The human theology of Cardinal Ratzinger

"Uncover the nuclear center of faith to give it momentum and dynamism.

05 January 2023 Thursday 21:31
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The human theology of Cardinal Ratzinger

"Uncover the nuclear center of faith to give it momentum and dynamism." This is how Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, summed up in 1996 the significance that the Second Vatican Council, held between 1962 and 1965, had had for him, in which he played an active role.

First as advisor to Cardinal Josef Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, and in the second stage of the Council as an expert appointed by Paul VI, Ratzinger ended up playing a fundamental role by participating in the two dogmatic constitutions of the Council: Lumen Gentium, on the Church, and Dei Verbum, on Revelation.

That and the work Episcopate and Primacy, which he wrote together with Karl Rahner, which was also key in the approach to episcopal collegiality, ended up giving him a theological prestige that would accompany him for life and that led him to be appointed by John Paul II. in 1981 custodian of Catholic doctrine.

As prefect, he established the theological ties of ecumenism promoted by the pontiff, putting the doctrine before some postulates of the Theology of Liberation that the pope also faced - laying the foundations of what he himself defined as Theology of Reconciliation – and chaired the commission in charge of drafting the new Catechism of the Catholic Church published in its final version in 1997.

It was then, in January 1998, when he visited the University of Navarra to receive an honorary doctorate together with the American economist Julian Simon –Jewish- and the Dutch pharmacologist Douwe Breimer –Protestant– in a ceremony presided over by the chancellor of the University, Monsignor Javier Echevarría, and in which Cardinals Ángel Suquía and Antonio María Rouco were present.

In a speech delivered entirely in Spanish, Ratzinger answered the same questions that during the four days he stayed in Pamplona he had been asked by the residents of the Belagua Residence Hall, where he stayed and where he maintained close contact with the academic community: the evolution of Catholic doctrine in a world of profound changes and growing hostility towards the Church.

Revelation, history, exegesis and the magisterium were the bases on which Cardinal Ratzinger established the paths of theology and doctrine in his speech, which we reproduce in its entirety. A scenario in which the reason and freedom of the human being is inherent in the construction of the principles of the Church.

“Your Excellency and Most Reverend High Chancellor, respectable academic faculty, ladies and gentlemen:

"I would like to express first of all to Your Excellency, highly esteemed and dear Sir Grand Chancellor, and to the illustrious Faculty of Theology, my deep and heartfelt gratitude for the great honor conferred on me by this investiture as doctor honoris causa. In particular, I want to express to you, my esteemed colleague Professor Rodríguez, my gratitude for the careful and delicate assessment you have made of my theological work, in which you have gone beyond my merits.

”You, Professor Rodríguez, with the discovery and critical edition of the original manuscript of the Roman Catechism, have provided theology with a service that transcends specific historical circumstances, and which has also been of great importance for my work during the preparation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

”You are part of a faculty that, in the relatively short time of its existence, has managed to occupy a relevant position in the world theological dialogue. It means, therefore, for me a great honor and joy to be received through this doctorate in the faculty of this Faculty, with which I have been linked for many years with ties of personal friendship and scientific dialogue.

"Faced with an event like today's, a question inevitably arises: what is a doctor of theology properly? And, in my case, also, a very personal question: do I have the right to consider myself as such? Do I respond to the criteria that this dignity signifies?

"Perhaps, in this sense, a serious objection could be raised for many regarding my person: the position of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - which today they like to characterize again (and with this also criticize) with the title of inquisitor – is not perhaps in some contradiction with the essence of science and, therefore, also with the nature of theology?

”Will not science and external authority perhaps be excluded? Could science recognize another authority than that of its own knowledge, that is, of its arguments? Isn't a magisterium that wants to impose limits on thought in scientific matters contradictory in itself?

"Questions like these, which touch the essence of Catholic theology, undoubtedly require a continuous examination of conscience, both by theologians and by those others who are constituted in authority within the Church, who also must also be theologians to to be able to do his job properly.

“These questions put us before the fundamental question: what is theology properly? Would it be sufficiently characterized if we described it as a methodical and systematic reflection on the questions of religion, of man's relationship with God? My answer would be: no, because in this way we would only have managed to situate ourselves before the so-called science of religion.

“The philosophy of religion and, in general, the science of religion are undoubtedly disciplines of great importance, but their limitations become apparent when they try to go beyond the academic sphere, since they are not really capable of offering a true guide.

”Either they deal with things of the past, or they occupy themselves with describing the things of the present from the existential confrontation of some with the others, or they end up being, in short, a pure groping about the ultimate questions about man. A groping that, ultimately, must always remain a simple question, since it cannot overcome the darkness that surrounds man precisely when he wonders about his origin and his end, that is, when he wonders about himself. same.

