The influence of a particular pope lingers on long after that particular pope has died or resigned. The pope most often cited in the documents of Vatican II, for instance, was Pius XII. Similarly the influence of Joseph Ratzinger—Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—will endure far beyond his life time. Reportedly, towards the end of his papacy Benedict considered his theological writings far more important and enduring than whatever he might have been able to accomplish as pope. This perspective accounts for why he published three major theological works on Jesus of Nazareth even while he was pope and why so many other dimensions of his leadership unraveled in the last few years of his reign.
In this carefully nuanced book, Ambrose Mong, a Dominican priest, explores Josef Ratzinger’s writings about the foundations of Christianity, the challenge of modernity and the corrosive effect of relativism. Mong’s agenda is to set Christianity free from its own cultural limitations and reliance on Western philosophy so that a genuine Asian Christianity might flourish in the fertile soil of the rich cultures of the East.
Ratzinger, of course, sees it all quite differently. He assumes the normative status of Western philosophical and theological thought. He holds that the Greek intellectual and cultural expression found in Christianity is an essential part of God’s plan. And the relationship between faith and reason cast in Hellenistic philosophy is part of divine revelation. At the same time he acknowledges the errors of Catholic missionaries in the past who sought to eradicate the religions they encountered.
Worldwide religious pluralism is thriving and becoming increasingly important. But Ratzinger regards it as an ideological expression of relativism, the logical outcome of the Enlightenment because it granted equality to all religions and denied all truth to any one of them. He believes religious pluralism, relativism and secularism are all a lethal threat to Christianity.
Ratzinger witnessed that in Nazi Germany mistaken ideas about human nature led to the disasters of the Second World War, including the horrors of the Holocaust. So his urgent concern for holding to the truths of the faith is not simply an authoritarian stance. It has much deeper roots. The survival of Christianity in Europe is at stake. He agrees that dialogue is aimed at discovering the truth together, but insists that dialogue is useless if the dominant philosophy is relativism, which puts all religions on an equal plane.
The ecclesiology of Ratzinger, of course, has played a dominant, normative role for over three decades—from the time he was appointed cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005) up through his time as Pope Benedict (2005–13).
Ratzinger would hold that in a relativist climate, Christian revelation and the mystery of Jesus Christ and the church lose their character of absolute truth and salvific universality.
But many other theologians, especially Asians, have been exploring a much more inclusive foundational approach to all religions. They have been expounding a theology inculturated in the Asian priority of harmony, family and beauty over orthodoxy and certitude. They affirm a kingdom-centered understanding of the church that indicates the church should serve the reign of God; it is not identical with it. Interfaith cooperation urgently needs to occur so that all people of faith work together to alleviate the extreme poverty in Asia. In the words of Michael Amaladoss, S.J., dialogue needs to lead to “a holistic liberation of the human person-in-community.”
Father Mong spends fully 60 percent of the text explicating the context, culture, experience and philosophical stance of the theology of Josef Ratzinger. He skillfully sets Ratzinger in the context of the major European philosophical stances—from Kant to Habermas. Then in the last chapters he takes up the specific theological contributions of the Sri Lankan priest Tissa Balasuriya, the Belgian Jesuit Jacques Dupuis and the Vietnamese-born Peter Phan, who write from an Asian perspective. Mong skillfully unfolds the contributions of each by setting them in dialogue with other Asian theologians, and he demonstrates how they break the tight mold Ratzinger imposed on Christianity from his Western context.
All three of these theologians received so-called notifications, or warnings, about their theology, most often because they allegedly veered into relativism and syncretism. But Phan, for instance, countered that his theological reflection on religious pluralism aimed to correct past mistakes of Christian missiology, especially its attitude of Western superiority and its imposition of the Christian faith and Western culture through power and control.
These high-level suspicions took their toll on Dupuis, who took several months off from his teaching at the Gregorian University to write a defense. He died three years later.
Most readers of America are familiar with the famous declaration by Karl Rahner, S.J., in 1969 that the Second Vatican Council marked the beginning of the church’s “official self-realization as a world church.” Rahner identified three great epochs in church history. The first was the short period of Jewish Christianity. The second, the time of the Hellenistic, European church, extended from the first century up until the council. Only now have we begun the transition from a Western church to a world church.
The first transition was tumultuous, even acrimonious, as witnessed in the Acts of the Apostles. As we transition into a world church, Father Mong suggests a pathway of understanding and interfaith dialogue that will enrich the church that we are becoming and perhaps result in a greater harmony, even as all people of faith seek the truth together.