218. In a double move, Francis closes the Ratzinger era. For now.

Pope Ratzinger (1927-2022) died only seven months ago, but it is safe to say that on July 1st his era definitely ended, at least in the intentions of the reigning pope. In a double move that would make a skilled checkers player envious, Pope Francis put an end to an unwieldy presence in his pontificate. As a “pope emeritus” living in the Vatican (a situation that had never happened before in the millennial history of the Catholic Church), Ratzinger constituted a thorn in Francis’ side, albeit a silent one at least on the outside. Light years removed in terms of theological training and ideas about the church, Francis had assigned him the “wise grandfather” role—a vexatious way of saying that he was an old man rich in memory but lacking in future prospects.
Benedict XVI died at the end of 2022, but on July 1st, his shadow receded further from the Vatican. Francis’ first move was to dispatch Ratzinger’s secretary, Msgr. George Gänswein, to Freiburg, Germany, without assignments: away from Rome, deprived of ecclesiastical responsibilities. The last rift between him and Francis had been the day after Ratzinger’s funeral with the publication of his book Nothing but the Truth. My Life at the Side of Benedict XVI (Italian edition: Nient’altro che la Verità. La mia vita al fianco di Benedetto XVI, Milano: Piemme, 2023), in which Gänswein had clearly spoken of the disagreements between the two popes. Francis had not liked either the timing or the content. Now Gänswein, who is only 66 years old (a “young” age for the church in Rome), has received the reciprocation that tastes like revenge served cold: a one-way ticket and a future without appointments. The message is clear: cohabitation with Ratzinger and his “inner circle” is over.
But there was another move in contrast to the Ratzingerian age. Before becoming pope, Ratzinger had been the powerful prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office). Upon becoming pope, in defense of Catholic doctrine, Cardinals Müller (German) and Ladaria (Spanish) had been appointed in his place. They are different in temperaments, but both “conservative” or “moderate” like Ratzinger. The former had been his student, the latter had been secretary of the Dicastery in Ratzinger’s time. Two “loyalists.” There was no shortage of friction; Müller had said that Pope Francis needed “theological framing” and, in the face of this “offense,” was promptly and abruptly dismissed by the pope. Ladaria, a Jesuit like Bergoglio, has held a more defiladed and guarded position, but certainly not in line with the evolution of Francis’ papacy.
Now, coincidentally, on the very same day of Ratzinger’s former secretary’s departure, Ladaria, Ratzinger’s appointee to the Dicastery, was also dismissed on grounds of seniority. In his place, Francis appointed Argentine Víctor Manuel Fernández. Not well known in international theological circles, Fernández is, however, a loyal follower of Pope Francis. He is said to have been the ghostwriter of Evangelii Gaudium, the pontificate’s programmatic manifesto calling for a “missionary conversion” of his church;[1] Amoris Laetitia, the exhortation that contains openings toward the Eucharistic inclusion of people in “irregular” states of life; and Laudato Sì’, the encyclical on environmental issues that is so popular in progressive circles. Virtually all the cornerstones of Francis’ magisterium were written in consultation with Fernández. In the aftermath of Evangelii Gaudium, he had written a book presenting the new papal course to the world: The Project of Francis. Where he wants to take the Church (Italian edition: Il progetto di Francesco. Dove vuole portare la Chiesa, Bologna: EMI, 2014). Now, this interpreter of Francis’ thinking, far removed from Ratzinger’s, became prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the highest body for the promotion of Catholic doctrine. Francis has a very faithful and “young” theologian (62 years old) in a position that can carry on his “project” even when he is gone. In Francis’ view, this really is a big deal. The next two years will see two Synods of Bishops (gathering all Roman Catholic bishops from around the world) on the controversial topic of “synodality”, i.e., a new way of proceeding in the church, with Rome becoming more inclusive and absorbing (catholic) and less marked by its traditional identity (Roman). Francis has now a trusted supporter and enthusiastic promoter of his view of “synodality.”
In two moves, Francis has shrewdly weakened the “Roman-ness” of the church as interpreted by Pope Benedict XVI and scored a point in favor of the “catholicity” of the current fluid church, the one where we are “all brothers.” While physically frail, Francis has never been stronger than he is now.

[1] Here is a recent summary of Evangelii Gaudium from the Pope himself: “Here we find the ‘heart’ of the evangelical mission of the Church: to reach all through the gift of God’s infinite love, to seek all, to welcome all, excluding no one, to offer our lives for all. All! That is the key word.” Audience to the General Assembly of the Pontifical Mission Societies (June 3rd, 2023).

211. The Spiritual Testament of Benedict XVI. Against the Protestant sola fide

“Almost a spiritual testament.” This is the subtitle of the book published by one of the great Roman Catholic theologians of the twentieth century who then became pope of the Roman Church, Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI (1927-2022), after his death. The book (Che cos’è il cristianesimo. Quasi un testamento spirituale, Italian edition: 2023) is a collection of fifteen essays, short papers, and letters which were written after his resignation from the papacy in 2013. Four of them are unpublished whereas the others had already been published elsewhere. The late German pope wanted these essays to be put together and made public after his death and entrusted the project to Elio Guerriero, one of his biographers. Because of the post-resignation period to which they belong and the desire of the pope emeritus for them to appear posthumously, the book is subtitled “Almost a spiritual testament.”  
The First and the Last Book
What is Christianity (the title of the book) resembles the title given to the most famous book of his prestigious career: Introduction to Christianity (1968). This volume had multiple reprints and several editions in other languages. With it, Ratzinger became a “star” of the theological world outside of the small academic circles of German universities. It is curious that the first book and the last book of his life seem to be linked by their titles. With the Introduction, Ratzinger wanted to give a robust presentation of the Roman Catholic theology that had come out of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He wished to dispel possible misunderstandings about Vatican II having been a “rupture” from traditional Roman Catholicism and re-affirm its continuity within the mainstream Roman Catholic theology of all ages. At the end of his life, in What is Christianity, the late Ratzinger wants to make sure Roman Catholic Christianity is warned not to become “protestant” or “secular.” On the contrary, he wants his church to maintain its Roman Catholic identity, especially in its relationship with other religions (e.g. Islam, Judaism), its theology of the priesthood, and the sacramental nature of the Eucharist.
The two books are “apologetic” in nature: both want to associate Christianity strongly with Roman Catholicism, implying at least that the two are really one and the same. According to Ratzinger, Christianity is Roman Catholicism and vice versa. This was his conviction from the beginning to the end of his life. Besides their similarity, there are obvious differences between the two books. The first is an organic, scholarly, and comprehensive treatment; the second is a collection of different pieces, mainly describable as spiritual meditations. The theological weight of the latter is lighter than the former even though the concern to preserve the integrity of Roman Catholic Christianity is the same.

Two Perceived Threats
The danger of secularization is particularly evident in the chapter on the Church and the scandals of sexual abuse (pp. 143-160). There Ratzinger tells of how the sexual revolution in the sixties entered the seminaries and how the gradual erosion of Roman Catholic moral theology concurred with the lowering of the ethical standards of Catholic priests, especially in the West. Nothing is really new here.
What is more striking is the other perceived danger by the late Benedict XVI, i.e. the “protestantization” of the Roman Catholic Church (p. 127). Ratzinger sees the slippery slope towards the Roman Church becoming influenced by the Reformation in three areas which are briefly touched upon in the book: the theology of the priesthood, justification by faith alone, and the significance of Communion. It is no coincidence that the two lengthier and weightier chapters of the book are dedicated to the priesthood (pp. 96-122) and to the meaning of the Eucharist (pp. 123-140). In dealing with these topics, Ratzinger seems to have in mind the present-day situation of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. Theologically though, it is sola fide (and Martin Luther behind it) that is considered the chief negative inspirator of these worrying trends.
Attacking sola fide
Ratzinger is concerned that Luther’s interpretation of the Christian ministry as mainly characterized by preaching, prayer, and pastoral care is becoming widespread in Catholic circles too (pp. 97-98). In this Protestant understanding, the minister is not a priest offering a sacrifice on behalf of the people, but a leader guiding the church through the Word. What is missing, according to Ratzinger, is the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and the mediatorial role of the priest representing the hierarchical church standing between God and humanity.
According to him, the ultimate problem of this view is Luther’s sola fide (faith alone). It is true that Ratzinger takes issue with sola Scriptura as well (p. 38), siding with the German liberal theologian Adolf Von Harnack who criticized the “formal principle” of the Reformation as non-sensical. Benedict shares the rejection of the “Scripture alone” principle, but he does not elaborate on it. His main target is sola fide (the “material principle” of the Reformation).
Sola fide is the biblical principle rediscovered by Luther and the Protestant Reformation whereby Jesus Christ with His sacrifice on the cross has accomplished the sacrificial system and has fulfilled the priestly role as mediator. Salvation is therefore not through the works of the law nor through the agency of the temple/church with its hierarchy, but by faith alone in Christ alone.

