Sunday, April 24, 2005

Part II: Why Pope Benedict XVI is (Still) a Liberal - Guest Posting.
The continuation of Sharon's guest posting on the new Pope.

Part I is here.

Okay, not really. But he was and is a liberal in the old, genuinely Catholic sense, and may even surprise "liberals" in the new, ideological, scare-quotes sense.

So what is a liberal (notice no scare quotes now) in the context of Catholicism? Stepping into the wayback machine, let's go back to the bad old days of Catholic neoscholastic theology. Now I'm rapidly getting into areas too dense and foggy for me to navigate easily, so here's the back-of-the-baseball-card lowdown. Those who have more thorough knowledge of these things, please forgive the simplistic treatment. Deep breath:

In the 19th century, while casting around for ways to deal with Idealism (of the Kant and Hegel varieties), Liberalism (not of the Al Gore variety; this is a philosophical usage), Scepticism, and Empiricism, Catholic thinkers landed on good old reliable St. Thomas Aquinas, and launched neo-Thomism or neoscholasticism.

Bored yet? Just wait. By 1900, it looked like Thomism, as opposed to neo-Thomism/ neoscholasticism (don't ask what the difference was, it's not relevant to us and who remembers anyway?) seemed to be carrying the day. Yves Congar, Jacques Maritain, and Etienne Gilson were the big Thomists.

Then in 1938 a French theologian, Henri de Lubac, published a book called Catholicism. This book was revolutionary in its appeal to the Bible and patristics as the constant wellsprings of and touchstones for understanding the Catholic faith, and it was the opening salvo in a great theological revolution of modern times, one which most people haven't heard of.

Now don't get the idea that Catholic theology had ignored the Bible or the Church Fathers up until that time. But Catholic theology and philosophy had been long dependent on Thomistic thinking that began with reference to the natures of Man, God, and the universe. The new movement, called "ressourcement" ("back to the sources"), began unapologetically with Scripture and the early Christian writers. The appendix of Catholicism, which took up a good chunk of the book (find it here), is a wonderful collection of the best of patristic writings and still worth having a look through.

Now de Lubac and the other ressouccement theologians of the 1930's-1960's period weren't engaged in scholarship for the sake of scholarship, nor looking to correct or reinvent Catholic theology by a sort of primitivist privileging of an idealized uncorrupted Christian past.*

*I went to graduate school so I get to write like that occasionally.

They were interested in a revitalization of the faith which grounded the truths of sacred tradition in their genuine sources, and unified two thousand years of development of doctrine. They believed that rationalistic theology had driven out transcendent mystery, that spirituality and theology could not be separated and fragmented, and that a return to the sources was necessary to re-center the Catholic faith in the person of Christ, the source of the sources.

Hard as it is to believe today that this was revolutionary stuff, it's harder to believe that this group were considered dangerous. Dangerous liberals. The "L"-word. But their vision triumphed in the course of the Second Vatican Council. Who were they?

Hans Urs von Balthasar. Jean Daniélou. Henri de Lubac. Romano Guardini. Louis Boyer. Maurice Blondel. And Josef Ratzinger.

Not, please notice, Karol Wojtyla. And if you put his writings and Ratzinger's side-by-side, you see the difference. Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II*, grounds his thought in the experience and nature of the human person in relation to Christ; he was heir to the earlier currents of Catholic theology.

*However John Paul was a huge fan of von Balthasar, and the pope's personal patronage rehabilitated the theologian's career, which had been badly knocked out of orbit when he was conspicuously not invited to Vatican II. The pope was even going to make him a cardinal, but poor von B. died just a few days before the ceremony.

Go read Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, and you'll see how he is very much a ressourcement theologian. It's this that makes his writing, though deeply and unapologetically Catholic, easier for Protestants to read and understand. *

*And if you want to read him in English--or von Balthasar, or de Lubac, you will have to visit Ignatius Press ( and pay for it. Father Joseph Fessio, the Jesuit founder of Ignatius Press, is a fervent ressourcement fan. Fessio's tireless translating and publishing of their works over the last quarter century, combined with John Paul's strong endorsement, brought ressourcement theology to mainstream American attention.

This is a long way to go to make the point that the new pope is a liberal, and the impatient among you (if you've slogged your way this far) may be asking, irritatedly, "Fine, so there's some technical theological sense in which he's a 'liberal'. But what I mean by calling him a conservative is that he was the Enforcer, the pope's watchdog, who's spent his life opposing change in the Catholic Church."

But this is exactly wrong. Putting aside the issue that being the pope's watchdog was his job (a job that he was quite unsuited for and openly, if quietly, bitter about, and which he had several times asked to retire from), what Ratzinger and his crew were all about was a sea change at the heart of the Church; a change that, while it had no apparent effect on the doctrines that win or lost political elections, unified and grounded theology and piety in a foundation universal to all Christians.

Some early signs of liberalism, and perhaps "liberalism":

--Cardinal Ratzinger organized and choreographed the pope's funeral. And the first person to receive the Holy Eucharist, from the hand of Ratzinger himself, was Brother Roger--the cardinal's old friend, the leader of the Taize community--and a Lutheran.

