The New Pope as Theologian by Richard P. McBrien

“The New Pope As Theologian – I”

“In a recent article in Commonweal magazine (“The Church in Crisis: Pope Benedict’s Theological Vision,” 6/3/05), Father Joseph Komonchak of The Catholic University of America insists that there is a “deeper continuity in the new pope’s basic theological approach and vision” than some commentators have recognized.

Father Komonchak argues that Joseph Ratzinger’s theological stance before and during the Second Vatican Council did not subsequently change from progressive to conservative mainly because of student unrest at the University of Tubingen in 1968.

Biographies of the new pope do point out that the future pope left Tubingen for the more sedate atmosphere of Regensberg, where his priest-brother Georg was the cathedral choirmaster. Undoubtedly, Father Ratzinger’s decision to resign from his more prestigious professorship in Tubingen had something to do with the harassment he increasingly experienced from students there.

Komonchak situates the new pope’s theological vision in the context of the frequently-cited division between theologians who interpreted the conciliar renewal as primarily one of returning to the sources of Scripture, early Christian writings, and the dogmatic decrees of the first few ecumenical councils (an overall approach known in French as ressourcement), and other theologians who saw Vatican II and the theological and pastoral developments it inspired primarily in terms of church reform.
In Father Komonchak^s reading of the matter, Pope Benedict XVI did not later switch sides, as it were, abandoning his previous support of the council, where he had been a theological adviser to the late Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, Germany, and before that a close collaborator of the influential Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner.

The former Cardinal Ratzinger had been consistent in his view that the council was essentially a work of resourcement, of overcoming the limitations of the then-dominant neo-Scholastic theology by returning to the biblical, patristic, and doctrinal sources of the earliest Christian centuries.

What had upset him, Komonchak insists, was not the council as such but some of the developments that occurred after the council and in its name, particularly those affecting the Churchs’ liturgy.

Anyone familiar with my own writings (whether in this weekly column or in other venues) will not be surprised that, while I find Father Komonchak’s analysis very helpful indeed, I would not situate the matter in an either/or framework.

Authentic reform presupposes a return to the sources. True reformers, as the great Dominican theologian, Cardinal Yves Cougar, once reminded us, are those who call the Church not to a complete break with the past, but to a building upon the past in response to new theological and pastoral challenges.

Accordingly, it is not a matter of resourcement or reform, but of a resourcement that provides the foundation for ongoing reform, and of reform grounded in the authentic tradition of the Church rather than in one of the Church’s historical periods, as if frozen in time.

Impatience with neo-Scholasticism, Father Komonchak suggests, led the young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, to “resist the nearly exclusive emphasis placed on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas,” which he found “too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made.” He “far preferred” the personalism of St. Augustine (d. 430) and the more ascetical approach of St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), himself a neo-Augustinian.

But what young Joseph Ratzinger seems to have opposed was not so much Aquinas’s “closed-in,” “mpersonal” theology as his readiness to seek common ground and enter into dialogue with the newly translated works of Aristotle and his Arabian commentators.

In his second dissertation, qualifying him to lecture as a theologian,the future pope showed how St. Bonaventure, a contemporary of Aquinas, set himself against this development. He continued to insist on the unity of Christian wisdom for which Christ was the center of all knowledge.

Father Komonchak acknowledges that “Bonaventure ended in an anti-Aristotelianism that came close to anti-intellectualism, and he was among those who urged ecclesiastical authorities to intervene and censure the Thomist position.”

This seemingly theoretical dispute came to a practical head at the Second Vatican Council, in the historic debate over the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes, “Joy and hope.”)

The division between the return-to-the-sources side and the reform side at Vatican II and beyond, Father Komonchak suggests, is really a division between those who regard the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium, “Light of nations”) as the key conciliar document and those who favor Gaudium et spes.

Again, however, it is not a matter of either/or, but of both/and. Either/or represents a sectarian vision; both/and, a Catholic one.

