204. Nature and Grace in the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger – A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (III)

The relationship between nature and grace is the framework that explains how mankind and God cooperate in bringing about salvation. In Roman Catholicism, the interdependence between the two is such that grace intervenes to elevate nature to its supernatural end, fully relying on its untainted capacity to be elevated and even to contribute to the process. Even if wounded by sin, Roman Catholic theology argues that nature maintains the ability to be graced because nature is always open to grace (the traditional view) and because grace is indelibly embedded in nature (the contemporary view).
 
In previous articles, I sketched the nature-grace interdependence both in its medieval (mainly Thomistic) account, i.e. “Gratia Supponit Naturam”? A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (Part I) and in its post-Vatican II and present-day one, i.e.“Grace as the Heart’s Desire” – A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (Part II). The two versions coexist in Roman Catholicism, indicating that Roman Catholic theology is neither a static nor a monolithic system. It also shows that for all their particularities, the two accounts differ in accents rather than basic theological assumptions. Both approaches uphold the view that we as creatures have a “capacity for God” inspite of sin and that grace comes to us in different forms and intensities because it already lies in us.
 
To further expand the analysis of the nature-grace interdependence in Roman Catholicism, it might be of some interest to look at how an outstanding Roman Catholic theologian like Joseph Ratzinger (1927- ) has accounted for and developed the theme in his work. Ratzinger’s importance does not need to be argued: a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), an eminent professor in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957–77), archbishop of Munich (1977–81) and cardinal, then prefect, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005), pope Benedict XVI (2005–13), and, since 2013, pope emeritus after his somewhat tragic resignation, Ratzinger is one of the most authoritative voices of Roman Catholic theology today. One cannot deal seriously with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his person and work.
 
The opportunity to sample his views of the nature-grace relationship is offered in a recent book by Simone Billeci, Gratia Supponit Naturam nella teologia di Joseph Ratzinger (Trapani: Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, 2020; Grace Supposes Nature in the theology of Joseph Ratzinger). In this important piece of scholarship, Billeci discusses the significance of Ratzinger’s historical and theological contribution to the exploration of the theme. Specifically, Ratzinger has worked on the interdependence in a twofold way:

  1. In his early books on Augustine’s view of the people of God (1954) and on Bonaventure’s understanding of revelation and history (1955)[1], and
  2. In Ratzinger’s mature works where he revisits the relationship in light of a new appreciation of the legacy of Thomas Aquinas[2] and the heated Roman Catholic debates on the issue around and after Vatican II.[3]

Ratzinger as Interpreter of Augustine and Bonaventure
In a sense, the vocabulary of the entire discussion was framed by Augustine, whose famous On Nature and Grace (415 AD) contains reference to both nature and grace individually and to their relationship. In writing against the Pelagians, who had an optimistic view of nature and a correspondently lower appreciation of grace, Augustine wants to highlight the supremacy of grace over nature. One limit of the way the whole issue was framed is that it neglects to mention sin and leaves it out of the big picture. True, Augustine has a somewhat radical view of the fall and the consequences of sin, but in comparing and contrasting “nature” and “grace” and not referring to sin in framing the relationship, he gives the impression that it all revolves around an ontological issue, i.e. the properties of nature as distinct from those of grace and vice versa, rather than presenting the discussion in the historical and moral trajectory of a good creation having fallen into sin and in need of redemption in Jesus Christ. Augustine has a proper view of “natura decaduta,” i.e. fallen nature, but his overall title Nature and Grace and the structure of his argument are still dependent on ontological categories.

It is no surprise that Ratzinger follows the Augustinian discussion on nature and grace by grappling with it in ontological terms rather than in historical and moral terms. For him “neither pure nature, nor pure grace” is the crux of the matter. Nature is never purely nature detached from grace, and grace is never purely grace existing outside of nature. The biblical emphasis in its historical sequence, i.e. God’s creation, the disruption of sin, and God’s salvation, is swallowed in the abstract and ontological distinctions and relationships between nature and grace, more defined by Christianized patterns of Greek thought than the biblical flow of salvation history.

