Comparing Apples and Oranges in Theology
Lest I be mistaken as a papal apologist or ardent defender of the thought of Joseph Ratzinger, let me just say that I am neither. However, I am strongly of the opinion that a theologian’s (or any thinker’s) thought and work must be taken, studied and critiqued in its own right. In order to do that, one must spend time with the texts, lectures and other work of a given scholar.
In the most recent issue of Commonweal magazine, the cover story, “Ratzinger at Vatican II: A Pope Who Can & Cannot Change” by John Wilkins, appeared to be a promising article that looked into the early theological mind of the young scholar and future pope. It is, sort of.
Wilkins, the former editor of the British magazine The Tablet, is a fine writer and certainly someone well connected in the ecclesiastical community. However, I was disappointed to read his take on the development of Joseph Ratzinger’s theology over the years. Wilkins’s method simply consists in presenting the young Ratzinger’s early text, Highlights of Vatican II (apparently the only early work of the future pope’s that Wilkins fully examined), and place that alongside more recent curial documents that were published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during Ratzinger’s tenure as prefect there. Every now and then Wilkins would reference one of the published biographical interviews of Ratzinger to emphasize a particular point.
What I take exception to is that position that one can make a theologically sound argument of change or lack of change in the thought of Joseph Ratzinger by comparing an early independent work from 1967 and official curial or dicastery documents issued by a Vatican Congregation. What would have been more appropriate – and academically sound – is a study of independent texts Ratzinger continued to publish even after officially leaving the academy to take posts in Church leadership. A quick trip to the omnipresent internet knowledge warehouse, Wikipedia, would have been a sufficient start to track down the hundreds of books, articles, lectures and interviews the prolific theologian has published (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_of_Pope_Benedict_XVI). Additionally, a Festschrift published by Ratzinger’s former graduate students on the occasion of his 75th birthday contains a bibliography that is 79 pages long!! Surely Wilkins could have picked a few of the non-CDF texts to glance at.
While this posting may be less spiritually enriching than others (if indeed any actually are), I believe it is important to make distinctions – basic as they are – such as the one avoided by Wilkins. Certainly no one would like to have the development of their thought analyzed by comparing a book written at the age of 35 with a text published forty years later by a committee or company one happened to work for at that point. Apples, people. Apples.