Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Legacy of Pope Benedict: Teaching

Pope Benedict is popularly known in Catholic journalistic circles as the “teaching pope.” Despite the redundancy (every pope must teach, on account of his prophetic office), this is indeed an apt moniker for Benedict, for it is primarily in the context of the word – spoken or written – that he has impacted most intensely the lives of people throughout the world. He is a pope who, both in his scholarly writing and his pastoral teaching, has much to say about God and man. What is more, he speaks the truth with a clarity and simplicity unmatched in contemporary discourse. Simply put, when Benedict speaks, people listen, because they know that his teaching is born of a profound intellectual and spiritual life. Joseph Ratzinger is a man who is at home in silence, where he can be obedient to the teaching of Reality, as it is known through faith and reason. From this fundamental docility, he teaches with great authority, both moral (as a theologian) and ecclesial (as a pope).

Ad extra: God is Logos

Perhaps the most famous “teaching moment” of the five years of Pope Benedict’s pontificate was his Regensburg Lecture, given on September 12, 2006 in the aula magna of the University of Regensburg, where he was professor from 1968 to 1977. Much ado was made in the international press about the speech’s seemingly approving (he later clarified that he did not intend to approve the polemic) reference to the brusque criticism of Islam made by the “erudite” Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologos in his 14th-century dialogue with a Persian scholar. However, the media firestorm (and ensuing violence in the Islamic world) over this historical reference of Benedict distracted from the main purpose of the lecture, which stands, along with his un-delivered (because disinvited) lecture at La Sapienza University in Rome, as the Pope’s signature “ad extra” reason-based appeal to the world. The Regensburg Lecture was addressed to “representatives of science” and was given in a classroom of a university. Here the Pope could speak honestly and with freedom to the rationality of his hearers.


In the lecture, the Pope challenged both the fideism of Islam and the shrunken rationalism of the post-modern West. By insisting on the fullness of reason and its harmony with true faith, the Pope challenged both the voluntarist theology of Islam and the reductivist philosophy of contemporary Western culture. To the former, he poignantly declared that “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature” and that “spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable” because “violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” To the latter, he demanded that reason be allowed to take in the whole of reality and not limit itself simply to what is measurable or provable through experiment. By insisting to both of his primary audiences on the importance of metaphysics, he sought to engage both militant Islam and militant secularism on the grounds of our common humanity. His question, ad extra, was simply, Is what I am saying to you not reasonable? His was an appeal to reason based on the reasonability of reality, founded upon the Word/Reason (“Logos”) of God.

Ad intra: God is Agape

Pope Benedict’s “ad intra” teaching activity has been focused primarily not on “Logos” (as at Regensburg) but on Love (“Agape/Caritas”). He reminded the Church in his first encyclical that “Deus Caritas est.” Here, he explored the relationship between self-emptying and self-fulfillment in the life of the Christian. In God, Who is Love, he taught the Church, self-giving and self-realization are united. Therefore, paradoxically, to live a life of self-sacrifice is to receive the peace and joy of happiness in God. In this “Caritas”- or “Agape”-themed teaching, he has also taught on the “Sacramentum Caritatis,” the Eucharist, which is the Source and Summit of the life of charity to which all are called in Christ. This charity, lived “in truth,” becomes in Christ the basis for all of human life, including the social order, upon which he elaborated in his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.

Having treated in a synthetic way of the theological virtue of charity in his first encyclical, Pope Benedict turned his attention to the theological virtues of faith and hope in his second encyclical, Spe Salvi. Here, his concern was to insist on the transcendence of the object of Christian hope: that the desire of the Christian is fulfilled only in the next life in Heaven with God. These “things hoped for,” he taught, are the object also of the theological virtue of faith, the “substance” of the good things to come. In an encyclical filled with historical analysis of modernity, Benedict concluded that the problems of modern time can primarily be understood as an immanentizing of the object of hope, whereby man erroneously judges his final end to be in this world and in this life, forgetting his transcendent destiny in the next life. From this immanentizing of the final end flows violence and strife, as ideologies are not merely “good ideas” but rather exhaustive summaries of the very meaning of human life in the world, in which men ought to place all their hope. It is only Christ, Benedict reminded us, Who, in the concreteness of our history, can free humanity from this slavery to immanentizing ideologies.

In these encyclicals and other writings, the Pope has sought to purify the Church of the errors of modernity, while also setting forth a positive vision of the Gospel’s teaching with regards to love, the Eucharist, faith, hope, and the social order. In all of this, he has sought nothing other than to preach “Christ and Him crucified.”

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