CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — For the second year in a row, Pope Benedict XVI’s gathering of former doctoral students discussed the topic of evolution.
The gathering, known by the German word schülerkreis, is a tradition that dates back to 1979. It took place at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, Sept. 14-16.
One of two guest speakers this year was Ulrich Lüke from Aachen, Germany, who said the Pope had changed little since he studied under him for four semesters in Regensburg, Germany: “An open, hearty, friendly and kind way of appearance, without professorial affectations.”
The group took up the theory of evolution, creation theology and reason. While they focused last year on the natural sciences, they paid more attention this year to the philosophical-theological dimension of the problem.
In keeping with tradition, the former teacher told his 40 former students about his recent activities, particularly his pastoral visits to Turkey, Brazil and Austria. He also took an interest in the life of his students and the situation in Germany.
Two priests from the United States — Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, theologian in residence at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., and Armenian Catholic Father Antoine Saroyan — also took part this year.
“The atmosphere of discussion in Castel Gandolfo was definitely friendly and warm,” said Father Michael Marmann, former superior of the Schönstatt Fathers.
The Pope and the other theologians listened to the seminar papers “openly, interested and eager to learn,” noted Lüke, professor of systematic theology, and a biologist. Though not a former student of the Pope’s, he was invited partly because he is well-known in Germany for his book Mammal by God’s Grace: Evolution, Consciousness, Freedom.
He spoke on the theme “God’s Plan or Stupid Coincidence?” and dismissed the idea that one must choose between those two opposing views of creation. He said natural scientists have to be clearer about the concept of “coincidence.” The concept can be embedded in or enclosed by God’s divine providence, he said.
The dialogue was enriched philosophically by the other guest speaker, Rolf Schönberger, a specialist in medieval philosophy from Regensburg, who sketched the metaphysics of creation in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, not concentrating so much on the historical impact of that teaching but on the perennial relevance and importance of the “Angelic Doctor” for the present debate.
This specialist in Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy, who lives not far from Joseph Ratzinger’s house in Regensburg, was now a guest of one of the best scholars on St. Augustine, making for what he called “an atmosphere of hot debate, but without personal sharpness.
“The Holy Father asked, for instance, about the input, the contribution of modern philosophy regarding the problem of creation,” he said.
Gifts for the Pope
Schönberger was deeply impressed by the encounter.
“You know, the Pope says things that seem obvious but which you would not expect him to say,” he said. “Take, for instance, his humility when he noted that he has to take some time to reflect on the lectures he had just heard before being able to formulate a profound answer. But then he would still make some general but fundamental remarks.
“Another remarkable aspect is the fact that the Holy Father and his former students will also invite scholars who share very different opinions when it comes to the particular topics,” he continued. “The debate is on the table in its whole dimension.”
Salvatorian Father Stephan Horn, coordinator of the schülerkreis, said he doesn’t think the Pope plans to publish a document on evolution.
He added, “But I think that we should take account of two aspects of our meetings: 1) the discussion between theology and natural sciences with regard to creation has to take stronger account of the philosophical dimension; this is fruitful for both sciences and helps clarify questions, and 2) Theologians should pay greater attention to the topic of creation, particularly when it comes to the dialogue with the natural sciences. I think, this would be in complete accord with the Holy Father. The publication of last year’s lectures can be understood as a stimulus for further reflection and enquiries.”
But the meetings with the Pope also have a spiritual dimension, Father Horn said. The Eucharist and prayers are celebrated together, he said.
“This year, the Pope had a little less time because on Saturday morning he had an important meeting with the Sudanese president,” said Father Marmann. “But on Sunday, he celebrated Mass with us at the Centro Mariapoli of the Focolare Movement and had a homily, spontaneously and next to everyday life, about that day’s lectures.”
Father Marmann pointed out that the Mass was on his 70th birthday.
“So the meeting with the Pope was the largest present for me,” he said. “We joked that we had postponed our meeting with the Holy Father in order to celebrate my birthday together with him.”
It was also a belated celebration of Pope Benedict’s 80th birthday. The students gave their professor something they had been working on: a bibliography of Joseph Ratzinger’s entire work and anything that has been written about his work. They plan to publish it in book form at year’s end, but for now presented merely a CD-ROM of the work.
The Holy Father was glad to receive two other gifts, the stations of the cross in embroidered form from Korea and two paintings, one of the face of the suffering Lord and the other with a bird on a branch, symbol of creation.
As for the future of the schülerkreis, Father Horn commented: “We are getting older, so we want to erect a documentary and study center on the works and theology of Cardinal Ratzinger in Germany. It is supposed to serve as a place to go for all those who want to get to know but also deepen his theology, the spirit of his theology. There are still some untreated fields in his oeuvre.”
One thing is for certain. According to his students, the professor-Pope looks forward to next year’s meeting.
Robert Rauhut is based in