Paul Richardson, Assistant Bishop of Newcastle, has read deeply in Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings and ponders his likely impact now that he is Pope

Until the final months of John Paul’s life, Joseph Ratzinger was not widely considered to be a likely candidate for the papacy. He does not figure in John Allen’s Conclave, an extensive survey of the field published in 2002. Even when Allen produced his final list of the twenty leading contenders in the National Catholic Reporter, Ratzinger was not among them.

Only in retrospect does Ratzinger’s election have a certain air of inevitability about it. He probably did not want the job. At 78 he had twice tried to offer Pope John Paul II his resignation as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But there can be no doubts of his abilities. Not only is he a brilliant theologian, he is also an effective administrator, a moving preacher, and he speaks four major languages fluently. There was no other cardinal to compare with Ratzinger for ability. The electors simply went for the best man.

But he does come to the papacy with a lot of baggage, and critics have not been slow to voice their dismay. Charles Curran, a Catholic moral theologian condemned for dissenting from the magisterium and forbidden by Cardinal Ratzinger from teaching as a Catholic theologian, heard of the new pope’s election with disappointment. Writing in the American Catholic fortnightly Commonweal (6/5/2005) he described Benedict XVI as a ‘theological Augustinian who equates the heavenly city with the Church and the earthly city with the world’.

The description of Ratzinger as pessimistic Augustinian, who expects opposition between the Church and the world, has been widely adopted. He did his early research on Augustine and claimed his own theology had developed in dialogue with the great African doctor of the Church. A second major pre-occupation of his theology, eschatology, was shaped by his study of Bonaventure, a thirteenth century Franciscan he chose as the subject for his post-doctoral research. Bonaventure opposed the spiritual Franciscans and the belief, stemming from the visionary Joachim of Fiore, that a new age of Holy Spirit was to dawn in which the poor would find liberation. Ratzinger argued that Bonaventure rejected the dramatic intervention by God inside history, a move that he himself was to repeat in his opposition to liberation theology in Latin America.

Much debate surrounds Ratzinger’s supposed switch from being an open-minded adviser to Cardinal Frings of Cologne at Vatican II, who reportedly penned the Cardinal’s celebrated attack on the secretive ways of the Holy Office, to becoming himself the Vatican’s enforcer who tried to stamp out dissent under John Paul II. Although John Allen hints at ambition in his biography Cardinal Ratzinger, the change of direction is more usually attributed to the Ratzinger’s dismay when he witnessed the student riots as a professor of theology at Tübingen in 1968.

A rather different picture of Ratzinger as a theologian, one which is more aware of continuities in his thinking, is provided by Aidan Nichols in his study The Theology of Cardinal Ratzinger, first published in 1988. Nichols stresses the Tübingen and Bavarian influences on Ratzinger’s thinking. From the Tübingen school he learnt the importance of historical theology, patristics, and church tradition; from his Bavarian background, he learnt that only if the Church has a strong sense of its own identity and mission can it oppose such evils as Nazism. Concentration in the media on Ratzinger’s involuntary membership of the Hitler Youth has obscured his opposition to the Nazis. The opposition comes through clearly in his short book of memoirs, Milestones. There he compares the Nazi revival of midsummer sun festivals and German folk religion with inculturation in Africa or Latin America.

Any account of Ratzinger’s theological development needs to pay attention to the continuities in his thinking as well as recognize the changes that Allen rightly highlights. His views on such important issues as collegiality, episcopal conferences, liturgy, ecumenism, divorce and remarriage, do seem to have changed over the years. Instead of being criticized, such flexibility should be seen as a sign of strength and readiness to learn. It is quite likely that Pope Benedict will continue to develop as a theologian and we can probably expect further changes as he looks at the Church and the world from a new perspective. Already we have seen a warmer approach to interfaith dialogue than was shown in the past.

But an outline of Ratzinger’s life that describes an older Cardinal turning his back on the radical views embraced by the young peritus at Vatican II simplifies what happened at the Council. As Joseph A. Komonchak, co-editor of the English language edition of Vatican II, has commented, ‘a much neglected dynamic of Vatican II was the tension among various groups within the majority’. Komonchak has expressed his own opinion that ‘Ratzinger’s theology, early and late, fits within the trajectory of Catholic thought that was one of the paths of renewal that Vatican II made possible’.

At the risk of caricaturing nuanced and subtle theologians, it is possible to identify two main trends among the majority at Vatican II. On the one side were those keen to promote renewal or aggiornamento in the Catholic Church and see her embrace the modern world. Leaders in this group included Hans Kung and, to some extent, Karl Rahner. They welcomed Gaudium et Spes with its references to the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of humanity, and its readiness to learn from the signs of the times.

Another group placed greater emphasis on ressourcement, and return to the scriptures and the patristic sources of the Catholic faith. Inspiration for this group came from Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac, and the key text of the Council was Lumen Gentium.

Ratzinger identified more with the second group than the first. Believing as he did that the ‘church is the church of all the ages,’ he did not warm to Gaudium et Spes. Summarising his views, Nichols tells us that ‘he particularly objected to the vulgarised Teilhardisme for which human progress and Christian hope, technological liberation and Christian redemption could stand in linear continuity if not simple identity’ (see Nichols, p.101).

