Is Pope Benedict a sectarian? - Catholic Courier

Is Pope Benedict a sectarian?

Father Joseph Komonchak’s recent article in Commonweal magazine (“The Church in Crisis: Pope Benedict’s Theological Vision,” 6/3/05) is a careful, fair-minded analysis of the new pope’s theological perspective.

The question one might raise is whether, in the end, the analysis portrays Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, as a sectarian, that is, as one who sees the church as a beleaguered, truth-bearing minority in the midst of an intellectually confused and hostile world.

For the sectarian, the church’s mission is not one of outreach and dialogue, as called for in Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), but one of maintaining its Catholic identity through its ongoing proclamation of the Gospel, whether or not those outside the church understand and accept it.

Father Komonchak reports that in the new pope’s earlier writings “there are very few positive references to intellectual developments outside the church; they almost always appear as antithetical to the specifically Christian.” He believed that “faith must be present as countercultural, as an appeal to nonconformity.”

Komonchak does not say so, but the word “countercultural” typifies the sectarian approach that has become more common in recent years, having migrated from its once exclusively Protestant enclaves into Roman Catholic theology as well.

Father Komonchak refers to it as a “Bonaventuran” theological vision, which was “anti-philosophical, anti-intellectual, and indiscriminate enough to include in its condemnations the effort of Aquinas to engage critically the Aristotelian challenge.”

“There are,” Komonchak continues, “remarkable parallels between Bonaventure’s final view, as described by Ratzinger, and the basic attitude the new pope has himself adopted in the face of the great changes in the post-Vatican II church.”

In the homily at his installation Mass, Benedict XVI spoke of the world as comprised of a series of deserts — of poverty, hunger and thirst, abandonment, loneliness, destroyed love, God’s darkness and the emptiness of souls. For the new pope, the “external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast.” The church’s mission is clear: “to lead people out of the desert.”

The other image he employed in his homily, that of the pastor as a “fisher of men,” presupposes, Father Komonchak notes, that “it is a good thing for the fish to be caught and taken from their natural environment.”

The pope’s meaning was unmistakably clear: “We are living in alienation, in the salt waters of suffering and death; in a sea of darkness without light. The net of the Gospel pulls us out of the waters of death and brings us into the splendor of God’s light, into true life.”

Although Komonchak does not draw the comparison, Benedict XVI’s perspective would seem to be in striking contrast to John Paul II’s emphasis on hope (thus, the title of George Weigel’s biography, Witness to Hope) and his urging that we should “Be not afraid.”

Given the increasing relegation of religion to the private sphere and the marginalizing of theology within the broader academic and scientific communities, what sort of church, Komonchak asks, can we be and what sort of theology can we construct in such circumstances? The effort to answer these questions, he says, has divided Catholics since the council.

Under the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican placed itself firmly on the side of those who view the church as a countercultural reality, as a community that poses “a real alternative, a set of meanings and values that can stand at a critical and redemptive distance from contemporary culture.”

Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to believe that only the church can provide that alternative, not theology. But in his mind when theologians defended public dissent against official church teachings, they prevented “the unity that is required for the church’s effective redemptive service in the world.”

Such a view is “easier,” Komonchak concludes, “if one does not believe that genuine dialogue with the world is possible” or indeed that such dialogue is actually a threat to the purity of faith.

But Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World taught just the opposite: Dialogue and the proclamation of the Gospel are not incompatible. On the contrary, dialogue and the discerning of the “signs of the times” are an essential component of evangelization.

This process cannot take place, however, without freedom and a place for discussion and for trying out new ideas. Komonchak notes that Cardinal Ratzinger did little to create such an atmosphere as head of the CDF.

But as pope, with much broader pastoral responsibilities, he may surprise admirers and critics alike.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Tags: Pope Benedict XVI
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