When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger came to New York City to deliver the 1988 Erasmus Lecture, the occasion drew top scholars, Church leaders and demonstrators who repeatedly interrupted his address.
Gregory Vall was only a graduate student when Cardinal Ratzinger, then the prefect of a congregation of the Church, delivered that lecture, "Biblical Interpretation in Crisis." But the published address and a transcript of a roundtable discussion following the lecture has had a profound influence on his scholarship.
“The cardinal told the scholars at the discussion, ‘You can refer to the traditional approach to Scripture that we find in the Church Fathers and great medieval exegetes as ‘Method A,’ and you can refer to the approach of modern biblical scholarship as ‘Method B.’ What I am calling for is a ‘Method C’ — a real synthesis,’" remembered Vall, now an assistant professor of theology at Ave Maria University.
"He didn’t want us to ignore modern questions, but he wanted us to critique our modern sensibility from within," said Vall, who noted that the Pope, in his bestselling trilogy Jesus of Nazareth, modeled an approach to scriptural investigation that could help priests become more deeply formed by the word of God and thus better homilists.
Asked to identify the highlights of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, U.S. theologians took note of his encyclicals on love, hope and truth, his exhortations on the Eucharist and the word of God, the Wednesday catecheses on the Psalms, and the Sunday Angelus commentaries on the day’s Mass readings.
But while many extolled the breadth of his theological vision and the distinctive clarity of his limpid prose, Vall’s remarks pointed to Benedict’s signature contribution. He inspired many 21st-century theologians to bridge two opposing visions of reality — a Christ-centered faith and a man-centered modern culture — and thus make the riches of the faith accessible and appealing to a new generation of would-be disciples.
Continuity and Reform
The last pope to personally experience the Second Vatican Council, Benedict has been no stranger to controversy.
During his long service as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, during the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, he became the target of dissident theologians and political activists who demanded that the Church retire its teaching on contraception and women’s ordination, among other issues.
But the Pope’s admirers have judged his legacy very differently, and they welcomed his dynamic engagement with modernity, a stance that doesn’t view contemporary values as "normative," but, rather, as symptoms of an anxious world in need of hope.
"One of the most important things he did was at the beginning of his papacy, when he met with the Curia just before Christmas and presented his understanding of how the Second Vatican Council should be read," said Boston auxiliary Bishop Arthur Kennedy.
"His understanding was that the Council should be read within the hermeneutic of continuity and reform, and it should not be read through a hermeneutic of discontinuity, as a revolution against the Tradition."
Life in Christ
For the Pope, the "first task of a theologian is to recover what has been taught on the Trinity or Christology," added Bishop Kennedy, a former professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., who now serves as the Archdiocese of Boston’s episcopal vicar for the New Evangelization.
Theological speculation is permitted, but it cannot "replace the magisterium, which says what is true regarding the mystery as it’s been developed with Tradition," the bishop said.
Bishop Kennedy recalled that Benedict’s very first homily as pope featured a reflection on the fisherman’s ring of the vicar of Christ and what the symbol signified for the early Church.
"He opened the windows for people who weren’t theologians, giving them access to the Divine action taking place in all the sacraments and sacramentals of the Church."
In this way, Pope Benedict has placed his theological work at the service of the New Evangelization, inviting poorly catechized Catholics and the spiritually indifferent to experience a joyful "friendship with the Son of God."
"Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction," he wrote in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).
In a world that often pushes religious experience and witness to the sidelines, the Pope offered an integrated vision of a life in Christ, anchored in the belief that faith and reason belong together and provide the foundation for a true community of persons.
Faith and Reason
Thus, in a 2005 address preceding his election as pope, he warned of a "dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires." This ethos of self-assertion dismisses inconvenient moral truths as an impediment to human freedom, and the Pope warned that this cultural current had precipitated a crisis of reason and faith, paving the way for a direct challenge to inalienable human rights, including religious liberty. But he was also aware that many Catholics viewed their cradle faith as an enemy of reason.