Luther child of Marcion?
Benedict XVI argues that “sola fide, in Luther’s sense, was never taught in the ancient church” (p. 99) but was actually promoted by Marcion, the second-century heretic who contrasted the God of the Old Testament (characterized by selfish holiness and anger) and the God of the New Testament (characterized by love and forgiveness). Ratzinger sees Luther as a child of Marcion (also on p. 133-134) because the German reformer did not reiterate the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, but considered it fulfilled and overcome by the sacrifice of Christ whose benefits can be received by faith alone (p. 107). In the Roman Catholic view, while paying lip service to the “once-and-for-all” sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the Mass is still seen as a “sacrifice” that is offered and mediated by the priest who is part of a hierarchical system. Ratzinger wants to ground the Catholic view on the Letter to the Hebrews, Psalm 16:5, and Deuteronomy 10:8 (pp. 110-122), but his interpretation of these passages is faulty and only proves what is already assumed in the first place. While Hebrews clearly says that the new covenant abolishes the sacrificial system, Benedict says that it also reiterates it. Psalm 16:5 is hardly proof of the Roman Catholic theology of priesthood, and Deuteronomy 10:8 talks about the Levite priests. On the whole, his biblical interpretation of Hebrews contradicts the plain meaning of the text, and the other two passages are inconclusive for the topic.
The Marcionist origin of sola fide is also seen by Benedict in the Protestant account of salvation. According to Ratzinger, Luther failed to see that redemption is “becoming one thing with the love of Jesus Christ” (p. 100); moreover, Luther’s doctrine of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner) does not change man but only adds an external layer (p. 133). Evidently, the late pope did not appreciate the fact that the doctrine of justification says that we are declared righteous based on Christ’s righteousness, but it makes room for the biblical doctrine of union with Christ, regeneration, and sanctification whereby we are united with Christ and changed into His image. Not only is Luther associated with Marcion and made a heretic, but the Protestant position is here caricatured and made a strawman.
The (Catholic) Eucharist is “completely different” from the (Protestant) Supper
There is more. Sola fide is also responsible for another mistake of the Protestant Reformation, i.e. its theology of the Lord’s Supper in contrast to the Roman Catholic view of the Mass. Here is how Ratzinger explains the difference: “In the Protestant interpretation the Eucharist is only a meal … while for the Catholic faith in the Eucharist the entire process of the gift of Jesus in his death and resurrection is always present” (p. 131). Between the two accounts, there is a “profound difference” (p. 128, p. 133). Actually, there is a “fundamental contrast” (p. 132). According to Ratzinger, the absence of transformation of the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Jesus reflects the “most profound difference between the Protestant interpretation of what it means to be a Christian and the Catholic faith” (p. 133).
In Benedict’s view of Protestantism “becoming a Christian does not change man, but only adds to him something else” (p. 133). As the justified man is not changed, so the bread and the wine are not changed. For Roman Catholicism, on the contrary, being saved means to become righteous, and the Eucharist is the transformation of the substance of bread and wine into something else. Again, Ratzinger said, “It is absolutely evident that the Supper and the Mass are two completely different forms of worship which exclude one another because of their nature” (p. 98).
This harsh view of the Protestant faith may come as a surprise to some readers but is nothing new. It has always been a mark of Ratzinger’s theology. His robust Roman Catholic orthodoxy has always found the sola Scriptura and sola fide principles of the Reformation utterly unpalatable. Certainly, he was critical of Liberal Protestantism, but he was equally dismissive of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and of evangelicals.
After his death, in painting a rather one-sided picture of Benedict as a champion of Christian orthodoxy, some have argued that “Benedict can and should become a teacher to many more Protestants” (Tim Perry, “Pope Benedict: A Brief Protestant Requiem”Ad Fontes, Jan 2, 2023). Well, yes and no. Yes, because we should be open to learning from anyone, even from the opponents of the evangelical faith. No, because despite his conservative theology, as his spiritual testament clearly shows, his thought was shaped around anti-Protestant commitments and, ultimately, around non-biblical principles.

172. Can the Roman Catholic Church survive two Popes? — one Catholic and one Roman

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 nobody could have imagined what has been happening since: the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope (Francis), but also a former yet living pope (Benedict) who still speaks, acts, and intervenes in ecclesiastical matters. There were hints that the prospect of having two living popes would cause some confusion, if not controversy. The fact that Benedict wanted to keep his title as Pope (only adding “Emeritus” to it), as well as his white papal robe (a symbol of the papal office) and his residence inside of the Vatican walls (the home of popes), indicated that, in spite of his pledge to remain silent for the rest of his days, the cohabitation between two popes would easily result in misunderstandings, even conflicts. The outcome has been an increasing polarization between Francis’ fans over against Benedict’s supporters and vice versa, certainly beyond the intentions of both.

One Pope, Two Popes?
In 2019 we had a preview of the present-day turmoil. The two popes spoke on the same subject, the sexual abuses committed in the Roman Church, but with clearly different positions: Francis blamed “clericalism”, an abuse of ecclesiastical power by the priests and religious people involved, whereas Benedict pointed to the collapse of Catholic doctrine and morality since the Sixties and after the Second Vatican Council, a theological decay that according to him was at the root of the scandals. The two popes interpreted the malaise of their church and the possible solutions in radically different ways.

More recently, a power struggle rallying around Pope Francis and Pope Benedict erupted, with the “Francis party” pushing for changes in areas such as the re-admission of the divorced to the Eucharist and the extension of the priesthood to married men, and the “Benedict party” resisting those changes, denouncing them as heresies, confusions and failures. It was indeed an Annus Horribilis (terrible year) for the Roman Church. Last but not least, we have now a popular movie entitled The Two Popes telling a made-up story (with some truth in it) and making fun of the two characters and their unusual cohabitation in the Vatican. All of this was unthinkable seven years ago.

Pope Emeritus, yet Outspokenly Concerned
The last episode in the tale of the two Popes only happened a few days ago. Cardinal Robert Sarah, a prominent member of the traditionalist front, announced the imminent publication of a book written with Pope Benedict. The title of the book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, is indicative of the highly emotional tone of its authors. The book itself is a heartfelt cry seasoned with theological acumen to maintain the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of the celibacy of the priests. It arises out of fears that after the 2019 Synod for the Pan-Amazon region, Pope Francis will allow some married men (viri probati, “proved men”) to access the priesthood, thereby breaking a millennial rule of the Roman Catholic Church which prescribes her priests to be celibate. Sarah and Benedict staunchly defend the permanent validity of the celibacy of the priests and denounce any attempts at breaking it, even those painted as “exceptions” in extraordinary circumstances. It is true that after the press release by Cardinal Sarah there has been a backlash against Benedict appearing as co-author of the book, even though it looks like the Pope Emeritus had given at least tacit prior approval for the full manuscript. You can read the full story here.

The theological arguments of the book deserve attention on their own merits because they show that traditional Roman Catholic theology is against progressive and liberal trends, not out of biblical concerns or standing under the authority of the Bible, but in order to preserve traditional Roman Catholic teaching on the basis of the weight of church tradition and extra-biblical arguments (i.e. the “ontological” and “sacramental” nature of the priestly office). Because of its importance for gaining an insight into the traditional Roman Catholic way of theologizing, the book by Sarah and Benedict will be reviewed in a future Vatican File. What is of interest now are the standing questions that it brings.

An Unsettled Tension
One of the roles of the pope has always been the maintenance of the balance between the Roman and the Catholic dimensions. Roman Catholicism is the ongoing tension between two fundamental aspects of the whole: the Roman side, with its emphasis on centralized authority, pyramidal structure, binding teaching and the rigidity of canon law; and the Catholic side, with its emphasis on the universal outlook, the absorption of ideas and cultures and the inclusive embrace of practices into the Catholic whole. The resulting system is Roman Catholicism, at the same time Roman and Catholic. The human genius of Roman Catholicism and one of the reasons for its survival across the centuries has been its ability to be both, though not without tensions and risks of disruption.

Popes embody the Roman Catholic synthesis by holding together the Roman apparatus and the Catholic vision. Of course, they each do it differently, especially after the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II, for example, was a very Roman pope but at the same time a very Catholic one. For example, he strongly defended traditional Roman Catholic teaching (e.g. by launching the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church), but was second to none in promoting the universality of this Church around the world (e.g. inter-religious dialogue, traveling globally). Unlike John Paul II, who was both Roman and Catholic, Benedict XVI made the pendulum swing over the Roman pole. With his staunch conservativism in areas such as liturgy, morality and the critical relationship with the secular world, Benedict appeared to be more Roman than Catholic. He seemed to be a rigid, centripetal, doctrinaire pope. A Roman pope. Many felt that his papacy, while strong in its Roman centredness and boundaries, was weak in its Catholic breadth and warmth.

