In six relatively brief but focused chapters, Thomas Rausch, SJ, professor of Catholic Theology at Loyola Marymount University, presents a helpful overview and critique of the theological vision of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
In chapter one, Rausch traces the stages of Ratzinger’s life from his deeply Catholic Bavarian roots, through his academic years as professor of dogmatic theology, to his rise to prominence at Vatican II, followed by a relatively brief period as Archbishop of Munich and then by nearly twenty-four years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, until his election to the papacy in 2005. Chapter two continues in a biographical vein, delineating the major formative elements of Ratzinger’s theological vision, namely its neo-Platonic philosophical foundations and its indebtedness to Ratzinger’s main theological mentors, Augustine and Bonaventure.
The remaining chapters, three through six then illustrate the influence of biography and theological training on Ratzinger’s approach to scripture, Christology, ecclesiology and liturgy respectively. What emerges is a portrait of a highly competent theologian, whose theological vision remains deeply conservative and consistent throughout his long and prolific period of theological practice. For example, Rausch notes that while Ratzinger acknowledges the importance of historical-critical method in scripture study, he tends to read scripture typologically through the lens of the Fathers of the Church. In Christology, his obvious preference is the Gospel of John which becomes the lens through which he reads the synoptics. His preferred ecclesiological metaphor is communio (not ‘people of God’), which he elaborates in terms of a eucharistic ecclesiology. Liturgically, Ratzinger understands the eucharist primarily as sacrifice (not as meal) and has defined Vatican II’s call to ‘active participation’ as “entering into the action of God taking place through the words spoken by the priest” p. 126).
In a short concluding epilogue, Rausch summarizes four key themes which provide the consistency in Ratzinger’s theological thought: his emphasis on scripture as God’s Word, an Augustinian stress on the primacy of grace, a logos christology and a eucharistic ecclesiology. While many have been gratified by the more pastoral tone adopted by Ratzinger since his election to the papacy. Rausch concludes his study by raising a serious question about the pope’s theological method, namely: “….does it represent a closed hermeneutical circle constituted by the teachings of scripture, the fathers of the church, and the magisterium?...Granted, the pope’s mission is to keep the church faithful to the tradition it has received from the apostles….But to be a good pastor of the universal church he must also be able to read what Vatican II called “the signs of the times” (p. 155). But perhaps Rausch is asking too much of Ratzinger, the theologian-pope. Alternatively, is it possible to hope for a faith-filled, sustained and respectful dialogue among those representing various valid theological positions, which might eventually lead to official affirmation of a genuine plurality of theologies within the Catholic tradition? Toward this end, I see Rausch’s book being used profitably in ministry formation programs and in seminary and graduate programs to initiate students into such a respectful dialogue. Over time, might the Holy Spirit not be able to bring about a ‘bottom-up’ theological readiness among the laity which would enflesh Vatican II’s vision of their indispensible role in handing on the Christian faith tradition in both its historical richness and contemporary relevance? Let us hope so.