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Theologians reflect on Pope Benedict XVI's theology


As a theologian the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI has been described as Augustinian rather than Thomist and more "ressourcement" than "aggiornamento."


These are categories many Catholics may not recognize, but theologians who know his work said they help characterize important aspects of how the new pope, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, thinks.

The French term "ressourcement," meaning a return to the sources, and the Italian term "aggiornamento," updating or modernizing, were two ways of speaking about the task of church reform and renewal at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. In the years following the council, they began to be seen as distinct terms identifying different views of the council.

"I think Cardinal Ratzinger had some concerns with what he perceived to be the drift of some of post-Vatican II Catholic theology and, to compensate for that, perhaps stressed the 'ressourcement,'" said Father Robert P. Imbelli, a theologian at Boston College.

"But I don't think he is unaware of the need for 'aggiornamento.' The question is the relative balance between them," he said. "I use those two terms which were used at the time of the council as an effort to speak about the dialectic and tension of Vatican II, which has perdured. I think the difficulty is to keep the tension, and too often one opts for an either/or rather than a both/and."

St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians of the ancient church, is noted for his strong emphasis on the corruption of human nature by sin and the absolute necessity of grace for salvation.

St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest medieval theologians, did not deny sin or the need for grace, but he placed greater emphasis on the goodness of nature, including human nature.

For an Augustinian theologian like the new pope, "there's a certain pessimism about what a human being can do on his own without God's grace," said Dennis Doyle, a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "I think that does color his approach, and it mixes in very well with his strong anti-Marxism, which is also at the same time an anti-utopianism, the idea that human beings should not try to create a perfect world on their own."

The idea that there is "something very negative about the human experience if we consider it apart from God's grace ... is a strong characteristic of his work," Doyle said.


In Cardinal Ratzinger's homily to the other cardinals just before entering the conclave where he was elected pope, that strong Augustinian bent came through clearly as he warned against "a dictatorship of relativism," "a trivialization of evil" and alien ideologies assailing the church, "from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism."

As a young priest teaching theology in Germany, Father Ratzinger studied St. Augustine extensively. His first book, in 1954, was "Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirche" ("People and House of God in Augustine's Teaching on the Church").

"Augustine has kept me company for more than 20 years. I have developed my theology in a dialogue with Augustine, though naturally I have tried to conduct this dialogue as a man of today."

In an article in a German theological review in 1969 he wrote, "Augustine has kept me company for more than 20 years. I have developed my theology in a dialogue with Augustine, though naturally I have tried to conduct this dialogue as a man of today."

No short article or couple of labels can capture the complexity and nuances of thought of someone who has been part of the Catholic theological world for more than half a century, the author of more than 60 books and hundreds of articles, one who, as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has been deeply involved in the greatest questions of theology and teaching confronting the church in the past 24 years.

But Father Imbelli said such a discussion of a person's theological roots and leanings, despite its limitations, can be helpful in getting "away from the too-easy liberal-conservative dichotomy."

He called Pope Benedict "a person of substance who is firm in doctrine but also able to explain the faith, not just issue dictums. He will be a pope of reconciliation and peace."

He said he believed the pope's choice of Benedict as his papal name reflected first of all his admiration for St. Benedict, whose life and spirituality were "profoundly rooted in Christ." For the pope, as for his namesake, "Christ is the measure" of everything, he said.

Father John T. Ford, a professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said that for many years he used Father Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity," which came out in English in 1969, as a basic text for courses on Christianity.

He, like others, recognized a shift in the theologian's approach to postconciliar reform just a few years after the council.

By all accounts the young Father Ratzinger was part of the progressive wing of the church before and during the Second Vatican Council, in which he participated as theological expert to German Cardinal Joseph Frings. He was involved in the drafting of several of the council's documents.

Near the end of the council, which was held in four sessions from 1962 to 1965, the beginnings of his break with many fellow progressives could be seen in concerns he had about the council's Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes.


In The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger, British Dominican Father Aidan Nichols wrote that in Father Ratzinger's notes on the development of that document during the council's third session, he recorded "the unresolved tension between two tendencies, one which gave enthusiastic affirmation to the world in a theology of the incarnation, the other presenting the much more critical posture of a theology of the cross."

"This contrast enables us to establish more closely the nature of Ratzinger's 'progressivism' at this point," the British theologian wrote. "It was controlled not so much by the imperative of modernization, or adaptation, 'aggiornamento,' but by that of a return to the biblical, patristic and high medieval sources, 'ressourcement.'"

Father Nichols said that in Father Ratzinger's published notes on the council's fourth session, his objections to the optimism about the world found in Gaudium et Spes increased.

In the epilogue to the fourth session notes, he added, Father Ratzinger struck "more than one somber note."

