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Benedict XVI's Theological Vision: An Introduction | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | From the introduction to Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI

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Although this book refers on occasion to what Joseph Ratzinger has written or said following his election as successor of Peter, for the most part it is based on his theological, spiritual, and pastoral writings as professor in various German universities (Bonn, Münster, Tubingen, and Regensburg) and later as Archbishop of Munich and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A deeper understanding of Pope Benedict's Magisterium requires constant reference to his earlier writings, in which the same themes are treated in considerable depth, in the light of Scripture and the Church's tradition and in dialogue with contemporary concerns. In this regard, it may prove both useful and illuminating to say something about the kind of theological reflection we shall encounter in the course of this book. Although the list is certainly incomplete, a number of characteristics come to mind:

1. All of Joseph Ratzinger's writings are solidly scriptural. Scripture is, of course, the soul of all theology, [8] but not all theologians make such widespread use of Scripture as the primary source and inspiration of their reflections as Ratzinger does. While he makes judicious use of the most reliable findings of modern exegesis, he is careful to read Scripture within the tradition of the Church and as a unity, centered on the person and saving work of Jesus Christ.

2. Ratzinger's work is also firmly grounded in tradition, for he is convinced that the truth gradually unfolds itself in the life of the Church under the direction of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:13). [9] His theology is shaped by long familiarity with the Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine, whose understanding of the Church was the subject of his doctoral thesis People of God and House of God in St. Augustine's Doctrine of the Church, defended in 1951 and first published in 1954. [10]

3. Joseph Ratzinger's approach to the various issues dealt with in his writings is characterized above all by a search for the truth. He does not seek originality for originality's sake, but is convinced that the resources of Scripture and tradition provide the fundamental orientation guiding our attempts to answer contemporary questions and challenges concerning the faith. Acceptance of the faith in its entirety as the truth that we have received from God and that is taught by the Church, over which we are not the masters, is the precondition for any fruitful theological work. [11] This attitude of receptivity does not reduce theology to a mindless repetition of past insights and conclusions. Theology becomes an exciting and fruitful pursuit when the theologian bases his work on the pluralism in unity found in the Old and New Testaments, and the Church's teaching, while keeping in mind the ongoing life of faith. There is a unity in faith but a plurality in theology; indeed, the fixing of a common reference point in the truth of Christian faith makes plurality possible. A legitimate theological pluralism arises "not when we make it the object of our desire, but when everyone wants the truth with all his power and in his own epoch". [12]

4. The foregoing points make it clear that Joseph Ratzinger's theology is profoundly ecclesial. It is in the Church that we encounter Christ: she is our "contemporaneity with Christ: there is no other". [13] It is within the communion of the Church that the Holy Spirit leads us into the fullness of truth. For this reason, the Church is not an authority that remains foreign to the scientific character of theological reflection, but the ground of theology's existence and the condition that makes it possible. [14] Indeed, as the German exegete Heinrich Schlier, then a member of the Confessing Evangelical Church, reminded his listeners in 1935, at the height of the Nazi campaign to make the Church an instrument of its own policies, "care for the Word of God among men is entrusted to the Church alone". [15] The teaching office of the Church is not above the Word of God but exercises a humble service to it: this ecclesial office has the task of ensuring that Scripture is not manipulated and that its clear meaning is preserved from the conflict of hypotheses. [16] The freedom of theology is its bond with the Church and any other freedom "is a betrayal both of itself and of the object entrusted to it". [17]

Divorced from the faith of the Church, theological reflection would become no more than a personal theory or, at best, a philosophy of religion. It would also run the risk of being reduced to no more than an alternative formulation of the fashionable ideas shaping contemporary popular culture or of falling prey to political or commercial interests. Such speculation on religion could well be interesting, but it is hardly what one would stake one's life on.

