The Scholar Pope

December 29 2005 | by

FOR SOME THREE years, from March 2001 to April 2004, the Messenger of Saint Anthony had a series on the many documents of the late Holy Father, John Paul II. As the sheer number of papal documents grew, it was thought useful to provide an introduction to some of them. We focused on John Paul's letters to youth, children, women, families, the elderly, prisoners, the suffering, artists, priests and many others who may not have known that they were the subject of the special pastoral concern of the pope.

Like the first bishops

I wrote then that John Paul had chosen to exercise his Petrine ministry like the Church Fathers of the first centuries; bishops who always kept a pen close at hand. He had recovered an early tradition in the Church - think of Augustine or John Chrysostom or Leo the Great - in which bishops governed and taught widely, both writing their own tracts and having their homilies published by others. I thought then that this would be a rather singular feature of the John Paul era. After all, it is not customary for popes to be world class scholars, as Karol Wojtyla was in the world of philosophy and ethics. And then came Pope Benedict XVI.
Joseph Ratzinger spent his whole life as a scholar, continuing his research and writing even during his long service as John Paul's chief lieutenant at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. It was not expected that the College of Cardinals would choose the Church's leading theologian-bishop to follow the philosopher-pope, but they did, and so the Church continues to have as her chief shepherd a man devoted to the life of the mind.
Can we then expect another pontificate rich in teaching documents, letters, homilies and books? Perhaps not. The Holy Father said in an October interview that he thought he would produce fewer documents than John Paul did; already he has reduced the number of papal appearances and speeches.

Deepening JP's work

There are three reasons for this. First, Benedict is some twenty years older than John Paul was upon assuming the Chair of Peter. He simply cannot conduct himself at the pace of his predecessor. Second, as Prefect of Doctrine, Benedict already collaborated on all of the principal documents of John Paul's pontificate. He likely feels no need to revisit many of those topics because he was intimately involved in the documents already produced. Indeed, the Holy Father has indicated already that his role is not so much to present new initiatives, but to deepen the roots of the projects already undertaken by John Paul.
But there is a third, more personal, reason why Benedict may not be so prolific as pope. He has already said so much on so many topics that it is not quite as necessary for him to make his views known. After the conclave last April, one cardinal joked that if Benedict's election did nothing other than encourage people to read his many books, it would be a success.
Cardinal Ratzinger has been writing books and theological articles since the 1960s, so he arrived at the papacy with a lifetime of work already published. While those writings remain, for the most part, the work of a private theologian, his election as Pope Benedict XVI inevitably casts a retroactive papal aura around them. While they do not enjoy formal papal authority, those writings will now be more deeply studied, and far more influential than they might otherwise have been.

Studying Cardinal Ratzinger

Therefore, the Messenger begins new series in this issue that will look precisely at the significant literary output of Cardinal Ratzinger. Much of his work has been translated into English, so readers who find their appetites whetted by the necessarily brief introductions here can follow up with the books themselves.
Where to start then? For those who have never read Ratzinger, a thin book recently published by Ignatius Press, The Legacy of John Paul II: Images and Memories, might be a good start. It's really a book of John Paul photographs with two previously published essays by Cardinal Ratzinger, the first on John Paul's tenth anniversary, the second on his twentieth. In addition, Ratzinger's homily at the late Holy Father's funeral Mass is included.
The essays provide a nice link between Benedict and his predecessor, but they also give a good taste of Ratzinger's approach. His genius is the ability to, in simple language, unpack multiple layers of meaning in something that we might easily just pass over. Consider the following passage, wherein Ratzinger comments upon the decision of John Paul to speak in the first person singular, instead of the more formal first person plural. And in so doing, he gives us a sense of how we should understand scholar-popes, as he himself has now become.
'John Paul has exchanged the classical 'We' of the papal style for the immediate, personal 'I' of the writer and speaker. One should not underestimate such a stylistic revolution. It struck us all at first as something long overdue, as putting an end to an antiquated custom that was no longer suited to our contemporary world. But we must not forget that this 'We' was more than a courtly flourish.'
'When the Pope speaks, he does not speak in his own name. For ultimately it does not matter what private theories or opinions he has worked out for himself over the course of time, even if they should be of high intellectual caliber. The Pope does not speak as a private scholar, with his personal 'I', as a soloist, so to speak, on the stage of intellectual history. He speaks in another mode, from the 'We' of the faith of the entire Church, and the first person singular must step back behind it. ...Thus in many respects it is not an entirely inconsequential thing to replace the 'We' with 'I'.'

JP's I-We unity

Having taken a rather simple matter and unveiled the complexity behind it, Cardinal Ratzinger then provides his characteristic synthesis, which keeps all aspects of the matter in proper perspective, while re-reading the whole matter in light of the Christian Gospel. Ratzinger continues, 'But anyone who studies the papal and personal writings of Pope John Paul II can easily recognize that this Pope knows very well how to distinguish between the entirely personal works of Karol Wojtyla, and his official doctrinal pronouncements as Pope. The reader will also recognize that these are not two completely separate things; rather, they are one personality that is informed by the faith of the Church. His 'I', his personality, has been placed entirely at the service of the 'We'. He has not drawn the 'We' down into the subjective realm of private opinions; rather, he has clothed it with a personality that is thoroughly informed by this 'We' and stands for it.'
'I believe that this fusion of 'We' and 'I', which has matured in his life of faith and his reflection upon it, is the essential reason for what is fascinating about his papal figure. It allows him to move about quite freely and matter-of-factly in his office; it allows him to be thoroughly himself as Pope, without having to fear that he is thereby pulling the office down too much into the subjective sphere.'

Benedict's I-We unity

Cardinal Ratzinger was writing in 1988. After nine months as Pope, his own words about John Paul could now be applied to himself. He concludes this quite lovely reflection with a practical application to the contemporary challenges facing the Church, 'But how did this inner unity develop? How does a personal path of believing, thinking and living lead so completely into the centre of the Church? This is a question that goes far beyond mere biographical curiosity. For precisely this 'identification' with the Church, without any hypocrisy of schizophrenia, seems impossible today to so many people who are struggling to keep the faith.'
Ratzinger begins with a change in linguistic style, meditates upon the relationship of the scholar to the papacy, and then applies all that to contemporary questions of personal identity and the nature of the Church. Exquisite passages like that are as rare among theologians as they are among bishops. But Ratzinger's opus is littered with them. Over the next many months, this series aims to explore some of that. You are invited to join in that exploration.

Updated on October 06 2016