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Reviewed by Ryan T. Anderson


"Christianity Is Not an Intellectual System"

The theology of Pope Benedict XVI.

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Revelation, however, is more than a text; here Rowland explains Ratzinger's reservations about the historical–critical method of biblical scholarship: Scripture must be read within a tradition, for the truth of revelation is mediated through a historically defined community—the church—that one can never interpret from the outside. To reject the providential guidance of the Holy Spirit in the historical development of Christian doctrine is to miss the historical role that the Christian church must play in its transmission.

In this light, Ratzinger argues that the church should be viewed sacramentally—as the sacrament of salvation to the world, as the institution that makes Christ present to humanity. Rowland repeatedly stresses that Ratzinger resists all attempts to think of the church in political or sociological terms. In its essence, the church consists of communities that gather to celebrate the Eucharist, but these don't make the Eucharist; the Eucharist makes the communities—which means, as Ratzinger puts it, that the universal church is "logically and ontologically prior to the particular churches."

It becomes easier to understand, then, Benedict's emphasis on church unity, the collegiality of bishops, and the ministry of unity entrusted to the bishop of Rome. Evangelicals might wonder where this places them. Ratzinger stands firmly in continuity with Vatican II in insisting that the church of Christ exists most fully and rightly only within the Catholic Church, but that there are elements of sanctification and truth in churches and ecclesial communities outside Catholicism's formal structure.

Since the church's mission is to reveal the God–Man to modern man, it is no surprise that Ratzinger has written so prolifically on the liturgy, for it is in the cosmic drama of the Mass that God most fully enters into the lives of His people. Despite what Ratzinger's detractors say, he does indeed support the liturgical reforms instituted at Vatican II. It is their implementation that he thinks has gone awry, requiring a reform of the reform. Post–conciliar liturgists argued that pastoral considerations required eliminating "archaic" languages, unnecessary repetitions, artistic music, and outdated gestures. But for Ratzinger, the integrity of Christian worship—and thus belief—is at stake when the liturgy's organic development of sacred actions, words, sounds, sights, and smells is interrupted. The result, as Ratzinger sees it, is akin to the apostasy of worshipping the golden calf—a celebration of the worshipping community itself, not of the true God.

Rowland explains that, for Ratzinger, "faithfully transmitting the liturgy to the next generation has the effect of guaranteeing the true freedom of the faithful," so that they are "not victims of something fabricated by an individual or group." Indeed, "the 'freedom' of liturgical innovators can become 'dominion' for the rest … . It is God's descent upon the world which is the source of real liberation. He alone can open the door to freedom."

That Christ opens the door to freedom is easily forgotten when Christianity is reduced to a system of rules to follow just to avoid damnation. As Ratzinger noted in a 2005 funeral homily, "Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story." The solution to the problem of moralism is an emphasis on love: "God is love and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 John 4:16). According to Ratzinger, morality is fundamentally about the true and lasting fulfillment found in loving God, neighbor, and self.

Ratzinger isn't interested in a moral casuistry that can't explain why one should be moral in the first place. He considers many natural–law arguments to be "blunt instruments," and thinks that ethics only works with theological presuppositions. So, for example, with regard to rival understandings of sexuality Rowland argues that "Benedict's strategy is therefore not so much to prove that Christian ethics are more rational than the alternatives, but to exhort married Christians to demonstrate in culturally embodied practices that they are more true, good, and beautiful; as it were, more erotic."

What happens when this Christian witness wanes has been the subject of Ratzinger's extensive and uniquely insightful cultural analysis of Europe and Western civilization. The same themes that Ratzinger developed when responding to intra–Catholic debates about faith and reason, philosophy and theology, and the Church and the modern world are fully on display in his diagnosis of the ills of the West. He develops what Rowland calls a "double helix" genealogy of corruption "in which the Hellenic component of the culture was severed from the Christian and in which the Christian component was fundamentally undermined by the mutation of the doctrine of creation … . When faith in creation is lost, Christian faith is transformed into gnosis, and when faith in reason is lost, wisdom is reduced to the empirically verifiable which cannot sustain a moral framework."

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