00 8/15/2009 1:00 AM

I came across this on the site of the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Baltimore

Authors' views on Benedict's theology
leave less room for reflection

Reviewed by Brian Welter

Ethical relativism and increasing secularism, the elimination of the Greek influence on Christianity, ecumenism, liberation theology: So much of the leadership and writings of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI have dealt with the most controversial issues of our time.

This one man, so faithful to Catholic belief, seems to symbolize much about our constant culture wars. Perhaps one reason for this is his ability to keep his fingers on the pulse of modern thought, which includes seeing the harsh future results of many current ideas.

Neither William G. Rusch's The Pontificate of Benedict XVI nor Jesuit Father Thomas P. Rausch's Pope Benedict XVI sidesteps the contentious issues, and both look to the deeper philosophical, psychological and religious roots in the pope's outlook.

The Pontificate of Benedict XVI is a collection of essays by theologians from a wide spectrum of churches. While they focus on Cardinal Ratzinger's teachings that affect them, they tend to come to similar conclusions -- that the German pope is remarkably consistent and well-grounded in his thought, even if some of the authors identity a sharp break in his thought in the late 1960s, which they say was a result of student unrest and division within the Catholic Church.

Naturally, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 2000 document, Dominus Iesus, on the uniqueness of Christ and universal salvation in him -- issued when Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect of the congregation -- figures high in the consciousness of the two books.

The authors carefully examine what this document means when it says that the non-Catholic churches cannot be called churches "in the proper sense." What doesn't get through the media sound bites gets through in these books -- the sophisticated, subtle thinking of the current pontiff. [The problem with sound bites is that they fail to show the thought process that goes into them, which, in the case of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, is always so direct, linear and crystal-clear. That is why most news reports about what he says or writes end up being so unsatisfactory and necessarily sketchy.]

Thus Cardinal Ratzinger's ecumenical view is not triumphalist, as the media portrays, where he would call for a return of Protestants to the Catholic Church en masse and their redoctrination as Catholics.

Instead, his ecumenical vision calls for the various denominations to retain a great deal of their distinctiveness when they would return to full communion with Rome.

The authors of the two books do come out a bit more harshly on Pope Benedict's view of Christianity's fusion of Greek philosophy and Hebrew spirituality in Europe, which the pontiff believes is normative for Christianity, or at least the highest expression of the religion.

Writing in The Pontificate of Benedict XVI, Dale Irvin sees a connection between the Pope's apparent Eurocentrism and his dislike of many aspects of secular pluralism, and challenges the Pope on both counts: "Cultural pluralism is not a threat, but the answer to the problems of Christian faith being ideologically narrowed to the history and culture of a Western European past."

[But his main problem with pluralism is that it generates relativism, and in religion, a tendncy to syncretism - when the problem of theChurch in the third millennium is to establish the Catholic identity in the public eye and more importantly, in each and every Catholic. That is what cultural pluralism must be balanced against!]

Both books also emphasize an important core belief of Pope Benedict, that of receptivity. Christians are in a state of receptivity in relation to the tradition they receive: They do not create the church or doctrine, but receive it and decide to accept it and live it [This is such an essential concept that the Vatican-II 'spiritists' do not seem to see at all.]

The Church is therefore primarily apostolic rather than communal; ecclesiology is centered on the Eucharist and the other sacraments since these are gifts from God.

This informs Cardinal Ratzinger's traditional view of liturgy. The Mass is for him a sacrifice first and foremost.

Father Rausch in Pope Benedict XVI brings out the unitary view of Cardinal Ratzinger, in which the Pope ties different strands of his thought into a whole, where each element fits together into the greater sum.

Cardinal Ratzinger's eucharistic interpretation of the Old Testament reflects this: "In reviewing worship in the Old Testament (Cardinal) Ratzinger illustrates convincingly how Israel's whole sacrificial system underwent a transformation, a critique from within the tradition. What was developing was a justification of the concept of sacrifice."

In both works, the authors' personal viewpoints on Pope Benedict's theology unfortunately leave less space for a more involved discussion of this demanding topic.

The diversity of authors in The Pontificate of Benedict XVI gives it a fragmented, somewhat inconsistent feel, and fails to reflect adequately the consistent, unitary thinking of the pontiff himself.

Welter is a freelance contributor to the B.C. Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia, and is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology.