Today Pope Benedict XVI is often associated with controversial statements, media mishaps and the challenge that comes with responding to the Church’s greatest crisis since the sixteenth-century reformation, the horrific clergy abuse scandal. There are plenty of things that I disagree with when it comes to Benedict XVI’s views and personal theological considerations.
And lest some readers become concerned that I am all of a sudden espousing rogue attitudes toward the teaching authority of the church, see the Pope’s new book Light of the World (Ignatius, 2010) in which the Holy Father says expressly that a pope can have incorrect opinions. One not need to agree with everything that comes from a pope’s mouth, the place of theological or moral assent (obsequium religiosum) only has to do with definitively defined matters of the Church’s teaching authority.
That said, a bit of a random disclaimer-and-moral-theology-lesson, I wish to invite even those who take issue with the Holy Father for whatever reason to join me in reflecting on a selection of his writing as a very young theologian in the early 1960s. What follows below comes from a series of Advent reflections the future pope and then theology professor gave to the Catholic Student Chaplaincy of the university in Münster, Germany on December 13-15 1964.
The passage I want to share comes from a homily given that first day, the theme of which centered on the meaning of Christianity “today.” The title of this sermon, curiously enough, is “Are We Saved? or, Job Talks with God.” Here the young Joseph Ratzinger, in his thirties, talks about Christianity as an ongoing experience of lived Advent. Hope in times of darkness is a theme that comes through strongly, which is why Ratzinger uses Job: “That is why daring to talk to God out of the trial of our darkness, as Job did, is a part of Christian life… observing Advent simply means talking with God the way Job did.”
Later in his sermon, Ratzinger offers a lengthier reflection on what he views as the pressing challenge of Christianity in the contemporary world. It was true fifty years ago and, it seems to me at least, it is true today. Some insightful, yet striking thoughts from Fr. Ratzinger on the Church, something that almost resembles an examination of corporate conscience.
From “Are We Saved? or, Job Talks with God”
I believe the real temptation for someone who is a Christian, as we experience it today, does not just consist in the theoretical question of whether God exists; or even the question of whether he is three or one; or even the question of whether Christ is God and man in one person. What really torments us today, what bothers us more is the inefficacy of Christianity: after two thousand years of Christian history, we can see nothing that might be a new reality in the world; rather, we find it sunk in the same old horrors, the same despair, and the same hopes as ever. And in our own lives, too, we inevitably experience time and again how Christian reality is powerless against all the other forces that influence us and make demands on us…
Christian theology, which was very soon confronted by this discrepancy between expectation and fulfillment, in the course of time turned the kingdom of God into a kingdom of heaven that is beyond this moral life; the well-being of men and women became a salvation of souls, which again comes to pass beyond this life, after death. But theology did not thereby provide and answer. For what is sublime in this message is precisely that the Lord was talking not just about another life, not just about [the souls of men and women], but was addressing the body, the whole person, in his or her embodied form, with his or her involvement in history and society; that he promised the kingdom of God to the man or woman who lives bodily with others in this history. As marvelous as knowledge is that has been opened up for us by biblical scholarship in our century (that is, that Christ was not just looking forward to another life, but was talking about real people), it can also disappoint and unsettle us when we look at real history, which is in truth no kingdom of God…
We might think, in such a reflection, of how Christ talked about the Old Testament dignitaries and about his own disciples; how he asked that no one be given any title anymore, so that all should be like brothers and sisters because they have life from one Father (Mt 23:1-12). How often, in our thoughts, have we compared such words to the reality as we find it in the Church, all the various ranks and gradations that have been thought up, all the courtly ceremony! Yet there are things that go deeper than questions of outward form, which we should not dismiss yet also not overrate. Has not the New Testament ministry, we have to ask, fallen short of its true self, even in its essential nature? Did not Augustine have to say to his faithful that even for bishops in the Church, quite often the severe saying is true that the Lord uttered concerning the servants of the Old Covenant,” the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on other’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Mt 23:2-4).