I've been an admirer of the theological work of Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) for years. I generally say that my three favorite living Catholic theologians are Ratzinger, Avery Dulles, and Aidan Nichols. However, I've also been influenced by the prevailing stereotype of Ratzinger as a hardline conservative. I've read parts of his early Introduction to Christianity, which I found extremely moving. And I've read bits of his more recent work. But when I think of recent Ratzinger I've tended to think of Dominus Iesus and the Ratzinger Report. Both of these documents contain a lot of wisdom, and I've defended Dominus Iesus to fellow-Protestants (and even some Catholics) on many occasions. But as prefect of the CDF, Ratzinger has spent much of the past 24 years laying out the limits of orthodoxy. And this has led many people--including myself--to assume that he has changed significantly from his early years.
Since his election, I've been reading more of his work--some of the essays and addresses found on the EWTN website for one thing, and the book of conversations God and the World for another. And I've become increasingly convinced that the stereotype has been seriously mistaken. Ratzinger's job has been to preserve orthodoxy, so most of us have only paid attention to him when he was wagging a finger at someone. Yet all the while he has continued to produce (as a theologian) thoughtful, creative reflections on the Christian life and the role of the Church.
The central and consistent theme of Ratzinger's thought is communion. Not authority, not law, not order, not even tradition. Human beings are created for communion with God and one another. The Church is the fellowship in which this communion takes place--a fellowship that sums up God's work of creation throughout the aeons, and God's work of revelation throughout the centuries. The purpose of doctrine and liturgy and discipline is to shape this fellowship of communion. All the history of the universe and the human race is pointing toward the eschaton, in which the creation to which God has given freedom will freely return to communion with Him. The Church exists as a sign of that final goal of all creation. This is the context which Ratzinger's critics repeatedly miss. And without it nothing he says or does makes sense.
The new Pope's abhorrence of relativism stems from its threat to this doctrine of communion. If the truth is changing and uncertain, then the history of the universe lacks a goal. Communion is not simply a matter of warm feelings or of tolerance. It involves a deep spiritual unity, and this requires a shared vision of the truth.
This does not mean that the Church's grasp of the truth does not change or develop. In _God and the World_ Ratzinger makes this clear: "It is never the case that we can say, Now we know everything; now the knowledge of Christianity is complete. There are unfathomable depths both in God and in human life, so that there are always new dimensions to faith." (God and the World, 38.) "What has at least been vouchsafed to the Church," he continues, "is a certitude about what can not be reconciled with the gospel."
Benedict XVI is a "conservative" not because he wants to return to an earlier era, and not because he thinks progress is impossible, but because he understands that for progress to take place it must build on what has already been learned rather than rejecting it. Progress implies a goal. And as Chesterton pointed out more than a century ago, you can't have progress if the goal keeps moving. We live in a society that has glorified change for its own sake. Suggest that a given change might possibly be bad, and you find yourself branded a "conservative." And in a society that has abandoned a shared vision of truth, slurs and labels are our most powerful weapons, because rational disagreement has become impossible. Ratzinger complains in Conscience and Truth: "In many places today, for example, no one bothers any longer to ask what a person thinks. The verdict on someone's thinking is ready at hand as long as you can assign it to its corresponding, formal category: conservative, reactionary, fundamentalist, progressive, revolutionary." (In all fairness, Ratzinger himself sometimes falls prey to this tendency--like many German academics, he's too prone to sum something up with a generalizing label and act as if he's adequately described it. But even his worst enemies cannot accuse him of not bothering "to ask what a person thinks.")
The accusation of hardboiled conservatism, while mistaken, at least has some basis in truth. But the other major accusation against Ratzinger--that he defines the Church in terms of power and authority rather than love or communion--is pretty nearly the opposite of the truth. Throughout his writings, the Pope has insisted that the power of the Christian faith is the power that flows from the Cross of Christ. He has made it clear that the Papacy's detour into temporal power was a terrible distraction from its true ministry, which is one of martyrdom in all the senses of the word.