--Ratzinger was acknowledged to be the mastermind behind the historic rapprochement between Catholics and Jews during the last papacy. John Paul did the legwork; Ratzinger re-cast Catholic theology regarding the Jewish people in a way that still makes the ultra-traditionalists' teeth grind. Go read Many Religions--One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World. See what I mean.

--Cardinal Ratzinger's job as head of the CDF is reported to already be paying off in unexpected areas. Cardinal George of Chicago reports that Pope Benedict's first words to him were a reminder of a conversation they had had regarding the sex abuse scandals in the United States--which Ratzinger's position gave him comprehensive information on--a conversation in which Ratzinger apparently made it clear that decisive action, long-awaited by American Catholics, was on its way. In this regard, it's worth observing that Cardinal Schönborn of Austria, who dealt quickly, decisively, and effectively with sexual clerical scandals in Austria, is a disciple of Ratzingers and led the pro-Ratzinger bloc during the conclave. It wouldn't be surprising to see real action take within a very short time, of a sort to please frustrated American laity of both "liberal" and "conservative" factions.

Now in the interests of total honesty and come-cleanness, there is one area of Catholic life where Cardinal Ratzinger could only be described as a capital-C Conservative. His views on the liturgy, to the horror of some and the delight of others (like me), hold to at best a minimalist reading of the Vatican II reforms. He's a fan of Latin, mass Ad Orientem (i.e. priest facing the same way as the people), and generally speaking much nicer aesthetics. And in my Rad-Trad liturgical fantasies, Pope Benedict XVI the panzer-cardinal swoops down upon Dallas, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, dynamiting concrete-box churches, excommunicating liturgists,* and implementing an Index of Forbidden Hymnals, followed by mass burnings of the wretched Gather hymnal and any other "musical" publication to come out of Portland, Oregon. Churches will be filled with congregations singing the best of German Catholic and English Protestant foursquare hymns and simplified plainchant. Cheap decorations will be replaced by tasteful frescoes and statuary. **

*Old Catholic joke #1: Q: What's the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? A: You can negotiate with a terrorist.

**Old Catholic joke #2: No, we don't worship statues; since the 1960's, we worship felt banners.

Ah comrades, it will be truly glorious when the revolution comes and the liturgical wreckovators are the first against the wall. Te Deum laudamus, te Dominum confitemur....


Vlad said...

Dear Sharon,
Congratulations on your lively, clear, insightful and fun take on Benedict XVI's liberalism. I know something about the man and I think you have captured well his background. I hope that your hopes about his liturgical future come true. God bless him and you. Do you have your own blog or is there any other way to read more of your work?

sharon said...


Thanks for the kind words. No, I don't have a blog--much as it tempts me, I can't carve out the time--but I had a short piece in Touchstone in Oct. 2004. I'd like to write more if time only permitted; I stole the time for this blog entry from my homeschooling day and now my kids will undoubtedly miss some crucial question on the SAT.

Anonymous said...

"It's this that makes his writing, though deeply and unapologetically Catholic, easier for Protestants to read and understand."

Ratzinger's statement to the effect that all other religions are "defective" doesn't seem to square with this "liberal" bent very well. *

sharon d. said...

Since this is archived, it's unlikely that my reply here will be read, but here goes anyway. I'm assuming you're referring to the CDF declaration Dominus Iesus which came out a few years ago.

It's important to remember that Vatican documents are always issued for a reason, and to understand them, you have to understand what that reason is. Frankly, at the end of the Cold War I suspect many of the Kremlinologists who used to sift through Soviet statements to decode their true meaning got good jobs as Vatican correspondents. Dominus Iesus was directed at Catholics, particularly those who were going overboard in ecumenical activities to the point of indifferentism or universalism. If you didn't read D.I. and have certain definite names (mostly Jesuits) pop into your head, the document was not directed at you.

Next, the word "defect," in the context D.I., was used ecclesiologically. The English word unfortunately has much nastier connotations than the Latin word, and "deficiency" would have been a better choice, though less technically accurate. All D.I. was trying to say was that (a) our ecclesiology requires that a church be composed of that community which is organized around a bishop (or his delegate), who receives his ordination through a recognized chain of succession; (b) Protestant churches, with the exception of Anglicans, don't; and (c) therefore these churches lack something we see as necessary to have "church."

The point of saying this wasn't to annoy Protestants by saying "nyah, you don't have real churches!" but to signal to well-meaning Catholics that there are serious issues of ecclesiology to take into account when pursuing relations with other Christians.

Here's the entire "defect" quote from D.I.:

"Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church."

Was that really so very very bad? Is it so very offensive to hear the Vatican say, to the Catholic people, "There's lots of great stuff about Protestants, don't get us wrong; but we do still believe that, where we differ in church organization and doctrine, we're right."

And let me point out, by the way, that Cdl. Ratzinger didn't even write that: it's a direct quotation from the Vatican II document Unitatis Redintegratio. From Pope John XXIII, remember him? The one every contrasts to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to show how illiberal they were/are by comparison?

Nobody is reading this, are they? I'm going to go put it on my blog.