In studying Bonaventure of Bagnoregio’s theology of revelation and history, Ratzinger focuses on the insistence of the medieval Franciscan monk that is summarized in the sentence“gratia non destruit sed perficit naturam,” i.e. grace does not destroy but perfects nature. The overall framework is still characterized by the Augustinian imprinting which underlies the ontological properties of nature and grace. Bonaventure understands grace as an upward move, an upgrade of nature that elevates it to a perfected state. Nature is open to be graced and, in perfecting nature, grace does not destroy it, but relies on it. Put in this way, nature and grace appear to be two steps in the chain of being, one implying the other, rather than a story of creation/fall/redemption culminating in the consummation of all things according to God’s plan.

Ratzinger’s interpretation of Bonaventure appreciates the dynamic movement of the perfecting of nature by grace. There is indeed a movement, and therefore a story, and not just the juxtaposition of two ontological realities. However, in spite of that, the underestimation of the impact of the fall and sin shows that it is not yet the Bible’s story to shape the overall understanding of nature and grace. In Bonaventure and in Ratzinger’s examination of him, it is not the biblical nature, i.e. creation, as it is permeated by common grace, that then falls in sin and whose only hope is in the special grace of redemption. It is still the kind of nature that is thought of in philosophical terms, and it is still an objectified kind of grace that is added to it.

Ratzinger’s Reception of Thomas Aquinas
The third part of Billeci’s study deals with Ratzinger’s interpretation of the nature-grace interdependence in Thomas Aquinas. After surveying Aquinas’ interpretation of the nature-grace motif, which does not significantly differ from the aforementioned accounts, Billeci offers a summary of what it means for Thomas to recognize the impact of the fall on man’s nature and what it is that grace does in response: “The kind of nature that subsists after sin is that of man who, from his first instant, had God as his ultimate end, was therefore able to know him and to love him at a supernatural level and who had been called to live in intimate fellowship with Him in beatitude. The deprivation of his highest possibility to reach that end leaves him in a nasty state of unsatisfaction to which the renewed gift of grace will be able to bring remedy” (p. 245).

We are here confronted with the nuances of Aquinas in a nutshell. On the one hand, he reiterates the natural openness of nature to grace; on the other, he argues that after the fall grace still relies on nature’s residual ability to be graced by way of healing it and elevating it to its supernatural end. The primary metaphor is that of “healing” a wound rather than “regenerating” the dead. Be it “integra,” i.e. integral and whole, or “corrupta,” i.e. corrupted and fallen, nature maintains the capacity for grace that opens up the possibility of human merit and the mediation of the sacraments of a human agency, i.e. the church. According to this Thomistic view that Ratzinger makes his own, it is rejected that salvation come by faith alone in Christ alone because human nature is still open to cooperate with grace even in its corrupted state. Grace is necessary but not sufficient to attain salvation because nature is weakened but not spiritually dead.

In the final part of the book, Billeci discusses other themes of Ratzinger’s theology in light of the nature-grace interdependence. By contesting modern accounts of reality that want to get rid of God and his grace from Western civilization, Ratzinger often criticizes “naturalism,” i.e. the widespread idea that nature is a self-contained mechanism that makes God’s involvement in the world redundant if not dangerous if man is understood to be free and autonomous. From another angle, Ratzinger applies the nature-grace interdependence to support the conviction that the Christian faith is “reasonable,” i.e. it does make sense according to “natural” criteria of right and wrong, good and evil. These reasonable (natural) criteria are supplemented and corroborated by the exercise of faith, i.e. grace at work in making sense of the world. Grace presupposes a weakened but still sufficiently reliable nature.

As already indicated, Ratzinger endorses the view that there is “neither pure nature, nor pure grace.” His dense historical studies and theological reflections remain in the traditional categories of Roman Catholicism since they have been received in the Thomistic interpretation of Augustine’s Nature and Grace and they continue to be discussed in present-day Roman Catholic theology. Instead of applying biblical categories in approaching “nature” and “grace,” the Roman Catholic tradition, in all its nuances and subtleties, is framed in ontological terms rather than historical and moral ones in the context of biblical revelation. Instead of taking into account the radical disruption of the fall and sin, Rome has preferred to view it in a milder way so as to safeguard nature’s inherent ability to cooperate with grace and the church’s role of mediating agency through the sacraments. Instead of receiving God’s grace as a divine gift that reaches us from outside, Rome has instead built a theological system whereby grace is always to be found within us. With all his theological acumen, Ratzinger’s theology perfectly fits the Roman Catholic nature-grace interdependence.  


