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Impressions of “Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology,” by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

When I read his Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, I said Joseph Ratzinger is one of the best bible experts I have ever read: up there with Michael Heiser and N.T. Wright.

Now I can say, Joseph Ratzinger is also one of the best writers on the Church I’ve ever read: only the Qur’anic author comes close.

Catholicity and Communion

Ratzinger focuses on communio as the heart of Catholicity — Catholicness. “Communio” is also the name of the academic journal he co-founded. The self-description of the journal also captures the meaning of the word “communio” throughout Ratzinger’s work:

[Communio] stands for the renewal of theology in continuity with the living Christian tradition, the continuing dialogue of all believers, past and present, “as if all were simultaneously in the circle.” … Communio is truly “catholic” and international in scope.

Salvation Geography

Catholocity, or communio, extends across space and time. In other words, both geography and history are mediators.

Catholicity extends across all the “local churches” (dioceses, bishoprics, and so on) that compromise the Universal Church at this time. Each “local church” is headed by a bishop with legitimate teaching authority, who ideally lives in the geographical bounds of his “local church.” While the bishops have functions within the Church, the Bride of Christ, they are installed not by the Church but by the Holy Spirit. Thus a determination on which bishops are valid is not a question of legalism of licitity, but where the Holy Spirit has decided to install a Bishop. Thus, it is possible that not all licitly installed Bishops are valid bishops, and at the same time some illicitly installed bishops (theoretically including Lutheran bishops) may be valid bishops. The local bishop, when he speaks in accordance with the Holy Spirit’s wishes for the church, speaks correctly. This also goes for the local bishop of Rome, who is also the Pope. The Holy Spirit “progressively” reveals Himself across geography, with some bishops in some local churches more right or wrong about different things.

Until now, one might have said more or less correctly that, by comparison, Protestant ecclesiology places too little emphasis on the universal Church and too much on the community, whereas Catholic ecclesiology places too little emphasis on the local church and too much on the universal Church. From a historical perspective, there exists between these divergent positions a mutual conditioning about which I should like to make a brief comment. Sermo 15 de sanctis of pseudo-Augustine, which in the Roman breviary so long prescribed for the feast of St. Peter’s Chair in Rome, obviously because of its explicit formulation of the doctrine of primacy, states plainly that Peter received the primacy “for the good of the churches” (pro ecclesarum salute). In the Middle Ages, the plural (“churches”) gradually disappeared so that little by little, the expression ecclesia Romana acquired the meaning of ecclesia catholica. That means, on the one hand, that there was a question of only one local church and, on the other hand, that this one local church was identified with the universal Church so that, in consequence, the notion of a multiplicity was, for the most part, obliterated.
Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, pp. 305-306

Salvation History

Catholicity, communio, also extends through time. Just as the working of the Holy Spirit through through the Church onto space may be termed “salvation geography,” the working of the Holy Spirit through the Church onto time may be termed “salvation history.”

In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (see Eph. 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (see Eph. 2:18; 2 Peter 1:4). Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God (see Col. 1;15, 1 Tim. 1:17) out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex. 33:11; John 15:14-15) and lives among them (see Bar. 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself. This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.
Pope Paul VI,Dei Verbum, 1965

I’m more familiar with salvation history as a term, often unexplained, in protestant theology. I had understand it to mean something like covenant history or the end of astrology or the old Canaanite religion — events that take place within the Biblical timeframe. But in Principles, Ratzinger focuses on Salvation History within the “church age,” from the Pentecost to now. Just as the Holy Spirit progressively reveals himself across geographies, so He does as well through time.

Indeed, Salvation History and Salvation Geography intersect in interesting ways. Ratzinger focuses on two specific examples, the Great Schism (which separated Catholics from Orthodox) and the Augsburg Confession (which separated Catholics from Lutherans). These are seen not merely as unfortunate or regrettable incidents, but part of the unfolding of Salvation History and Salvation Geography.

The Great Schism

The interaction of the East and West can be seen as the successor to the brotherly relationship of St. Peter and St. Andrew. Just as Peter and Andrew may have disagreed while serving as disciples, so their successor bishoprics in Rome and Constantinople may disagree with each other.

Patriarch Athenagoras himself spoke even more strongly when he greeted the Pope in Phanar: “Against all expectation, the bishop of Rome is among us, the first among us in honor, ‘he who presides in live’ (Ignatius of Antioch, epistola, “Ad Romanos,” PG 5, col. 801, prologue).” It is clear that, in saying this, the Patriarch did not abandon the claims of the Eastern Churches or acknowledge the primacy of the West. Rather, he stated plainly what the East understood as the order, the rank and title, of the equal bishops of the Church — and it would be worth our while to consider whether this archaic confession, which has nothing to do with the “primacy of jurisdiction” but confesses a primacy of “honor” and agape, might not be recognized as a formula that adequately reflects the position Rome occupies in the Church – “holy courage” requires that prudence be combined with “audacity”…
Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, pp. 216-217

These disagreements are not evidence of one or the other churches being prideful against hte Holy Spirit, rather the Holy Spirit, for His own reasons, has granted different graces of understanding to different local churches at different times. We can cooperate with these graces, as with the official forgetting of the mutual bans of excommunication from a millennia ago.

A similar process of the new evaluation of history that leads to a new evaluation of the present has taken place here with full binding power: the reciprocal anathema of 1054 no longer belongs to the official roster of the Church. It has been nullified by an act of forgiveness. The old memory must be replaced by a new one — a memory of love. In one of his letters to his order, St. Francis of Paola once warned strenuously against the power of remembering evil:

“Memory of evil is an injustice… a sentinel who protects sins… alienation of love, a nail that pierces the soul, wickedness that never sleeps… a daily death.”
Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 212

Ratzinger continues this approach to understand the protestant reformation. He urges a separation from the personal writings of the reformers (Martin Luther, John Calvin, and so on) with the church documents produced by reformers. In Principles Ratzinger focuses on the Augsburg Confession, on which he’s a recognized expert:

In the Catholic response to the Augsburg Confession (CA) three stages can be discerned… The third period’s beginning I date 1958 because in that year **then theologian, now also Cardinal Archbishop of Munich, Joseph Ratzinger, conducted a seminar on the ecclesial meaning and ecumenical significance of the CA.
Robert Kress, “The Roman Catholic Reception of the Augsburg Confession,” 1980

Ratzinger urges that the Augsburg Confession, the “symbol of Lutheranism,” be views as a Catholic document in communion with other Catholic documents by other local churches at the same time, as well as by other Catholic documents by other local churches at earlier times. In other words, it should be seen as other church documents that served to explain Christianity to princes are seen.

The immediate historical import of the text is clear. It was intended to show the Emperor that the new form of Christian ecclesial life, as it had spread far and wide under the impact of Luther’s teachings, still fell juridically under the concept of “Catholic.” At the same time, the new movement drew a careful distinction between itself and the radical sects, attempting in this way to state, even for itself, its purposes and foundations…. The [Augsburg Confession] is the oldest personal statement of Protestant faith to be included int he corpus of confessional writings. The question is: Are the alter texts to be interpreted as further developments and definitions that elucidate what was previously unclear, or is the direction of the CA the normative one?
Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, pp. 219-220

An excessive focus on what may be defects, or at least non-universal expressions of faith, in the Augsburg Confession can turn a legitimate expression of the Christian faith into a source of divisiveness among Christians.

The Qur’an and Modernism

In the background of Ratzinger’s book is “Modernism,” that heresy of the atomized soul alone with God without the mediation of Christ and Creation. While not explicitly addressed, Ratzinger’s Catholic Theology contrasts strongly with Qur’anic theology. Indeed, the Qur’anic author is the only person I’ve read who has written as seriously — but to a different aim — and well as Ratzinger.

Ratzinger’s view of God’s relationship to man: incarnated in Jesus Christ, lived through the Holy Spirit, breathed into the Church across the terrain of time and space, contrasts most completely with the Qur’anic vision. For example, in this verse from “The Faithful” criticizes the “boasting” of each “party” in the religious community:

O Apostles! Eat of the good things and act righteously. I indeed know well what you do. This community of yours is indeed one community and I am your Lord, so be wary of Me.

But they fragmented their religion among themselves, each party boasting about what it had.
Qur’an 23:51-53

But for Ratzinger the richness of the traditions of the Church — the geographical and temporal diversity within it — is not a sign of division but a sign of Unity of Being. The Qur’anic vision is different, a Unity of Sameness, both to the community of believers:

This community of yours is indeed one community and I am your Lord. So worship Me. They have fragmented their religion among themselves; everyone of them will return to Us.
Qur’an 21:92

To the Qur’anic author, the differing of men is a sign of a lack of mercy by God:

Had your Lord wished, he would have made mankind one community; but they continued to differ, except those on whom your Lord has mercy — and that is why He created them — and the word of your Lord has been fulfilled: ‘I will surely fill hell with jinn and humans, all together!’
Qur’an 11:118-119

The Qur’anic profession of faith rewords the Nicene Creed to remove any concept of “church”:

O People of the Book! Do not exceed the bounds in your religion, and do not attribute anything to God except the truth.

The Messiah,
Jesus son of Mary,
was only an apostle of God, and
His word that He cast toward Mary, and

a Spirit from Him.

So have faith in God and His apostles, and do not say “Three,” Relinquish! That is better for you.

God is but the One God.
He is far too immaculate to have any son.
To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens
and whatever is on the earth,

and God suffices as trustee.
Qur’an 4:171

And no “partner” of God — which is to say to Spouse in the Church for the Holy Spirit — is permitted:

Indeed, God does not forgive that a partner should be ascribed to Him, but He forgives anything that to whomever He wishes. Whoever ascribes partners to God has indeed fabricated a great sinfulness.
Qur’an 4:48

But to Ratzinger this is a sign of God’s ecstasy — ec-stacy — standing-out — the pattern of God’s self-emptying love to a Creation that needs to reach out to be fulfilled.

From this perspective. Christ no longer appears as an individual distinct from the rest of mankind but as the one in whom all things are contained, who established the Church as his Body and who, together with her, is one whole Jesus Christ. In consequences, the Church, insofar as she is “one in Christ Jesus,” shares in his mediatorship. She is mediation with God because she is the form in which Christ remains present in history. The inner interpenetration of Christology and ecclesiology makes it possible to extend the concept of mediation without affecting the uniqueness of Christ’s mediatorship.
Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, pp. 272-273

A Fundamental Theology

Space and Time mediate the Holy Spirit’s relationship with His bride, the Church. Catholics would not be scandalized that different Catholics receive different graces because of the different intercession of different saints. Indeed, this would be a sign of our incarnated Reality. Likewise, Catholics should embrace salvation history and salvation geography, that the Holy Spirit reveals Himself in different ways and times. These revelations are not simply better and worse, less or more complete, but different and special.

Catholics read in the Bible, that God is One:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!”
Deuteronomy 6:4

We believe that Oneness is the Oneness of Unity-of-Love, not a Unity-of-Loneliness. Likewise, the One Body of Christ that is the Church is united, not in loneliness, but in love:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Ephesians 4:4-6

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