Cardinal William Levada, who served under Pope Benedict as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until he stepped down last year, told the Register that the Pope has sought to frame "the whole discussion of faith and reason. He has keen insights on that subject and how it plays out in secular culture. Reason is the common human gift that allows us to speak to one another."
Mary Shivanandan, a professor of theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, noted that Benedict, like his predecessor, "was a champion of reason and the role of faith … and boldly linked Humanae Vitae to true human development."
Shivanandan singled out the Pope’s third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth).
The encyclical laid out a vision of "integrated human development" that embraced charity in truth in both intimate personal relationships and in economic relationships and thus upended the false dichotomy between Catholic moral doctrine dealing with human sexuality and social teachings that call for economic justice and solidarity.
His belief that only God’s love and truth can secure dignity posed a direct challenge to the modern creeds of secularism and individualism, even as it helped to lay the foundation for a more intense ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and some Protestant denominations and groups.
Philosopher and author Michael Novak, who teaches at Ave Maria University, praised Benedict’s steady efforts to foster substantial dialogue across denominational boundaries.
"There are an untold number of Anglicans in America and worldwide who no longer trust a weathervane on the steeple but want a steadfast cross. Benedict has bent over backwards to help them approach by degrees and by bringing the superior elements of their own tradition with them," said Novak, referencing the new Anglican-use ordinariate, which has made it possible for Anglicans to come into full communion with the Church.
The decision to allow members of the new ordinariate to retain their liturgical traditions and prayers marks Pope Benedict’s lifelong appreciation for beautiful liturgies and scriptural translations, culminating in the introduction of the new Roman Missal in 2011.
The Pope "has displayed extraordinary sensitivity to liturgical practice," said Cardinal Levada, "weaving the Scriptures and rites of liturgy into a message of hope and love, always reminding us that each of us in our own way is directed toward the theological virtues of faith, hope and love."
Msgr. Kevin Irwin, former dean of the School of Theology at The Catholic University of America and holder of the Walter J. Schmitz Chair in Liturgical Studies, drew attention to the Pope’s 2010 post-synodal exhortation Verbum Domini (The Word of the Lord) as a document echoing "many of the salient points of Pope Benedict’s pontificate."
In Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict writes that the "sacramentality of the word can thus be understood by analogy with the real presence of Christ under the appearances of the consecrated bread and wine."
Continues the papal document, "By approaching the altar and partaking in the Eucharistic banquet, we truly share in the body and blood of Christ. The proclamation of God’s word at the celebration entails an acknowledgment that Christ himself is present, that he speaks to us and that he wishes to be heard."
Msgr. Irwin expressed the wish that bishops and theologians build on the Pope’s work, which he said has implications for the future of the Church’s liturgy and also for the New Evangelization.
Said Msgr. Irwin, "Unquestionably, this apostolic exhortation both deepens what has been said about the proclamation of the word and about the presence of Christ in the word since the constitution on the sacred liturgy from Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium), which itself was a watershed text, given the preceding four centuries of post-Tridentine Church life and magisterial apologetics."
Don Briel, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, noted that the liturgy brings the human person into a new relationship with the Divine, but he added that the Pope’s reform reflected an awareness that mainstream culture also hungered for contemplation and beauty.
Said Briel, "He has helped to recover a more organic and incarnational understanding of the Church, with his emphasis on the Church as a communion of persons, not so much an institutional structure."
Indeed, as Benedict commences a secluded life of prayer and study at the convent within the Vatican, theologians who admire his work expressed the hope that his penetrating response to the crisis of faith and of reason would help transform the faith of ordinary Catholics and fire the work of the New Evangelization.
"We are in tension," Bishop Kennedy said. "That is why the New Evangelization, however difficult, became so crucial for Benedict and Blessed John Paul II."
Added Bishop Kennedy, "It means reawakening the soul to the mystery of God, to the love that comes to us through Christ, and to the mystery that the Church brings through the presence of the Spirit. It also means that once we understand the truth and love that comes with Christ, that knowledge will begin to transform what we mean by human knowing."
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.
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