Joseph Ratzinger Back in the Chair
Not the cathedra of bishop of Rome, but that of professor of theology. An unexpected lesson from the pope emeritus on the capital questions of Christian thought today
by Sandro Magister
ROME, March 18, 2016 – The text by Joseph Ratzinger whose salient passages are reproduced below is not entirely unknown. It was read by his secretary, Georg Gänswein, during a conference organized in Rome by the Jesuits of the Church of the Gesù, from October 8-10 2015, while the synod on the family was underway at the Vatican.
But until two days ago this text, which is in the form of an interview, was known only to a very few. While now it is about to come out in a book that collects the proceedings of that conference. On Wednesday, March 16 the newspaper “Avvenire” previewed large excerpts from it, also revealing the name of the interviewer. And a few hours later “L’Osservatore Romano” published it in its entirety:
The theme of the conference was typical of the Society of Jesus: “By means of faith. Doctrine of justification and experience of God in the preaching of the Church and in the Spiritual Exercises.” And the interviewer was also a Jesuit, Jacques Servais, from Belgium, a disciple of the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
But Ratzinger took this as a cue for focusing on the capital questions of Christian thought today, starting with what he defines as “drastic upheavals of our faith” and “profound evolutions of dogma,” with the dramatic “crises” that result from this. Without hesitating to dismiss as “entirely mistaken” in the light of trinitarian theology an idea that has shaped the Church’s preaching for centuries, that according to which “the Christ had to die on the cross in order to repair the infinite offense that had been done to God and thus restore the fractured order.”
Ratzinger also has illuminating words on the pairing of justice/mercy, with a passing reference to Pope Francis that was enlisted by the devotees of the current pontiff, promptly silenced by “L’Osservatore Romano,” which in a margin note rejected “the journalistic interpretation” that reduces the interview to “an endorsement offered by the pope emeritus to a ‘party’ of mercy”:
Here then are three salient passages of this text, which is the most extensive written by Ratzinger since his resignation of the papacy.
The text was originally in German but has been made public in Italian, translated by the interviewer with the final revision by the pope emeritus himself.
Ten just men suffice to save the whole city
by Joseph Ratzinger
THE MYSTERY OF EVIL AND THE ANTIDOTE OF MERCY
For the man of today, compared with the time of Luther and the classic perspective of the Christian faith, things have in a certain sense been overturned, or indeed it is no longer man who believes he needs justification in the sight of God, but instead he is of the opinion that it is God who must justify himself on account of all the horrendous things present in the world and in the face of human misery, all things that in the final analysis would appear to depend on him.
In this regard I find indicative the fact that a Catholic theologian should go so far as to adopt such a reversal in a direct and formal way: Christ is not seen as having suffered for the sins of men, but instead as it were in order to erase the faults of God. Even if now most Christians do not share such a drastic overturning of our faith, it can be said that all of this brings out a basic tendency of our time. [. . .]
Nonetheless, in my view, there continues to exist, in another manner, the perception that we need grace and forgiveness. For me one “sign of the times” is the fact that the idea of the mercy of God is becoming ever more central and dominant. [. . .] Pope John Paul II was profoundly impregnated with this impulse, even if this did not always emerge in an explicit way. [. . .] Only where there is mercy is there an end to cruelty, an end to evil and violence.
Pope Francis finds himself entirely in accord with this approach. His pastoral practice is expressed precisely in the fact that he speaks to us continually of the mercy of God.
It is mercy that moves us toward God, while justice frightens us in regard to him. In my view this highlights the fact that beneath the veneer of self-confidence and self-justification the man of today conceals a profound awareness of his wounds and of his unworthiness before God. He is awaiting mercy. It is certainly no coincidence that the parable of the good Samaritan should be found so compelling today.
EVEN GOD THE FATHER SUFFERS, OUT OF LOVE
The opposition between the Father who insists in an absolute way on justice, and the Son who obeys the Father and in obeying accepts the cruel demand of justice, is not only incomprehensible today, but on the basis of trinitarian theology it is in itself completely wrong.
The Father and the Son are one, and therefore their will is “ab intrinseco” one. When in the garden of olives the Son struggles with the will of the Father, this is not a matter of having to accept for himself a cruel disposition of God, but rather of drawing humanity within the will of God. [. . .]
But then why the cross and expiation? [. . .] Let’s bring before us the incredible, filthy quantity of evil, of violence, of lies, of hatred, of cruelty, and of arrogance that are infecting and ruining the whole world. This mass of evil cannot simply be declared nonexistent, not even by God. It must be purified, rearranged, and overcome.
