I’ve never met Benedict XVI, but I feel as though I have. Or at least I think I have a pretty good sense of how his mind works: clear, to the point, and earthy. OK, maybe not D. H. Lawrence earthy, but for a German university professor very direct, concrete, and capable of a memorable turn of phrase.
These qualities are very much in evidence in an extended interview of Benedict by Peter Seewald, recently published under the title Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times. Seewald is a sympathetic interlocutor, and this new book is his third published interview with Benedict, with the previous two taking place when the present pope was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for Doctrine and the Faith. The topics vary, but one theme is clear throughout. This papacy wants to italicize and underline and put into bold one word: continuity.
First, the continuity of his vocation.
As many who know him have observed, Benedict very much loved his work as a university professor. In fact, when he moved into the papal apartment, some Vatican officials were a bit taken aback when he brought along some beat up used furniture—his desk and the bookshelves that he has had since his days as a young faculty member. And of course his books, “my advisors” as he calls them. These familiar reminders of his beloved years as a professor are clearly dear to Benedict.
Bishops and cardinals and popes don’t have much time to spend communing with their books. They have memos to read and meetings to run—lots of them. Benedict doesn’t pretend that he doesn’t pine for more time with his “advisors.” And yet, he sees an essential continuity in his life.
“It is like this,” he says, “When a man says Yes during his priestly ordination, he may have some idea of what his own charism could be, but he also knows: I have placed myself into the hands of the bishops and ultimately of the Lord.” Professor, yes, but priest first. He can take along his old furniture. Popes, after all, have prerogatives. But, as Benedict points out, the continuity of his priestly vocation has always meant something both simple and fundamental: I cannot pick and choose what I want.
Second, there is what I call his ministry of continuity, which has been much (and rightly) commented upon and has a number of different dimensions.
Joseph Ratzinger was a Young Turk at the Second Vatican Council, a peritus (official advisor) to Cardinal Frings of Cologne. Ratzinger was among those who urged the rejection of the official schemas or draft documents that had been prepared by Vatican theologians in advance of the Council. These documents would have enshrined the Neo-Scholasticism then dominant. And Ratzinger subsequently participated in the preparation of the new documents, which were debated, revised, and eventually adopted.
By my reckoning, Ratzinger may have been the most “radical” of the theologians who advised the bishops, if the measure of “radical” is one’s distance from the modes and mentalities of the scholastic theology of the day. Historians can point to Karl Rahner as a powerful voice. But he was and remained a theologian out of the old mold, making very subtle interpretations of official church doctrine and expressing theological positions with recondite philosophical concepts. By contrast, Ratzinger gravitated toward biblical language and images, an evangelical mode in theology quite different from the forms that dominated prior to the Council.
However, in the aftermath of the Council, Ratzinger criticized an overly disjunctive reading of Vatican II. Again and again he has urged us to adopt a “hermeneutics of continuity,” which means an approach to Vatican II that sees it as strengthening and purifying an already vibrant Catholic witness in the modern world.
In other words, yes, of course the Church had in some respects gone off course (as she always does). And, yes, there were problems (as there always are), some very significant, which is why John XXIII called the Council in the first place. But a “hermeneutics of continuity” assumes that the fathers at Vatican II drew on the inner strengths of the Church in order address her weaknesses. It was a renewal from within.
This emphasis on continuity lay behind Benedict’s decision to regularize the use of the Tridentine Mass (so named because it was mandated by the Council of Trent in the late sixteenth century) as an extraordinary form. “My main reasons for making the [Tridentine] form more available,” Benedict explains, “was to preserve the internal continuity of Church history. We cannot say: Before, everything was wrong, but now everything is right. The issue was internal reconciliation with our own past, the intrinsic continuity of faith and prayer in the Church.”
As a Cardinal, Ratzinger endorsed and encouraged a general trend toward greater formality in worship, as well as the reintroduction of Latin into parts of the Mass (for example, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei). The spiritual rationale for these modifications corresponds to his approach to the Tridentine Mass: We need to participate in a continuous tradition of faith and prayer.
The desire to create a Catholic culture of continuity may lie behind Benedict’s support for the beatification of Pius XII, the pope most closely identified with the “bad” Church that many want to imagine was set aside by Vatican II. The same holds for Benedict’s view of the ordination of women. An all male priesthood “is not something we ourselves have produced.” The Church must remain obedient to a continuous tradition instituted by Christ.
When asked to compare himself to Karol Wojtyla, the charismatic and world-changing man who became John Paul II, Benedict declines to assign to himself a decisive role in history. “Not every pontificate has to have a brand new task,” he says. “Now it is a matter of continuing this and grasping the drama of the time, holding fast in that drama to the Word of God as the decisive word.”
“Hold fast,” St. Paul urges, to “that word which I preached to you” (1 Cor 15:2). Again: “Stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught.” (2 Thess. 2:15). This urgent exhortation echoes through the Bible: “Let us hold fast to our confession” (Heb. 4:14). In the book of Revelation, the voice of the Lord says to the churches that await his final triumph: “Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.” (Rev. 3:11).
Holding fast to the faith of apostles was the key to John Paul II’s epochal pontificate. An emphasis on continuity will very likely make the papacy of Benedict XVI significant as well. Indeed, a commitment to continue in the truth—and not futile efforts to become relevant—forms the basis of a Christian witness that has the evangelical power to make a dramatic difference in the world. We believe a faith once delivered, not one renegotiated every generation. A truth powerful enough to refashion the world, not one remolded in accord with changing political or moral or cultural fashions.
R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. Excerpts from Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times can be found here.