John Hunwicke a priest from Devon, reflects further on Pope Benedict’s theology

I didn’t see the white smoke on the telly; we were admiring the birds and the seals near Land’s End. I had popped into the First and Last Ebbsfleet church, at St Just, and there, on the First and Last Ebbsfleet notice board, was Bishop Andrew’s letter welcoming the election of Pope Benedict XVI, characteristically felicitous in its expression. Ratzinger! I did not know whether to shout or cry, so instead I knelt before the First and Last tabernacle and gave thanks. Why the dewy-eyed enthusiasm? What is the theology of this man, whose brilliance even his many enemies admit?

The first and last thing to understand: Benedict is a man of Scripture and Tradition as re-presented to us by Vatican II, at which he was present as a young and enthusiastic theologian. So why do his critics berate him as an enemy of the Council? Because many of those who talk most about the Council have a very specialized hermeneutic of it.

Views of the Council

What for them matters is the Sixties bits. And even those they regard as merely starting points for trajectories to be developed beyond anything the Council even hinted at. This is known as ‘the Spirit of the Council’. The decree on liturgy provides a good example. It is actually so cautious a document that it was supported by the arch-conservative Archbishop Lefebvre. But post-conciliar committees produced a new rite which went well beyond the decree. And their rite soon came to be staged in a way that outstripped even their own regulations. And that liturgical culture, in turn, is now regarded as merely the starting point for daring new initiatives.

Benedict XVI has a quite different notion of ‘the Council’. What is for him normative is what the Council actually intended and actually enacted. He believes in the continuity and organic development of the tradition. So, in liturgical matters, he has expressed, in books and articles written as a private theologian, his conviction that the time has come to reconsider the direction being taken by (particularly) liberal American fashions.

You may have noticed that, at his prdecessor’s funeral and his own inauguration, he used the First Eucharistic Prayer. This is the ancient prayer of the Roman Church, often now ignored by liberal clergy because of its length and its stately dignity. But the post-conciliar liturgy, while sanctioning alternative eucharistic prayers, prescribed this one as normative, especially on Sundays. So Benedict is actually being both very Vatican II and very traditional by using it.

The deeply nuanced way in which he writes about the conciliar reform of the liturgy throws a great deal of light on how he sees the papal office, how he is likely to use it, and how he understands the concepts of tradition and development. Here is something he wrote in 2000: ‘After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council… In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not ‘manufactured’ by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity… The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.’ Get that!

Limits of papal power

This is a pope who has a deep interest in defining the limits of papal authority! Since Benedict XVI is unlikely to have woken up with different convictions from those of Cardinal Ratzinger, this makes him a very interesting pope. Let me suggest a couple of practical implications. His predecessor set in place a policy of re-anchoring the post-conciliar liturgy more securely in the tradition of what went before; he required translations closer to, and so more able to release the riches of the ancient Latin texts; and banned ‘translations’ designed to clamp inclusivist feminist language and dogma onto the Church’s worship. If a liberal pope had been elected, he would have been subjected to deferential pressure to ‘fine-tune some of the details’ of this policy: vaticanspeak for ‘dump it’. Benedict is less likely to fall for that one. Read his excellent The Spirit of the Liturgy if you want chapter and verse.

Secondly, his view of his office brings it close to the mode of its exercise before the break between East and West, and accordingly has ecumenical potential. It is well-known that he once expressed the view that the Roman primacy had no right to ask more of the East than it did in the first millennium. That has often been misinterpreted as implying a merely honorary sort of primacy.

Strong in upholding unity in orthodoxy, strong in giving local churches help and support when they were persecuted by heterodox patriarchs and emperors closer at hand. Separated Orthodoxy since 1054 has been very different from that of the preceding centuries; Ratzinger’s formula does indeed mean that Rome must not try to force upon the East a tight curial bureaucracy, like that which may be necessary in the West, but Rome’s service and witness to maintaining the unity of the particular churches on the basis of the paradosis needs to be received by the East.