This criticism helps explain why a pope like Francis was chosen to succeed him. With the election of Pope Francis, Rome seemed to be wanting the pendulum to move in the opposite direction in order to re-address the balance. Distancing himself from many Roman features of the office (e.g. his refusal of the pomp of the Vatican Curia, his blurred teaching that leans away from official teachings), Francis has embodied the role of a very Catholic pope. His stress on “Who are we to judge?”, universal brotherhood with Muslims and other religions, ecological concerns, etc. made his papacy significantly shaped by the Catholic elements. The open-endedness of his teaching, coupled with the ambiguity of his language, has created some interest in the secular West, which resonates with much of what he says on social issues. This is to say that he is a very Catholic pope. Perhaps too Catholic and too little Roman for a growing number of Roman Catholics!

A Struggle to Re-Fix the Balance
Admitting the divorced to the Eucharist, fudging the traditional opposition to homosexuality and extending the priesthood to married men have been perceived as the latest, dangerous “Catholic” moves of the pope which run contrary to the Roman tradition, risking its whole collapse! This is the highly emotional background behind the From the Depths of Our Hearts book, part of which was written by Benedict himself in order to reinforce the “Roman” teaching on the celibacy of priests over against possible “Catholic” openings towards married men, which Francis seems to be in favor of.

The tension between the “Roman” Benedict and the “Catholic” Francis helps explain the present-day crisis. Past popes reigned without a Pope Emeritus around and therefore embodied in their own way the Roman Catholic synthesis. The next pope would have fixed the synthesis differently. But now, with two very different popes living next to each other (with only one reigning, but the other still lucid and active), the situation is very different. The overly Catholic attitude of Francis is compared and contrasted with the Roman outlook of Benedict to the point of creating an unprecedented struggle between opposite parties. For some, Francis has become too Catholic to maintain a proper Roman Catholic synthesis. He is incapable of being the Roman Catholic (at the same time) Pontifex. Therefore, he needs the correction of a Roman pope.

And yet, if this situation goes on unresolved it will undermine the institution of the papacy as it was cleverly crafted throughout the ages. The “progressive” pope will be counter-balanced by the “traditional” pope and the disruption of the system will be achieved. The papacy will be transformed into a two-party political system, as if it were an ordinary parliamentary monarchy. It will be the end of Roman Catholicism as it stands now.

This tension at the highest level of the Roman Catholic Church is not tenable in the long run. This is why it is highly probable that the status of Pope Emeritus (the one which Benedict enjoys now) will be revisited and regulated in order to end the temptation to think of the papacy as a “dual” responsibility, resulting in the on-going confrontation of a Roman and a Catholic party. Roman Catholicism accommodates different positions and tendencies, but the pope is thought of as being the one, living synthesizer of the tension, until the next one takes over and perhaps re-fixes the balance. The tale of two popes will not last long because Roman Catholicism is built on the conviction that its system is capable of keeping together its unchangeable Roman identity and its ever-increasing Catholicity. No biblical reformation is in view; it is only an internal struggle that is causing Rome to go through a stress-test and some chaos until the Roman and the Catholic dimensions find a new, sustainable equilibrium.

171. The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI: Looking for a Deeper Protestant Evaluation

Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) is one of the towering figures in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology. Born in 1927, his impressive biography includes having been a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), holding various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957-1977), being Archbishop of Munich (1977-1981) and Cardinal, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), to eventually becoming Pope (2005-2013), and since 2013, Pope Emeritus. His Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly depth. Needless to say, one cannot think about seriously dealing with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his work.

His stature makes his reputation spillover from the Roman Catholic world. So a book on The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation, ed. T. Perry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), is no surprise and is a welcome contribution to approaching the work of Joseph Ratzinger from the outside. The volume contains 15 articles written by Protestant authors who cover various aspects of his work, especially in the areas of dogmatic and liturgical theology, offering an entry point into his theological vision. The overall tone of the articles is generally informative and understandably appreciative, as the subtitle indicates.

Tim Perry, the editor of the book, is not new to initiatives aimed at building an ecumenical bridge between Evangelicals and Catholics. One can think of his editorship of The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (2007), in which Pope Wojtyła was assessed in extremely generous terms– so generous that the analysis seemed to be selective and forgetful of major critical points of his legacy (e.g. see my review asking questions about John Paul II’s alleged but idiosyncratic “Christ-centered legacy”). Other volumes by Perry (e.g. Mary for Evangelicals, 2006, and with D. Kendall, The Blessed Virgin Mary, 2013) also show his desire to wet the evangelical appetite for Roman Catholic doctrine and spiritualità (e.g. Mariology) while not always indicating what is biblically at stake in them. His chapter on Mary in the book (pp. 118-135) confirms his desire to find ways to “redeem” the Catholic Marian dogmas and practices for evangelical readers, even when they should be simply rejected from a biblical standpoint.

In his introduction, Perry looks at the (ecumenical?) future and singles out four ways in which Ratzinger’s theological wisdom can be useful for tomorrow’s church. Learning from Benedict, the church will:

1. find her strength in holy Scripture;
2. affirm that Christian faith is reasonable;
3. depend much more on the visible holiness of her members; and
4. be humble (pp. 7-9).

These are all important points. However, on either side of the Tiber (Protestant or Roman Catholic), who can be against them? They are so generic that even along the liberal-conservative dividing line within various Christian groups, who could say anything contrary? The problem is: does this list fairly and accurately represent, if not the whole, at least the heart of Ratzinger’s theology? Would Benedict himself summarize his work in these points? Are we sure that his message to the churches can be separated from the sacramental, hierarchical, and institutional nature of the Roman gospel and Rome’s “thick” claims on ecclesiology, soteriology, the papacy, Mariology, etc.?

The intention of “appreciating” Ratzinger’s theology is evident, but what about the ability to penetrate it? The impression of a similar gap is confirmed in other chapters of the book. For example, Ben Meyers and Katherine Sonderegger helpfully discuss the relationship between faith and reason in Ratzinger (11-25 and 28-45). The rationality of faith is certainly a theme dear to him, but as clearly demonstrated in his famous 2006 Regensburg Lecture “Faith, Reason and the University”, Benedict builds this rationality on the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit” and firmly rejects what he identifies as the “programme of dehellenization” of the faith. According to him, this programme took place on the 16th century “Scripture Alone” Protestant principle, continued through 19th and 20th century theological liberalism, and eventually resulted in present-day relativistic multi-culturalism. One would have thought that in a book that presents a “Protestant” voice, someone would take issue with Benedict for his totally negative assessment of Sola Scriptura, one of the pillars of classic Protestantism, which he considers to hold the main responsibility for the wreckage of the Christian faith. Instead, the overall “appreciation” for Ratzinger’s defense of the rationality of faith over and against the “Scripture Alone” principle takes precedence over a truly Protestant analysis, thus skipping the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue (which involves biblical critique done in a gracious yet firm way).

Another example of this weakness of the book has to do with Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology. In his chapter on the topic, Fred Sanders commends his “powerful set of Trinitarian commitments” (p. 136), a common theological foundation that is often praised in the book as something that Ratzinger shares with Protestants. Because of his Trinitarianism, Ratzinger is presented as an ecumenical theologian from whom Protestants must learn. Staying on the surface of Trinitarian theology, this might be true, but as soon as one begins to dig deeper, things significantly change. In presenting his liturgical vision, Peter Leithart quotes Ratzinger talking about the Eucharist:

The Eucharistic Prayer is as entering into the prayer of Jesus Christ himself, hence it is the Church’s entering into the Logos, the Father’s Word” (p. 197).

The Church enters into the Logos! This is a view of the Eucharist that is heavily embedded in a Trinitarian framework and implies that there is an organic “Christ-Church interconnection” (an expression used by Gregg Allison, p. 63), which is biblically disputable. Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology demands that the Church enters into the Logos, thus becoming one with Him and claiming to prolong (so to speak) His incarnation in her teaching and her sacramental and ruling offices. This view is based on a Trinitarian argument, but runs contrary to the standard Protestant view of the Church and her relationship with Christ.

Or again, in skillfully dealing with Ratzinger’s theology of the Word of God, Kevin Vanhoozer quotes Benedict saying:

As the Word of God becomes flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so Sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 69).

The theology of Scripture is set in the context of Trinitarian theology, and the Church is embedded in this Trinitarian dynamic as if she were the mother of the Word because the presence of the Spirit is intrinsically tied to her. The link between the Holy Spirit and the Church is so organic that “for Benedict, Scripture, tradition, and the Roman magisterium always coincide because they are guided by the same Spirit” (p. 85). His Trinitarian theology leads Ratzinger to “dismissing” (p. 68) and “explicitly” denying Sola Scriptura (p. 75), which is one of the tenets of the evangelical understanding of the gospel.

