Reading Benedict: Reviewing the pope's love of the word
Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement on Feb. 11 caught the world by surprise and moved many to reflect not only on his decision to step down from the See of Peter, but on the highlights of his eight-year papacy. We asked four contributors to reflect on Pope Benedict’s legacy, as evidenced in his encyclicals, his role as a theologian, his Jesus trilogy and his Angelus messages. Reader responses to the pope’s announcement follow on page 20.
The God of Love and Learning
Thumbnail portraits of Pope Benedict XVI invariably describe him as a scholar. Readers of his encyclicals will surely agree. They are replete with citations from the fathers and doctors of the church. But unlike statements of other modern popes, they are rich as well in references to secular authors, ancient and modern, like Plato, Cicero, Nietzsche, Marx and Dostoevsky. He employs the Western intellectual and artistic tradition to convey his vision of faith to both church and world.
Pope Benedict’s writings lack the memorable phrases of Paul VI, like “Development is the new name for peace” and “civilization of love,” and the geopolitical grand vision of John Paul II, whose words inspired revolution in Eastern Europe. What he has offered instead is a well-integrated understanding of faith and the Christian life, clearly and precisely written—from the heart. His social teaching, however, is innovative and even radical in its proposals.
His first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” limned the mystery of divine love at the heart of the Christian life. At a time when the new atheists were holding forth, he chose to write about love, the heart of the Christian vision. He treated human love, especially sexual union, as holding intimations of immortality, a necessity for self-giving and a desire for fulfillment in God. He defined the life of discipleship as “communion” with Christ and in Christ with all Christians, and affirmed the essential unity of love of God and neighbor.
The second part of the letter explained that the church’s service of charity, including work for justice, together with proclamation of the Gospel and celebration of the liturgy, is central to the life of the church. Yet its caveats about the conduct of officially sponsored Catholic charities raised concern about unnecessary Vatican centralization. In January this year, those worries grew when the Vatican laid down regulations affirming bishops’ responsibility for charities under them and placing international ones under the supervision of the Roman Curia.
“Spes Salvi,” Pope Benedict’s second encyclical, is difficult to read but pastorally instructive. The letter starts as a meditation on the text, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb 11:1). After a long appreciative argument with “the God that Failed,” the myth of material progress found especially in 19th and 20th-century Marxism, he turns to personal experience, reflecting on the unfolding hopes of a single lifetime. Humans need, he writes, both “the great hope” in God and “lesser hopes” that mark the human lifecycle. Each generation, moreover, is called to contribute to human progress. Our ultimate hope, however, is realized in Christ in whom we share the unconditional love of God.
The last third of “Spes Salvi” is dedicated to practices of hope. This whole section is worth prayerful consideration, particularly in Lent. The last unit on final judgment is remarkable for its uplifting treatment of a usually dolorous topic. “The encounter with [Christ] is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away.”
“Caritas in Veritate” was Pope Benedict’s first, full, social encyclical. Written in the middle of the world financial crisis and in the wake of rapid globalization, the 2009 letter called for an authority to regulate international financial transactions and called for greater global governance. It called for an economy based on trust and urged new economic models that combined the profit motive with contribution to the common good. Correcting misimpressions created by “Deus Caritas Est,” he affirmed structural reform as “political charity,” declaring it “no less excellent” than direct service to the neighbor.
Pope Benedict’s encyclicals do not make for easy reading, but their close study will reward the reader. At times his theology has the potential to inspire. It is far more centrist than his critics allow, and the particulars of his social teaching are downright radical.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.
A Christian Humanist Pope
Joseph Ratzinger once observed that it was impossible for him to say how much he owed to Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar as intellectual mentors. As a seminarian he found that reading de Lubac’s Catholicism gave him not only a new and deeper connection with the thought of the church fathers but also “a new way of looking at theology and faith as such.” He also found in de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum a new understanding of the unity of the church and the Eucharist, and this in turn gave him a way into the mind of St. Augustine. De Lubac’s ecclesiology and Christocentric anthropology strongly undergirds his second and third encyclicals, “Spe Salvi” and “Caritas in Veritate,” and the hallmark Balthasarian emphasis on the transcendental of beauty appears in so many of his publications that in the future he may well be remembered as that early 21st-century pope who went to war against liturgical philistines.
