Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Benedict (not-so-sweet) sixteen

The elevation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is eliciting a muted, but growing sense of apprehension in Western Europe and North America. Gays have particular reason for concern. It was Ratzinger, as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who issued the 1986 document characterizing homosexuality as an "intrinsic moral evil." Women’s ordination is now very unlikely, though there may be some expansion of the role of married priests, who in fact already exist within the Church. In my view the most serious disappointment will be the continuing attempt to ban contraception (a ban most American Catholics wisely ignore). The Roman Catholic church is opposed to abortion, yet by seeking to block access to birth control the institution makes more abortions inevitable.

Perhaps there is even more reason to fear than one might think. Twentieth-century theology has been dominated by a serious of penetrating, tireless writers whose native language is German. The names of Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, and Jürgen Moltmann come immediately to mind. These are all Protestants.

Yet they have Roman Catholic counterparts in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, and Hans Küng. Küng in particular has served as a bridge to Karl Barth, who although a Reform theologian has been particularly influential in Catholic circles. It is oversimple to label Barth as neo-orthodox, as is sometimes done, but there is no doubt that he set an example of uncompromising rigor that has been hostile to ecclesiastical liberalism.

What do these figures, von Balthasar, Rahner, and Küng, have in common? First, they show a combination of erudition in many languages and unceasing productivity. Theologically they reject what might be termed the dead hand of Thomism (for so long the "official" system of thought in the RC Church) in favor of resourcing, that is, a return to previously neglected patristic sources such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria. These scholars are familiar with the flood of new and newly discovered documents from the ancient Near East. In addition there is an affinity with modern existential thought, as seen in the work of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. They seem to share a predilection for playing Mozart on the piano.

The group is not monolithic. When, in his role as theological watchdog, Ratzinger found that Küng had strayed from the reservation, he disciplined him. Despite their conflict, however, Küng has just opined that his old adversary should be given a chance.

While some celebrate his theological acumen, it is probably fair to say that Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, has not quite attained the stature of the leading members of the German-speaking group. It is perhaps in that sense that he is humble. Yet the new pontiff will continue to access the deep learning and analytical sharpness that is the common storehouse of the group.

Despite criticism in Western Europe and North America, Ratzinger’s elevation makes a good deal of sense in terms of where the Church is now. His views with regard to the “silent apostasy” that has produced so many empty churches in Europe are forthright. Instead of trying to ignore this erosion, as was mostly the case with his predecessor, Benedict XVI will shrink the Church in those prosperous but demographically declining countries. For the foreseeable future there will be no attempt at reevangelization among the errant flocks. Instead, the center of gravity of the Church will settle even more decisively in the Third World, where an increasing proportion of Catholics live and where Benedict’s theological conservatism will be welcome. His emphasis on the perennial teachings of the Church will also be reassuring to those in this camp. And indeed many will say that the accommodation to the modern world, so much commended by secular intellectuals, has been counterproductive, as people shun the "enlightened" denominations of liberal Protestantism in favor of denominations of stricter observance.

Much has changed since 1968, that tumultuous year which ostensibly marked an epochal change. It did help to produce Liberation Theology. In retrospect Ratzinger’s condemnation of that ephemeral movement seems prescient.

But, but, but—readers will say. Is there really any future in Benedict’s obstinate rejection of modernism and relativism? This intransigence would seem to recall Pius IX with his Syllabus of Errors—or even King Canute’s legendary attempt to turn back the waves.

It is a dismaying thought, but the twenty-first century--globalization and all--may not turn out to be an unalloyed triumph for modernism, at least in the social realm. Even among non-Christian faiths, fundamentalism and traditionalism are on the march. I take no pleasure in this prospect, but it needs to be faced.