Cardinal Ratzinger, as Prefect and Theologian

Mark Brumley on the Writings of a Future Pope

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NAPA, California, APRIL 26, 2005 ( In Benedict XVI we are blessed with a theologian and pastor who has thought and prayed long and hard about Jesus Christ, the Church and its mission to the world.

So says Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press, which is the primary publisher of the English-language editions of Cardinal Ratzinger’s works.

Brumley shared with ZENIT how the German cardinal engaged in the sophisticated work of a theologian while he held a high ecclesiastical office, and why he may be one of the greatest theologians of our time.

Q: What are some of the most remarkable contributions that Cardinal Ratzinger made to theology over the last 20-some years as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

Brumley: It’s important to distinguish between Cardinal Ratzinger’s work as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and his work as a theologian.

His contributions to theology as prefect of the CDF are different in kind from his contributions as a theologian, even though they both obviously agree with Catholic teaching.

As prefect of the CDF, he issued documents that are part of the Church’s Spirit-guided magisterium. Catholics are to receive and accept this teaching as authentic Catholic teaching. These documents are more than a mere theologian’s contribution to theology.

At the same time, since theologians don’t have access to divine Revelation apart from how it has been expressed in the divinely inspired Scripture and the Spirit-assisted Tradition as interpreted by the magisterium, the ongoing work of the magisterium by definition «contributes to theology.»

Responsible theologians make use of magisterial teaching in order reasonably and systematically to reflect on what God has revealed. So the work of the prefect of the CDF does, in fact, «contribute to theology.»

That said, Cardinal Ratzinger has continued to publish theological works apart from exercising the authority of his CDF office. Some of these works closely relate to certain documents and concerns of the CDF.

For example, his book «The Nature and Mission of Theology» is tied to the CDF document «The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,» among other things. His book «Called to Communion» contains first-rate theological discussions of the nature of the Church, the papacy, and the hotly disputed theological issue of the relationship between the local diocesan Church and the universal Church.

Likewise, his recent book «Truth and Tolerance,” which deals with Christianity and non-Christian religions, provides the reflections of Ratzinger the theologian on Church teaching contained in the document «Dominus Iesus,» issued by Ratzinger the prefect of the CDF.

As is appropriate for the work of a theologian, «Truth and Tolerance» amplifies and goes deeper than what is contained in «Dominus Iesus,» which simply restates Church teaching that is binding on Catholics.

Q: What will Pope Benedict XVI bring of himself and his theological interests to the pontificate?

Brumley: Although Ratzinger the prefect is distinguishable from Ratzinger the theologian, we are blessed in Pope Benedict XVI with a theologian and pastor who has thought and prayed long and hard about Jesus Christ, the Church and her mission to the world.

He will, I believe, continue the twofold task of Vatican II — renewing the inner life of the Church and reinvigorating the Church’s mission in the world. He is committed to a renewal of biblical studies and a deepening of ordinary Catholics’ appreciation of and participation in the sacred liturgy.

He staunchly proclaims the universal call to holiness of Vatican II. He understands the importance of dialogue among Christians and dialogue with world religions and seekers, while he upholds the integrity of Catholic faith and insists on a renewed missionary drive to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

And he knows that in the areas of morality and social justice, the Christian message has not been tried and found wanting, as G.K. Chesterton noted, but has been found difficult and left untried. Furthermore, he sees the threat of radical relativism and many other «isms.»

Q: What have you thought of Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings over the years?

Brumley: My reading of his writings has led me to think that he is one of the greatest theologians of our time. His writings reflect his commitment to a living Catholic tradition, an understanding of the faith that is ever ancient and ever new.

It is remarkable that we have a Pope who has written so much prior to becoming Pope. Also remarkable is the fact that, while he has held a high ecclesiastical office, he has at the same time engaged in the sophisticated work of a theologian.

His writings cover a wide range of approaches including highfalutin, cutting-edge theology in «Principles of Catholic Theology» and «Truth and Tolerance,» pastoral reflections in «Co-workers of the Truth,» and profound analyses of various modern ideologies and straight talk to reporters about his life, his faith and the state of the Church in «Salt of the Earth,» «God and the World» and «The Ratzinger Report.»

Those who stereotype him as a rigid, backward thinker simply haven’t read him or fairly read him. His recent book on the Eucharist, «God is Near Us,» is a wonderful contribution to John Paul II’s Year of the Eucharist, and his «Introduction to Christianity» is a classic. His first volume of memoirs, known as «Milestones,» shows the profound faith and learning of this great man.

Q: What do you consider to be Pope John Paul II’s theological legacy?

Brumley: It’s extremely difficult to summarize his theological legacy in a short space. The ongoing pastoral application of Vatican II to the issues facing the Church and the world is probably his main legacy. The enrichment of personal faith and the universal call to holiness are two important themes in that regard.

John Paul II’s emphasis on Vatican II’s ecclesiology of communion is also important. He saw such communion as an earthly participation in the divine communion of the Holy Trinity brought about through Jesus Christ and spread in the world through the Church. The immediate expression of that mission is the call for a new evangelization.

With respect to his moral theology, John Paul’s Christian humanism and his «theology of the body» are fundamental. Solidarity and subsidiarity received special emphasis in his social teaching, which is in turn rooted in an emphasis on the dignity of the human person and the mutual obligations human beings have to one another by virtue of their being made in God’s image and called to the same destiny in Jesus Christ.

Finally, John Paul’s Marian teaching stresses the centrality of Jesus Christ — we say all we do about the Blessed Virgin because of her relation to Christ and his Church. Mary is the model of faith, the grace-enabled «yes» of faith that entrusts the self to God and in this way embraces the offer of divine communion.

Q: How do you think Pope Benedict will build on John Paul’s legacy?

Brumley: As Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man, theologically speaking, he contributed to the development of that legacy to begin with. Also, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were influential at Vatican II and had their views of the Church’s mission today shaped by it.

I expect Benedict XVI will continue John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization — Cardinal Ratzinger’s selection of the name Benedict suggests as much.

I suspect that John Paul II has already begun to intercede for his successor.

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