In addition to de Lubac and von Balthasar, another key mentor for Ratzinger was Romano Guardini. Karl Rahner described Guardini as “a Christian humanist who led Germany’s Catholics out of an intellectual and cultural ghetto and into the contemporary world.” Ratzinger said that he was taught by Guardini that the essence of Christianity is “not an idea, not a system of thought, not a plan of action. The essence of Christianity is a person: Jesus Christ himself.” This principle became enshrined in “Dei Verbum,” the 1965 conciliar document that Ratzinger helped to draft and that formed the central theme of his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est.” Guardini’s liturgical theology also fed into Pope Benedict’s 2007 apostolic exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis” while Guardini’s scriptural hermeneutics fed into the 2010 apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini.” According to Ratzinger, Guardini recognized that: “the liturgy is the true, living environment for the Bible and that the Bible can be properly understood only in this living context from which it first emerged. The texts of the Bible, this great book of Christ, are not to be seen as the literary products of some scribes at their desks, but rather as the words of Christ himself delivered in the celebration of holy Mass.”
Pope Benedict’s interest in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love can be tracked to his studies of the philosophy of Josef Pieper. He has acknowledged that his own publications on the theological virtues were an attempt to extend the philosophical insights of Pieper into the territory of theology. His pre-papal work The Yes of Jesus Christ: Spiritual Exercises in Faith, Hope and Love was dedicated to Pieper on his 85th birthday. It was Pieper who first put the Archbishops of Krakow and Munich-Freising into contact with one another.
In the many magisterial documents of Pope Benedict XVI one will not find heavy doctrinal pronouncements but rather an eloquent synthesis of insights drawn from two millennia of Catholic scholarship, with a view to shining light onto some contemporary spiritual pathology. One can see the Ignatian influence of de Lubac and von Balthasar, the Thomist influence of Pieper, Guardini’s Bonaventurian Christocentrism, a Benedictine liturgical sensibility, a Bavarian Marian piety and now an encounter with the desert spirituality of the Carmelites in deep affinity with Pope John Paul II.
In the papacy of Benedict XVI the church has been blessed with a son of Catholic Bavaria who along the pathways of life managed to meet and befriend the greatest minds in the church of his time, and through his friendships with them placed the intellectual and cultural treasures of the church at the service of a Christian humanism.
The Pope’s Jesus
Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus books are both an affirmation of the principles of the Second Vatican Council’s “Dei Verbum” and a challenge to biblical scholars and theologians today. The first volume covers events in the Gospels from Jesus’ baptism to his transfiguration. The second volume focuses on events of Holy Week. A third volume treats the infancy narratives in the Gospels. Never before has a reigning pope written such books for the general public and claimed to welcome criticisms of his work.
The young Joseph Ratzinger wrote a major commentary on “Dei Verbum,” the 1965 document on divine revelation, and through the years he has maintained a strong interest in the relationship between the Bible and theology. He presided at the sessions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission that issued in the 1993 document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” In response to the 2008 synod on the Bible in the life and ministry of the church, he issued the apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini” in 2010, which is an extensive summary of recent Catholic Church teachings on the Bible and its interpretation. An important part of his legacy as theologian and pope is his effort at clarifying and encouraging the study of the Bible and its pastoral applications.
The genre of the pope’s Jesus books is best described as theological exegesis. He approaches the Gospels not only as the words of human authors but also (and especially) as the word of God. He often uses the methods and results of historical criticism, which he repeatedly describes as “indispensable.” However, he is equally insistent that simply determining what a text might have meant in its original setting is not enough. Thus he emphasizes also the importance of the spiritual or theological reading of biblical texts. In carrying out his program of theological exegesis, he joins historical exegesis of the Gospels with Old Testament precedents, patristic theological insights, modern theological concerns, liturgical practice and contemporary experience.
