Because of the announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he is resigning from the office of Bishop of Rome and successor of St. Peter, Jeff has asked me for my view of his theology, how that has affected the Church, and how the next pope’s theology might affect the Church. There are very short answers to those questions:
(1) Pope Benedict’s theology: Love God and then do what you will.
(2) How has it affected the Church? We’re still digesting this. Check back with us in a decade or two. Maybe a century would be better. We’re still trying to wrap our heads around that “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself” thing.
(3) How will the theology of the next pope affect the Church? Hey, if I knew for sure who the next pope would be, I would absolutely clean up at the bookies; Paddy Power is giving 7/2 on Cardinal Ouellet of Canada, but I can’t see a Canadian getting selected. You could always have a punt on one of the Italians. What I will stick my neck out and predict is that the next pope is very likely to be a Catholic. I know – crazy, wild speculation on my part, but some serious newspapers agree with me! Everyone is going to be reading the tealeaves to pick the next pope, but the one sure thing is today’s papabile is tomorrow’s still-a-cardinal.
If I left it there, this would be a very short piece (“Thank the Lord!” I hear you all cry). I may expand on the above a little, but basically that’s what it boils down to, in my opinion. First, however, a snippet of background on the title of this post. It refers to the pious legend that St. Peter, while fleeing Rome to avoid his likely execution by the authorities, met Christ on the road outside the city. He asked Him “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?) to which Jesus replied “To Rome, to be crucified again”. Then Peter turned back, to meet his fate.
This, then, is the question we are all asking: where are we going from here? Where is he going? Where is the Church likely to go, under the new pope, whomever he may be? That’s the one that will be most thrashed out over the next few weeks or however long it will take for the conclave to elect a new pope to be held. The answer, if I can quote myself from what I wrote about Lent, has to be “We are going toward Calvary and on past that, toward the Resurrected Lord”. There will be a lot of media conjecture along the lines of is this time for a pope from the Global South, a more liberal pope, will we see the ending of clerical celibacy, do they need someone with management skills, what would best appeal to the young unchurched Europeans or should they concentrate on the thriving but traditionally-minded African and South American churches, what about this, what about that: ignore it. If we are going anywhere else other than towards Easter, then we are not going anywhere, we are wandering in the desert like the Israelites who went astray seeking the Promised Land. God spare us, the Papacy is NOT about “management skills”!
Well, that’s the third question answered first. “I don’t know.” That one was easy. Ah, but next come the harder ones: what is Benedict’s theology and what effect has this had on the Roman Catholic Church? Since I’m working backward, let’s take that second one first. What effect has it had on the church – I think we won’t know immediately. It will take time to be assimilated and to develop. He’s been pope for eight years, which isn’t that long a time or at least, it doesn’t feel like that long a time.
There isn’t an easy, soundbite-sized, bullet-point list that can be handily summarised in a news bulletin or newspaper column, and you can see the hint of frustration in trying to condense his papacy into something that can be labelled conveniently in how some have reacted to the news: a “lacklustre” papacy, a “bookish,” remote, conservative figure who had none of the superstar glamour and charisma of his predecessor. An old, out-of-touch scholar who obstinately refused to get with the times and address the pressing issues of the day, or at least, what the media consider the pressing issues and by ‘deal with’, they mean ‘adopt the modern, secular, Western view of these topics.’ The notion that, for Benedict, the Church already has dealt with these issues and there is only the unalterable teaching to be reiterated apparently has never sunk in and, by the looks of things, still won’t anytime soon.
This naturally leads to the kinds of speculation about “What will the next Pope be like?” and all sorts of opinionating about how the Church ‘needs’ to elect someone from Latin America, or which of the cardinals is likely to be liberal on certain matters, or giving helpful hints about “what’s needed in a 21st-century pope”. They’ve been doing it since the death of Blessed John XXIII soon after he called the Second Vatican Council and they’ll be doing it after the election of the new pope, whoever it will be. This will be my fifth pope, counting from Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now to come Petrus Romanus, the Final Pope of St. Malachy’s prophecy, who will usher in the Anti-Christ and the arrival of alien serpent gods – ah, yeah, been reading the wrong sites recently, but if you fancy putting a bet on Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, there’s been some to-do about how it’s him! He’s Petrus Romanus! Has to be – he’s named Peter and he’s eligible to be the Pope of Rome!
Turning to more sane themes, what Pope Benedict has taught has been through his writings and, very importantly, his General Audiences which don’t get widely reported on in the general press but where he does a lot of teaching. His trilogy “Jesus of Nazareth” is important, but that is not an exercise of the teaching office. It is (as he put it) the “expression of his personal search for the face of the Lord.”
Very quick definitions here: an Apostolic Constitution is the highest decree issued in modern times by popes, it sets out definitive teaching or promulgates a law, and is issued as a Papal Bull. Next in importance is the Encylical, which treats a particular subject. It is not always meant to be the last word on a topic, but it is always in line with the general teaching of the Church and when a pope issues one dealing with a controversy, then it is regarded as ending all debate as far as dissenting opinions go. A motu proprio is a personal document issued by a pope, granting a favour, dealing with points of church law or giving instruction. If we’re looking for Big Picture-type themes or threads in Benedict’s papacy, then the important documents are his three Encylicals, the Apostolic Constitution “Anglicanorum Coetibus” and the Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificum.”
