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Ratzinger Showed Us How to Love
A Memorial Reflection on Person and Office
Imagine the following conversation:
“I think X about Y.”
“Oh, well, the Church thinks Z about Y.”
“Really? Nevermind, then. I think Z about Y.”
Who lives like this?
My knowledge of the life of Joseph Ratzinger is limited. As far as theology goes, I’ve spent more time with other minds of the Church: Augustine, Aquinas, Balthasar, Danielou. As far as the writings of popes go, I’ve spent about as much time with the work of Benedict XVI as Francis and John Paul II, finding in Benedict a consistent medium between the words of both his predecessor and his successor. Benedict proves himself a better critic of certain modern evils than John Paul II (capitalism, unjust economic structures, and ecological destruction, to name a few) in an encyclical like Caritas in veritate, but there is a precision and careful use of language in the works of Benedict that is often lacking in the writings of Francis. So, when it comes to the life and works of Joseph Ratzinger, I like what I know, and I know a little, but I don’t know much.
There is one fact I think I do know about the life of Joseph Ratzinger: here is a man who loved the Church more than whatever ideals he might have had about the Church. He loved the truth given to him by the Church more than the truth he hoped the Church might recognize in some future council or synod. Pope Francis, rightly, warns against the danger that ideology poses to the life of the Church. Sometimes our ideals come from theory and contemplation. We ask a question like: Isn’t there a more just way we can live, something ‘better’ we ought to be doing? Sometimes our ideals come from practical necessity. We have a problem, so isn’t there a way that we can resolve it? And what follows in our lives, maybe half of the time, maybe more, is that we leverage the what-could-be or what-should-be against the what-is. And that kind of logic makes love hard. Ideals are important, and necessary. But we are called to love, first and foremost, the what-is, and that includes the Church that-is.
Joseph Ratzinger, I am certain, loved the Church that-is. He didn’t let his ideals get in the way of his love, or the service he rendered to the object of his love. There is no way to live that kind of life easily as a theologian. The danger of theological investigation, as is the case with most sciences, is to come away from your studies with a conviction about something you know or understand that others don’t know or understand. And so, the ‘truth’ that you know that others don’t know needs to be recognized. Why else would you spend so much time in study? There is also no way to live that kind of life easily (loving the Church that-is) as a priest or pastor. The danger of pastoral care is to see in the ugliness or the hardship of the lives in front of you—lives of persons who you must love—a cause for going back to the Church with an agenda, a list of demands and altered expectations. No good priest or pastor wants to see a life lived in pain or unnecessary struggle. So, wherever the Church can make the pain go away, ease the burdens that many carry, well, she should. Why commit your life to pastoral care only to draw a hard line at the limits of the possible? What can follow from these kinds of theological and pastoral experiences are demands made on the Church by priests and theologians and sometimes bishops: the teaching of the Church needs to change. Logic demands it. Love demands it.
Joseph Ratzinger never made these kinds of claims on the teaching of the Church. In 1972, as a still-young theologian, Ratzinger published an essay advocating for access to Holy Communion, under certain conditions, for the divorced and remarried. The essay, entitled On the Question of the Indissolubility of Marriage: Remarks on the Dogmatic-Historical Facts and their Present-Day Significance, is a fine piece of theological investigation. Ratzinger considers the writings of the Church Fathers, canon law, and the teachings of the Council of Trent. He makes no broad, sweeping claims, but advances a small, practical recommendation to a pastoral problem that would only apply to those living in narrowly defined “emergency situations.” But the recommendation would nonetheless require a change/development in the sacramental theology of the Church.
Did implementing the theological conclusion he reached in his essay ever become a focus of his work as a bishop, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, or as Roman Pontiff for Joseph Ratzinger? No.
Ratzinger never used his office to advance the theology articulated in his 1972 essay. And why not? Speaking in 1991, Ratzinger said that he wrote the essay and drew its conclusions . . .
. . . as a theologian in 1972. Their implementation in pastoral practice would of course necessarily depend on their corroboration by an official act of the magisterium to whose judgment I would submit … Now the Magisterium subsequently spoke decisively on this question in the person of (St. John Paul II) in Familiaris consortio.