Benedict's marvellous sermon at the Inauguration Mass this morning expresses this with eloquence and clarity:
The symbol of the lamb also has a deeper meaning. In the Ancient Near East, it was customary for kings to style themselves shepherds of their people. This was an image of their power, a cynical image: to them their subjects were like sheep, which the shepherd could dispose of as he wished. When the shepherd of all humanity, the living God, himself became a lamb, he stood on the side of the lambs, with those who are downtrodden and killed. This is how he reveals himself to be the true shepherd: "I am the Good Shepherd . . . I lay down my life for the sheep," Jesus says of himself (John 10:14f). It is not power, but love that redeems us! This is Gods sign: he himself is love. How often we wish that God would make show himself stronger, that he would strike decisively, defeating evil and creating a better world. All ideologies of power justify themselves in exactly this way, they justify the destruction of whatever would stand in the way of progress and the liberation of humanity.We suffer on account of God's patience. And yet, we need his patience. God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified One, not by those who crucified him. The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man. One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ whom he serves. "Feed my sheep," says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, he says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of Gods truth, of Gods word, the nourishment of his presence, which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament.
"It is not power, but love that redeems us." These are not the words of a doctrinaire authoritarian. These are the words of a man who truly loves Christ, and who has grasped with his whole soul the heart of the Gospel. In his recent diatribe, Fr. Matthew Fox claimed that a canon lawyer had told him that to understand Ratzinger he had to understand that Ratzinger was not a Christian. Unless everything I have read and seen and heard of Ratzinger/Benedict is false, Fr. Fox and his unnamed source have it exactly wrong. To understand Pope Benedict, we must first understand that he is a Christian. One would think that this would be easy to grasp. Yet most criticisms of him seem predicated on the idea that he can't really believe what he says. He can't really think that all of history is summed up in the Gospel of Christ, as historically preserved (though unworthily) by the Catholic Church. This must really be a mask for something else, something secular people can understand and account for.
This failure to understand what Benedict is all about has led to misunderstanding of one of his most provocative remarks (repeated in several different contexts in recent years): that the Church may have to become smaller in order to witness effectively to the Gospel. Coming as I do from a "Holiness" background in which "a big church" was more or less synonymous with corruption (indeed, my family believed that the Catholic Church's sheer size alone testified that it couldn't be the true Church), I find this vision rather appealing. But again, it has been interpreted as a sign of authoritarianism--that Ratzinger wants to get rid of all those who won't bow to his yoke. In fact, it is the reverse. Ratzinger's vision of the Church is the antidote to triumphalism. It does not glorify smallness in itself, and it is certainly not dour and pessimistic. But it calls on the Church to be faithful without counting the cost--to give up the quest for worldly power in order to testify to the God who reigns from the Cross. If this should lead to a revitalization of Christian Europe, then Ratzinger clearly welcomes that prospect. (Indeed, he seems quite optimistic that eventually secularism will pall, and that a revitalized Church will become attractive once again to jaded Europeans.) But that is not the Church's goal in itself, and the Church must not (as she has done in the past) compromise her message in order to establish a "Christian" society.
This vision of the Church is surely linked to Ratzinger's choice of a papal name. Alasdair McIntyre closes his masterpiece After Virtue with the somber pronouncement that we face a situation much like that of Christians at the time of the fall of the Western Empire. The barbarians, McIntyre warns, have been ruling us for some time. This "barbarism" expresses itself in a loss of the conception that human life has a telos, a final goal. Such a rejection of teleology also involves a rejection of the traditional distinction between human beings as they are and human beings as they should be. (See for instance Sidney Callahan's reaction to Ratzinger's "Conscience and Truth.") We attempt to construct ethics on the basis of empirical observation of human behavior, and the result is that we can find no convincing rationale for many traditional values, and when we face major ethical debates we have no common ground on which to discuss (much less resolve) our differences.
McIntyre's answer to this dire predicament is to form communities of people who do practice the virtues, within which a conception of human life as ordered toward a "telos" remains living and effective. "We are waiting," he proclaims, "not for Godot, but for a second, no doubt very different, St. Benedict." These words of hope have taken on a new meaning this past week. Whether the new Pope will turn out to be a saint is not for me to decide (or for anyone to decide yet). But he has already proclaimed himself to be a Benedict.