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Church buries a pope who suspected contextual theologizing

Benedict XVI was known for his simplicity, intelligence and deep spirituality

Pope Pope Francis looks on as pallbearers carry away the coffin of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the end of his funeral mass at St. Peter's square in the Vatican on January 5, 2023

Pope Pope Francis looks on as pallbearers carry away the coffin of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the end of his funeral mass at St. Peter's square in the Vatican on January 5, 2023. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Published: January 05, 2023 11:43 AM GMT

Updated: January 10, 2023 08:28 AM GMT

Pope Benedict XVI will surely go down in history as the best-known theologian ever to be elected pope in recent centuries.

As a young progressive theologian, Joseph Ratzinger’s contribution at the Second Vatican Council can never be forgotten. Equally unforgettable are the radical changes in his theological thinking in the aftermath of Vatican II which were directly proportionate to his gradual rise on the hierarchical ladder — first as the archbishop of Munich, then, as the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and finally, as pope.

These radical changes in the once progressive Ratzinger who used to hold theological positions (along with the teachings of Vatican-II) such as a person’s properly formed conscience was inviolable even vis-à-vis any contradictory official Church teaching, the autonomy of local Episcopal Conferences, the infallibility of the whole People of God ... etc., were phenomenal.

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His two immediate predecessors — Popes John Paul I and John Paul II — chose the papal names of the two popes of the Council John XXIII and Paul VI. In total contrast to such obvious wishes of the latter to continue the teachings of Vatican II, Ratzinger opted for the papal name Benedict which was last held almost a century before by a successor of Peter who concentrated on European affairs of the Church.

"Both as a theologian and as a pope, he continued to stress zealously that the Catholic faith is reasonable"

Ironically, Pope Benedict was the last pope to have attended the Council in person. If he used nearly one-third of his life to promoting a theology of Church reform as was expressed by Vatican II teachings, the rest two-thirds of his life was spent zealously in “correcting” what he perceived as “exaggerations” of conciliar teachings to which he himself had contributed as a conscientious theologian.

The ever-increasing trends of secularization in Europe, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s — which young Father Ratzinger had begun to perceive as threatening Catholic faith — may also have had their own influence in the about turn in his theological thought.

However, both as a theologian and as a pope, he continued to stress zealously that the Catholic faith is reasonable. At the same time, he continued to insist that faith can never be reduced to a set of doctrines or a philosophical ‘system; rather he saw it as faith in a living person, Jesus Christ. It’s precisely here that one needs to perceive the late pope’s personal faith and his deep sense of spirituality, in spite of his reputation as one of the greatest Catholic theologians in the latter half of the 20th century.

During his 24-year stint as the head of the CDF, he strived hard not only to preserve the received Apostolic tradition of the Catholic faith but also zealously walked the ‘extra mile’ to correct what he perceived as ‘abuses’ or ‘exaggerations’ of the conciliar teachings. In the process, one wonders how much space he left for contextual theologizing (or incarnating faith within a given non-European context) that was encouraged and promoted by Vatican II.

The pursuing and chastising of many theologians often earned him the notorious title of the “grand inquisitor of the Church.”

It appeared as if only European classical theology was considered by him to be valid for the whole world. His main papal agenda appeared to have been the re-conversion of Europe to the traditional Catholic faith.

For his 24 foreign trips as pope, he never included Asian countries except for a couple of visits to the Middle East. Perhaps, his lack of first-hand experience of Christianity in a non-Christian milieu — as that of John Paul II — may also have contributed to his heavy reliance on European theology.

Many Latin American theologians who laid the foundation for post-Vatican-II contextual theologies were at the receiving end during his tenure as the head of the CDF. There were many Asian theologians, too, who were taken to task by him during that time.

The ex-communication of the Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya, the suspicions he evinced on the works of the well-known Jacque Dupuis, especially with regard to his theology of religions, the questioning of the popular spiritual writings of the Indian writer Anthony de Mello are some of the notorious cases in this regard.

"For Ratzinger, any theology that was different from classical European theology was a threat to tradition and faith"

It was also the same Cardinal Ratzinger who dared to call Asia the “epicenter of relativism,” thanks to some of the budding Asian theological works in the 1980s and 1990s that he perceived as threatening the traditional Europe-centered theology.

Although all such actions would have had the good intention of purifying and preserving orthodox Catholic doctrine, the grave repercussion of them was the stunting of Asian contextual theologies. Many new budding Asian theologians who wished to work along the guidelines given by Vatican II, especially its teachings in Gaudium et spes, were seriously discouraged as a result.

Even the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) theological statements of this period were extremely cautious not to venture into uncharted territory though enabling and promoting relevant theologizing within the many diverse Asian contexts was one of the major aims of its founding fathers.

Apparently, for Ratzinger, any theology that was different from classical European theology was a threat to relativism.

Asia, being not only the cradle of all the major religions in the world but also a continent where people are still religious, necessarily demands a theology of religions. Moreover, the existence of the still vibrant ancient cultures in Asia also demands an inculturation of the received apostolic faith.

But, during his time as the head of CDF and as the pope, both the promotion of a theology of religions and the inculturation of faith took a back seat as a result of his preoccupation with eradicating anything and everything he perceived as a threat to the uniform way of theologizing.

However, it was Benedict XVI, in obedience to Vatican II, who strived hard to promote ecumenism, and so, he dared to revive the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission — ARCIC III — in 2011. His visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul was a sign of his interest in promoting inter-religious dialogue, and through it, world peace.

But most of all, he will go down in Church history as the pope who dared to resign from his post in recent centuries. This magnanimous gesture would serve not only as a precedent for future popes, but it would also serve as a fitting reminder that the papacy is an office meant for the service of the Church, rather than divinizing the one who holds that office for the rest of his life.

Last but not the least, Benedict XVI was known for his simplicity, intelligence, and deep spirituality, and it is precisely these unique qualities that prompted him to see the beauty of liturgy as a visible sign of heavenly glory.

No doubt, as someone who lived according to his convictions, he is now participating in the heavenly liturgy to which he dedicated his entire life.

* Sri Lankan Redemptorist Father Vimal Tirimanna is a leading Asian theologian, who teaches theology at the Pontifical Accademia Alfonsiana in Rome. The 67-year-old professor associated with the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) is also a member of the Theological Commission of the General Secretariat for the Synod 2021-2024. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.


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8 Comments on this Story
A lucid and balanced obituary. Indeed Benedict's eurocentric world view was his biggest drawback
A disrespectful and bias obituary, where the author was more concerned with promoting his "woke" ideas (which nobody wants) than presenting an account of the tremendous work by Pope Benedict.
Excellent article that gives a much-needed perspective on Pope Emeritus' life and work. Beats all the superficial commentaries on Benedict I read in the last few days.
Article doesn't touch on the beliefs of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, or what he advocated as a member of Vatican II and Communio, and then as Cardinal and Pope. Here's a short section which is an example of the humility and peace that Pope Benedict spoke with: "Pope Benedict XVI on why does the church focus on life after death: It is true that a life beyond this one is part of the Christian way of looking at things. If you were to take that away, then it dwindles to a perspective that is still remarkable but fragmentary and incomplete. If one were to look at human life merely within the dimensions of the seventy or eighty years permitted us to live here, then it would appear brutally truncated. In this way there arises this remarkable greed for life. If this present life is the only one there can be, then naturally I must look to it to grab and get as much out of it as I can. I cannot afford to consider other people. The life beyond gives me the criteria and gives this life the importance and seriousness that I need in order to live, not just for the moment, but in such a way that in the end my life means something, has some value and not only for me, but more generally. The God who grants our prayers does not take away our responsibility but in fact teaches us to be responsible. He leads us to live out what is set before us in responsible fashion and thereby to become worthy in the end to stand before him."
Easily the worst article I have read about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's passing. Fr. Tirimanna should apologies for this article, retract it and write a truthful perspective on the late Pope.
This article presents an incorrect perspective on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. This author clearly has a strong liberal bias and unfortunately most of the points in this article are his opinion and not fact.
As Pope, Ratzinger understood his role as custodian of the faith and protector of church teaching. It is therefore admirable that an individual who may have had progressive personal opinons, as this article suggests, was able to put aside his opinions to teach the Gospel message and strengthen people's conviction in Catholicism by holding up the churches teaching. This article it seems would have preferred if Pope Benedict had thrown aside the churches teaching in favour of his own opinions. This would have been a betrayal of the Catholic faith which trusts the the teaching of the saints and the slow process of unpacking revealation.
Pope Benedict was a humble man who loved nothing more than to contemplate the heart of Jesus. Thank you for this article. It is worrying that the author of this article with such bias has been given so much responsibility in the current synod process as part of the Theological Commission.

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