Posted June 12, 2005
The Church in Crisis:
Pope Benedict’s Theological Vision
by Joseph A. Komonchak
In Commonweal June 2005
The church lives today in a state of intellectual or cultural crisis. Once, theology could draw on a common intellectual heritage for the articulation of the Christian vision. This philosophical tradition focused on reality and the search for its truth. Linked up with Christian faith, it enabled theology to plumb the depths of reality and in the end to acknowledge the truth of things as they emerged from the hands of an intelligent loving Creator. Theology can no longer presuppose that common cultural and intellectual heritage. Through various stages, philosophy abandoned the ontological and metaphysical attitude that once marked it. It became fascinated with phenomena and from emerging natural science borrowed a positivistic interest in facts as they appear; it grounded itself now, not in the reality of things, but in reflections on human consciousness. The rise of historical consciousness moved attention away from reality as created by God to reality as constructed by human beings. With Marx, attention has moved from attempting to understand the world thus created to seeking to change it. “Truth” now refers, not to reality as given, nor to what has been done, but to what remains to be done. Through all of these processes, philosophy has been dissolved into a multiplicity of philosophies.
The tragedy of post-Vatican II theology is that, after dethroning the inadequate neoscholastic vision, it has turned, not back to the ancient wisdom displayed in the church fathers an the medieval masters, but to various forms of modern philosophy. It has therefore lost its critical distance and has become a handmaiden of the various forms of positivism, particularly by linking itself to other visions of the future, either the one liberals hope from technology, or the one Marxists hope from political and economic revolution. The results of this disastrous choice are all around us, in a church that has become indistinct from its surrounding worlds and has lost its sense of identity and mission, and in a world in which the triumph of positivism has led to ever growing dissolution and alienation.
The one response that can rescue us from this slavery t our own works is the presentation of the Christian message as the only truly liberating force. Theology cannot count on any help from contemporary philosophy or the human and natural sciences. In Ratzinger’s writings, there are very few positive references to intellectual developments outside the church; they almost always appear as antithetical to the specifically Christian. There are no cultural or social pierres d’attente. Instead, dichotomies abound, contrasts between the Christian notions of truth, freedom, nature and those current in Western culture. The faith must be presented as countercultural, as an appeal to nonconformity. It can appeal to the widespread sense of disillusion t what modernity has promised but been unable to deliver. It will make its appeal by presenting the Christian vision in its synthetic totality as a comprehensive structure of meaning that at nearly every point breaks with the taken-for-granted attitudes, strategies, and habits of contemporary culture. The gospel will save us, not philosophy, not science, and not scientific theology. The great model for this enterprise is the effort to preach the gospel in the alien world of antiquity and to construct the vision of Christian wisdom manifest in the great ages of faith before philosophy, science, and technology separated themselves into autonomous areas of reflection and activity.
This is a “Bonaventuran” theological vision. In the last stages of his intellectual journey, and in the face of the cultural challenge of his day, the great Franciscan responded with a religious concentration on holiness and an eschatological interpretation of contemporary intellectual developments that led hi to an “apocalyptic anti-Aristotelianism” that was anti-philosophical, anti-intellectual, and indiscriminate enough to include in its condemnations the effort of Aquinas to engage critically the Aristotelian challenge. There are remarkable parallels between Bonaventure’s final view, as described by Ratzinger, and the basic attitude the new pope himself adopted in the face of the great changes n the post-Vatican II church.
That Pope Benedict XVI has brought this perspective with him as he assumed the chair of Peter is clear from his homily the day he was solemnly installed. The sermon was at many points a very beautiful and positive presentation of Christianity, an it grounds the hope that this will mark his preaching and teaching. But at two points he also revealed how he sees the world to which Christ must be preached. The first is when he described the many kinds of desert that exist today: “There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore, the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The church as a whole and all her pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert.” The other image is borrowed from the metaphor of the pastor as “fisher of men.” The image supposes, of course, that it is a good thing for the fish to be caught and taken from their natural environment. And to explain this the pope says, “We are living in alienation, in the salt waters of suffering and death; in a sea of darkness without light. The net of the gospel pulls us out of the waters of death and brings us into the splendor of God’s light, into true life.” Beautiful as is the description of what the gospel offers, is it the case that apart from Christ the world is only a desert, or “salt waters of suffering and death,” “darkness without light”?
When a bishop complained about some of the books being published after the council, Paul VI replied that the best way to oppose bad books is with good books. Joseph Ratzinger has been of the view that Paul VI’s patient attitude with regard to theological developments after the council failed, and that, as in the thirteenth century, it is the task of ecclesiastical authority to intervene. This appeal to authority has its own roots in the situation of the church in the world since Vatican II. We ask our questions about the roles of religion and theology in a church that, after simply repudiating the whole modern experiment and constructing its own narrow countersociety, attempted at Vatican II to adopt a more nuanced, critical attitude and set of strategies. The world has long since relegated religion to a private sphere and banished theology from serious intellectual consideration. What sort of church could we be, and what sort of theology could we construct in those circumstances?
The effort to answer those questions has largely divided Catholics since the council, and one element of that division has been the splintering of theology. The subculture of Roman Catholicism has largely been fractured and this disintegration has made it very difficult to speak of the church as providing a unified community of response to contemporary challenges.