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The Truth About the Pope—and Why It Matters | An Interview with Dr. Tracey Rowland | Ignatius Insight | October 15, 2010

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Tracey Rowland is Dean and Associate Professor of Political Philosophy and Continental Theology at the John Paul II Institute (Melbourne), a member of the Centre for Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham and a member of the editorial board of the English language edition of Communio, founded, among others, by Joseph Ratzinger. She is the author of Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (2003), Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Benedict XVI (2008), and, most recently, Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010). She recently took time from her busy schedule to discuss the work and thought of Joseph Ratinger/Pope Benedict XVI.

Ignatius Insight: You've now written two books about the theology and thought of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. If you had to describe his theology and thought to someone who knew little or nothing about the topic, what would you say?

Dr. Rowland: I would say that he is interested in the relationship between God and the human person and in particular the role of love and reason in this relationship. He wants people to understand that while there is something called Christian morality, Christianity is not just another option on the menu of ethical codes. It is about a personal relationship with the Trinity, and without that the ethical code can seem incomprehensible and oppressive.

Ignatius Insight: What misunderstandings or misrepresentations of Benedict's thinking do you find most bothersome or in need of correction?

Dr. Rowland: Unfortunately many people, in particular journalists, can only think in dialectical categories like: left-wing, right-wing, progressive, conservative. They never ask questions like: conserve what? or progress toward what? It is very difficult to present Ratzinger's ideas in sound-bites without doing violence to the nuances.

There is, for example, a sense in which it may well be right to classify Ratzinger as a progressive in 1964 and a conservative today but what changed is not the actual theological beliefs held by Ratzinger, but the historical and theological contexts. In 1964 to be progressive meant wanting to introduce some flexibility into a theological framework which had become ossified and dry. It meant being critical of Suárezian Thomism. Today, being progressive means being in favour of contraceptives, women priests, homosexual "marriage" and Marty Haugen.

As Cardinal Francis George has often written, it is not a case of being left wing or right wing, but being for Christ. In some social contexts that will look right wing, in others, left-wing, but these terms and labels are not the standard, and nor are they stable.

Ignatius Insight: Who were some of the essential intellectual and theological influences—both ancient and contemporary—on the young Ratzinger?

Dr. Rowland: Among the Patristic theologians, St Augustine was clearly the most influential, among the medieval theologians it was St. Bonaventure, and thereafter there were a number of significant nineteenth century influences associated with the Tübingen School, such as Adam Möhler, and there was also the influence of Blessed John Henry Newman. Among twentieth scholars, the key influences were: Romano Guardini, Josef Pieper, Martin Buber, Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Karl Rahner was also someone with whom he collaborated at the Council and probably by whom he was to some degree mentored at the Council, but as Avery Dulles observed, Ratzinger grew to understand that he and Rahner lived on different theological planets: whereas Rahner found revelation and salvation primarily in the inward movements of the human spirit, Ratzinger finds them in historical events attested by Scripture and the Fathers.

Ignatius Insight: Rupert Shortt, in a recent review of Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed, wrote that "Professor Ratzinger's volte-face [in the late 1960s] was matched by what struck many observers as a shift in his character. An earlier openness was supplanted by intolerance and gloom. The psychological element, wholly overlooked by Rowland, is revealing." Shortt obviously believes that Ratzinger's theology and perspective changed dramatically and suddenly some forty year ago. Is there evidence for that argument? And why is the debate over this topic so important?

Dr. Rowland: First, let me say that my book was published in the Guide for the Perplexed series which the publishers market as an 'upper level introduction to the thought of those writers readers can find especially challenging'. Concentrating on what it is that makes the subject difficult to grasp, these books explain and explore key themes and ideas. In other words, the book was not written as a biography, nor was there ever any brief from the publisher to delve into the psychological drives of the subject. The brief was to present an account of Ratzinger's thought for theology students trying to get a grip on its essential contours, with special reference to his contributions to the discipline of theology. Accordingly, the dominant theme of the book was how Ratzinger has dealt with what in Principles of Catholic Theology (1982) he called the severest crisis in Catholic theology in the twentieth century, namely, 'understanding the mediation of history in the realm of ontology'. Most of the material presented relates to that problematic.

That said, I think that just as there are at least two fundamentally different approaches to the documents of Vatican II, the 'hermeneutic of rupture' and the 'hermeneutic of reform' or continuity, there is an analogous division of interpretation over Ratzinger himself. What everyone agrees upon is that Ratzinger is an intellectual. No one tries to argue that he has been infected with peasant piety herding cows in the Bavarian alps as some tried to dismiss Wojtyła as a Carpathian peasant. The line becomes, this fellow was one of the most gifted clerics of his generation, open to new ideas and progressively oriented, but then in 1968 he found students demonstrating outside his lecture theatre and claiming that Christ was a sado-masochist. He then, so this narrative goes, had something like a breakdown from which he has never recuperated, and since that time he has been a neurotic conservative. This way one can acknowledge his talent but dismiss his substantive judgments on the grounds that they are the result of emotional fragility rather than intellectual rigour.

My response to this is to say that I remember 1968 as the year that my older cousin, whom I adored, grew his hair to his waist and started smoking pot and wearing paisley t-shirts. As a small child I thought this was all a bit odd and it does not surprise me that Ratzinger also took a rather negative view of the behaviour of the soixant-huit-ers. He once remarked in an interview that what he found more disturbing than the demonstrations was the fact that priests were handing out Communion to Marxist students on the picket lines around the Sorbonne. There was nothing however in his early intellectual make-up to suggest that he might react any other way. His doctoral dissertation was on the ecclesiology of St. Augustine, his habilitationsschrift was on the theology of history in St. Bonaventure. As a seminarian he was known to be passionate about Newman and heavily influenced by Romano Guardini and Josef Pieper. Not one of these authors is in any way close to the ensemble of intellectual currents which became fashionable in the late 1960s and 70s. It's impossible to think of Augustine or Bonaventure or Newman or Guardini or Pieper as latently liberal or Marxist. What they all have in common is an interest in matters of the heart, and in the links between affectivity and objectivity, or love and truth. Not one of them thought that truth could be found blowing in the wind.

What Ratzinger opposed in the pre-Conciliar theological establishment, which earned him the rebellious theological teenager label in the early 1960s, was the Suárezian infused Thomism upon which almost every seminarian of his generation was fed. In his book Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians, Fergus Kerr observed that there was a wide-scale rebellion against this, particularly among the intellectual elite of the Conciliar generation. Ratzinger's alternative to this dry, ossified and in some elements, revisionist presentation of the thought of St. Thomas which prided itself on being 'above history' was a framework built on Augustine and Bonaventure principally, and then Newman, Guardini, Pieper, de Lubac and the personalism of Buber. After the Council one can add the influence of von Balthasar and a deepening relationship with de Lubac. All of these influences were perfectly consistent with his early orientations. De Lubac and von Balthasar were also highly critical of the pre-Conciliar theological establishment and went to war against Suárez, but they were not trying to update Christ for the Age of Aquarius.

Accordingly a number of scholars who are not fully paid up members of the Ratzinger Fan Club agree that Ratzinger's theology does exhibit a quality of consistency over the decades.

For example, Joseph A Komonchak has written:
From Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity (1968) down to the homily he delivered on his installation as Pope Benedict XVI, a distinctive and consistent approach has been visible" (See: 'The Church in Crisis: Pope Benedict's Theological Vision' Commonweal, 3 June 2005, 11-14).
Similarly, Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, a former student of Ratzinger, wrote at the time of Ratzinger's election to the papacy:
The negative slogans are wrong, the personal descriptions are true, and the biographical explanations are, in general, misleading. They overlook that Ratzinger has from early days had a consistent theological vision". ('From Theologian to Pope: A Personal View Back, Past and Public Portrayals' Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 33 [2005]).
Finally, Lieven Boeve and Gerard Mannion have concluded:
Ratzinger's theological insights have not fundamentally changed, but have rather demonstrated a firm internal consistency throughout more than fifty years'. (The Ratzinger Reader (London: Continuum, 2010, p. 12).
Nonetheless, Boeve and Mannion do note that Ratzinger's tone of writing became more polemical after 1968.

The weight of scholarly opinion favours the 'theological consistency' thesis.

Why does the debate matter?

I think it matters because the truth always matters, and because I believe that the 'psychological break-down' theory is designed to dissuade people from undertaking an examination of what Ratzinger actually thinks.

A similar line of attack was taken against John Paul II's theology of the body. It was said that Wojtyła had an overly romantic attitude toward sex and marriage because he lost his mother at an early age.

The moment one comes up with a psychological examination, it seems it is no longer necessary to examine the substantive arguments.

Ignatius Insight: What was Razinger's involvement in the Second Vatican Council? What would you say in response to those who insist that Benedict XVI is trying, in his pontificate, to undo the Council, or is working against the "spirit" of the Council?

Dr. Rowland: Ratzinger was a theological advisor to Josef Cardinal Frings of Cologne and one of a group of young theologians who were frustrated by the regnant neo-scholasticism of the pre-Conciliar era. He contributed to the drafting of several documents, including Dei Verbum, which can be read as a vindication of the anti-Suárezian orientation of his Habilitationsschrift.

