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The End of an Era, the Temper of the Man

This article is the third in George Weigel’s “Letters from Rome” series on the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

When the Church solemnly commits Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to the Lord at the funeral Mass today, the curtain will come down on one of the most important and fruitful eras in two millennia of Catholic intellectual life. Brilliant, innovative, and luminously clear, Joseph Ratzinger’s theology was, in addition to its rootedness in Scripture and Augustine, one momentous flowering of the conceptual seeds planted by his great modern predecessors. Many of them were, like him, German. In The Irony of Modern Catholic History (Basic Books, 2019), I limned some of those great figures. I hope these excerpts from that book can help us understand Ratzinger’s lifelong interest in a “return to the sources” of theology in the Bible and the Church Fathers, the radical Christocentricity of his scholarly work and papal teaching, and the nature of the intellectual milieu in which he played such a central role:

Johann Adam Möhler (1796–1838), priest, historian, and theologian, made original contributions to ecclesiology, the Church’s theological reflection on itself. The Roman theology of the day thought of the Church in primarily juridical terms. The Church was the societas perfecta, a “perfect society”: ordered hierarchically, governed legally, and, if not immutable, then at least something close to that. Möhler, who as a young scholar was in conversation with the influential Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, proposed a different, more organic view of the Church, influenced by a close reading of the Church Fathers of the first millennium.

The Church was a living body enlivened by the Holy Spirit, Möhler taught, and its self-understanding developed over time. Yet the Church always remained centered on Christ, which meant that, in addition to its visible or juridical elements, Catholicism was shaped by its spiritual life. So mystics, contemplatives, and the Church’s liturgy were as important as lawyers and jurists in understanding the Church’s character and mission. Möhler also urged the Catholic Church to engage Protestantism, rather than simply conduct jeremiads against it, in a proto-ecumenism shaped by his confidence in the divine origins of Catholicism and his belief in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church over time. These themes, hotly contested by fellow Catholics during his lifetime, would nonetheless prove fruitful for the theology of the twentieth century, which in many ways was the century of ecclesiology. That fruitfulness would be evident in one of the two great Dogmatic Constitutions of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, “On the Church,” which in important respects complemented and completed the work of Vatican I.

Matthias Joseph Scheeben (1835–1888) was trained in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University before his priestly ordination in 1858. Two years later he began teaching at the seminary in Cologne, where he remained until his death. A man of mystical inclination, considered by some the greatest German theologian since the Reformation, he enriched the theology he had absorbed in Rome by a deep reading of the Bible, and helped reintroduce the Greek Fathers of the Church, including Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nyssa, to Latin-rite Catholicism. In an era when “theology” was often done by accumulating putative proof texts from the papal magisterium in order to conduct disputations with opponents, Scheeben dug deeply into the biblical and patristic roots of Catholicism in order to relate Church teaching to the lives of the men and women of his time.

By his teaching on human nature and divine grace, Scheeben anticipated and helped make possible the transition of Catholic theology that would become evident in the mid-twentieth century: a transition beyond a propositional form of explaining Christian truth and beyond a juridical understanding of Christ’s redeeming work. God’s supernatural love, Scheeben taught, permeated and transfigured the world in a spousal relationship. Thus creation and redemption were not two separate and distinct actions of God “on” the world. Rather, God’s creating activity and God’s redeeming activity in Christ were linked. The Incarnation of the Son of God was not just a remedy for sin, as if man’s “fall” in Adam had somehow “caused” the Incarnation. Rather, the Incarnation was the ultimate expression of God’s purpose in creating the world and humanity, which was to draw men and women into being “partakers of the divine life” (as Scheeben put it in Natur und Gnade [Nature and Grace], published in 1861). The suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ demonstrated the superabundance of divine love that had flowed out from the Trinitarian God to create the world “in the beginning”; the divine relationship to the world was more akin to that of a lover who summoned the beloved to communion than to a judge summoning a criminal to judgment. The witness of divine love displayed on the cross of Christ, not mere argument, was the proposal the Church should offer the modern world.

This understanding of the natural and the supernatural, of creation and redemption, and of the Christ-centeredness of the entire drama of history, led Scheeben to conceive of the Church as the “Mystical Body” of Christ in the world: an image that would have a profound effect on the Church’s self-understanding in the century after Scheeben’s death. And by enriching the syllogistic thinking of his time with the concept of human “divinization” he had learned from the Greek fathers, Matthias Scheeben also became a pioneer of a renewed Christian anthropology that would become the Church’s counterproposal to the Prometheanism of cultural modernity, and to the charge that the God of the Bible was an enemy of humanity’s maturation.

Karl Adam (1875–1966) picked up themes from Johann Adam Möhler and Matthias Scheeben while retrieving the theology of the Church and the sacraments that was central to the reflection of the Church Fathers. Adam’s two principal works, Christ Our Brother and The Spirit of Catholicism, were basic texts in what came to be known as “kerygmatic theology,” which stressed the reality of the Church as a community of believers sacramentally united in Christ—a challenge to the then-dominant, juridical image of the Church as a “perfect society.” In the latter book, Adam proposed an understanding of the disenchantment of intellectual modernity that would be shared, in various degrees, by most reformist theologians:

The individualism of the Renaissance, the dismemberment of man and his relations in the age of Enlightenment, and finally the subjective idealism of Kant, whereby our minds were taught to relinquish the objective thing, the trans-subjective reality, and to indulge in boundless subjectivism: these influences tore us from the moorings of our being. . . . We became imprisoned within the walls of our own selves. . . . The category “humanity” became foreign to our thought, and we thought and lived only in the category of self.