The question is: if Catholics and Protestants have the same Trinitarian foundation (as many chapters of the book assume), how is it that they come to very different accounts of Revelation, the Bible, the Church, the sacraments, salvation, … the gospel? If we have this foundational commonality, why does Ratzinger argue in (his) Trinitarian terms that “Scripture Alone” is – for example – the main cause of the departure from the rationality of faith (e.g. in the above mentioned Regensburg Lecture) and is to be rejected in order to embrace a proper view of the Eucharist and Revelation? Are we not dealing with gospel issues that stem from different Trinitarian views, which look similar in language and on the surface but are undergirded by different core commitments and result in ultimately different accounts of the gospel?

The “appreciative” tone of the book shies away from asking the question, let alone responding to it, with exceptions and with some interesting hints. The chapters by Allison and Vanhoozer point to the idea that something deeper than acknowledging generic commonalities runs in the Roman Catholic and Protestant theological basic orientations. As Carl Trueman rightly observes in his chapter “Is the Pope (Roman Catholic)?”,

Roman Catholicism is not simply Protestantism with a different set of doctrines. It is a different way of thinking about Christianity, a way that draws a very tight connection between Scripture, tradition, and the doctrine of the church in a manner alien to Protestantism” (p. 153).

“A different way of thinking”. Finally, someone in the book indicates what is at stake in dealing with Roman Catholicism in general and with Ratzinger in particular. “A different way of thinking” that has some overlap in the use of biblical and theological language but is constructed with a different blueprint and results in a different answer to the ultimate questions about God, the world, and eternity. “A different way of thinking”. This is a clue that helps us to appreciate Benedict’s theology much more than lazily praising what we Protestants have in common with it. I think Ratzinger would agree more with this “different way of thinking” type of appraisal than with words of praise that do not go deep enough in the analysis of his theology. Trueman quotes him saying:

The way one views the structure of Christianity will necessarily affect in some measure, great or small, one’s attitude to various particular matters contained within the whole” (n. 26, p. 163).

The book The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation contains several “particulars” of Ratzinger’s theology from a Protestant viewpoint, but the “structure” of his view of Christianity is only touched upon by few of them and is left as a homework that is still to be done. The “appreciation” of the book should be heard, but not at the expense of neglecting the fact that Benedict and Protestants have different views of the “structure of Christianity” that impact the whole of their respective faiths.

P.S. On Ratzinger’s theology I have also written an “appreciative” (I hope) yet evangelically critical article: Progressive, Conservative or Roman Catholic? On the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger in Evangelical Perspective, “Perichoresis” 6.2 (2008) pp. 201-218.

161. Are there two Popes of the Roman Catholic Church?

April 19th, 2019

Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus) has spoken, and his voice is loud in the confusion that reigns in the Roman Catholic Church. His 5,000 word text, which is entitled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse”, was released on April 11th, taking Vatican officials and the outside world by surprise. Although he writes that he had informed Pope Francis and the Secretary of the Vatican State beforehand, the procedure was totally unconventional, bypassing institutional channels and distributing the text through a minor German magazine (Klerusblatt). It soon appeared on websites that are often vocally critical of Pope Francis.

When Pope Francis was elected to office in March 2013, Benedict XVI, who had abruptly resigned from office, pledged to remain publicly silent for the rest of his life, dedicating his time to prayer and indicating a willingness not to interfere in the affairs of the Roman Church. With the publication of this long article, this silence is broken. The Pope Emeritus certainly prays, but he also speaks out and does so loudly. The topic of his article is hot in that it deals with the sexual abuses that are ruining the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church and causing internal debates in this “annus horribilis” (terrible year).

“A Post-Retirement Encyclical”?
Commenting on the text, the New York Times has labeled it “a post-retirement encyclical”, as if the Pope Emeritus had resumed his ordinary teaching in this turbulent time. Perhaps this is an overstatement. Content-wise, the article is more of a historical, theological, and autobiographical reflection on the present-day crisis. It is written in the style of a personal testimony coming from a life-long prominent theologian, influential Cardinal, and lately the retired Pontiff of the Roman Church.

Ratzinger traces the present-day sexual abuse scandal back to the sexual revolution of the Sixties (particularly the year 1968), the “collapse” of Catholic doctrine and morality between the 1960s and 1980s, the downfall of the distinction between good and evil and between truth and lies, the proliferation of tolerated “homosexual clubs” in Catholic seminaries, and the imposition of a “so-called due process” that rendered untouchable those who justified these novelties, including pedophilia itself. In the final analysis, Ratzinger points to the ultimate reason for the crisis being a departure from God in society as a whole and in the Church as well. He then calls his Church to recover the mystery of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as the way to let God become central again.

In a sense there is nothing new under the sun in what Benedict writes now. These broad historical and theological assessments have already been presented in his 1985 Ratzinger Report, a book interview on the state of the world and the church published when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in his “Letter to the Catholics in Ireland”, written in 2010 when he was Pope, which dealt with the abuses there. This new article breaks no fresh ground regarding Ratzinger’s views on the disastrous consequences of the sexual revolution on the world and how it has impacted the Roman Church at all levels.

The Unsettled Legacy of Vatican II
What is significant about the article is the difference in analysis and tone from what the reigning Pope has been saying about the abuses. Unlike Ratzinger, Francis has been quick to blame “clericalism” (i.e. the abuse of clerical power) as the root of the scandals. He has never touched on the relaxation of the Church’s moral standards on sexuality and the gradual acceptance of the presence of homosexuals amongst the clergy. For Francis, homosexuality seems to be a non-issue in the overall explanation of what has gone wrong, i.e. a topic that cannot be dealt with publicly and honestly. The other main difference is that, unlike Ratzinger, who severely criticizes the philosophical trajectory and moral results of Western relativism both within and outside of the Church, Francis speaks more of the political allures of careerism within the Church, which has resulted in unscrupulous people making prey of vulnerable subjects. The difference between the two is evident.

There is something deeper, though. The main thesis of the article is that the Sixties were the decade of the sexual revolution and the Roman Church was devastated by it. So far so good. But the Sixties were also the decade of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which updated Rome’s posture, gesture, and language to make it more friendly to the modern world. Indirectly, Ratzinger underlines the fact that in the Sixties (therefore after Vatican II), Roman Catholic moral theology ceased to argue from the objective basis of “natural law” and began to play with the idea that “morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action”, making therefore all judgements “relative”. The Pope Emeritus denounces a “new, modern Catholicity” that overturned the traditional moral fabric of Catholic theology and opened the door to the justification of homosexuality and other sexual promiscuities in seminaries and among the clergy. Without Ratzinger saying it explicitly, it was as if Vatican II lowered the bar and relaxed the standards of Roman Catholic theology and ethics to the point of eroding the moral consistency of the Church from within.

While Francis often uses Vatican II to bang conservatives on their heads, Ratzinger’s analysis of the effects of the Council is much more nuanced, if not critical. It is as if Francis stresses the genius of the “catholicity” of Vatican II (i.e. openness, renewal, inclusion, accommodation), whereas the old Ratzinger sees problematic outcomes that have plagued the Church. The tension between the “catholic” and the “roman” elements of the Roman Catholic Church is now embodied in the dialectic between the two Popes. Francis tends to the “catholic” Pope in line with the elasticity of Vatican II whereas Benedicit looks like more of the “roman” Pope calling his Church to its doctrinal identity shaped around its sacramental system. Beyond the different opinions on the current crisis of the Roman Catholic Church, the legacy of Vatican II is also a disputed matter between the two Popes!

One Pope, Two Popes?
There are other standing questions on the whole initiative by the Pope Emeritus. The paper wanted to be a contribution to the summit on the protection of minors that was held in the Vatican in February 2019, but instead it has been made public two months after. Why? Is it because Benedict was not happy with the rather poor and inconsequential results of the meeting? Why did he decide to break his vow of silent prayer now, and on this issue?

After six years of co-habitation between a reigning Pope and the Pope Emeritus (an unusual situation for the Roman Church!), what prompted the latter to speak out on this controversial issue? Why did he feel the need to regain a public voice, outside of institutional Vatican channels? Roman Catholic conservative circles – the same circles that have become very critical of Pope Francis – have always referred to Benedict XVI as the “real” and “true” Pope over and against the troublesome and confusing activity of today’s Pontiff. This article gives them evidence that their criticism has reached Ratzinger’s ears. The Pope Emeritus continues to pray, but is also willing to speak again. He is Emeritus, but he is still Pope.

