A Dose of 'Evangelical Catholic' Thinking


by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Ignatius Press, 2004

284 pages, $15.95

To order: (800) 651-1531

or Ignatius.com

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

If only the Great Commission were an easy task. Christ's last words to the disciples before his heavenly ascent highlighted the Church's mission, which continues to the present day. If it is true that many of the pagan beliefs encountered then are no longer prevalent today, it is equally true that they have been superseded by a vast array of other philosophies that are no more efficacious. It is clear that we still have work to do.

Enter the Pope formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he worked tirelessly to make the Catholic understandable to those who don't hold it — and to safeguard it from those within who would introduce theological errors or advance dubious doctrinal developments.

It is a gift, then, that we have Pope Benedict XVI's wide-ranging thoughts on what we might call “evangelical Catholic theology” collected in this very readable collection of essays and speeches written between 1963 and 2001.

Could any single volume do justice to such a wide swath of this great thinker's prodigious output? Yes, albeit with its author's own acknowledgement that the writings are necessarily “fragmentary and unfinished” when presented.

For most of us, though, there's more than enough solid food to chew on here. And it's timely, too. For example, one theme addressed, the relationship between faith and culture, emerges at a time when the cultural center of vibrant Christianity is moving away from the West and toward Africa and Asia.

Mindful of the proposal sometimes offered that Christianity is merely a European spiritual form, unsuitable for other cultures, Ratzinger discusses and ultimately disagrees. “For the knowledge that man must turn toward God, and toward what is eternal, is found right across all the cultures; the knowledge about sin, repentance and forgiveness; the knowledge concerning communion with God and eternal life; and finally the knowledge of the basic rules of morality, as they are found in the form of the Ten Commandments.”

For those who like their morning coffee to be of the “instant” variety, be forewarned that this book at times requires patience. Ratzinger presupposes a certain familiarity with various philosophers and thinkers, ranging from Plato to Kant to Rousseau. Readers lacking such a familiarity will undoubtedly want to take it slow. But no such effort will be left unrewarded.

Ratzinger's style is methodical and thorough. Though dealing with contentious issues, he is charitable to everyone, yet does not sacrifice clarity or assertiveness when required. He also retains a healthy appreciation for the genuine faith of everyday people, as contrasted with the sometimes-diseased notions of their more “educated” peers.

“Living in beautiful fictions,” he writes, “may be something that people who hold theories about religion can do; for the person who is asking himself how he can live and die, and for what, they are not enough.”

On balance, Truth and Tolerance lays the groundwork for a more rational discourse with other faiths. The work of evangelization is still our responsibility; however, anyone who takes seriously Christ's command to make new disciples will find the new Pope to be a good friend indeed.

Daniel J. Wambeke writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy