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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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In the usual telling of the tale, Joseph Ratzinger went from being a progressive reformer at the Second Vatican Council to being God's reactionary Rottweiler as the Catholic Church's chief doctrinal authority under John Paul II.

That standard account misses the truth about the Bavarian theologian who has become Pope Benedict XVI. Tracey Rowland—professor of political philosophy and continental theology at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia—paints a more complete picture in her new book, Ratzinger's Faith, arguing that Ratzinger's fundamental theological convictions have remained essentially constant while the world around him has changed. Ratzinger's Faith is the first serious book on Benedict's theology since Aidan Nichols' excellent 1987 volume The Thought of Joseph Ratzinger. Unlike Nichols, however, Rowland proceeds thematically, not chronologically, and she strikes a balance between lucid accessibility for non–specialist readers and the kind of scholarly precision that theologians require.

The key to Ratzinger, Rowland explains, is his place in history. Never enthralled by the prevailing neoscholastic Thomism he encountered as a student, Ratzinger gravitated toward an Augustinian and Bonaventurian emphasis on love as an antidote to the hyper–rationalism of God as the logos of pure reason. Ratzinger's long–running theological emphasis on beauty and history can also be traced to his early studies, and the theme of God as love marked his first encyclical as pope.

Examining Ratzinger's response to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, may provide our best insight his theology. An important theological debate at the time focused on the relation of nature and grace—central to the relations between faith and reason, and between the church and the world.

Ratzinger faulted the neoscholastics for attempting to defend Christianity in terms established by an Enlightenment standard of rationality. Adherents of Karl Rahner's Transcendental Thomism, on the other hand, argued that people had a priori concepts (transcendentals) about God, which could be uncovered by looking into the self.  Rowland argues that Rahnerians viewed the Council as "a mandate from the Holy Spirit to accommodate the Church's practices (and for some even her teachings) to the norms and rapidly changing mores of contemporary society."  Ultimately, she argues, the neoscholastic project would lead to secularization—since reason divorced from revelation and grace is sufficient to define the essence of man and organize society—while Rahner's approach tended to naturalize the supernatural.

Though once a collaborator with Rahner, Ratzinger ultimately resisted both of these alternatives to side with the nouvelle theologie of Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, a movement stressing a ressourcement of the Church's essential and timeless truth: Jesus Christ as attested by the biblical and patristic tradition. For Ratzinger, "there are no leaps in this history, there are no fractures, and there is no break in continuity. In no wise did the council intend to introduce a temporal dichotomy in the church." There is one church, not pre– and post–Vatican II versions.

As Rowland explains, Ratzinger emphasizes that the proper way to interpret Vatican II is to see that "the human person only understands his or her identity to the extent that he or she is open to a relationship with Christ. Christology is deemed necessary for any adequate anthropology"; reason alone is never sufficient. On this reading, the purpose of Gaudium et Spes was to affirm authentic human longings and argue that "only a Christocentric anthropology has any hope of realizing these legitimate aspirations." Like John Paul before him, Ratzinger frequently invokes the 22nd paragraph of Gaudium et Spes, which declares that Christ reveals not only God to man but also "man to man himself."

For Ratzinger, according to Rowland, "a 'daring new' Christocentric theological anthropology is the medicine that the world needs," and "it is the responsibility of the Church to administer it." We can understand our human destiny only through the revelation of Jesus Christ.

This emphasis on Christology is central to Ratzinger's thinking on just about everything else. Responding to the then–dominant view of revelation that championed its "propositional character," Ratzinger argued that revelation is not a mere collection of true statements about God. Revelation is Jesus Christ himself—not the Greek philosophers' unmoved–mover, but the God of Trinitarian and human relationships, active in the world as creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Dei Verbum, Vatican II's decree on revelation, restored, in Ratzinger's words, the "focus on the biblical God for whom it is precisely relationship and action that are the essential marks."

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