It is surely with regard to Orthodoxy that the Holy Father’s best hopes for ecumenical progress will lie. In his documents Communionis notio and Dominus Jesus of 1992 and 2000 he mapped out a picture of where Orthodoxy stood in his scheme of things. The Orthodox churches are true ‘sister churches’ of the Church of Rome; they are ‘wounded’ by their separation from Rome, but this is balanced by an assertion that the Roman Catholic Church itself is wounded by the breach. And the second of those documents contained a highly significant detail which was largely obscured by the hysteria drummed up by the liberals. It begins with the Nicene creed without the Filioque. Previously, in 1995, Rome issued a document which explained that West and East are not really divided in this matter. But it is well-known that Orthodox resent a unilateral western addition to the creed. This is a space to watch!

Ecumenical outreach

Writing as a private theologian, Ratzinger went even closer to Orthodoxy. Discussing, in 2000, the iconodule Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, he suggested that the West had not yet achieved ‘a real reception’ of that council. Yet more daringly, he surveyed the councils and synods of the East which dealt with the doctrine of images, concluding with the Council of Moscow in 1551, and argued that the Western Church ‘should regard the fundamental lines of this theology…as normative for her.’

Think what this means! The Orthodox are not only true sister churches within the Body of Christ; they have even possessed, in separation from Rome, a doctrinal Magisterium sufficiently authentic for the churches in communion with Rome to need to accept its ‘fundamental lines’. In practical terms, Benedict XVI will have to decide whether to face directly relationships with Orthodoxy where they are worst (Moscow), or where they are best (in the Patriarchate of Antioch, where de facto intercommunion is widespread).

And his record with Anglicans? He stated that Apostolicae curae, which condemned Anglican Orders, is still on the statute book, and reaffirmed Vatican II terminology: bodies without valid orders are ‘ecclesial communities’. That was his job. On the positive side, he presided over the Graham Leonard enquiry, which concluded that, because Dutch schismatics with valid orders had participated in Anglican episcopal consecrations since the 1930s, the invalidity asserted by Apostolicae curae was now open to some doubt: Mgr Leonard was only ordained sub conditione to the presbyterate; a deliberate decision was made not to enquire into the status of his episcopal orders, leaving that as still an undecided question (technicalities in Reuniting Anglicans and Rome, Catholic League, 1994).

This matter has now become largely academic: an Anglican celebrant may be a woman, a man ordained by a woman, a Lutheran, or a Methodist. As Catholic Anglicans, I presume we would now describe Anglicanism as an ecclesial community, in which some clergy are as individuals validly ordained, rather than as properly constituted ‘particular churches’ like the Orthodox. How we extricate ourselves from these difficulties is, surely, more our problem than the Holy Father’s.

Surprising actions

Again on the positive side: Benedict XVI has a considerable track-record of organizational flexibility. In particular, his was a powerful voice for the dynamic and exciting ‘new movements’ in his Church, rooted loosely in the canonical structures of the diocesan episcopate but, in his view, finding their theological and practical support in the Roman primacy.

Have you heard of the Priestly Union of St John Mary Vianney at Campos in Brazil? – a quasi-diocese with an excommunicated Lefebvreist bishop. Overnight, this bishop and his clergy were reconciled to Rome and erected as an Apostolic Administration; Bishop Rangel went in 24 hours from being an excommunicated schismatic to being an Ordinary in Peace and Communion with the Holy See. (Yes, SSC is what you might call a Priestly Union, isn’t it?) And Rome did this despite the risk of irritating the rest of the Lefebvreist movement. Just as Cardinal Ratzinger risked irritating official Anglicanism by going over its head and sending fraternal, supportive greetings to a traditionalist Anglican meeting in America.

What makes Benedict XVI so interesting? It is precisely his profound and learned commitment to the Great Tradition in its fullness that gives him space to be open and flexible in practical arrangements. Clearly, the complexities and obstacles arising from centuries of division will be difficult for one, frail, elderly German to shift. But it would be a tragedy if Orthodox and traditional Anglicans missed out on the spectacular opportunities of this ‘brief pontificate’.