While the differences present at Vatican II should not be ignored, they should not be over-emphasised. There were no hard and fast party divisions among the majority. In the first volume of his memoirs, Hans Kung says that he sensed he and Ratzinger were on the same wavelength at the Council. It was Kung who was instrumental in gaining Ratzinger an appointment at Tübingen. But looking back on his former colleague, Kung now sees that there was always ‘an unenlightened devotional corner in his Bavarian heart’ and that he was ‘all too stamped by Augustine’s pessimistic view of the world and Bonaventura’s Platonizing neglect of the visible and empirical (in contrast to Thomas Aquinas)’ (see My Struggle for Freedom, p.457).

Just as it is a simplification to paint the young Ratzinger as a starry-eyed liberal, so it is unfair to describe the later Ratzinger as a hard-line conservative. As head of the CDF, he saw it as his role to call theologians to account when they departed from the Church’s teaching. In certain cases he was probably unfair. The investigation of Jacques Dupuis, a dedicated Jesuit who had served for many years as a missionary and seminary professor in both India and Rome, shocked many. Dupuis was certainly no relativist. In his work he mounted a powerful criticism of such pluralists as Paul Knitter and John Hick. He always strove to combine a high Christology with a readiness to concede that the spirit was at work beyond the Church, arguing that the logos could not be confined to the historical Jesus – an approach that has deep roots in Christian thinking.

Dominus Iesus was probably inspired in reaction to Dupuis’ work, yet in the end the Belgian Jesuit may come to be seen as having pointed to a way in which the Church can approach people of other faiths with a readiness to engage in genuine dialogue while at the same time offering faithful witness and proclamation. In Truth and Tolerance (2004), while Ratzinger still had reservations about the ‘inclusivism’ of Dupuis and Rahner, he accepted that it is different from pluralism.

But not all the theologians called to account by the CDF under Ratzinger fall into the same category as Jacques Dupuis. Matthew Fox, Tissa Balasuriya, and even Leonardo Boff were hardly mainstream Catholics in their views. They raised interesting questions but it is difficult to see how they could expect to be given official recognition as Catholic theologians. The whole issue of Church authority and the permitted scope for dissent remains a difficult one, not just for Catholics, but for all Christians who want to see the Church not only promote theological inquiry but also offer a clear message to the world.

At the heart of Ratzinger’s theology lies a commitment to truth. As he put it in Truth and Toleration, ‘the renunciation of truth does not heal a man. How much evil has been committed in history in the name of good opinions and good intentions no one can overlook’ (p.204). Quoting Augustine, he maintains in the same book that Christianity is not based on ‘politics’ or ‘poetry’ but on ‘knowledge’. In the patristic period, Christianity was seen as the ‘perfect philosophy, the philosophy that has attained the truth’ (p.171). He adds that philosophy was not only an academic discipline but the art of living and dying aright. In the end, only Christianity can affirm reason and rationality at the basis of all things. The world is not the meaningless creation of chance; truth and goodness are grounded in reality.

For Ratzinger, Christian life is a process in which we are drawn into the life of the triune God, enabled by the Son and the Spirit, to participate in the dialogue of God within himself. It is in the Church that we are inserted into God’s own speech. We come to faith not as isolated individuals but as members of the communion of the Church where we are ‘touched’ by God and respond in word and deed.

Liturgy is likely to be one area where the new Pope will try to make a mark. In Milestones he claimed that what he saw as the crisis in the Church was to a large extent the result of liturgical ‘disintegration’. He criticized the view that liturgy is something we can create for ourselves, rather than the fruit of a long and living development in the life of the Church. ‘When the community of faith, the worldwide unity of the Church and her history, and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy,’ he asked, ‘where else, then, is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence?’ (p.148).

Although Ratzinger has always stressed the universal Church and argued for its priority over the local church, he was at pains to stress, in debate with Cardinal Kasper, that by universal he does not mean Roman. The Church of Rome is a local church like any other and he is critical of powerful church bureaucracies wherever they may be. In discussing relations with Orthodox he has made the radical suggestion that in the event of the reunification of the churches of the East and the West, the Pope should not expect to exercise any greater power in the churches of the East than was exercised by his predecessors before the great schism.

As far as Anglicanism is concerned, the new Pope’s criticisms of dispersed authority and of deciding matters of doctrine by votes in synod are well known. So, too, is his notorious comment that the condemnation of Anglican orders could be seen as an example of ‘definitive papal teaching’. But what is perhaps significant is that he has taken an interest in Anglicanism, expressing appreciation of the Catholic elements that remain within it, voicing a degree of approval for the scheme for PEVs in the Church of England, and sending a message of support to a traditionalist group in the US.

There is in fact one influential group of theologians with whom the new Pope has much in common: the Cambridge school of Radical Orthodoxy, led by John Milbank and heavily influenced by Rowan Williams, that finds inspiration from Augustine in the past and from Henri de Lubac in more recent years. Members of Radical Orthodoxy do not draw the same conclusions as Pope Benedict about such issues as sexuality or the ordination of women, but it is remarkable how close their basic positions really are.