[1]Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirchen (München: Karl Zink, 1954) and Offenbarungsverständnis und Geschichtstheologie Bonaventuras (1955). The English edition of both books can be found in his Opera Omnia (Freiburg, Basel, Vienna: Herder Verlag, 2011), vol. 1 and 2 respectively.

[2]e.g. Der Gott des Glaubens und der Gott der Philosophen (München-Zürich: Schnell & Steiner, 1960) now in Opera Omnia, cit., vol. 3.

[3]e.g. Einführung in das Christentum (München: Kösel-Verlag, 1968); English edition: Introduction to Christianity, 2nd edition (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004).

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203. “Praedicate Evangelium” – Envisioning the Roman Catholic Church of the Future

The constitution of a country is a kind of identity card for the country itself. Its different components, its various articles, the procedures that are enacted… they all create a window into what the country stands for and what its rules are. Since a country’s identity is reflected in every change of the constitution, any change signals a modification in the self-understanding of the entity.
 
The Roman Curia is governed by a kind of constitution that is issued by the Pope as the Head of the Church and Head of the State of the Vatican. It contains the rules that preside over the functioning of the Vatican departments and offices, which are at the service of the universal mission of the Roman Pontiff. It is the blueprint of the Vatican institution and is centered on the office of the Pope and practically implemented by the Roman Curia.
 
The recent promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium (PE) on 19th March 2022 gives the opportunity to examine how the Roman Catholic Church understands and organizes her institutional life as far as the present and the future are concerned.[1] More importantly, PE shows the inherent connection between the theological vision and the institutional outlook of the Roman Church, at least from the viewpoint of the Curia. Prior to PE, the Roman Curia operated under the constitution Pastor Bonus issued by John Paul II in 1988 and so it is also interesting to notice the changes after 25 years. The constitution defines the Roman Curia as “the institution which the Roman Pontiff ordinarily makes use of in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office and his universal mission in the world.” Furthermore, it states: “The Roman Curia is composed of the Secretariat of State, the Dicasteries and other bodies, all juridically equal to each other.”
 
Of course, PE is a juridical document and some interest and expertise in canon law is needed to come to terms with its contents.[2] The focus of this article will not so much be on the institutional re-arrangement of the Roman Curia and its organizational structure, but rather, on the theological vision that sustains it and that constitutes its framework. In what follows, I will try to look at PE from two different angles: the reordering of institutional priorities that it envisages and the significance of those priorities for the overall life of the Roman Catholic Church.Evangelicals are not always aware of the institutional picture and pay little attention to it. However, Rome is a big institution and one cannot come to terms with it without considering it. Therefore, this will be an exercise of evangelical discernment applied to the changing structure of the Roman Curia.
 
The Reordering of Priorities
“Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel, n. 26). These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church.[3] What kind of reformation did he have in mind? In some sense, PE is the institutional answer to the question asked at the beginning of his pontificate.In a nutshell, Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of his Church has to do with the increase of “synodality,” i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The Pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger role in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the particular churches, to ensure that they act better together. According to him, reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic in the internal organization of the Roman church in a synodical outlook. PE spells out what it means for the Pope to think and act toward this kind of reformation.
 
In The Joy of the Gospel, the Pope wrote: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (n. 27). Now 9 years after The Joy of the Gospel, PE is the tool by which the Pope wants mission to be at the center of the Vatican institutional life and not just a set of activities run by the Vatican institutions. It is a change of symbolic and conceptual significance.
 
PE attempts to make the Roman Curia at the service of mission. This concern is made clear by the prominence given to the Dicastery for Evangelization, which is the first in order of the departments of the Curia.[4] The Dicastery for Evangelization (directly chaired by the Pope with two pro-prefects in the sections into which it is divided) is formed through the merger of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization[5] and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The Pope himself takes full and direct responsibility to lead it. It has never happened before that the Pope would reclaim such a position and have such direct involvement.
 
In the list of PE, the Dicastery for Evangelization is followed by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (which historically always had the first position among the old Congregations). The reverse of the order between the two is significant. The latter dicastery is followed by the new Dicastery for the Service of Charity, which was previously a simple Office, that of Apostolic Charity. The triadic order is therefore: evangelization, doctrine, charity. The more prominent role of “charity” is signaled by the institutional upgrade from Office to Dicastery.
 
