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The Truth About the Pope—and Why It Matters | An Interview with Dr. Tracey Rowland | Ignatius Insight | October 15, 2010
Tracey Rowland is Dean and
Associate Professor of Political Philosophy and Continental Theology at the
John Paul II Institute (Melbourne), a member of the Centre for Theology and
Philosophy at the University of Nottingham and a member of the editorial board
of the English language edition of Communio,
founded, among others, by Joseph Ratzinger. She is the author of Culture and
the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (2003), Ratzinger's
Faith: The Theology of Benedict XVI (2008), and, most recently, Benedict XVI: A Guide
for the Perplexed (2010). She recently took time from her busy schedule to discuss
the work and thought of Joseph Ratinger/Pope Benedict XVI.
Ignatius Insight: You've now written two books about the theology and thought of
Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. If you had to describe his theology and
thought to someone who knew little or nothing about the topic, what would you
I would say that he is interested in the relationship between God and the human
person and in particular the role of love and reason in this relationship. He
wants people to understand that while there is something called Christian
morality, Christianity is not just another option on the menu of ethical codes.
It is about a personal relationship with the Trinity, and without that the
ethical code can seem incomprehensible and oppressive.
Ignatius Insight: What misunderstandings or misrepresentations of Benedict's thinking
do you find most bothersome or in need of correction?
Unfortunately many people, in particular journalists, can only think in
dialectical categories like: left-wing, right-wing, progressive, conservative.
They never ask questions like: conserve what? or progress toward what? It
is very difficult to present Ratzinger's ideas in sound-bites without doing
violence to the nuances.
There is, for example, a sense in which it
may well be right to classify Ratzinger as a progressive in 1964 and a
conservative today but what changed is not the actual theological beliefs held
by Ratzinger, but the historical and theological contexts. In 1964 to be
progressive meant wanting to introduce some flexibility into a theological
framework which had become ossified and dry. It meant being critical of
Suárezian Thomism. Today, being progressive means being in favour of
contraceptives, women priests, homosexual "marriage" and Marty Haugen.
As Cardinal Francis George has often
written, it is not a case of being left wing or right wing, but being for
Christ. In some social contexts that will look right wing, in others,
left-wing, but these terms and labels are not the standard, and nor are they stable.
Ignatius Insight: Who were some of the essential intellectual and theological
influences—both ancient and contemporary—on the young
Among the Patristic theologians, St Augustine was clearly the most influential,
among the medieval theologians it was St. Bonaventure, and thereafter there
were a number of significant nineteenth century influences associated with the
Tübingen School, such as Adam Möhler, and there was also the influence of
Blessed John Henry Newman. Among twentieth scholars, the key influences were:
Romano Guardini, Josef Pieper, Martin Buber,
Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von
Karl Rahner was also someone with whom he
collaborated at the Council and probably by whom he was to some degree mentored
at the Council, but as Avery Dulles observed, Ratzinger grew to understand that
he and Rahner lived on different theological planets: whereas Rahner found
revelation and salvation primarily in the inward movements of the human spirit,
Ratzinger finds them in historical events attested by Scripture and the
Ignatius Insight: Rupert Shortt, in a recent review of Benedict XVI: A Guide for
the Perplexed, wrote that "Professor
Ratzinger's volte-face [in the late 1960s] was matched by what struck many observers
as a shift in his character. An earlier openness was supplanted by intolerance
and gloom. The psychological element, wholly overlooked by Rowland, is
revealing." Shortt obviously believes that Ratzinger's theology and
perspective changed dramatically and suddenly some forty year ago. Is there
evidence for that argument? And why is the debate over this topic so
First, let me say that my book was published in the Guide for the Perplexed series which the publishers market as an 'upper level introduction
to the thought of those writers readers can find especially challenging'.
Concentrating on what it is that makes the subject difficult to grasp, these
books explain and explore key themes and ideas. In other words, the book was not
written as a biography, nor was there ever any brief from the publisher to
delve into the psychological drives of the subject. The brief was to present
an account of Ratzinger's thought for theology students trying to get a grip on
its essential contours, with special reference to his contributions to the
discipline of theology. Accordingly, the dominant theme of the book was how
Ratzinger has dealt with what in Principles of
Catholic Theology (1982) he called the severest crisis in Catholic theology in the
twentieth century, namely, 'understanding the mediation of history in the realm
of ontology'. Most of the material presented relates to that problematic.