The article may not be a “post-retirement encyclical”, but it is a stone thrown into Rome’s pond. Its waves will continue to question how is it possible for a pyramidical structure to have two Popes with very different opinions on what happened to a Church marred by horrific sexual scandals and on what needs to be done to recover from the damage caused by them.

148. The Intellectual Journey of J.M. Bergoglio, Now Pope Francis

April 1st, 2018

Five years ago, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis. Since then, several biographies have been published to make his life known to the general public. For example, Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York, 2014) sticks out as perhaps the most comprehensive window onto Bergoglio’s life. As he was not a major figure in global Roman Catholic circles prior to his election, let alone in the wider world, these accounts have helped many to better understand the main events of Bergoglio’s personal story before becoming pope.

One recent book by Massimo Borghesi, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Una biografia intellettuale (2017: Jorge Mario Bergoglio: An Intellectual Biography), looks at Bergoglio’s life from a particular angle. Borghesi focuses on the intellectual influences (e.g. books, journals, authors, friendships, networks) that have shaped Bergoglio’s thought. In so doing, it provides a fruitful perspective on the genesis and development of the vision that Bergoglio embodies and promotes as pope. In addition to surveying all of the relevant literature, Borghesi has also worked on a questionnaire that Pope Francis responded to, giving further details and filling in the blanks of previous attempts. According to this well-researched analysis, Bergoglio’s intellectual biography seems to be marked by three main influences.

The French Jesuit Starting Point…

The formative years of Bergoglio as a student in philosophy and theology were profoundly impacted by his reading of French Jesuit intellectuals like Henri de Lubac, Gaston Fessard, and Michel de Certeau. They introduced the young Bergoglio to the Catholic dialectical thought, away from rigid Thomism and towards the dynamic synthesis of embracing opposites and enlarging the overall vision. In this Jesuit school of thought – which, by the way, became the matrix of the theology of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) – what are perceived as oppositions become “tensions”, at times painfully disruptive, but also potentially creative and always to be maintained as such. Bergoglio became persuaded that human thought is always “in tension”, never fixed or stable. He distanced himself from abstract definitions and propositions. He learned to always think in programmatically “open” and “loose” thought forms.

Intertwined with this dialectical tendency was Bergoglio’s early exposure to Liberation theology. Since his first attempts at coming to terms with its growing popularity in Latin America, Bergoglio was not interested in the Marxist ideological and political framework of much of the Liberation theology of those years. He was definitely attracted to the “theology of the people” that is a side aspect of Liberation theology. According to this particular way of theologizing, the people’s concerns, preoccupations, aspirations, etc. need to be the starting point. Rather than considering folk devotions and beliefs as a pre-modern stage that will be overcome by political liberation, the “theology of the people” assumes them as vital and central. Marian devotions and practices become the most appreciated expressions of the people’s heart even if they are contrary to Scripture. Theology and pastoral practice must therefore be developed only in a bottom-up way. In this view there is no sense in which the Bible can be the supreme norm for faith and life. In Borghesi’s terms, the future pope embraced “a liberation theology without Marxism” (p. 71). This is the context of Bergoglio’s important emphasis on the “people” being the principal subject of theology and Church life.

… Mediated Through the Uruguayan Alberto Methol Ferré …

Bergoglio’s early fascination with French Jesuit thought was further consolidated by his reading of the lay Uruguayan Catholic philosopher Alberto Methol Ferrè (1929-2009). From Methol Ferré he learned that human thought is always unstable, mobile, and ever-renewing. This was yet another injection of Catholic dialecticism that moved Bergoglio further away from static and traditional Thomism.

Methol Ferrè is also the intellectual who suggested that with the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church had finally overcome both the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. After fiercely fighting them up front (from the 16th century to the 19th century), Rome eventually came to terms with its ability to assimilate and absorb the Reformation and the Enlightenment, rather than opposing them. At Vatican II the Catholic Church took the “best” of both and launched a “new” Reformation and a “new” Enlightenment. They were no longer adversaries, but parts of the “catholic” accomplishment of their positive contributions. This is the background of both Francis’ recent kind words toward the Reformation on the occasion of the 5th centenary and his low-key approach towards controversial lifestyles (e.g. homosexuality) marked by modern individual autonomy. What this basically means is that after Vatican II the Reformation as such is over and has been absorbed within the on-going renewal of the Church of Rome.

… Leading to the Italian-German Romano Guardini

Building on these two important phases of his intellectual life, Bergoglio grew in his conviction that the Catholic Church is the “complexio oppositorum” (the whole that makes room for the opposites). His study of German theologian Romano Guardini (1885-1968) corroborated the Catholic dialectical dimension of his thought. Guardini argued that Roman Catholicism is “Weltanschauung”, an all-embracing worldview, the only one that is capable of handling multiple tensions between diverging poles and bringing them to a “catholic” unity. From Guardini, Bergoglio developed his idea of unity as being a “polyhedron”. The polyhedron is a geometric figure with different angles and lines. All different parts have their own peculiarity. It’s a figure that brings together unity and diversity, and Roman Catholicism is the home of unity as a polyhedron. This explains Francis’ commitment to ecumenical and inter-religious unity that downplays differences and concentrates on generic commonalities. In this view unity is not governed by biblical truth and biblical love but by the embracing view of Rome which holds together all angles and lines of life.

On March 13th, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, marking a significant transition in the Roman Catholic Church. What he has been saying and doing since being elected, e.g. his affirming attitudes towards all, his noisy silences over doctrine, his thoroughgoing Marianism, and his lack of clarity on several key issues, has caused many to wonder where his thought came from. Borghesi’s intellectual biography makes it clear that Francis’ pontificate comes from afar. It is the result of a long series of developments within Catholic thought, from Jesuit sources to Latin American influences up to the Vatican II matrix of contemporary Rome, without having being corrected by the Word of God. One needs to immerse oneself in what happened at the Second Vatican Council to begin to make sense of what Francis is saying and doing now. All analyses of Francis being an “evangelical” or a “kerygmatic” pope are simplistic and short-sighted. He is much more than that, in ways that are dialectical, open-ended, and at the service of the Catholic vision to embrace the whole world.

130. Progressive, Conservative or Roman Catholic? On the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger

November 1st, 2016

The last conversations. This is the title of recently published interviews with pope emeritus Benedict XVI and German journalist Peter Seewald. In the book Ratzinger reviews many episodes of his life and gives insights on this theological career and journey. The title suggests that this is probably the last book by Ratzinger. It seems then fitting to reproduce in the Vatican Files collection an article I published few years ago on Ratzinger’s theology.

“Progressive, Conservative or Roman Catholic? On the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger in Evangelical Perspective”, Perichoresis 6.2 (2008) 201-218.

The second half of the XXth century saw different popes leading the Roman Catholic Church through and beyond the most significant event of its recent history, i.e. the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). John XXIII (1958-1963) was the theologically conservative, yet pastorally alert pope who saw the need to end the introspective age of Vatican I and to develop a new phase in the life of the Church in confronting the modern world. Paul VI (1963-1978) was the thoughtful intellectual who had to administer the most difficult part of Vatican II (i.e. the final years) and oversee the beginning of its controversial implementation.

The reign of John Paul I (1978) passed unnoticed for its sheer brevity. John Paul II (1978-2005) was the genial interpreter of Vatican II, conservative in doctrine and morals, and progressive in social issues and world appeal. With him, the Church regained centrality in the world, re-launching the task of a “new evangelisation” and Catholic presence. Whereas the pre-Vatican II Church was living a process of gradual decay, she was revitalised by this pro-active pope and stirred to recover the centre stage in the global world. A Thomistic philosopher and charismatic leader, Wojtyla in his pontificate embodied the aggiornamento (i.e. updating) that was encouraged by Vatican II without losing the organic ties with tradition.

Now, the election of Benedict XVI represents an interesting development in the same line, i.e. the reception, elaboration and application of Vatican II with its message of gaudium et spes (joy and hope) for the world through the lumen gentium (light of all nations) who is the Christ represented by the Church.

1. Ratzinger’s Theological Catholicity

Joseph Ratzinger’s image before the public opinion is that of a conservative theologian who is opposed to liberation theology, cultural relativism, modern liturgical trends which downplay the mystery of the Mass and the solemnity of the rites, and Eucharistic inter-communion with other Christians.

