The announcement overnight of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, brought on by age and ill health, brings to an end a remarkable contribution to the life and theology of the Catholic Church.
For those who have followed his vocation and studied his thought, Joseph Ratzinger stands out among a generation of European scholars who were integral to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and who consequently shaped the faith of generations that followed.
Only 35 years old at the time of his appearance at Vatican II as peritus (theological expert), Ratzinger would go on to become the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (CDF), a position he held for some 24 years, serving with vigour and tenacity throughout the pontificate of his predecessor, John Paul II (some have described Ratzinger’s performance during this time, perhaps not unfairly, as ‘intellectually remorseless’).
The clarity of Ratzinger’s thought is expressed principally in his writings on liturgy (in which he is influenced by the liturgical movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries) and ecclesiology (grounded in patristic thought, especially St Augustine). The Spirit of the Liturgy and his Church, Ecumenism, Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology stand out among others.
Those who have engaged his work will recognise the abiding influence of the ressourcement movement throughout Ratzinger’s corpus. This influence includes Henri de Lubac whose Catholicism was, in Ratzinger’s own words, ‘a key reading event’. It is an inspiration that goes some way to explaining the Bavarian’s subsequent focus on the liturgy as the bearer of faith, the Church Fathers as monuments of our tradition, and his development of a Eucharistic ecclesiology grounded in the concept of ‘communion’ (the Oxford scholar Aidan Nichols singles out Ratzinger as ‘one of the first Catholic thinkers to adopt a full-scale, systematically elaborated “Eucharistic ecclesiology”’).
Ratzinger’s theology of the Church has much to recommend itself for pastoral life today precisely because sound practice can only be established on the basis of a sound theology.
Grounded in the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium, Ratzinger understands the Church not merely as a social organisation but as an organism of the Holy Spirit, encompassing us all from within and bringing about, by Word and sacrament, our genuine ‘contemporaneity’ with Christ in history.
For Ratzinger it is the essential sacramentality of the Church, as recognised by Vatican II, which brings out the twofold nature of the Church’s mystery – its visible, external aspect and its invisible, spiritual dimension which form a vital and paradoxical unity.
This mystery of the Church is well described in Ratzinger’s Introduction to Catholic Theology, in terms of God’s abiding holiness in the midst of the Church’s sinful humanity:
The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in it in spite of human sinfulness. We come up here against the real mark of the ‘New Covenant': in Christ God has bound himself to men, has let himself be bound by them. The New Covenant no longer rests on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace which abides even in the face of man’s faithlessness. It is the expression of God’s love, which will not let itself be defeated by man’s incapacity but always remains well-disposed towards him, welcomes him again and again precisely because he is sinful, turns to him, sanctifies him and loves him.
Because of the Lord’s devotion, never more to be revoked, the Church is the institution sanctified by him forever, an institution in which the holiness of the Lord becomes present among men. But it is really and truly the holiness of the Lord that becomes present in it and that chooses again and again as the vessel of its presence – with a paradoxical love – the dirty hands of men. It is holiness that radiates as the holiness of Christ from the midst of the Church’s sin. So to the faithful the paradoxical figure of the Church, in which the divine so often presents itself in such unworthy hands, in which the divine is only ever present in the form of a ‘nevertheless’, is the sign of the ‘nevertheless’ of the ever greater love shown by God. The existing interplay of God’s loyalty and man’s disloyalty which characterizes the structure of the Church is grace in dramatic form. . . One could actually say that precisely in its paradoxical combination of holiness and unholiness the Church is in fact the shape taken by grace in this world (p. 341-342).
The objective holiness of the Church as a sacrament of God’s grace, despite its human frailty, is inexplicably bound up for Ratzinger with the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church’s life and identity.
In fact, Ratzinger locates the birth of the Church not so much at Pentecost but at the Last Supper, which signifies and effects the incorporation of the faithful into the body of Christ. Hence, the importance of the Eucharist in the realisation of the Church’s identity and mission as Christ’s body in the world.
Ratzinger’s recognition of the Church’s twofold nature and appreciation of the Eucharist as the sacrament of Christ’s holiness, and therefore of hope for the Church, brings great comfort as well as challenge to Catholic faith in this moment of history, particularly amid the ongoing scandal of the sexual abuse crisis which has cast a shadow over the promise of Catholic faith.
No doubt the news of the Pope’s resignation will focus not on the theological achievement of Joseph Ratzinger but on many broader issues including the state of the Catholic Church itself and calls for sweeping (and likely immoderate) ecclesial reform.
As one commentator noted overnight, the media will largely miss the significance of Ratzinger as it has over the past eight years of his pontificate. There will be a popular perception that he lacked the personality and impact of his predecessor but these judgments are more likely to be made by those who have never read his work.
For those who know as much about Catholicism as they do about the Bhagavad Gita, nothing much will have changed. However, for those who share faith and an appreciation of the Church’s living tradition, which demands the living and articulate faith of graced individuals, the contribution of this Bavarian theologian is cause for thanksgiving.