"Here and there, he thought, and perhaps more frequently than this phrase would imply, 'renewal' would be regarded as synonymous with the 'dilution and trivialization of the whole.' Here and there, the pleasure of liturgical experimentation would 'belittle and discredit' the reform in worship. Here and there, people would enquire after modernity, not after truth, and make what was contemporary the measure of all they did," Father Nichols wrote.

In a 1967 commentary on the council, Father Ratzinger repeatedly criticized Gaudium et Spes, calling it "unsatisfactory" and saying it "is not at all prepared to make sin the center of the theological edifice."

In a 1967 commentary on the council, Father Ratzinger repeatedly criticized Gaudium et Spes, calling it "unsatisfactory" and saying it "is not at all prepared to make sin the center of the theological edifice."

As Gaudium et Spes was being developed, Doyle said, "everybody agreed that the world's an ambiguous place and that the church has the light of Christ to offer to the world." He said the document, however, reflects more the kind of approach that another prominent German theologian at the council, Jesuit Father Karl Rahner, would take.

"Rahner's spin on that was that Christianity is making explicit what to some degree is already true about all of human experience," Doyle said. "Ratzinger, consistently throughout his theological life, always gave more of an emphasis to the need for an explicit encounter with Christ and he did not point to the presence of grace in the world that is somehow prior to or other than what is explicitly Christian not that he wouldn't acknowledge it, but he wouldn't use it as a starting point or as a point of emphasis in the way that Karl Rahner did."

Father Ford spoke of a shift in Father Ratzinger's direction around 1968, during the student uprisings in the United States and Western Europe. "There was a certain exuberance or euphoria after the Second Vatican Council," he said, but 1968 saw student protests against the war in Vietnam, the issuance of Pope Paul VI's condemnation of artificial birth control followed by organized public dissent to that teaching from many theologians and the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.


In his 2000 biography, Cardinal Ratzinger, John L. Allen reports that as a theology professor at Tubingen in 1968, Father Ratzinger was shocked "that the theology faculties of Tubingen became the 'real ideological center' of the movement toward Marxism."

In one of his own books, Salt of the Earth, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote of the confrontations and challenges to the faith in 1968, "That experience made it clear to me that the abuse of the faith had to be resisted precisely if one wanted to uphold the will of the council."

Father Imbelli said that as a priest in the years following the Second Vatican Council, the new pope "had begun as one of the people who was promoting the new review, Concilium." Concilium is an international theological journal founded in 1965 and published in seven languages to, in its words, "promote theological discussion in the spirit of Vatican II." Father Ratzinger was on the founding board.

Father Imbelli added that within a few years, however, Father Ratzinger "became concerned about the direction" in which that journal was going. He assisted Swiss theologian Father Hans Urs von Balthasar in founding another journal that would restore the balance they thought was lacking in Concilium.

Communio, a quarterly begun in 1972 and now published in 15 semiautonomous editions in Europe, Latin America and the United States, says it is committed to a "program of renewal through return to the sources of the authentic tradition."

Communio promotes reflective circles where its readers regularly get together to pray and discuss articles in the journal and issues in the church. One of its goals is to help overcome the polarization between church traditionalists and progressives. As a priest, bishop and cardinal the new pope has been a frequent contributor.


Father Imbelli said, "I tend to associate Communio with the 'ressourcement' of Vatican II and Concilium with the 'aggiornamento.'"

Father Ford said another key event that alarmed Father Ratzinger just a few years after the council was the publication of Infallible? An Inquiry by his former colleague at Tubingen, Father Hans Kung.

"I was just appalled by Kung's book. It was more a trumpet blast than a serious work of theology," Father Ford said. However, he said, "it was picked up in popular circles" and for the next decade "it caused the wrong debate."

Father Ratzinger was made archbishop of Munich and Freising and a cardinal in 1977, and in 1979 he was involved in the decision of the Vatican, in conjunction with the German bishops, that Father Kung could no longer teach as a Catholic theologian.

While speaking of the time around 1968-70 as a kind of turning point, Doyle cautioned that "this always has to be qualified, in the sense that he also argues that he didn't fundamentally change his positions."

Rather, Doyle said, the radicalization among students, the dissent against the birth control teaching and other things, including a discussion in Concilium on whether there should be a Vatican III, "brought home to him that the Second Vatican Council could be interpreted and applied as though it were the starting point of some liberal trajectory."

It was in that time, he said, that "he seemed to become aware of how distinct his own positions were from the direction that the implementation of the council was going."




Jerry Filtreau. "Theologians reflect on Pope Benedict XVI's theology." Catholic News Service (May, 2005).

This article reprinted with permission from Catholic News Service.

The Author

Jerry Filtreau is a staff writer with Catholic News Service.

Copyright © 2005 Catholic News Service
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