When the essay was re-published in 2014, Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) drafted a formal retraction of his previous position. Imagine: drawing a conclusion based on careful thinking and pastoral experience, submitting your conclusion to the Church, and changing your mind because of what the Church teaches. Who lives like this?
Joseph Ratzinger lived like this. The other day, working through his wonderful 2007 encyclical Spe salvi in order to put together a homily on hope for the New Year a day after Ratzinger’s death, I was struck by the absence of personal opinion in the document. You see, Ratzinger published a book on hope in 1977 entitled Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. The book is a marvel of theological introspection, as beautiful as it is analytic. There are no big new theories in the text, only the careful presentation of the teaching of the Church colored and accented by a theologian who loves what he loves: the gift of relationship, the theology of Augustine and Bonaventure, the 20th century Christological turn in theology, the Magisterial teaching of the Church. In other words, the hope that Ratzinger articulates falls completely within the orthodox tradition of the Church, but the theology of the text is his own.
Consider the theology of solidification that Ratzinger develops in the text, a vision of an eschatological solidarity that is as intimidating as it is sobering:
Even though the definitive truth of an individual is fixed in the moment of death, something new is contributed when the world’s guilt has been suffered through to the bitter end. It is at this point that one’s final place in the whole is exhaustively determined: after what one might call the solidification on their finished state of all the effects to which one has given rise. Thus the completion of the whole is not something purely external to the individual, but a reality which determines him or her in the most interior way (205).
Or consider the lyrical beauty with which Ratzinger describes salvation as a cosmological and liturgical reality:
Let us say it once more before we end: the individuals’ salvation is whole and entire only when the salvation of the cosmos and all the elect has come into full fruition. For the redeemed are not simply adjacent to each other in Heaven. Rather, in their being together as one in Christ, they are in Heaven. In that moment, the whole creation will become song (237).
Or consider the way that Ratzinger talks of heaven as a personal and historical reality:
Heaven’s existence depends upon the fact that Jesus Christ is God, is man, and makes space for human existence in the existence of God himself. One is in Heaven when, and to the degree, that one is in Christ. It is by being with Christ that we find the true location of our existence as human beings in God. Heaven is thus primarily a personal reality, and one that remains forever shaped by the historical origin in the paschal mystery of death and resurrection (233).
There is nothing ‘new’ in these theological ruminations, but these are remarkable ideas, penetrating insights into the realities of death and judgment and eternity that Ratzinger makes his own by way of style and emphasis.
What strikes me about Spe salvi is that the theology of hope that Ratzinger describes is free from much of the points of style and emphasis that make Eschatology such a wonderful book. Is there theological continuity between these two works? Of course, because the theology in both texts belongs to the Church, and it is this theology that Ratzinger wants to articulate. But Spe salvi is not the continuation of an older, pre-pontifical project dear to Joseph Ratzinger, the theologian. It is a work marked by its magisterial objectivity.
The comparison is a little unfair because encyclicals carry a different weight of authority than papal audiences, but consider the way in which John Paul II found a way to continue with his earlier anthropological project throughout his papacy, using those Wednesday audiences as a platform for developing a robust theology of the human body. You won’t find a similar project in the life of Joseph Ratzinger. As soon as the man was named a bishop, those theological projects and interests—many, I’m sure, quite dear to him—were laid to the side for the sake of serving the Church. Who lives like this?
Joseph Ratzinger lived like this, and we would all do well to follow the example of his life. We live in a world today in which the distinction between person and office is frequently forgotten. And make no mistake: we all hold an office in the Church. Through our baptism, we are conformed to Christ as priest, prophet, and king, which means that our words and our ideas matter. What we say, the positions for which we advocate or fight, all of it matters a great deal. Too many Roman Catholics today leverage personal opinion against the Church, insisting that the Church change her teaching because of claims to theological truth or pastoral necessity. We leverage the what-could-be or the what-should-be against the what-is, and that is no way to love. Love for anyone, and maybe most especially love for the Church, must begin with the reality that-is, and not the reality that we want for ourselves.
Joseph Ratzinger knew how to love, and he loved for 95 years.
May he rest in peace.