The press has depicted Ratzinger as a grown old reformer who has become disillusioned and suspicious of any change. However, the image of the “enforcer of the faith” is just half of the truth.[1] The other side is perhaps less known, but still important. For example, Spanish reformed theologian Jorge Ruiz recalls Ratzinger’s role within the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the Eighties in officially endorsing an accommodating view of the Bible with respect to liberal understandings of Biblical revelation. As far as the Bible is concerned, Ratzinger represents “a moderate view within the liberal orientation of the Roman Catholic Church of Vatican II”.[2] The 1993 document by the Pontifical Biblical Commission – at the time headed by Ratzinger – “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” is an example of the reception of liberal presuppositions within the overarching exegetical tradition endorsed by the Church. Even the acclaimed new book on Jesus of Nazareth, while criticising radical applications of historico-critical methods, still encourages research to be pursued within their confines in a milder way.[3]

Early Evangelical reactions to his election to the papacy have applauded his “Bible-focused” theology.[4] His commitment to the Bible, however, must be understood in the context of his moderate liberalism as far as Biblical revelation is concerned. Moreover, his views of Scripture stem from traditional Catholicism which combines the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church. According to Vatican II language, they “are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence” (DV 9). In this sense, he is a modern conservative within the boundaries of a revitalised Roman Catholicism.

Ratzinger, in fact, has been one of the pivotal figures in the theological and ecclesiastical scene following Vatican II. As a young and brilliant theologian at the Council, he significantly contributed to the implementation of its main directives, while not relinquishing the traditional dogmatic outlook of the Church. He has been considered “progressive” in his youthful theological engagement for the renewal of the Church, and then “conservative” in his long-term service to his Church as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Ratzinger is often pictured as if he were the left wing theologian who became right wing in his mature years. These labels, of course, do not account for the “catholicity” of Ratzinger’s theology which is both traditional and aggiornata (updated). In assessing Ratzinger’s Roman Catholic theology, it is dangerous to contrast traditionalism and progressivism as if they were disrupting and conflicting trends within his work. There may have been different emphases and concerns between various stages of his career,[5] but the tale of the conversion from radical theologian to the inflexible watchdog of orthodoxy is naïf.

How do we account then for this change of attitudes and concerns? It depends on what kind of paradigm we use to interpret the theological flow of a Church or a theologian. In its theological genius, present-day Roman Catholicism is “catholic” in the sense of embracing both the highest respect for the given heritage of the Church and the strenuous attempt to find new ways of articulating it and living it out. The outcome is a dynamic synthesis which holds different elements together within the all-embracing system. Ratzinger well epitomises this kind of catholicity – strongly rooted in the tradition of the Church and yet also vigorously engaged in accomplishing her mission before the challenges of the modern world.

The motto of the theological journal Communio with which he has been associated since 1972 neatly sums up his theological vision: “a program of renewal through the return to the sources of authentic tradition”. In other words, aggiornamento is done through ressourcement (i.e. the fresh re-reading of biblical and patristic sources) since the two belong together. This appears to be the theological profile of Pope Benedict XVI.

2. The Catholic Church and Its Robust Self-Understanding

Even a scant look at Ratzinger’s massive bibliography indicates the width of his production and the spectrum of his expertise.[6] While it is impossible to isolate a single dominant theological theme, it is nonetheless comparatively easy to appreciate its main focus. Throughout his career as University professor and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the prominent theological interest of Ratzinger has been the doctrine of the Church. Being a theologian of Vatican II and being the Council an ecclesiological council, Ratzinger himself has worked on the reception of the ecclesiological significance of Vatican II for a reinvigorated Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Through the prism of ecclesiology, it is therefore possible to sketch out Ratzinger’s theology in terms of a robust Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Although this approach is selective, it is not a distortion.

2.1 “The People of God”: the Augustinian Heritage

The first aspect to underline for this introductory survey combines methodological and historical elements. As a doctoral student, Ratzinger started his theological career by reflecting on the patristic sources of the doctrine of the Church. His first significant contribution dealt with the self-apprehension of the Roman Church in the history of theology. Well before Vatican II would emphasise the image of the Church as the people of God (e.g. LG 9-17), in the early Fifties Ratzinger wrote his doctoral dissertation on Augustine’s view of the Church as the people and the house of God.[7] Not only did he anticipate the Council as far as ecclesiological themes were concerned, but in this first academic contribution, he also shared and consolidated the trend of ressourcement which the Roman Church was experiencing between the two World Wars. The early influence of Augustine strongly marked Ratzinger’s successive work to the point that he is considered an “Augustinian theologian”.[8]

Ratzinger’s study on Augustine’s ecclesiology is fascinating. He studied it against the background of Tertullian’s and Cyprian’s concepts of the Church. He highlighted the importance of the Donatist controversy and the confrontation with Paganism in the shaping of it. He then investigated the dogmatic significance of the populus Dei and concluded by establishing connections between Augustine’s view and an ecclesiology of the people of God. He pursued similar interests in further studies on the new people of God and the relationship between Israel and the Church.[9] The self-understanding of the Church as the people of God is spelt out in quasi-ontological terms, even though the metaphor is biblical. The ecclesiological profile is very high and her salvific mission and hierarchical structures are strongly defended.

In reading Ratzinger’s work on Augustine, one is reminded of B.B. Warfield’s interpretation of the great Latin Father. Warfield argues that there are two Augustines in Augustine, or rather, there are two main Augustinian theologies in Augustine himself. On the one hand, there is the Augustine who argues for a centripetal church which is invested with divine power to administer God’s grace. On the other hand, there is the Augustine who stresses the doctrine of divine free grace to lost and undeserving sinners. According to Warfield, the ambivalence in Augustine is resolved at the Reformation where his ecclesiology is seen in the context of the doctrine of grace, whereas the Roman Catholic tradition gives priority to the ecclesiastical administration of grace.[10] Ratzinger’s treatment of Augustine is perfectly in line with the traditional Roman Catholic reading of him.

Timothy George rightly remarks that Ratzinger’s theology is “Augustinian in perspective”.[11] This is true. It must be borne in mind, however, that the kind of Augustinianism that Ratzinger embraces is the ecclesiocentric Augustinianism which strongly underlines the centrality of the Church, rather than the Pauline, grace-oriented Augustinianism which was championed at the Reformation. The great Augustinian heritage is twofold. Ratzinger’s interpretation endorses the “catholic” Augustine at the expense of the “protestant” one. His Augustinianism recalls the ecclesiology which was questioned by the Reformation and is still a matter of theological division.

2.2 “Catholica”: Church, Churches and Ecclesial communities

Another prominent feature of Ratzinger’s ecclesiology is his interpretation of the marks of the Church, especially with regard to its catholicity. According to the Apostles Creed, the Church is “catholic” and the significance of this mark of the Church has been subject of intensive debate in the history of theology.[12] Though acknowledging its widely accepted strands of meaning (e.g. in the whole world, according to the whole counsel of God, in fellowship with the whole Church), there is an important nuance which is added and which further qualifies this nota ecclesiae.

According to Ratzinger, the catholicity of the Church is intertwined with the episcopalian structure of the Church.[13] The former is an expression of the latter in two ways. First, the presence of the bishop is essential to define the Church itself. There is no church if there is no valid bishop presiding over her. The implication is that those Christian groups which do not recognise a properly ordained bishop in their ecclesiastical outlook cannot claim the status of a church, but can be defined “ecclesial communities”, i.e. gatherings of Christians enjoying ecclesiality to some degree but lacking the fullness of the blessings of being a church. Second, the catholicity of the Church means the union of all the bishops whose fellowship is presided over by the bishop of Rome. It is not enough for a church to have an episcopalian structure: it must be in fellowship with the See of Rome which exercises the primacy. Unless a church is in fellowship with all other bishops and with Rome, it cannot be fully recognised as being part of the Catholic Church. Catholicity then is understood in terms of Roman episcopacy.

More recently, Ratzinger has come back to these important ecclesiological themes issuing the declaration Dominus Iesus (6th August 2000)[14] when he was still Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. While the document mainly deals with the relationship with other religions and the challenges of inter-religious dialogue, it also contains sections on the true meaning of the marks of the Church (e.g. n. 17). In critically addressing some practices and beliefs in the Roman Catholic Church, Ratzinger recalls what has been already pointed out in the last paragraphs. The Church is where there is a valid bishop, but there is also a further ecclesiological qualification. According to Dominus Iesus, the Church is where the mystery of the Eucharist is kept in its integrity, i.e. where it is celebrated according to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and sacramental representation of the sacrifice of the cross.[15] Moreover, as far as the primacy of the Pope is concerned, Ratzinger argues that the papal office is given “objectively” and therefore cannot be changed to the point of losing its objective nature. The papacy has a quasi-ontological status which pertains to the realm of objective, essential things. The implications for non-Catholic Christians are evident. In fact, those Christian groups which do celebrate the Lord’s Supper in other ways and with a different theology are not considered as churches properly defined. They are “ecclesial communities” and the condition for them to become part of the Church as particular churches is to come in full fellowship with Rome. Only a church in communion with Rome is a catholic church. This is Ratzinger’s interpretation of this mark of the Church.[16]

In his first speeches after being elected, pope Ratzinger has made it clear that he wants to commit himself to the ecumenical cause, i.e. the full restoration of the unity of the Church. This wish has been received in very positive terms by non-Catholics and even Evangelicals.[17] There is a problem, however, and it has to do with the meaning of the unity implied by Ratzinger. Given the quasi-ontological self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church and the “objectivity” of her structures, what openness is given to Biblical reformation according to the Gospel? If Ratzinger’s ecclesiology reflects and implies the “objectivity” of the Roman Catholic Church as it stands, unity means adhering to this objective model by submitting to it. This way is not an Evangelical option.