It is worth pausing for a moment and reflect on the order that is envisioned by PE. Evangelization comes first and takes priority over doctrine. Evangelization is to become the first concern of the Roman Curia. Doctrine seems to be at the service of evangelization, no longer the other way around as has been the case for centuries. The Roman Curia is no longer supposed to be primarily a defensive structure guided by a body watching over doctrine, but needs to become an outward vector at the service of the mission of the Church. The shift is indicative of the new trajectory Pope Francis wants his church to move even beyond his time.
 
PE is not a detailed plan yet, but from the institutional perspective, it signals a significant change of priority. It is as if what was envisioned in The Joy of the Gospel has come to fruition. Through the re-structuring of the Roman Curia, evangelization and mission are now at the institutional center of the Vatican. The legacy of Pope Francis is a subject open to various interpretations. Doctrine has never received much attention by Pope Francis. Many of his critics have pointed out the doctrinal confusion if not failure in his leadership.[6] Other aspects of his reign are receiving some pushback. Whatever one thinks of him, PE is perhaps his most important and lasting contribution and something that all people inside and outside of the Roman Catholic Church will have to deal with.[7]
 
What Does Evangelization Mean?
Given the importance of evangelization and mission in the new outlook of the Roman Curia, it is important to grapple with the theology of evangelization that lies at the heart of PE. “Evangelization” seems to be a popular word in Catholic circles. Being traditionally part of the vocabulary used by evangelicals (and also referred to as “evangelism”), it has become increasingly used by Roman Catholics, too. It was Paul VI with his 1975 exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi who introduced it in Catholic language. It was Benedict XVI who launched in 2010 a new Vatican department to support efforts towards the “new evangelization.” It is Pope Francis who regularly speaks about and practices forms of evangelization, making it a central task of the Church, as attested in his 2013 exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. With PE, evangelization is given institutional importance.
 
“Evangelization” is a word that Rome has re-signified in order to suit its theological vision of embracing the world and in order to fulfill its calling to be, as Vatican II says, a “sign and instrument of the unity between God and mankind” (Lumen Gentium, n. 1). A similar genetic modification has occurred with  other words that have historically belonged to the Evangelical vocabulary, e.g. “conversion,” “unity” and “mission.” These words are some examples of the way in which Roman Catholicism can maintain the same spelling, while giving these terms a distinct Roman Catholic meaning.[8]
 
In The Joy of the Gospel, the “heart” of the Gospel is summarized in this way: “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (n. 36). In this apparently Evangelical definition of the Gospel, something is missing: while the objective Good News of God is rightly related to the narrative of Jesus Christ, the subjective part of it (i.e. repentance from one’s own sin and personal faith) is omitted. The tragedy of being lost without Jesus Christ is also downplayed. For this reason, nowhere in the document are unrepentant unbelievers called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (n. 244), Jews don’t need to convert (n. 247), and with believing Muslims, the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (n. 252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium, n.16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are associated to “the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (n. 254). The Gospel appears not to be a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead access to a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind. According to Francis, therefore, evangelization and mission are the joyful willingness to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace.
 
The word “evangelization” is used here; the practice of it is apparently endorsed. Evangelicals, for whom the word strikes deep spiritual chords, may celebrate the emphasis that the Roman Catholic Church is putting on evangelization, now in an embedded form in the Roman Curia. Yet a careful and honest reading of the document shows that the kind of “evangelization” the Pope is advocating for here is something utterly distant from the biblical meaning of the word.
 
Apart from Evangelii Gaudium, the most recent encyclical All Brothers (2020) is another window  into Pope Francis’ theology of evangelization. In this document, Francis pleads the cause of universal fraternity and social friendship. Although it does not directly deal with evangelization, it nonetheless shapes the missiological framework of Francis’ theology of evangelization.
 
Among other issues, All Brothers raises a soteriological question. If we are all brothers as we are all children of God, does this mean that all will be saved? The whole encyclical is pervaded by a powerful universalist inspiration that also includes atheists (n. 281). Religions in the broad sense are always presented in a positive sense (nn. 277-279) and there is no mention of a biblical criticism of religions nor of the need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the key to receiving salvation. Everything in the encyclical suggests that everyone, as brothers and sisters, will be saved. Evangelization is surely impacted by this assumption.
 
