the domain of a single way of thinking and speaking. Its relativism creates the illusion that it has reached greater heights than the loftiest philosophical achievements of the past. It presents itself as the only way to think and speak – if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition of a new pseudo-enlightenment, which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.

Cardinal Ratzinger was well aware of the fact that the Church itself is not immune from the corrosive acids of relativism. ‘The small boat of the thought of many Christians,’ Ratzinger states in his 2005 homily, ‘has been tossed about by the waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth.’

Alluding no doubt to the ‘progressive’ segment of the Catholic Church – whose proponents might very well have been present at the pre-conclave Mass, Ratzinger adds: ‘Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism.’

The Church must resist the seduction of relativism, Benedict insists. It must develop what he calls an ‘adult faith’: ‘An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ.’

‘We must develop this adult faith,’ he insists. ‘[W]e must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith – only faith – that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.’

Throughout his ministry as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and during his pontificate, Ratzinger / Benedict XVI has warned that a Church which flirts with the world and plays fast and loose with the contemporary culture in order to become more ‘relevant’ will soon become so indistinguishable from the world that it has nothing to offer to it.

It is only when the Church continues to be nourished and shaped by God’s Word and animated by his Spirit that it can effectively proclaim the Gospel of truth and grace and so fulfil its mission in the world.

This truth is articulated with exquisite clarity and force in Donum Veritatis (Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian), arguably the most important post-conciliar document, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on May 24, 1990:

In order to exercise the prophetic function in the world, the People of God must continually reawaken or ‘rekindle’ its own life of faith (cf. 2 Tim 1:6). It does this particularly by contemplating ever more deeply, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the contents of the faith itself and by dutifully presenting the reasonableness of the faith to those who ask for an account (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). For the sake of this mission, the Spirit of truth distributes among the faithful of every rank special graces ‘for the common good’ (1 Cor. 12:7-11).


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.