5. The writings of Joseph Ratzinger are marked by a certain fragmentary quality, in the sense that he never produced a complete synthesis of the Christian faith and that many of his writings, being occasional pieces, do not fully develop the profound intuitions that he enunciates. In part, this is in keeping with his insistence that the faith is not a system but a path, along which we travel together in the communion of the Church toward the fullness of truth. It is also due to the simple fact that he had to give up his preferred life as an academic to serve the Church first as Archbishop of Munich, then as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and now, of course, as Pope. Ratzinger is well aware of the unfinished character of much of his writing, yet, as his former student Vincent Twomey points out, "He makes a virtue out of this 'weakness'" and presents his various writings as "contributions to an ongoing debate". [18]

6. Despite the admittedly incomplete nature of much of Ratzinger's work, there is an inner consistency that marks all of his writings, although each piece "never fails to surprise with its freshness, originality, and depth." [19] Many of his basic intuitions about the nature of the Church, the relation of Church and State, the place of history in Christian thinking, and the distinction between utopia and eschatology (with its consequences for the theology of politics and liberation theology) may be traced back to his doctoral thesis on St. Augustine and his Habilitationsschrft (or postdoctoral research required for university teaching) entitled The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, defended in 1957 and first published in 1959. [20] With regard to the inner unity of Ratzinger's theology; an excellent starting point for delving into his rich and exciting work is his Introduction to Christianity. [21] This book, first published in 1968, was based on a series of lectures on the Apostles' Creed that he gave in the summer term of 1967 at the University of Tübingen to students of all faculties. It opens "with a masterly attempt to situate the question of belief and its communal expression in the modern world before going on to comment on the contents of the Creed". [22] Many of the issues that receive more detailed treatment in his later writings make their appearance here: the relationship between faith and reason, the consequences of the doctrine of creation for our understanding of the human person, the interpretation of Scripture, ecumenism, catechetics, the Eucharist, the nature of Christian worship, and eschatology.



Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
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7. Ratzinger's is a theology of dialogue, sensitive to contemporary questions. As is clear from Introduction to Christianity, his theology does not limit itself to an orthodox reaffirmation of the central tenets of the faith. His method involves listening to the discussions and frequently implicit questions of modern culture and contemporary theological scholarship in order to uncover whatever truths they may contain and respond in the light of faith. In this way, his theology is not an abstract speculation with little to say to modern man, but is solidly connected with the experience of people today: he shows how perennial Christian truths are relevant to our questioning and illuminate the path for life's journey. Emblematic of his respectful approach to the positions of others is his attitude to the role played by heresies in the development of Christian dogma. After surveying the heresies that arose in the course of the Church's formulation of the Trinitarian dogma, he points out that they should not be viewed simply as failures of human thought in reflecting upon the ineffable. Rather, "every heresy is at the same time the cipher for an abiding truth, a cipher we must now preserve with other simultaneously valid statements, separated from which it produces a false impression." [23]

8. It is clear from the foregoing that Joseph Ratzinger's theology is eminently pastoral. Apart from writings explicitly devoted to pastoral themes such as preaching, [24] the celebration of the liturgy, [25] catechesis, [26] ethics, [27] and the Christian approach to politics, [28] most of his theological output is produced with an eye to practical questions about living the faith in the contemporary world in the face of increasing secularization and religious pluralism. The pastoral approach does not mean accommodation to current ways of thinking and behaving, but entails bringing the joy and the light of the truth to bear on contemporary situations in a manner that is convincing and sensitive to the questions of modern man. In this regard, Ratzinger cites an entry from the diary of Romano Guardini, which could easily apply to himself: "Truth has such a clear and calm power. My aim in pastoral work is this: to help by the power of the truth." [29]

9. While Joseph Ratzinger has published some explicitly spiritual writings, such as the retreat he gave to the Roman Curia in 1983, [30] and the one he gave to priest members of Comunione e Liberazione in 1986, [31] as well as his contribution to the development of a spiritual Christology, Behold the Pierced One, [32] his writings on priestly spirituality, [33] and the magnificent chapter on the Lord's Prayer in his first book written as Pope, Jesus of Nazareth, [34] all of his theology is characterized by a strong spiritual and prayerful note. It is no exaggeration to say that just as his explicitly spiritual writings are profoundly theological, so too his theological writings are deeply spiritual and indeed lead to prayer. In this regard, his writings remind one of the theological method of Hans Urs von Balthasar or the objective approach to spiritual theology found in the writings of Blessed Columba Marmion, an author with whom, more than likely, he would have been well acquainted in the seminary. However, it is probably even more true to say that his theology reflects his long familiarity with the Church Fathers, who did not separate theological reflection from prayer and pastoral concerns.

10. A final characteristic of Joseph Ratzinger's theology is the sheer joy in the faith that it exudes. Overcoming a narrow moralistic and legalistic interpretation of Christianity, Ratzinger emphasizes that Christian faith is not a burden but brings joy to the heart of man. For Ratzinger, joy emerges from the totality of Christian faith when it is received in an open and generous heart. Joy is an overarching or synthesizing theme in his writings. It refers both to God's gifts of love, salvation, and eternal life and to man's response, shaped by the supernatural attitudes of faith, hope, and charity and lived out amid life's joys and sorrows in the community of the Church as she journeys toward the definitive encounter with her Lord.

Joseph Ratzinger was once asked to describe what he saw as specific to his theology and way of doing theology. In his reply, which synthesizes many of the points made above, he explains that he has always consciously pursued a theology firmly grounded in the faith of the Church and in dialogue with contemporary thought:

I began with the theme of the Church, and it is present in everything. Only, in dealing with the Church it was important to me, and it has become increasingly important, that the Church not be an end in herself but exist so that God may be seen. In that respect I would say that I study the theme of the Church with the intention of opening a vista onto God. And in this sense God is the real central theme of my endeavors.

I have never tried to create a system of my own, an individual theology. What is specific, if you want to call it that, is that I simply want to think in communion with the faith of the Church, and that means above all to think in communion with the great thinkers of the faith. The aim is not an isolated theology that I draw out of myself but one that opens as widely as possible into the common intellectual pathway of the faith. For this reason exegesis was always very important. I couldn't imagine a purely philosophical theology. The point of departure is first of all the Word. That we believe the word of God, that we try really to get to know and understand it and then, as I said, to think it together with the great masters of the faith. This gives my theology a somewhat biblical character and also bears the stamp of the Fathers, especially Augustine. But it goes without saying that I try not to stop with the ancient Church but to hold fast to the great high points of thought and at the same time to bring contemporary thought into the discussion. [35]

An attempt, such as this, to convey something of the richness of the thought of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, cannot hope to say everything. It is intended in the first place as an expression of gratitude for all that this author has gained over the years from frequenting Ratzinger's extraordinarily profound, inspiring, and wide-ranging theological works. Incomplete and imperfect though it is, this exploration of the central theme of joy also aims at serving the Holy Father's message. It is hoped that these pages will encourage the reader to engage Pope Benedict's own writings and so come to know better the beauty and joy of the Christian faith and grow in love of God and neighbor.

ENDNOTES:

[8] See Second Vatican Council, Decree on Priestly Training, Optatam Totius, October 28, 1965, no. 16. For Joseph Ratzinger's approach to scriptural exegesis, see the Erasmus lecture "Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today", which he delivered on January 27, 1988 in St. Peter's Church, New York, in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches, ed. John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), pp. 243-58. [Editor's note: The lecture is also now available in God's Word's: Scripture, Tradition, Office (Ignatius Press, 2008), by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.]

[9] On this point, see especially Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, November 18, 1965, no. 8.

[10] Joseph Ratzinger, Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirche (Munich: Zink, 1954); unamended reprint with a new preface (St. Ottilien: EOS Verlag, 1992). To date, this work has not been translated into English. It has been translated into Italian as Popolo e casa di Dio in Sant' Agostino (Milan: Jaca Book, 1978).

[11] Joseph Ratzinger has explored the nature of theology in various writings; see, for example, The Nature and Mission of Theology: Approaches to Understanding Its Role in the Light of Present Controversy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995); "Faith and Theology", in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), pp. 17-28; "What in Fact Is Theology", in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, pp. 29-37.

[12] Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology, p. 97.

[13] Ibid., p. 60.

[14] See ibid., p. 61.

[15] Heinrich Schlier, "Die Verantwortung der Kirche für den theologischen Unterricht", in his Der Geist und die Kirche, ed. V. Kubina and K. Lehmann (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1980), p. 241, as quoted by Ratzinger in The Nature and Mission of Theology, p. 45.

[16] See Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, p. 35.

[17] Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology, p. 46.

[18] D. Vincent Twomey, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age. A Theological Portrait (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), p. 41; also his "The Mind of Benedict XVI", in Claremont Review of Books (2005): 66. Chapter 2 of Twomey's book, which expands his Claremont Review article, provides a useful overview of Joseph Ratzinger's writings over the years.

[19] Twomey, Pope Benedict XVI, p. 42.

[20] On the difficulties encountered with regard to his Habilitationsschrift, see Joseph Ratzinger's own account in his Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), pp. 103-14. Ratzinger's Habilitationssch rift was translated into English as The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971).

[21] The first English edition of Introduction to Christianity, translated by J. R. Foster, was published in London in 1969 and in New York in 1970 and reprinted by Ignatius Press in 1990. I refer to the second edition published by Ignatius Press in 2004. This edition is almost identical in content to the original, with some corrections to the translation and the addition of a new preface, written in 2000 by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, entitled "Introduction to Christianity: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow", which surveys some of the new challenges to the Christian faith that have emerged since 1968.

[22] Twomey, "The Mind of Benedict XVI", p. 67.

[23] Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 2nd ed., p. 173.

24Ratzinger's theoretical work on preaching is Dogma und Verkündigung (Munich and Freiburg in Breisgau: Erich Wewel Verlag, only partially translated into English as Dogma and Preaching (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1985 [Editor's note: Now available from Ignatius Press as Dogma and Preaching [2008]). Various collections of his homilies and meditations have been published, including Vom Sinn des Christseins: Drei Adventspredigten (Munich: Kösel, 2005), originally published in 1965; Die Hoffnung des Senfleorns (Meitingen and Freising: Kyrios Verlag, 1973); Gottes Glanz in unserer Zeit: Meditationen zum Kirchenjahr (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2005); Der Segen der Weihnacht Meditationen (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2005); Komm Heiliger Geist! Pfingtspredigten, 2nd ed. (Munich: Erich Wewel Verlag, 2005). In English translation: Seek That Which Is Above (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986, 2007); What It Means to Be a Christian (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006); Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006); The Blessing of Christmas (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).

[25] In this regard, one should mention above all his trilogy on the liturgy: The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986); A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy (New York: Crossroad, 1996); The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).

[26] See for example, Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, with Christoph Schönborn (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994); Joseph Ratzinger, Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism: Sidelights on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997). Particularly significant is Joseph Ratzinger's lecture on the contemporary state of catechesis, delivered in January 1983 in Paris and Lyons, which is published in English as "Handing on the Faith and the Sources of the Faith", in Joseph Ratzinger et al., Handing on the Faith in an Age of Disbelief (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), pp. 13-40.

[27] See, for example, "The Church's Teaching Authority--Faith--Morals", in Joseph Ratzinger et al., Principles of Christian Morality (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986); Joseph Ratzinger, La via della fede: Le ragioni dell' etica nell' epoca presente (Milan: Ares, 1996); Joseph Ratzinger, "Conscience and Truth", in Crisis of Conscience, ed. John M. Haas (New York: Crossroad, 1996), pp. 1-20.

[28] See, for example, the following by Joseph Ratzinger: Church, Ecumenism and Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology (Slough: St. Paul Publications, 1988 [Editor's note: Now available from Ignatius Press under the title, Church, Ecumenism and Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology [2008]); Wahrheit, Werte, Macht: Prüfsteine derpluralistischen Gesellschaft (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1993); A Turning Point for Europe (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994); Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006); Values in a Time of Upheaval (New York: Crossroad; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).

[29] The diary entry is dated February 28, 1954; see Romano Guardini, Wahrheit des Denkens und Wahrheit des Tuns, 3rd ed. (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1980), p. 8; Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology, p. 92, n. 20.

[30] See Joseph Ratzinger, Journey towards Easter: Retreat Given in the Vatican in the Presence of Pope John Paul II (Slough: St. Paul Publications, 1987).

[31] See Joseph Ratzinger, The Yes of Jesus Christ: Spiritual Exercises in Faith, Hope and Love (New York: Crossroad, 2005), originally published as To Look on Christ: Exercises in Faith, Hope and Love (New York: Crossroad, 1991).

[32] Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).

[33] See Joseph Ratzinger, Ministers of Your Joy: Meditations on Priestly Spirituality (Slough: St. Paul Publications, 1989).

[34] Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), pp. 128-68.

[35] Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium, An Interview with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), pp. 65-66.







Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

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The Courage To Be Imperfect | The Introduction to Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait) | D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.



Monsignor Joseph Murphy, a native of Ireland, received his S.T.L. degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. He has taught in colleges and seminaries, and he has written articles for several publications. He currently is an official of the Secretariat of State at the Vatican.



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