Then there is a Christological issue. Even though Jesus Christ is referred to here and there, his exclusive and “offensive” claims are kept silent. Francis wisely presents Jesus Christ not as the “cornerstone” on which the whole building of life stands or collapses, but as the stone only for those who recognize him. Above Jesus Christ, according to the encyclical, there is a “God” who is the father of all. We are children of this “God” even without recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus is thus reduced to the rank of the champion of Christians alone, while the other “brothers” are still children of the same “God” regardless of faith in Jesus Christ. Evangelization cannot escape from being shaped by this shallow Christology.
 
Thirdly, there is an ecclesiological issue. If we are all “brothers,” there is a sense in which we are all part of the same church that gathers brothers and sisters together. The boundaries between humanity and church are so nonexistent that the two communities become coincident. Humanity is the church and the church is humanity. This is in line with the sacramental vision of the Roman Catholic Church which, according to Vatican II, is understood as a “sign and instrument of the unity of the whole human race”(Lumen Gentium, n. 1). According to All Brothers, the whole of the human race belongs to the church not on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, but on the basis of a shared divine sonship and human fraternity.
 
After sampling the theology of evangelization in Francis’ programmatic documents, it is useful to compare it with standard evangelical accounts of evangelization. According to the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, perhaps the most representative evangelical document of the 20th century, evangelism is “the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” (n. 4). Notice the different elements of this neat and clear definition: “proclamation,” “historical and biblical Christ,” “persuasion,” and the emphasis on one’s personal reconciliation to God.
 
What “evangelization” is talked about in PE? The immediate answer is that of The Joy of the Gospel and All Brothers, and this is not really good news for Evangelicals. The word is the same, but the meaning is far different.[9] In its understanding and practice of evangelization, the Roman Catholic Church legitimately brings in the whole of its theological system, which is based on a combination of the Bible and traditions, Christ and the saints, faith and folk piety, and so on. Its evangelization promotes and commends this kind of blurred and erroneous gospel. Before celebrating the fact that with PE the Roman Catholic Church has become seriously engaged in evangelization, one needs to understand what kind of evangelization Rome stands for: it is a flawed view of what “preach the Gospel” means according to the Bible.


[1] So far the text of PE is only available in Italian. This explains why the document has so far received less attention than what it would deserve.
[2]An introductory presentation of PE can be found in G. Ghirlanda, “‘Praedicate Evangelium’ sulla Curia romana”, La Civiltà Cattolica 4123 (2/16 aprile 2022) pp. 41-56 and O.A.R. Maradiaga, Praedicate Evangelium. Una nuova curia per un tempo nuovo (Roma: Pubblicazioni Clarettiane, 2022).
[3]Cfr. A. Spadaro – C.M. Galli (edd.), La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Brescia: Queriniana, 2016).
[4]Here is the list of the dicasteries as they are arranged by PE: Dicastery for Evangelization; Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; Dicastery for the Service of Charity (formerly the Office of Papal Charities); Dicastery for the Eastern Churches; Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Dicastery for the Causes of Saints; Dicastery for Bishops; Dicastery for the Clergy; Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life; Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue; Dicastery for Culture and Education; Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; Dicastery for Legislative Texts; Dicastery for Communication.
[5]The Council for Promoting the New Evangelization was created by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
[6]See my “‘Confusion’ and ‘Failure’: Other Roman Catholic Blows Against Pope Francis”, Vatican Files (March 1st, 2019) and “Is the Pope Catholic?”, Unio Cum Christo (2022) forthcoming.
[7]As an aside, another important nuance that PE introduced has to do with the possibility for a lay person to preside over a dicastery, and this by virtue of the principle that “the power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of orders, but from the canonical mission” received by the Pope with the conferral of office.
[8]In my book Same Words, Different Worlds: Do Roman Catholics and Evangelicals Believe the Same Gospel? (London: IVP, 2021), I explore words such are “generation,”“justification,”“cross,” etc. showing that the way these words are understood by Rome is significantly different from their biblical meaning.On Rome’s attempt at redefining biblical words, see my article “Left Without Words. How Roman Catholicism is Reshaping the Evangelical Vocabulary,”Vatican Files (April 1st, 2013).
[9]In Same Words, Different Worlds, cit. I argue that while Rome uses the same words of the gospel, its account of the gospel is flawed because the Roman Catholic Church is not committed to Scripture Alone as its foundational principle and therefore its understanding of the Bible is determined by non-biblical sources.

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