I would say that if by the 'spirit of the Council' you mean projects to correlate the Catholic faith to the culture of modernity, then Benedict XVI is working against such a spirit, but I would add that he never interpreted the Council this way, and nor, I would argue, did Paul VI. If one reads the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam published in 1964, one gets a sense that Paul VI also thought that there were some odd interpretations of the Conciliar spirit about. For Ratzinger the true spirit of the Council represented a retrieval of Christocentrism in all areas of theology and ecclesial life and he believed that this was also the kind of accent placed over the Conciliar documents by Paul VI. It was certainly the accent of John Paul II.

Ignatius Insight: Much has been made of Benedict's supposed public relations errors, such as his comments about Islam in his Regensburg Address. What do you make of those criticisms?

Dr. Rowland: I don't regard the Regensburg Address as a public relations error. The pope delivered an academic paper at a university and made quite an acute philosophical observation about the common voluntarist starting points in militant Islam and militant secularism. For one everything depends on the will of Allah, for the other it all depends on the will of the individual. In neither case does reason seem to have much to do with goodness.

To suggest that he shouldn't have made this point, is to concede that popes should be subjected to the same political correctness gags as the rest of us. If the pope can't say difficult things, who can? At least he doesn't have a family to support if the press turn nasty.

Nonetheless, I do think that there have been public relations errors, above all in the case of the anti-Semitic Lefebvrist bishop. It has been said that those whom the pope consulted about this issue were primarily canon lawyers, and a degree in canon law certainly doesn't give one any experience in public relations. I think that more use could be made of professional laity in the public relations work of the curia. For example, a well dressed professional woman might be a 'better look' in an interview about sexual abuse than a cleric wearing a lace surplice.

Ignatius Insight: Your new book has sections on Karl Rahner and Hans Küng, two theologians who wielded much influence during the 1960s and 1970s. How do you think history will judge the work of those men compared to the work of Ratzinger?

Dr. Rowland: First, I believe that these thinkers continue to have a significant influence in some circles, even though younger theologians are no longer drawn to them the way that they were a couple of decades ago. I also think that future intellectual historians will identify affinities between the trajectories of Küng and Rahner and they will see de Lubac and von Balthasar as the alternative team, as it were. Ratzinger will be situated within the group and regarded as someone who might have developed in the direction of Rahner and Küng, but didn't, and it will probably be said that he didn't because of the early influences of Augustine and Bonaventure on his spiritual and intellectual formation. Küng described Rahner as the last of the great neo-scholastics and the neo-scholastics often wanted to splice Aquinas with someone else, like Kant or Heidegger, for example. Ratzinger was never inclined that way. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza put it like this:
The theologians representing la nouvelle théologie interpreted Thomas Aquinas from the perspective of Augustine. Ratzinger sought a much more direct retrieval of the Augustinian tradition. He wrote his first dissertation on Augustine's understanding of the people of God and his "habilitation" (a second dissertation) on St. Bonaventure's theology of history. His theological writings often underscored Augustine's emphasis on spirituality, the role of the cross, and Christian charity toward the neighbor. His sermons explicated the scriptures with reference to patristic images and themes. In this way, Ratzinger's writings contrasted sharply with the more arid scholasticism of his day. For this reason, he was perceived as a progressive theologian. But the Augustinian emphasis made Ratzinger much less favorable toward Metz's work on secularization and political theology, for example, and led him to question Rahner's understanding of Christianity.
While one could no doubt write a dissertation on what Rahner, Ratzinger, de Lubac and von Balthasar held in common, and for three of them at least there is the Ignatian heritage, nonetheless the divisions between Rahner on the one side, and Ratzinger, de Lubac and von Balthasar on the other, would seem to be greater than the affinities. The intellectual historians are perhaps likely to conclude that a fundamental fault line between Rahner and those in his circle, and Ratzinger and those in his circle, is the understanding of the relationship between nature, grace and culture and what in other places Ratzinger has called 'the mediation of history in the realm of ontology'. Ratzinger believed that Rahner was onto the right issues, that he was correct in his identification of certain problematic areas in need of theological reflection, but ultimately he did not agree with many of his solutions.

Ignatius Insight: If someone has only enough time to read three or four works by Razinger/Benedict, what do you recommend?

Dr. Rowland: If they were philosophically inclined I would start with the Introduction to Christianity, but otherwise I would recommend Jesus of Nazareth, then The Spirit of the Liturgy and God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald.

For young theologians I would recommend Principles of Catholic Theology and The Nature and Mission of Theology. I would also suggest reading de Lubac's Catholicism and The Drama of Atheistic Humanism, von Balthasar's Love Alone is Credible and Pieper's Faith, Hope, Love.





Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
All books by or about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI



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