It is fair to say that “Summorum Pontificum” in 2007 rattled a lot of cages. The popular notion of how the hierarchy works may be one of conservative, stodgy bishops laying down the law and ruling with a heavy hand over a laity straining at the leash to modernise, innovate or at the very least keep up with the Joneses in the megachurch next door. It is just as likely to be the case that liberal bishops of a certain vintage (coughVaticanIIcough) are dragging a reluctant laity with them through forays into modern architecture of the kind that led Cardinal Arinze to say, in an address about the reverence due to the Eucharist, “In some of such churches, one could not tell where the tabernacle is. Then one could in truth lament: ‘They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put Him’.”
“Summorum Pontificum” reminded everyone that the Tridentine Mass (to use the common term) had never been abrogated; that although the revised Mass of Paul VI is the normal form of the Roman Rite, if people wanted the older Mass they were entitled to have it. It granted greater freedom to celebrate the Mass of 1962 and encouraged bishops to support those who wanted it and to set up means so that it could be celebrated.
To the progressives, this was just yet more evidence that he was a backwards-looking conservative who wanted to drag the Church back to the Bad Old Days. To the ultra-traditionalist types, it still wasn’t good enough. What it was – in my opinion – was a pastoral response to a legitimate demand and a restatement of what has been an assertion of Benedict’s papacy, that of continuity.
If “Summorum Pontificum” disgruntled many, the 2009 “Anglicanorum Coetibus” was a bombshell. Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenical relations in recent years had more or less bogged down in earnest, well-meaning but increasingly less-likely efforts to find common ground (particularly after the turmoils within the Anglican Communion over the ordination of women, women in the episcopacy, and human sexuality) and usually resulted in anodyne statements about further explorations to assist in moving towards full communion. Then Benedict announced a plan to set up Personal Ordinariates for those Anglicans who wished to enter into full communion with Rome while keeping their Anglican patrimony. This was said to be a response to requests from Anglicans and not an initiative by the pope, but that did not stop reactions ranging from accusations of sheep-stealing and “parking a tank on the lawn of Lambeth Palace,” not to mention the ever-popular “secret Vatican plotting,” to declarations that there would only be a few Anglicans and Episcopalians taking it up and their former churches would be better off without the likes of them, anyway, since they were homophobes and sexists who didn’t want women priests or equality for gay Christians. There were certainly some within the ranks of the Church who weren’t too thrilled about it, either.
But again, this was another example of Benedict’s personal emphasis on unity and continuity. It wasn’t done out of any animus or rivalry; he has a warm, friendly relationship of mutual respect with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. For Benedict, these Anglican Christians had made an appeal to him as Universal Pastor and it was his duty to answer them, not put them off or discourage them.
And so we come at last to the first question – what is Pope Benedict XVI’s theology? Well, as the man said, that’s a question above my pay grade. What my opinion is, as to what his theology may encompass, is what I will try to give.
When he was elected, it was pretty much a shock. The pundits were scratching their heads to come up with a reason why him, of all the candidates, and they figured that because of his age (78 at the time), he had been elected as a ‘caretaker’ pope, someone expected to have a short reign to give everyone a chance to settle down and select a real candidate while he quietly kept the throne warm and didn’t rock any boats. One of the reasons there was so much surprise was because of his reputation: the Pope’s Rottweiler, Der Panzer-Kardinal, the enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy, the poacher turned gamekeeper (the pre-Vatican II liberal who had moved rightwards and ossified into rigid conservatism) who crushed the Latin American movement of Liberation Theology; a stereotypical German scholar with his head in books and a passion for rules and regulations but no warmth of personality. You may remember how every newspaper account of him mentioned that he had been Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then helpfully explained that this was formerly known as the Holy Office, or the Inquisition.
Some people were appalled at the idea that he had become pope, as they expected him to immediately start cracking the whip. Some people were delighted for the very same reason. As it turned out, there were no dissidents dragged off to the dungeons of the Holy Office, to the great disappointment of some, myself included. I had to warm up to the idea that not issuing excommunications and declarations of being in schism was a good thing.
There was almost a sense that this was like the transformation of the Apostle John, from being one of the zealous Sons of Thunder to the old man whose only sermon was “Little children, love one another.” Yet this should not have come as a surprise to any who read his writings. To digress for a moment, and paint in very broad brush strokes, there are two tendencies or currents in addressing theological questions: the Augustinian, which is associated with the mystical, and the Thomist, which is associated with the rational. It would be wrong to say they represent faith versus reason, but think of Luther the Augustinian monk and how he characterises “Reason, the Devil’s greatest whore” (in the context of arguing against the incorporation of Aristotelian metaphysics in theology under the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas). Turns out our German pope is an Augustinian (in a sense). No wonder he has an appreciation of Martin Luther!