Romano Guardini (1885–1968) was a humanistic genius with a keen insight into modernity and its discontents and a parallel conviction that the Church must engage the modern world in order to convert it. He also forged a link between the world of creative theology and the Liturgical Movement; his 1918 book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, was influential in its time and remains so a century later. A sharp critic of the dry, syllogistic theology he found hard to digest during his seminary studies, his theological reflection often took place in response to poets, novelists, and unconventional philosophers, including Dante, Dostoevsky, Hölderlin, Pascal, and Rilke. In writings from the mid-1950s, Guardini brilliantly analyzed what he called the “interior disloyalty” of modernity: its denial of the truths built into the human condition for the sake of a radical subjectivism arrogantly certain that it could build a utopia in history. The task of the Church was to offer Christ, the Son of God who reveals the full truth of our humanity, as the alternative to the twentieth-century Prometheanism that, he believed, had shown its lethal face in German National Socialism and communism.

In addition to these German thinkers, Ratzinger’s theology would be decisively influenced by his respect for John Henry Newman (whom, as Benedict XVI, he would beatify in 2010). Ratzinger, like Newman, was convinced that the Church’s doctrine, its self-understanding, developed over time, as the Holy Spirit inspired the Church to ponder more deeply the mystery of Christ. But as Christ is “the same, yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8), all authentic development is just that, a development of the tradition, not a rupture with it (or, in contemporary parlance, a “paradigm shift”). As I wrote in The Irony of Modern Catholic History,

Newman’s . . . Grammar of Assent, a highly original philosophical work published in 1870, demonstrated the compatibility of faith and reason in a more convincing way than the apologetics and polemics offered by the Roman theologians of the day. Yet for all his originality, Newman held firmly to the truth of divine revelation, insisting in 1879 that he had consistently opposed the “great mischief” he called “the spirit of liberalism in religion,” by which he meant “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion . . . [that] revealed religion is not a truth but a sentiment and a taste . . . and [that it is] the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.”

These great Catholic minds—Möhler, Scheeben, Adam, Guardini, and Newman, to whose number could be added Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, Maurice Blondel, and a host of biblical scholars and exegetes—shaped the thinking of the reformist theologians at the Second Vatican Council, including the youngest of the lot, Joseph Ratzinger. The reformists would later split over the meaning of the Council and its proper interpretation, with men like Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx breaking with Ratzinger, Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, and others in what I have come to call “The War of the Conciliar Succession” (which has been reignited by Pope Francis’s worldwide Synod on Synodality for a Synodal Church). What should be remembered about all the major conciliar theologians, both reformists and those of a more traditional neo-Scholastic theological orientation, is that they were all men of immense learning and broad culture.

They knew languages, classical and modern. They knew the history of theology. They knew philosophy and understood its importance for theology. They were disciplined by the Tridentine seminaries and religious novitiates in which most of them were trained and were thus remarkably hard-working and productive. They were interested in, and knowledgeable about, the arts.

And they made arguments, not tweets.

Their kind of deep learning is not so evident in the Church today. Twenty-first-century Catholicism is blessed with important and discerning thinkers, but the generations whose story ends with the funeral and burial of Joseph Ratzinger were something quite special. Their passing from the scene is one of the undercurrents of mourning evident in Rome in these days.   

More than one commentator has remarked on the striking way in which music shaped the life of Joseph Ratzinger for more than nine decades. Perhaps none of those commentators is so well-equipped to appreciate the musical dimension of Ratzinger’s personality as the British composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan, who prepared a new setting of “Tu es Petrus” for Benedict XVI’s entry into Westminster Cathedral in 2010 (it can be heard here). In the current issue of the London-based Spectator, my friend MacMillan wrote movingly of Ratzinger the musician, music-lover, and, in a sense, musicological theologian:

One group delighted with the papacy of Benedict XVI was musicians. He was one of us. He had a grand piano in his apartment at the Vatican and played (mostly his beloved Mozart) regularly. His love of music was not restricted to music for the liturgy. He saw the numinous dimension to music in its secular form, too. When, two years after his renunciation, he received an Honorary Doctorate from the John Paul II Pontifical University in Kraków [and the Kraków Academy of Music—GW] he chose to give his lecture on music. These words stand out to me: “In no other cultural ambit is there music of equal grandeur to that born in the ambit of the Christian faith: from Palestrina to Bach, to Handel, up to Mozart, Beethoven, and Bruckner. Western music is something unique, which has no equal in other cultures. . . .”

Benedict believed that the greatest works of Christian composers could not have appeared haphazardly but “could only have come from heaven; music in which is revealed to us the jubilation of the angels over the beauty of God.” He once recounted the experience of hearing Leonard Bernstein conduct Bach at a concert in Munich. He turned to his friend, the local Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann, and said, “Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.”

One of the innumerable fictions about Joseph Ratzinger is that he lacked a sense of humor, especially about himself. That nonsense was decisively falsified on December 16, 1998, at the beginning of the last interview I had with the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before the publication of Witness to Hope, the first volume of my John Paul II biography.

The cardinal and I met in his office after what had been, for me, a nightmarish morning: chaos on my flight after Milan (Alitalia had distributed six more boarding cards than there were seats on the plane, which led to a scene straight out of Fellini and a ninety-minute departure delay), plus the usual purgatorial Roman traffic, meant that I arrived at the Palazzo del Sant’Ufficio with thirty seconds to spare.

As usual, the cardinal was very friendly, and to catch my breath, I began the conversation by teasing him about a photo in his memoir, Milestones. In that picture, Ratzinger is seated next to Karl Rahner on a couch, with both men wearing business suits, white dress shirts, and neckties. I said that the picture didn’t seem quite, well, Ratzingerian. The cardinal laughed—and riposted that this illustrated the truth of John Paul II’s teaching in Fides et Ratio about the importance of ontology and the “need to go from phenomenon to foundation”!

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