Deconstructionists, those intellectuals who make it their job to ask critical questions about our long-cherished collective stories, like to ask, among other things, who or what cause is best served by a given narrative. They might ask, for example, whose interests are served by a story that tells of the triumph of capitalism over the broken promises of collectivism? Answer: the capitalists’ interests, of course. In this way, the deconstructionists see every story as inherently political, with clear winners and losers depending on who is doing the storytelling.
This critical method can be useful if not taken too far. It can easily descend into cynicism, leaving us concerned with only the price of events rather than their value, to borrow an idea from Oscar Wilde. But the question, whose interests are served by a given narrative, is one that is worth asking, not least because the stories we tell do inevitably impart the values we hold dear in some fundamental way.
It seems to me that the time has come to ask this particular question of a narrative that has proven popular and perduring in the contemporary American church. The story, which I’ve heard told dozens of times, goes something like this: Once there was a very “progressive” German theologian named Joseph Ratzinger. He was a champion of the new theology and a leading reform-minded expert at the Second Vatican Council. In 1968, his university classroom, like colleges everywhere in the West, was convulsed by a student revolution. This destabilizing event, so the story goes, sent Father Ratzinger into the arms of the forces of reaction; and the rest of his life, as archbishop, Vatican prefect and pope has been a long rightward march.
Now it is perfectly clear that the opponents of Father Ratzinger’s theological projects are the ones who are best served by this narrative, which casts them as the ones who were presumably not beset by fear and trembling and were thus able to carry on the project of reform. The problem here is that this is a far too facile and barely credible story. To be sure, Father Ratzinger’s thinking and positions did evolve. In a soon-to-be-published interview, the pope emeritus tells Peter Seewald that he grew increasingly concerned about the direction of theology in the wake of the council. “In this respect one could soon see that what was originally desired was being driven in a different direction,” he says. “Since 1965 I have felt it to be a mission, to make clear what [the council] genuinely wanted and what we did not want.”
One of the ways the future pope did that was by publishing his Introduction to Christianity, which sets forth many of the theological themes he would pursue throughout his journey from professor to pope. It is important to note that this book was based on a series of lectures he gave at least two years prior to the events of 1968. So the protests of that year, though not irrelevant, were hardly a decisive event.
All this would be just an arcane historical tidbit if it weren’t for the fact that this questionable narrative is still operative, especially among those who see Pope Francis’ pontificate as a radical departure from that of his predecessors. Yet neither Benedict nor Francis see it that way: “If one isolates things, takes them out of context,” the pope emeritus tells Seewald, “one can construct opposites, but not if one looks at the whole. There may be a different emphasis, of course, but no opposition.”
There’s a lesson in this. Catholics of every stripe would do well to take a moment to question the stories that inform our actions and judgments. And if we can let go of our cherished myths and ideologies for long enough, we might even create enough space for the Holy Spirit to narrate our story anew.