Ancient Israel was convinced that the daily sacrifice for sins and above all the great liturgy of the day of expiation, Yom Kippur, were necessary as a counterbalance to the mass of evil present in the world and that only through such rebalancing could the world, so to speak, remain bearable. Once the sacrifices in the temple were no more, it had to be asked what could be set up against the superior powers of evil, how to find some sort of counterbalance. Christians knew that the destroyed temple had been replaced by the risen body of the crucified Lord, and that in his radical and incommensurable love a counterbalance had been created for the incommensurable presence of evil. They knew that the crucified and risen Christ is a power that can oppose that of evil and that saves the world. And on this basis they were also able to understand the meaning of their own sufferings as inserted within the suffering love of Christ and as part of the redeeming power of this love.
Above I cited that theologian for whom God had to suffer for his faults against the world. Now, given this overturning of the perspective, there emerges the following truth: God simply cannot leave as it is the mass of evil that stems from the freedom that he himself has granted. Only he, by coming to be part of the world’s suffering, can redeem the world.
On this basis the relationship between the Father and the Son becomes clearer. I will present on this topic a passage from Henri de Lubac’s book on Origen that seems very clear to me:
“The Redeemer entered the world out of compassion for the human race. He took upon himself our ‘passiones’ even before he was crucified… But what was this suffering that he bore in advance for us? It was the passion of love. But the Father himself, the God of the universe, he who is superabundant in forbearance, patience, mercy, and compassion, does he not also suffer in a certain sense?… The Father himself is not without passions! If one calls upon him, then He knows mercy and compassion. He perceives a suffering of love.”
In some areas of Germany there was a very moving devotion that contemplated “die Not Gottes,” the indigence of God. And the image of the “throne of grace” is also part of this devotion: the Father supports the cross and the crucified, he bends lovingly over him and so to speak is together on the cross.
Thus in a grandiose and pure way one perceives there what is meant by the mercy of God and the participation of God in man’s suffering. This is not a matter of a cruel form of justice, nor of the Father’s fanaticism, but rather of the truth and reality of creation: of the true intimate overcoming of evil that in the final analysis can be realized only in the suffering of love.
CHRISTIAN FAITH AND SALVATION OF THE INFIDELS
There is no doubt that on this point we are facing a profound evolution of dogma. [. . .] If it is true that the great missionaries of the 16th century were still convinced that he who is not baptized is lost forever – and that explains their missionary commitment – in the Catholic Church after Vatican Council II this conviction was definitively abandoned.
This led to a profound twofold crisis. On the one hand it seems to remove any motivation for a future missionary effort. Why should one ever seek to convince persons to accept the Christian faith when they can be saved without it?
But for Christians as well a question emerged: the obligatory nature of faith and of its form of life became uncertain and problematic. If there are those who can also be saved in other ways it is no longer evident, at the very end, why the Christian himself should be bound to the demands of the Christian faith and to its morality. If faith and salvation are no longer interdependent, faith too becomes groundless.
In recent times various attempts have been formulated with the aim of reconciling the universal necessity of the Christian faith with the possibility of being saved without it.
I recall two of them: first of all the well-known theory of anonymous Christians, by Karl Rahner. [. . .] It is true that this theory is fascinating, but it reduces Christianity itself to a pure conscious presentation of that which the human being is in himself, and therefore overlooks the drama of change and renewal that is central in Christianity.
Even less acceptable is the solution proposed by the pluralistic theories of religion, for which all the religions, each in its own way, would be ways of salvation and in this sense their effects must be considered equivalent. The criticism of religion of the kind exercised by the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the primitive Church is essentially more realistic, more concrete, and more true in its scrutiny of the various religions. Such a simplistic reception is not proportionate to the greatness of the question.
We remember above all Henri de Lubac and together with him a few other theologians who have emphasized the concept of vicarious substitution. [. . .] Christ, in that he is unique, was and is for all; and Christians, who in the grandiose image of Paul constitute his body in this world, participate in this “being for.” Christians, so to speak, are nor for themselves, but together with Christ, for others.
This does not signify a sort of special ticket for entering into eternal beatitude, but rather the vocation to construct the whole, the all. What the human person needs in terms of salvation is the intimate openness to God, the intimate expectation and adherence to Him, and that means vice-versa that together with the Lord we have encountered we go out to others and seek to make visible to them the advent of God in Christ. [. . .]
I think that in the present situation there becomes ever more clear and comprehensible to us that which the Lord says to Abraham, namely that ten just men would have been sufficient to save a city, but that it destroys itself if such a small number is not reached. It is clear that we must reflect further on the entire question.
The book with the interview of Joseph Ratzinger:
> “Per mezzo della fede. Dottrina della giustificazione ed esperienza di Dio nella predicazione della Chiesa e negli Esercizi Spirituali,” Daniele Libanori (ed.), Edizioni San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo, 2016, pp. 208, 20.00 euro.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.