Pope Benedict and the role of Christ in the world
Throughout his career Benedict XVI has made a distinctive contribution to how we think about the place of the Catholic Church in secular society and how the Church engages with (often critical) secular thought. We can understand that contribution better if we look at his theological roots.
Pope Benedict grew up in Nazi Germany, a secular society gone terribly wrong, and his Catholic family hated the system. Nazism was the product of a false, dehumanizing philosophy that had abandoned God. After the war, the Christian tradition, rooted in God’s revelation of Christ, seemed to him to offer the only reliable protection against such horrors happening again.
When he entered the priesthood and began his academic career, he worked on the writings of two great theologians, Africa’s St Augustine and Italy’s St Bonaventure. For Augustine the Christian ‘City of God’ is different from earthly kingdoms. It is rooted in God and endures, while merely human civilizations rise and fall. Bonaventure sees in Christianity a wisdom that is more complete than the ideas of human philosophers. Its truths of scripture and tradition alone purify the mind and heart to see Jesus Christ at the centre of all things. Our final destiny is to be drawn into the love of God with our fallen human nature restored. We can see the effects of some of these ideas in Joseph Ratzinger’s later work.
In the 1960s, with Vatican II, the Church was moving into an optimistic phase in its relationship with non-Catholics and was learning to see the good in alternative points of view. However, Joseph Ratzinger began to feel that some people were going too far in trying to use ideas from outside the Catholic tradition. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, we can see him promoting a renewed sense of the continuity of the tradition. Christianity is different and needs to preserve its distinctive character, because its abiding truth and values are needed for the world.
Thus, when he discusses the difference between Christian social action and secular political action, he highlights the theological idea of love. We might all agree that it is good to fight injustice. But serving our neighbour is about more than material support. It is also about relationship and selflessness. The world needs to learn to love properly and only Christ can teach us how.
Sometimes this has made him sound as if he thinks that only Christians are capable of being properly generous or coming up with answers to life’s problems. However, when we look more closely at his writings, we see him recognizing the good that is done outside the Church and engaging creatively with Christian and atheist writers alike.
So he leaves us with a model of how the Church should be in the world, which echoes his old masters. He challenges secular society to be self-critical of its received ideas about the meaning of life. He invites civil authorities to protect Christianity and allow it a public voice. Without God human horizons are too limited. The task of Christians is to make society more human, through the transforming love of Christ. Our true hope is eternal and our destiny is to ‘dive into the endless sea of love’.