That’s the main thing¯to listen to what he says. I expect the texts for the public events will be posted promptly on numerous sites. Raymond Arroyo and I will be cohosting the live coverage of all the events on EWTN (check your cable listings). And I hope that, between events, I’ll be able to do some daily postings here.
Visits by John Paul II were typically grand public extravaganzas and, since any pope is, after all, the pope, there will no doubt be extravagances in the week ahead. In Rome it is commonly said that crowds came to see John Paul, while they come to hear Benedict. There is a modicum of truth in that, although it underplays the way in which people beyond numbering listened with rapt attention as John Paul set forth in great detail such complex subjects as the “theology of the body” in his Wednesday audiences.
And yet there is no doubt about the contrast. Benedict is a soft-spoken teacher less given to dramatic gestures and inviting an intellectual attentiveness appropriate to his precision of expression. In a message given prior to his visit, he announced the theme of the visit: “Christ Our Hope.” The entirety of his being is animated by the desire to propose to the Church and to the world that Jesus Christ is, as he said of himself, “the way, the truth, and the life.”
A few weeks before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger said at the funeral of Luigi Giussani, founder of the renewal movement known as Communion and Liberation, “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story, an event.” Of course Christianity is also a rich intellectual tradition, some of us would say the richest in the history of the world, and Benedict is a master teacher of that tradition. And Christianity also entails dogmas and doctrines, vigorously defended and articulated by Benedict. It is also and very importantly a way of living in the truth, including the moral truth. But all of that is ancillary to and dependent on the fact that Christianity is a love story, an encounter with “the human face of God,” Jesus Christ.
The phrase the human face of God is much favored by Benedict. In my homily at Columbia University last Sunday, I told the students to watch for the appearance of the phrase during this visit. And, sure enough, there it is already in his preparatory statement setting out the theme of “Christ Our Hope.” This is closely related to an important fact about Ratzinger/Benedict: He is an Augustinian.
In the Church’s theological and philosophical tradition, there are two great luminaries around whom most schools of thought gravitate: the fifth-century St. Augustine and the thirteenth-century St. Thomas Aquinas. Some say Benedict is an Augustinian Thomist and others say he is a Thomist Augustinian. I would say he is an Augustinian who is in sympathetic conversation with Thomas. The great guide in this connection is Aidan Nichols’ The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger , even though that study is now twenty years old. Just out from Oxford is Tracey Rowland’s Ratzinger’s Faith , which is a remarkably insightful study, even if she does let herself be distracted by the mainly Anglican project known as Radical Orthodoxy and is rather too insistent that Benedict is, after all, a Thomist, albeit a very Augustinian Thomist.
As a Platonist, or Neoplatonist if you will, Augustine during his wayward years was persuaded of the inherent human aspiration toward the Absolute. Thus what are probably his best-known words: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” But, no matter the intensity and inescapability of that aspiration, how do human beings achieve union with the Absolute? The great breakthrough for Augustine, and the pivot on which his conversion turned, was the Incarnation. In short, the human face of God in Jesus Christ.
While Benedict is well known for his sympathetic engagement with the theology of Martin Luther, his Augustinianism is very different from Luther’s denigration of human nature and of reason in particular. And it is even more distant from Calvin’s version of Augustine that, with relentless logic devoid of the humility induced by grace, leads to catastrophes such as the doctrine of double predestination. In Calvinism, Benedict sees a Protestant rendition of the neoscholastic Thomism¯with its rigorously logical extrapolations from presumably unchanging truths¯against which he so strongly protested as a young theologian. Benedict’s Augustine is the champion of an authentically Christian humanism. With Augustine, his life is driven by the discovery “How late I knew you, Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” This is the truth he proposes to the Church and the world with the theme “Christ Our Hope.”
There is much discussion about whether he will address during this visit the sex-abuse crisis, the culpability of bishops as enablers, the need for greater transparency in the Church’s governance, and a host of other questions. On a National Public Radio program this Thursday, I was discussing his chosen theme of “Christ Our Hope.” It was obvious that the interviewer and at least one of the callers were impatient. That is all fine and good, they said, but the pope needs to address more “pragmatic” questions posed by sundry discontents with the Church. I’m sorry. He likely will address those questions, even if obliquely and delicately, but he really is coming to propose Christ as the hope of the world¯meaning the hope of sinners, including sinners at every level of the life of the Church.
“Christ Our Hope” may strike some as a narrowly, even exclusively, Christian theme. But, as I expect he will make clear in his address at the United Nations and in the meeting with leaders of world religions, the theme is universally applicable. Christ is the logos ¯meaning both word and reason ¯which encompasses the whole of humanity. This is a constant in Benedict’s teaching. Remember the September 12, 2006, address at the University of Regensburg. Many commentators speak of Benedict’s gaffe in that lecture when he addressed the dynamic of violence in Islam and declared that to act against reason is to act against “the nature of God.” I do not think it was a gaffe at all. It is a necessary challenge and has, in fact, resulted in more irenic statements from Muslim leaders that could lead to something like a genuine dialogue between Islam and what Muslims, more than many Westerners, view as the Christian West. This emphasis on universal reason will be evident also, I expect, in his statements on human rights at the U.N., rights that are premised upon the dignity of the human person¯a teaching that is the immovable foundation of Catholic social doctrine.
A final word about the prominence of Jews and Judaism in this visit. The visit comes in the days leading up to Passover. But it is not simply interreligious politesse that prompts the visit to the synagogue in New York and other gestures. It is, rather, the truth consistently articulated since the Second Vatican Council that, while elements of truth are to be found in other religions, the relationship with the People of Israel is unique. Christianity would be without the existence of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions, but Christianity would not be without the People of Israel from whom came “Christ Our Hope.” This is not simply a historical point, but, as the council says, a truth discovered as we delve more deeply into the life of the Church and discover there the continuing mystery of living Judaism.
But again, the chief thing in the week ahead is to listen, and listen carefully, to what is said by this Augustinian¯or, if my Thomist friends insist, this very Augustinian Thomist.