"If theology wants and must be something other than the science of religion, something other than a simple treatment of unresolved questions about what transcends us and, at the same time, constitutes us, then it must be based solely on the fact that that arises from an answer that we have not invented. But for this answer to be truly an answer for us, we must make an effort to understand it and not let it be diluted.

“The peculiarity of theology is dealing with something that we have not imagined and that can be the foundation of our life precisely because it precedes and sustains us, that is, because it is greater than our own thought. The path of theology is well expressed in the formula Credo ut intelligam: I accept a previously given budget to find, from it and in it, access to true life, to the true understanding of myself.

This means in turn that theology presupposes, by its very nature, an auctoritas. It exists only because it knows that the sphere of its own thought has been transcended, because it knows that—so to speak—a hand has been extended to help human thought, a hand that pulls it upwards beyond its own strength. Without this given assumption, which always exceeds the capacity of one's own thought and which is never diluted into something purely personal, there would be no theology.

”But then a new question must be posed: what is this budget that is given to us like, this answer that completely directs our thinking and shows it the way? That authority is, so we can say it as a first approximation, a word. Seen from our theme, such a statement is completely logical: the word comes from understanding and wants to help to understand.

”The budget that has been given to the human spirit that wonders is, in a fully reasonable way, a word. In the process of science, thought precedes words. And it translates into the word. But here, where our thought fails, the word is sent from the eternal thought, in which it hides a fragment of its splendor, as much as we are able to resist, as much as we need, as much as the human word can formulate.

“Knowing the meaning of this word, understanding this word is the deepest raison d'être of theology, a reason that can never be completely lacking in the path of faith of the simple faithful. The assumption that has been given to us is the word, Scripture, we should say, and then we should continue asking ourselves: along with this essential authority for theology, can there be another?

”It would seem, at first glance, that the answer should be: no. This is a critical point in the controversy between Reformation theology and Catholic theology. Today also a large part of evangelical theologians recognize, in one way or another, that sola scriptura, that is, the reduction of the word to the Book, is not sustainable. The word, due to its internal structure, always exceeds what could enter the Book.

"The relativization of the scriptural principle, which Catholic theology also has to delve into, and in which both parties could come to a new reason for meeting, is on the one hand the result of ecumenical dialogue, but it has also been motivated by the progress of the historical-critical interpretation of the Bible, which in turn has also learned, for this very reason, to limit itself.

“In the process of critical exegesis, on the nature of the biblical word, two things have been revealed above all. In the first place, it has become aware that the biblical word, at the time of its written fixation, has already gone through a more or less long process of oral configuration, and that, when put in writing, it has not been solidified, but rather it has entered into new processes of interpretation –rereadings–, which have further developed its hidden potentialities.

”The extension, therefore, of the meaning of the word cannot be reduced to the thought of a singular author of a certain historical moment. Furthermore, the word does not belong to a single author, but lives in a history that progresses, and therefore has an extension and a depth towards the past and towards the future that are finally lost in the unpredictable.

”Only from here can one begin to understand what inspiration means; one can see how God mysteriously enters the realm of man and transcends the merely human author. But this also means that Scripture is not a meteorite fallen from heaven, which as such would be in opposition to every human word with the rigorous alterity of a celestial mineral not coming from the earth.

“Certainly, Scripture is the bearer of God's thought. This makes it unique and becomes an authority. But it is mediated by a human story. It contains the thinking and living of a historical community, which we call the People of God precisely because it has been brought together and kept in unity by the irruption of the divine word. And there is a mutual exchange between them.

“This community is the essential condition for the origin and growth of the biblical word; and, conversely, this word gives the community its identity and its continuity. And so, the analysis of the structure of the biblical word has revealed a rapport between the Church and the Bible, between the People of God and the word of God, which we have always known in some way theoretically, but which had never been so evident to us. .

”From what has been said so far, a second element can be deduced, through which the scriptural principle is relativized. Luther was convinced of the perspicuitas of Scripture, of its univocity, which would make any official instance of explanation superfluous. The idea of ​​univocity is constitutive of the scriptural principle.

“Well, if the Bible as a book were not unequivocal in itself, neither could it constitute by itself, that is, only as a Book, the assumption that has been given to us, and that has to guide us. We would therefore be left to ourselves again. We would remain alone again with our thoughts, which would find themselves helpless in the face of the essentials of being.

”But, as a result of the structure of the word and the concrete experiences of Biblical exegesis, it has been necessary to renounce this fundamental postulate of univocity. It cannot be maintained by the objective structure of the word which, due to its own dynamics, transcends what is written. Precisely the deepest part of the word becomes perceptible only by going beyond the level of what is merely written.