2.3 “Salt of the World”: the Church and the World

The relationship between the Church and the world has been a matter of sustained concern for Ratzinger as theologian, Cardinal and then Prefect. His ecclesiological reflection is not only interested in reinforcing the self-understanding and practices of the Roman Church, but also to address critical issues concerning the place and mission of the Church in a global world. This side of his ecclesiological interests has been developed in a series of interviews in which Ratzinger has offered his thoughtful insights in a popular style.[18]

Ratzinger’s analysis of the modern world is fascinating. In particular, it underlines the challenges of the progressive erosion of the Christian heritage by the project of modernity. It also warns against the dictatorship of relativism and the danger of alien ideologies such as Marxism and liberalism, collectivism and radical individualism, atheism and a vague religious mysticism, agnosticism and syncretism. In critical dialogue with post-secular philosophers like Jürgen Habermas, he calls the Church not to be marginalized by secular trends and to launch afresh a strong Christian vision and initiative for a decaying world.[19] This is particularly true as far as Europe is concerned.[20]

Perhaps, an interesting case-study of Ratzinger’s convictions on these matters is the attempt to evaluate the first world-wide event in which the Pope took part after his election. This approach may speak better than many essays since Roman Catholicism is a highly symbolised and dramatic religion as well as having a sophisticated theology. It is in terms of a worldview that Ratzinger’s thought can be best assessed.

More than one million young people took part at the World Youth Day (WYD) in Cologne (Aug 16th-21st 2005) with pope Benedict XVI. It was an impressive gathering and a highly significant programme. What was its main message? It was the occasion to celebrate the catholicity of the Church of Rome. Every aspect was wisely organised to underline the centrality of the Church, its project and the importance to belong to it. At the heart of Europe, the Church attracted the attention of the whole continent. The pope was treated as past emperors were,[21] arriving on a boat on the river Rhine with crowds greeting him. The Church played the role of the privileged dialogue partner of Islam, one the most worrying concerns of the West. Whereas other Western agencies find it difficult to come to terms with Islam, Rome apparently does not.[22] Thinking of the future, a message was launched that Rome is the “home” of young people. Everybody is welcome in this large home, where you find fun, the Eucharist, music, friendship, devotion to Mary, etc. The Church provides everything. Participants could even benefit from plenary or partial indulgences that were issued by the Pope for the occasion. They took part in an open air Eucharist where the sacrifice of the cross was represented through the offering of the Church. The Church combined Middle Age practises and postmodern habits. Different speeches, homilies, and talks seemed to have Christ at the centre, but at a closer look, it was the Church that received centre stage.

Probably, not all the youth there will live out their faith in the coherent way they were encouraged to do. Many will continue to nurture their pick-and-choose spirituality. This is not the main point, however. The young people went back home with a solid impression of the power of the Church of Rome, a Church that has a youthful profile, which offers spiritual engagement and a cultural sense of belonging. It is not the case that their Christian identity will be strengthened, but their Catholic identity will. Perhaps, they will not consider themselves more Christian, but certainly more Catholic. The Roman Church aimed at giving a powerful boost especially to the European imagination. The message was conveyed in symbols and words. Here it is. The future of the continent (i.e. the youth) is with Rome. What else can be a reference point for them in this terrifying world? Who else can comfort them, give them fun and instruction in a safe environment? Moreover, before the pressing challenges of our day (e.g. Islam, peace and justice), Europe can rely on the Roman Church. She can act as representative of all and do the job better than any other else. Why not trust it? Finally, with the outstanding personalities of the previous pope and the present one, Europe has a loving father who is wise enough to be listened to. With all the uncertainties and bad teachers around, why not trust him? Is not Roman Catholicism the Christian option that better suits the continent? This is the question that was asked in Cologne by Benedict XVI. Did Evangelicals understand the grand theological vision behind WYD? Is it good news? Is it a promise? Is it a challenge? Is it a problem?

3. “Faith, Reason and the University”: the Clash with the Reformation

There is yet another important window on Ratzinger’s thought that can be opened in this introductory survey. It has to do with the rather unfortunate speech delivered at the University of Regensburg on 12th September 2006 on the topic “Faith, Reason and the Universities. Memories and Reflections”.[23] This lecture caused widespread turmoil in some countries where Muslims felt offended by the reference made by the Pope to the dialogue between emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian man in 1391 on the subject of Christianity and Islam. For some Muslims, the Pope did not distance himself from Manuel’s words concerning the coercive and violent nature of Islamic expansion at the expense of the use of reason. International media immediately mounted a case that turned this reference to an instance of Byzantine history into a political and diplomatic issue. The Pope had to rephrase his speech, reassuring Muslims of his un-offensive intentions as well organising an official event with ambassadors of majority Muslim countries where he underlined his appreciation for Islam and commitment to inter-religious dialogue.[24]

Unfortunately, much attention has been devoted to this rather secondary aspect of the lecture with the result of obscuring and downplaying its real content. What is really at stake in Ratzinger’s speech is his view of the relationship between faith and reason as championed by the Biblical faith and Greek reason. For Ratzinger, Christianity stems from the “inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical enquiry”. This “synthesis” is already envisaged in the “I am” saying of Exodus whereby God reveals Himself in a way that overcomes mythology and the Johannine prologue whereby the logos is both word and reason.[25] The instance of Paul’s mission whereby the Macedonian man appears to the apostle to plead with him to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10) is considered a vivid picture of the “intrinsic necessity” of the rapprochement. In Medieval Christianity the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit” finds its culmination and it is “an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion”. For Ratzinger this “convergence” is quintessential for Christianity, not only in terms of its historical past but also as a matter of its overall theological profile.

In the course of the lecture, Ratzinger singles out the main threats that this synthesis has encountered since Medieval times onto modernity and beyond. There have been attempts to “dehellenize” Christianity which the Pope considers to be dangers and fatal mistakes. First, Duns Scotus’ voluntarism sunders the synthesis whereby God’s transcendence is so exalted to become unattainable and hidden to reason. The analogy of being is therefore broken. Secondly, the XVI century Reformation with the sola Scriptura principle. In Ratzinger’s words, according to the Reformation “faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system”. The Pope thinks that Christianity needs such a system in order to be Christianity. Sola Scriptura is therefore a dangerous undercutting of the hellenized version of the Christian faith. The third threat comes from Liberal theology of the XIX and XX centuries. Harnack epitomises another facet of the “programme of dehellenization” whereby Christianity wishes to return simply to the man Jesus and his simple message underneath the accretions of hellenized theology. The final danger for the synthesis between faith and reason is “cultural pluralism” which argues that the hellenization of Christianity was an initial inculturation which is not binding on other cultures. Il va sans dire that Ratzinger rejects all these threats in order to safeguard the embrace between the Bible and Greek philosophy.

A critique of Ratzinger’s views on faith and reason as presented in this lecture would require much work which is not possible to do here. Suffice it to mention his negative consideration of the sola Scriptura principle which clashes with his profound convictions on the relationship between faith and reason. He is right to say that the Reformation wanted to re-discuss the relationship between Biblical and philosophical presuppositions as far as the Christian faith is concerned. He is right to see the Reformation as a threat to this balance. In this respect, Ratzinger comes very close to Cornelius Van Til, though from the opposite direction. For Van Til, Roman Catholicism is the historical outcome of a process of assimilation of mainly Aristotelian thought-products which have led to a radical transformation of the Christian faith. In arithmetical terms, traditional Roman Catholicism is “a synthesis of Aristotle plus Christ”.[26] In fairness to him, Van Til maintains that “Romanism has in it a large element of true Christianity”. The problem is that this healthy part is nonetheless “counterbalanced and modified by so much taken from non-Christian philosophy”.[27]

What Ratzinger perceives as an essential and inherent part of the Christian faith (i.e. the Greek reason combined to Biblical faith), the Reformed faith considers it the basic problem of Roman Catholicism. What Ratzinger perceives as a dangerous threat to the synthesis (i.e. sola Scriptura), the Reformed faith accepts it as the vital principle for the Christian faith. Christianity rejects all idolatry and stands solely on the Word of God. Ratzinger has an altogether different view than that of the Reformation.

