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 T√ºbingen in 1968.
Biographies of the new pope do point out that the future pope left T√ºbingen 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 T√ºbingen had something to do with the harassment he increasingly experienced from students there.
Father 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 ressourcement, 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, Father 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 church’s 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 Congar 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 ressourcement or reform, but of a ressourcement 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,” “impersonal” 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.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.