”But also from the subjective point of view, that is, from the essential laws of historical reason, it is impossible to maintain said postulate. The history of exegesis is a history of contradictions. The risky proposals of some modern exegetes, who have gone so far as to offer a materialistic interpretation of the Bible, have shown that the word remains defenseless when it is simply reduced to a Book, and is then exposed to being manipulated by intentions. and preconceived opinions.

“Scripture, the word that has been given to us as a presupposition, the one that is at the center of theological efforts, is not isolated, by its very nature, nor is it just a book. Its human subject, the People of God, is alive and remains identical with itself through the ages. The vital space that he has created and that sustains it is an interpretation that is his own and inseparable.

“Without its living and imperishable subject, which is the Church, Scripture would lack contemporaneity with us. It would no longer be in a position –as is its raison d'être– to unite synchrony and diachrony, history and the present, but would instead lapse into what is irretrievably lost in the past. It would be reduced to simple literature that is interpreted, as any literary work can be interpreted. And in this way, theology would also remain converted, on the one hand, into the pure history of literature and the history of past times, and, on the other hand, into the philosophy of religion and the science of religion in general.

”Perhaps it is useful to make this reflection a little more specific with respect to the New Testament. Throughout the entire path of faith from Abraham to the end of the constitution of the biblical canon, the confession of faith was formed, which has its true center and its definitive figure in Christ. But the original vital sphere of the Christian profession of faith is the sacramental life of the Church.

”The biblical canon has been formed according to this criterion, and this is also the reason why the symbol is the first instance of interpretation of the Bible. But the symbol is not a piece of literature. For a long time the rule of faith corresponding to the symbol was not put, on purpose, in writing, precisely because it is the concrete life of the believing community. In this way, the authority of the Church that speaks, the authority of apostolic succession, is inscribed, through the symbol itself, in Scripture, and cannot be separated from it.

"The magisterium of the successors of the apostles does not juxtapose a second authority to Scripture, but belongs to it from within. This viva vox is not called upon to reduce the authority of Scripture or to limit it or even to replace it with another. On the contrary, its mission is to ensure the unavailability of Scripture, to guarantee its non-tampering, to preserve intact, in the midst of the dispute between different opinions, its own perspicuitas, its univocity.

”There is thus a mysterious mutual interaction. The Scripture indicates the measure and the limit to the viva vox; and the living voice guarantees that the Scripture does not come to be manipulated. I fully understand the fear of Protestant theologians – and today also of many Catholic theologians – especially exegetes, that the magisterial principle could undermine the freedom and authority of the Bible, and thus also of theology in general.

”I am reminded of a passage from the famous correspondence between Harnack and Peterson from the year 1928. Peterson, the younger, who was in search, in a letter had made Harnack see that he himself, in his study on The Old Testament in the Pauline letters and in the Pauline communities, had practically expressed the Catholic doctrine about Scripture, tradition and the magisterium.

”Harnack, in effect, had exposed in that work that in the New Testament the authority of the apostolic doctrine is added to the authority of the Bible, organizing and delimiting it and, in this way, constitutes a healthy corrective of biblicism. In relation to this admonition of Peterson's, Harnack, nonchalant as he was, replied to the young colleague: 'It is a truism that the so-called formal principle of old Protestantism is a critical impossibility, and that – compared with it – the Catholic principle is formally the best. ; but materially the Catholic principle over tradition ravages history much more. What, as a principle, seems obvious and even undeniable, in reality instills a certain fear.

”Much more could be said about Harnack's diagnosis, about what has devastated history the most, about where, therefore, the budget that has been given to us with the word has been most threatened. This is not the moment. Above all discussion, it is clear that neither party can do without trust in the power of protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

"An ecclesiastical authority could become arbitrary, if the Spirit did not guard it. But, without a doubt, the arbitrariness of an exegesis left in the hands of its own resources would constitute, in its multiple manifestations, a no lesser danger, as history shows. What's more, the miracle that would be needed there to maintain unity and enforce the word in all its grandiose demands is much more improbable than that other miracle that is needed to keep the ministry of the successors of the apostles within its limits and measures. .

“But let's put speculation aside. The structure of the word is sufficiently univocal, but the demand that it implies for those called to the responsibility of succeeding the apostles is in fact very arduous. It is the mission of the magisterium not to oppose thought, but to give voice to the authority of the response that has been given to us, and thus create space for the very truth that comes to us.

”Being the bearer of such a mission is exciting and risky. It requires the humility to submit, to listen and to obey. It is a question, not of asserting one's own, but of keeping open the space for the speaking of the other, without whose present word everything else falls into a vacuum. The well-understood magisterium must be a humble service so that true theology is always possible, and thus the answers can be heard without which we cannot live correctly.”



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