One assumes that the new pope’s theological vision is Catholic in the fullest sense of the word.”

“The New Pope As Theologian – II”

By the time this week’s column appears, more of the dust may have settled on the enforced editorial change at America magazine and additional information may have become available.

As of this moment, however, it seems clear that there had been pressure on the Jesuits, applied from both sides of the Atlantic – in the Vatican and among a handful of U.S. bishops – to correct perceived imbalances in the editorials and articles that have been published in the Jesuits’ highly respected weekly magazine over the past few years.

When the news first broke via an e-mailed press release from the America offices, those who had been completely out of the loop, including this writer, did not even suspect that Father Thomas Reese’s departure as editor-in-chief was other than voluntary.

But the word quickly spread as phone calls and e-mails from various media outlets began coming in. ] expressed surprise and astonishment when informed of the reports that Father Reese had indeed been sacked, as the British are fond of putting it.
I can think of no Catholic in the public sphere who is more moderate, more responsible, or more restrained in his judgments and statements than Father Thomas Reese. Indeed, he often bent over backwards, as it were, to avoid even the appearance of opposing official church teachings and policies.

But as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. For all of his care and judiciousness in educating the public about the Catholic Church, Father Reese reaped not a vote of thanks from church officials, but a pink slip.

Some years ago, one of the best-read columnists in the Catholic press, a prominent priest-sociologist, used to complain about clerical envy. If memory serves, the columnist was referring to the sentiments that many parish priests might have felt toward highly visible priests like himself – author of many books, popular on the lecture circuit, frequent guest on television, and oft-quoted in the press. There may well have been priests who would have liked to see him taken down a peg or two.

One suspects that there is at least some measure of clerical envy involved here. Father Reese has been one of the most public faces on the U.S. Catholic scene, not only as editor-in-chief of America magazine but also as an author of several books, a much sought-after source for major newspapers and magazines, and a frequent contributor to network and cable television programs. He was all over television during the month of April, from the time of Pope John Paul II’s final illness through the election of Pope Benedict XVI.

By any reasonable standard, Father Reese’s public comments have always been fair, informed, balanced, and consistently respectful of the Catholic tradition. The last adjective that few people would have attached to him was “controversial.”
But perhaps it wasn’t the “controversial” part that was most bothersome, but the “public” part. Why is it that, when the major media outlets need some objective and straightforward illumination of breaking developments in the Catholic Church, they seek out people like Father Reese rather than bishops?

There are two reasons. First, many bishops are uncomfortable with the media and limit their availability to carefully crafted press releases. Second, when bishops do speak to the media, they tend to be guarded to a fault. They engage in what media people call “spin.” One rarely if ever hears a fresh, personal opinion, much less a respectful question raised about a particular Vatican initiative or pronouncement.

A major exception was the response of some high-ranking members of the hierarchy – but not in the U.S. – to the document, Dominus Jesus, issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in September, 2000.

Many people mistakenly charged that this document repudiated Vatican II’s teaching on salvation outside the Catholic Church. In that instance, however, there were bishops who, while defending the basic teaching of the document, openly criticized it for its tone and for its failure to incorporate important post-conciliar developments regarding ecumenism and relations with non-Christian religions.

Will any U.S. bishops or Father Reese’s brother Jesuits express their own concern about the meaning and impact of this latest action, which not only reflects upon the integrity of an individual Jesuit but also the Society of Jesus in the United States and one of its flagship publications?

Among the possible fallouts from this action are these two: first, the U.S. Catholic Church may lose one of its most credible and effective spokespersons with the capacity to explain and interpret developments in the Church to a wider public; and second, others like him may be less inclined to step into the breach.”

This essay, Part I and Part II, is provided by the Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity. Please share it. Your comments and contributions are welcome. To be added to their mailing list write to: Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity; P.O. Box 31, Belleville, IL 62222.