That said, I think that just as there are
at least two fundamentally different approaches to the documents of Vatican II,
the 'hermeneutic of rupture' and the 'hermeneutic of reform' or continuity,
there is an analogous division of interpretation over Ratzinger himself. What
everyone agrees upon is that Ratzinger is an intellectual. No one tries to
argue that he has been infected with peasant piety herding cows in the Bavarian
alps as some tried to dismiss Wojtyła as a Carpathian peasant. The line
becomes, this fellow was one of the most gifted clerics of his generation, open
to new ideas and progressively oriented, but then in 1968 he found students
demonstrating outside his lecture theatre and claiming that Christ was a
sado-masochist. He then, so this narrative goes, had something like a
breakdown from which he has never recuperated, and since that time he has been
a neurotic conservative. This way one can acknowledge his talent but dismiss
his substantive judgments on the grounds that they are the result of emotional
fragility rather than intellectual rigour.
My response to this is to say that I
remember 1968 as the year that my older cousin, whom I adored, grew his hair to
his waist and started smoking pot and wearing paisley t-shirts. As a small
child I thought this was all a bit odd and it does not surprise me that
Ratzinger also took a rather negative view of the behaviour of the soixant-huit-ers. He once remarked in an interview that what he found more
disturbing than the demonstrations was the fact that priests were handing out
Communion to Marxist students on the picket lines around the Sorbonne. There
was nothing however in his early intellectual make-up to suggest that he might
react any other way. His doctoral dissertation was on the ecclesiology of St.
Augustine, his habilitationsschrift was on the
theology of history in St. Bonaventure. As a seminarian he was known to be
passionate about Newman and heavily influenced by Romano Guardini and Josef
Pieper. Not one of these authors is in any way close to the ensemble of
intellectual currents which became fashionable in the late 1960s and 70s. It's
impossible to think of Augustine or Bonaventure or Newman or Guardini or Pieper
as latently liberal or Marxist. What they all have in common is an interest in
matters of the heart, and in the links between affectivity and objectivity, or
love and truth. Not one of them thought that truth could be found blowing in
What Ratzinger opposed in the pre-Conciliar
theological establishment, which earned him the rebellious theological teenager
label in the early 1960s, was the Suárezian infused Thomism upon which almost
every seminarian of his generation was fed. In his book Twentieth Century
Catholic Theologians, Fergus Kerr observed that
there was a wide-scale rebellion against this, particularly among the
intellectual elite of the Conciliar generation. Ratzinger's alternative to
this dry, ossified and in some elements, revisionist presentation of the
thought of St. Thomas which prided itself on being 'above history' was a
framework built on Augustine and Bonaventure principally, and then Newman,
Guardini, Pieper, de Lubac and the personalism of Buber. After the Council one
can add the influence of von Balthasar and a deepening relationship with de
Lubac. All of these influences were perfectly consistent with his early
orientations. De Lubac and von Balthasar were also highly critical of the
pre-Conciliar theological establishment and went to war against Suárez, but
they were not trying to update Christ for the Age of Aquarius.
Accordingly a number of scholars who are
not fully paid up members of the Ratzinger Fan Club agree that Ratzinger's
theology does exhibit a quality of consistency over the decades.
For example, Joseph A Komonchak has written:
From Ratzinger's Introduction to
Christianity (1968) down to the homily he delivered
on his installation as Pope Benedict XVI, a distinctive and consistent approach
has been visible" (See: 'The Church in Crisis: Pope Benedict's Theological
Vision' Commonweal, 3 June 2005, 11-14).
Similarly, Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, a
former student of Ratzinger, wrote at the time of Ratzinger's election to the
The negative slogans are wrong, the personal descriptions are
true, and the biographical explanations are, in general, misleading. They
overlook that Ratzinger has from early days had a consistent theological
vision". ('From Theologian to Pope: A Personal View Back, Past and Public
Portrayals' Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 33
Finally, Lieven Boeve and Gerard Mannion have concluded:
Ratzinger's theological insights have not fundamentally
changed, but have rather demonstrated a firm internal consistency throughout
more than fifty years'. (The Ratzinger Reader
(London: Continuum, 2010, p. 12).
Nonetheless, Boeve and Mannion do note that
Ratzinger's tone of writing became more
polemical after 1968.
The weight of scholarly opinion favours the
'theological consistency' thesis.
Why does the debate matter?
I think it matters because the truth always
matters, and because I believe that the 'psychological break-down' theory is
designed to dissuade people from undertaking an examination of what Ratzinger
A similar line of attack was taken against
John Paul II's theology of the body. It was said that Wojtyła had an
overly romantic attitude toward sex and marriage because he lost his mother at
an early age.
The moment one comes up with a
psychological examination, it seems it is no longer necessary to examine the
Ignatius Insight: What was Razinger's involvement in the Second Vatican Council? What
would you say in response to those who insist that Benedict XVI is trying, in
his pontificate, to undo the Council, or is working against the
"spirit" of the Council?
Ratzinger was a theological advisor to Josef Cardinal Frings of Cologne and one
of a group of young theologians who were frustrated by the regnant
neo-scholasticism of the pre-Conciliar era. He contributed to the drafting of
several documents, including Dei Verbum, which
can be read as a vindication of the anti-Suárezian orientation of his Habilitationsschrift.
