As Pope John Paul II lay dying he offered “his sufferings so that God’s plan will be realised and his word spread among peoples”. Since his death we have entered a time of grace, and this has continued in the aftermath of the election of Pope Benedict XVI on April 19. It is as if the late Holy Father’s oblation is being palpably answered, so vital has been the effect on the Christian world during the last quarter.
This has been accompanied by a change in public attitudes to his successor, formerly Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger, for 23 years prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. From being seen as the Panzerkardinal, a man to be feared, he has been accepted on his own terms as a “simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord”.
Few public figures have had the good fortune to have their caricature stripped so effectively from public consciousness than him. What is more, his formidable body of writing is being read more widely than that, I suspect, of any living theologian. Nothing but good can come of this, because those who did read Ratzinger before his election soon came to realise that he was not the man generally misrepresented by the media and his critics. For the general reader much, but not all, of his work will be difficult; but it has a freshness, lucidity, subtlety and depth that objectively applies Christian truth to the needs of the Church, the world, and the life of the soul. He makes the Catholic biblical, theological and liturgical tradition live as few others can, and applies the fruits to the confusion of human existence. Ratzinger’s theological achievement has the power to enable you to look at Christianity for the first time, through new eyes, so deeply centred is it on the conviction that God has revealed himself through Jesus Christ. Christ occupies the centre of his reflection and the Catholic Church is the locus of faith.
Cardinal Meisner of Cologne said of Pope Benedict: “He has the intelligence of 12 professors and is as pious as a child on the day of his first Communion.” Books on the Holy Father have been flowing in a steady stream since his election and these twofold characteristics emerge powerfully in all of them. Combined with his brilliance is the lasting influence upon him of the teaching, simple faith and goodness of his parents, which gave him an abiding sympathy with the fidelity of the common man. This makes his work pastorally rooted in human experience and explains its persuasive power.
Aidan Nichols first published his introduction to Ratzinger’s theology in 1988. He was prompted to issue this second printing in response to the public interest generated by the recent election, and he proposes to bring out a second edition, taking into account Ratzinger’s more recent writings, in the not too distant future. The value of The Thought of Benedict XVI is that it is a study of Ratzinger’s personal theology, not the documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which, he points out, are the result of teamwork, on the basis of the common doctrine of the Church. In this it remains the most thorough and lucid presentation of his work. For those who wish to enter more deeply into Ratzinger’s theology it is essential reading, not least for the biographical frame of reference that illustrates his development.
It is useful to be reminded of the mid-20th-century context within which Ratzinger’s theology grew. It is set in the period of postwar, European reconstruction that gave rise to positive hope for a future in which the Catholic Church would play a decisive role. In October 1962, when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, the Church had to brave the eddies and currents of the modern world. She was confronted by the Modernist crisis, by the spread of Marxist thought in intellectual circles, by the so-called “death of God” philosophies, by rationalist thinking, historical criticism, positivism, the emergence of the social sciences, the questioning of traditional values, changes affecting culture and morality, and the claims of the feminist movement. She had yet to withstand the crisis of May 1968 and find a way for herself through societies governed by new technologies and dominated by moneyed interests.
Many of these causes now have a hollow ring. Others remain with us but, for Ratzinger, the événements of May 1968 had a definitive counter-cultural influence. At the time of the Second Vatican Council he had become a disciple of Karl Rahner and joined the ranks of the moderately progressive. It was 1968 that roused in him a terror of Marxism and led him not only to abandon his prestigious Chair at Tübingen for a post in the new Bavarian University at Regensburg but also to separate himself intellectually from hitherto close colleagues like Hans Küng and even Rahner.
Ratzinger’s theological shift was shared by older theologians distressed by the apparent disintegration of theology after the Council, notably Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Yet this was not a new departure: there is continuity with his later position. Ratzinger had embraced the theory of ressourcement early in his study of Augustinianism, which led him to be a confessed anti-Thomist. Thomists are altogether too optimistic about human nature, and this underlies the criticisms he made of the Second Vatican Council’s document, Gaudiam et Spes, at the time and in his subsequent theological development.
Augustinianism informs In the Beginning..., his study of the creation and fall of man, given originally as a course of Lenten sermons in Munich in 1981. He sets out an exposition of the biblical creation stories, the nature of humanity, sin and salvation, and the consequences of faith in the created order. Original sin is found in all men from birth, the network of human relationships is damaged from the beginning. We are born into a situation when relationality has been hurt; consequently sin pursues us, and we capitulate to it. Christ, by becoming a slave, follows the route of love and descends into the depths of Adam’s lie, into the depths of death, and there raises up truth and love. Thus Christ is the new Adam, with whom man begins anew.
Of the short biographies under review, Marco Bardazzi’s is Italian, Matthew Bunson’s is American, Michael Collins’s is Irish, and Greg Watts’s is English. These are experienced writers, and each book reflects its national origins. All but Bunson’s show an element of haste that suggests they might have been started on the aeroplane on the way home from the Inaugural Mass, yet all are worth reading, if inevitably brief. Each contains details the others lack and, collectively, a broad picture emerges in which the facts corroborate a revised view of Benedict the man.
But of this collection Bunson’s is the most thorough and contextualised. He sets the Holy Father in world history, intersperses his text with well-chosen factual information and extracts from his writings, includes a bibliography of his books, a list of Popes and a valuable glossary.
Since publishing his biography of Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001 John Allen has come to a corrected view of Pope Benedict under the influence of Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the papal press officer, and by coming to know Ratzinger better. He atones for his earlier negativity. In The Rise of Benedict XVI he does not give a fly-on-the wall account of the Conclave (because he was not there), but relies on off-the-record interviews with those who were.
Allen follows the final days and death of Pope John Paul II, the funeral effect, the interregnum and the Conclave and concludes with a generous and positive account of the Holy Father set within the context of the changing culture of the Church. Why, he asked an American cardinal, was not Cardinal Martini elected? “Martini wasn’t elected because he didn’t have the votes,” he bluntly replied, “Simple as that.” From the start Cardinal Ratzinger, against the wishful predictions of conventional liberal opinion, was the clear choice.
In Pope Benedict XVI the Church has a theologian rather than a philosopher and anthropologist, a man of the West rather than the East. That augurs well for the universal Church but most significantly for Europe in the present spiritual decline. He brings to the papacy a depth of central European culture unprecedented for centuries.
Pope John Paul II was the maker of the post-conciliar Church. Despite the Church’s problems from without and within, Pope Benedict will, under God, be its consolidator. These books present him whole, not as a two-dimensional cut-out. Like his predecessor he has the power to touch the heart; his humility has brought its own reward.
And what is the Pope’s favourite Roman restaurant? Bardazzi tells us: the Cantina Tirolese, an establishment which I am confident will do a brisk trade on that connection alone.