4. Dealing with a Robust Roman Catholic Orthodoxy: Is the Reformation Over?

Joseph Ratzinger represents post-Vatican II Roman Catholic orthodoxy at its best. It has recovered the importance of Biblical revelation and patristic sources. It has restated its commitment to creedal orthodoxy and opened itself to ecumenical relationships. It is in critical dialogue with secular modernity, and nurtures a strong Christian worldview for a pluralistic world in turmoil. In light of these developments, the focus should be expanded to more general and important issues concerning Roman Catholicism as a whole. The issue is not merely academic, as if we were discussing Ratzinger’s theology in isolation from the significance of the Church he now represents at the highest level. The question whether the Reformation is over has been asked and seems to be something that many Evangelicals are asking, either implicitly or explicitly.[28] In other words, is there any reason to keep on opposing, questioning, distancing oneself from Roman Catholicism given the many positive things that can be seen in Rome today? To borrow Vittorio Subilia’s title, is the “problem” of Catholicism solved? [29] It is still there or not? If yes, to what degree?

In order to address the issue, the other side of the same post-Vatican II Roman Catholic orthodoxy should not be neglected. The two belong to one another. Here again, Ratzinger’s theology magnificently epitomises it. For instance, the Bible is always read in light of the authoritative magisterium. Nicene Christology is always intertwined to “objective” Roman Catholic ecclesiology. The Apostles Creed is confessed as well as the Canons of Trent and Vatican I. The cross of Christ is always related to the representation of the sacrifice of the Eucharist. The Spirit is always linked to the hierarchical structure of the Church. Ecumenism is always thought of in terms of other Christians being defective and the Church of Rome being the “catholic” Church. The mission of the Church is always pursued having in mind the catholic project to embrace the whole world. The ecclesiastical outlook of the Church is inherently combined with its political role. The list could easily be lengthened so as to indicate the way in which the Roman Catholic theological system is built and works.

The point is that Ratzinger’s orthodoxy is qualified by its being peculiarly Roman Catholic. Contrary to powerful trends in modern ecumenical thinking, “mere orthodoxy” does not exist in this world. There are different types of orthodoxies. Ratzinger’s is just one of them and it is robust. If Evangelical orthodoxy loses its biblical sharp edges and becomes engulfed in a “mere orthodoxy” type of thinking, Ratzinger’s theology may sound thrilling and appealing. In this sense, the Reformation may be considered as over. If Evangelical orthodoxy keeps its foundational principles of the Reformation and Revivals, the Reformation is not over since the program of continual biblical reform is always a task before all of us, Ratzinger and the Roman Catholic Church included.

In conclusion, it may be appropriate to quote a document that was issued in 1999 by the Italian Evangelical Alliance on the relationships between Evangelicals and Catholics. It deals with general trends within Roman Catholicism, but what it says can also be applied to the theologies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI since there are striking similarities. Here it is: “The current flurry of activity within contemporary Catholicism (the return to the Bible, liturgical renewal, the valorisation of the laity, the charismatic movement, etc.) does not indicate, in and of itself, that there is hope for a reformation within the Catholic church in an evangelical sense. It will only be as these developments make changes in the structural elements underlying the nature of Roman Catholicism, not expanding it further but purifying it in the light of God’s Word, that they can have a truly reforming function. In today’s scenario, these movements, although interesting, seem to promote the project of catholicity rather than that of reformation”.[30] A robust Evangelical Orthodoxy is still needed and Reformed Christians have a vital and unique role to play in promoting it.

[1] This is the title that was given to him by a biographer. John L. Allen, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith (London-New York: Continuum 2000).

[2] Jorge Ruiz, “El eslabón perdido entre Castelar, Zapatero y Benedicto XVI”, Nueva Reforma 70 (Jul-Sept 2005) p. 12.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday 2007).

[4] Timothy George, “The Promise of Benedict XVI”, Christianity Today (June 2005) pp. 49-52. We should come back again to this article because it indicates the rather uncritical and positive impression that seems to be shared in some Evangelical circles.

[5] For instance, Ratzinger was on the editorial committee of Concilum, an international journal founded in 1965 wishing to promote the spirit of Vatican II. Dissatisfied with the liberal and radical tendencies within it, Ratzinger then resigned to support the more traditional journal Communio, founded in 1972 by Hans Urs von Balthasar.

[6] Ratzinger’s bibliography is extensive (more than 60 books and hundreds of articles) and the number of substantial studies on him is also impressive. For a survey of both primary and secondary sources, cfr. Aidan Nichols, The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger. An Introductory Study (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1988) and Andrea Bellandi, Fede cristiana come stare e comprendere. La giustificazione dei fondamenti della fede in Joseph Ratzinger (Rome: PUG 1996).

[7] Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirche, München 1954.

[8] Some observers have noticed the shift between the “Thomist” John Paul II to the “Augustinian” Benedict XVI as a promise of change in the theological orientation of the Roman Church.  These evaluations, however, fail to appreciate that Roman Catholicism is a vast synthesis of many different strands that coexist together. Any interpreter of the synthesis may bring his own emphases, but he is not supposed to alter it significantly.

[9] Das neue Volk Gottes, Düsseldorf 1969.

[10] Benjamin B. Warfield, Studies in Tertullian and Augustine (1930; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker 1981). For Warfield’s interpretation of Augustine, I am indebted to Luigi Dalla Pozza, “Warfield l’apologeta di Princeton”, Studia Patavina XLIX (2002/2).

[11] T. George, cit.

[12] e.g. Yves Congar, Sainte Église. Etudes et approches ecclésiologiques (Paris: Cerf 1963); Avery Dulles, The Catholicity of the Church (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1985).

[13] This connection between catholicity and episcopacy is already argued in Ratzinger’s widely acclaimed Introduction to Christianity (London: Burns & Oates 1969) which is a profound commentary to the Apostles Creed.

[14] See www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html

[15] On the theology of the Eucharist, see God is Near Us. The Eucharist, the Heart of Life (San Francisco: Ignatius 2003). Further reflections on the liturgy are in The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius 2000).

[16] This ecclesiological self-understanding as applied to ecumenical issues was recently reinforced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church” (29th June 2007). The document has stirred hot responses from different Christian bodies and is available at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html. For instance, William Taylor, on behalf of World Evangelical Alliance, has written “Evangelical reflections on Pope benedict XVI’s June 2007 affirmation on the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church” (28th August 2007). The useful paper is available at http://www.worldevangelicals.org/news/view.htm?id=1355 .

[17] e.g. Michael S. Horton, “What Can Protestants Expect from the New Pope?” (April 21, 2005) www.modernreformation.org/popedoc.htm.

[18] There are at least three such books: The Ratzinger Report. An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius 1985); Salt of the Earth. An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church at the End of the Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius 1996), and the most recent God and the World. Believing and Living in our Time (San Francisco: Ignatius 2002).

[19] Their 2004 dialogue has been published in English in the book The Dialectics of Secularization. On Reason and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2007).

[20] See his recent book Europe. Today and Tomorrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2007).

[21] It must be borne in mind that, in his extensive writings on ecclesiology, Ratzinger never questions the foundational institutional ambiguity of the Roman Church in her being a Church and a state (i.e. the Vatican) at the same time. As pope, he is primate and head of state. In this respect, he is a monarch who can be payed tribute as such.

[22] Ratzinger deals with the theology of dialogue and its challenges in Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief And World Religions (San Francisco: Ignatius 2004).

[24] As a matter of fact, this amendment event has shown the Vatican ambiguity as far as the relationship between religion and politics is concerned. In order to present his apology, the Pope invited political representatives of national states, instead of Muslim religious leaders. The misleading given impression was that political authorities (i.e. ambassadors) represent religious adherents of one religion and not citizens of a nation in spite of their religion.

[25] The exegetical and canonical feasibility of these readings of the Biblical material is beyond the scope of this paper. However, this “metaphysical” hermeneutics leaning towards Greek categories have been and must be seriously questioned.

[26]  C. Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publ. Co 1969) p. 175. As for modern Catholicism, Van Til argues that “the former Aristotle-Christ synthesis and the former Kant-Christ synthesis have joined hands to form the Aristotle-Kant-Christ synthesis” (ibidem, 185).

[27] A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 168. More on Van Til’s approach to Roman Catholicism can be found in my book Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Frankfurt-Bern-Oxford: Peter Lang 2003) pp. 65-78.

[28] Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over?An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Baker 2005). Cfr. my review in Themelios 32/1 (2006) pp. 103-104.

[29] Vittorio Subilia, The Problem of Catholicism (London: SCM 1964).

[30] The full text can be found in “An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism”, Evangelicals Now (Dec 2000) pp. 12-13 or European Journal of Theology X (2001/1) pp. 32-35.