I would say that if by the 'spirit of the
Council' you mean projects to correlate the Catholic faith to the culture of
modernity, then Benedict XVI is working against such a spirit, but I would add
that he never interpreted the Council this way, and nor, I would argue, did
Paul VI. If one reads the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam published in 1964, one gets a sense that Paul VI also thought that
there were some odd interpretations of the Conciliar spirit about. For
Ratzinger the true spirit of the Council represented a retrieval of
Christocentrism in all areas of theology and ecclesial life and he believed
that this was also the kind of accent placed over the Conciliar documents by
Paul VI. It was certainly the accent of John Paul II.
Ignatius Insight: Much has been made of Benedict's supposed public relations errors,
such as his comments about Islam in his Regensburg Address. What do you make of
I don't regard the Regensburg Address as a public relations error. The pope
delivered an academic paper at a university and made quite an acute
philosophical observation about the common voluntarist starting points in
militant Islam and militant secularism. For one everything depends on the will
of Allah, for the other it all depends on the will of the individual. In
neither case does reason seem to have much to do with goodness.
To suggest that he shouldn't have made this
point, is to concede that popes should be subjected to the same political
correctness gags as the rest of us. If the pope can't say difficult things,
who can? At least he doesn't have a family to support if the press turn nasty.
Nonetheless, I do think that there have
been public relations errors, above all in the case of the anti-Semitic
Lefebvrist bishop. It has been said that those whom the pope consulted about
this issue were primarily canon lawyers, and a degree in canon law certainly
doesn't give one any experience in public relations. I think that more use
could be made of professional laity in the public relations work of the curia.
For example, a well dressed professional woman might be a 'better look' in an
interview about sexual abuse than a cleric wearing a lace surplice.
Ignatius Insight: Your new book has sections on Karl Rahner and Hans Küng, two
theologians who wielded much influence during the 1960s and 1970s. How do you
think history will judge the work of those men compared to the work of
First, I believe that these thinkers continue to have a significant influence
in some circles, even though younger theologians are no longer drawn to them
the way that they were a couple of decades ago. I also think that future
intellectual historians will identify affinities between the trajectories of
Küng and Rahner and they will see de Lubac and von Balthasar as the alternative
team, as it were. Ratzinger will be situated within the group and regarded as
someone who might have developed in the direction of Rahner and Küng, but
didn't, and it will probably be said that he didn't because of the early
influences of Augustine and Bonaventure on his spiritual and intellectual
formation. Küng described Rahner as the last of the great neo-scholastics and
the neo-scholastics often wanted to splice Aquinas with someone else, like Kant
or Heidegger, for example. Ratzinger was never inclined that way. Francis
Schüssler Fiorenza put it like this:
representing la nouvelle théologie interpreted
Thomas Aquinas from the perspective of Augustine. Ratzinger sought a much more
direct retrieval of the Augustinian tradition. He wrote his first dissertation
on Augustine's understanding of the people of God and his
"habilitation" (a second dissertation) on St. Bonaventure's theology
of history. His theological writings often underscored Augustine's emphasis on
spirituality, the role of the cross, and Christian charity toward the neighbor.
His sermons explicated the scriptures with reference to patristic images and
themes. In this way, Ratzinger's writings contrasted sharply with the more arid
scholasticism of his day. For this reason, he was perceived as a progressive
theologian. But the Augustinian emphasis made Ratzinger much less favorable
toward Metz's work on secularization and political theology, for example, and
led him to question Rahner's understanding of Christianity.
While one could no doubt write a
dissertation on what Rahner, Ratzinger, de Lubac and von Balthasar held in
common, and for three of them at least there is the Ignatian heritage,
nonetheless the divisions between Rahner on the one side, and Ratzinger, de
Lubac and von Balthasar on the other, would seem to be greater than the
affinities. The intellectual historians are perhaps likely to conclude that a
fundamental fault line between Rahner and those in his circle, and Ratzinger
and those in his circle, is the understanding of the relationship between
nature, grace and culture and what in other places Ratzinger has called 'the
mediation of history in the realm of ontology'. Ratzinger believed that
Rahner was onto the right issues, that he was correct in his identification of
certain problematic areas in need of theological reflection, but ultimately he
did not agree with many of his solutions.
Ignatius Insight: If someone has only enough time to read three or four works by
Razinger/Benedict, what do you recommend?
If they were philosophically inclined I would start with the Introduction to
Christianity, but otherwise I would recommend Jesus
of Nazareth, then The Spirit of the Liturgy and
God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald.
For young theologians I would recommend Principles
of Catholic Theology and The Nature and Mission
of Theology. I would also suggest reading de
Lubac's Catholicism and The Drama of
Atheistic Humanism, von Balthasar's Love Alone
is Credible and Pieper's Faith, Hope, Love.
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