At the outset of his first volume, the pope states clearly his principles of Gospel interpretation. He maintains that the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels is trustworthy and that this (and not some modern scholarly reconstruction) is the proper object of study and devotion. For him, the “historical Jesus” is the Jesus of the Gospels. He takes this Jesus to be the key to interpreting all the Scriptures, and so he reads the Bible as a whole from a christological-canonical perspective. And while he attends to Jesus’ historical context, his major interest in writing about Jesus is his theological significance.
The pope’s Jesus books are not biographies of Jesus or exegetical commentaries or a systematic treatise on Christology. Instead, they are a form of biblical theology or theological exegesis, a series of learned reflections on various episodes in the Gospels. They freely use Old Testament passages as a way of understanding New Testament texts. They interpret Scripture by Scripture and are attuned to the liturgical and sacramental implications of the Gospel texts. Thus they illustrate how one very learned reader of the Gospels applies the principles of “Dei Verbum” and other modern Catholic documents on the Bible.
Pope Benedict XVI is well known for his love of music, and so his theological method has often been compared to a symphony in which all the different instruments join together to form a pleasing whole. My advice in reading the pope’s Jesus books is to respect them for what they are, enjoy the theological symphony and learn from a master composer and conductor.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.
Introducing Others to Christ
One of the most underreported and yet most appealing facets of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy was his extensive series of Angelus messages. At noon on Sundays, when in Rome, the pope appeared on the balcony of the papal apartments overlooking St. Peter’s Square and, along with the crowd, prayed the ancient prayer known as the Angelus. This has been a papal practice since Pope John XXIII, though other popes have used the occasion in different ways. For Benedict, the Angelus was a perfect time to reflect on Sunday’s Gospel reading, a saint associated with the Gospel (say, one of the apostles), a recently canonized saint, a nearby feast day or the beginning of a liturgical season. Occasionally he used the opportunity to comment on an event in the life of the church, like the closing of the recent synod of bishops. Mainly, though, his Angelus messages functioned as small homilies.
As in his three-volume book Jesus of Nazareth, as well as in his other publications (beside the encyclicals, his published works range from books and essays on the church fathers, on prayer, on devotion to the Blessed Mother and other topics), the Angelus messages showed Benedict at his best: a brilliant theologian whose greatest strength is making the Gospel, the traditions of the church, the church fathers and the lives of the saints accessible to modern-day believers. In Benedict one finds that most appealing of Christian teachers: a person who has, over decades of study and prayer, so thoroughly imbibed what he has learned that he is able to convey it with great clarity. Another benefit of these messages was their brevity. No more than four or five paragraphs, they were easily heard by the crowd and easily digested by anyone who would later read them.
To take one example, here is the pope’s meditation, in his Angelus message on Jan. 27 of this year, on the reading from the Gospel of Luke (4:14-21), when Jesus preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth. He offers a brief reflection on Jesus’ dramatic words, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
This Gospel passage also challenges us “today.” First of all, it makes us think about how we live Sunday, a day of rest and a day for the family. Above all, it is the day to devote to the Lord, by participating in the Eucharist, in which we are nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ and by his life-giving Word. Second, in our diversified and distracted time, this Gospel passage invites us to ask ourselves whether we are able to listen. Before we can speak of God and with God we must listen to him, and the liturgy of the Church is the “school” of this listening to the Lord who speaks to us. Finally, he tells us that every moment can be the propitious “day” for our conversion. Every day (kath’ēmeran) can become the today of our salvation, because salvation is a story that is ongoing for the Church and for every disciple of Christ. This is the Christian meaning of carpe diem: seize the day in which God is calling you to give you salvation!
In his encyclicals, books, homilies and especially in his Angelus messages, one finds the heart of the pope’s ministry: the desire to introduce people to Christ. As any good pastor does, he tries to “actualize” the text, making it accessible and relevant. As any good theologian does, he draws on the church’s rich tradition (here he speaks of the Eucharist; in other places he will quote church fathers). And, like any good scholar he cannot resist a little Greek! (Here Benedict is referring to the use of “daily” later in Luke.)
Shining through his Angelus messages is a passion to communicate the person of Jesus to his audience. One also senses that this is what the pope enjoys most: writing and speaking about Christ. May he have many more years for this ministry of the Word.
James Martin, S.J.