Not that he takes sides in the perennial cage-fight of Faith versus Reason (or Faith versus Science, as it more usually is nowadays). For Benedict, faith and reason work together; we must beware equally of an uncritical fideism and an uncritical scientism: “In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.” However, he does quote St. Augustine extensively and is greatly influenced by him.
However, it was temptingly easy to draw further contrasts between Benedict and his predecessor in this as in other aspects of their respective papacies; the Augustinian Benedict versus the Thomist John Paul II, the theologian versus the philosopher. That’s an over-simplification but I want to return to the three Encyclicals :
2005 – Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”)
2007 – Spe Salvi (“Saved by Hope”)
2009 – Caritas in Veritate (“Love in Truth”)
The third encyclical was expected to be on faith, to complete the group on the three theological virtues, but as you can see, it wasn’t. It’s now looking like we won’t get an encyclical on faith, as it remains unfinished at the moment (whether he will finish it in retirement is unknown). What I want to focus on here is the first one – “God is Love”.
Now, that’s not new, strange or startling. It’s the kind of thing we’ve heard umpteen times before, so many times that it just passes over our heads. “Well, sure,” we say. “Of course God is love. What’s new there?”
Nothing, of course. But what Benedict says over and over again (he constantly speaks of “friendship with Christ”) is that God is love, that our relationship with the Creator is one of love, that all our relationships are fundamentally those of love:
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
The doctrinal enforcer, the Grand Inquisitor, tells us that we do not believe in a system, we believe in a person. That person is Christ. Christ is God. God is love:
“The divine power that Aristotle at the height of Greek philosophy sought to grasp through reflection, is indeed for every being an object of desire and of love —and as the object of love this divinity moves the world—but in itself it lacks nothing and does not love: it is solely the object of love. The one God in whom Israel believes, on the other hand, loves with a personal love. His love, moreover, is an elective love: among all the nations he chooses Israel and loves her—but he does so precisely with a view to healing the whole human race. God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape.”
To my mind, for Pope Benedict, the important things are these:
(1) Christ. Christ is absolutely central. Faith is not divorced from reason, but both are lifted up and only truly alive when they are not a set of rules or a perfectly-worked out theology, but an encounter with the Person of Christ in love.
(2) The Body of Christ. This is both in the sacrament of the Eucharist and in the Mystic Body of Christ, which is the Church.
(3) Following on from those, our lives as Christians involve an individual relationship with Christ but one that is expressed in a corporate experience of belonging to the Church. There is no “Jesus and me” but there most definitely is a “Jesus and me and me and you and us and them”. The Communion of Saints is a living thing, that extends from the past into the future.
Humans live in a web of relationships; our families, our neighbours, our communities, our culture, our world and – most importantly – our church. This web binds us together and binds us to God, since God is not outside or beyond but rather is a personal God who loves us, who stoops down to save us, who became one of us.
For Benedict, continuity is a vital part of our life within the Body. Change is organic, but should be a pruning, not a wholesale slash-and-burn. It is time to re-discover the heritage we have neglected, not because of an antiquarian interest in the liturgy but because the chain of experience reaches down from the past to us through the corporate existence of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. And the wounds and separations within the Body are very grave matters, which is why the prayer of unity in John 17:20-21 is more than just a pious aspiration to be murmured at ecumenical gatherings before we all agree to go our separate ways: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
This is why he responded to the Anglicans with the Personal Ordinariate. This is why he is interested in outreach to the Lutherans. This is why he emphasized ties with the Eastern Churches and our common heritage. This is why he supported the movement for reform prior to Vatican II, due to his pastoral experience as a priest in a German parish, where he saw that despite the external appearance of Christian life, people were in fact ‘cultural Christians’ and practical pagans; and also why he later supported the ‘reform of the reform’. This is why he encouraged the New Evangelisation, including using the new media and going out into the world and the marketplace to do this, and got a Twitter account himself. This is why he made overtures to the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X.
Because of his deep, foundational belief in the absolute necessity of the relationship with Christ for every one of us, and the binding together in mutual love and support which that entails. There’s a good overview of his theology on Wikipedia, which I swear I didn’t crib all this from – I only saw it afterwards – but if I can make one thing clear to you all, I hope it is this: the focal point of Benedict’s theology is God’s love and grace and mercy and how we respond to that, not in a forensic or legalistic way, but in an encounter that changes and transforms us.
Well, that’s all I have to say. Like the rest of the Catholic world, I’m still a bit shell-shocked by this announcement of his resignation. Nobody quite knows what to do or what will happen next or what should be done, since it is so long (either seven hundred years, if you’re counting from Celestine V, or six hundred, if you’re counting from Gregory XII) since it last happened. I have an odd feeling of being orphaned, which is silly because he’s not dead. But it will be so strange to be going into Lent and facing into Easter without a Pope, and without this Pope.
May God send us a good and holy successor soon! And may God bless and keep Pope Benedict, when he steps down and becomes Joseph Ratzinger once again.