March 1, 2013

Pope’s legacy includes being committed teacher of the faith

Pope Benedict XVI addresses the College of Cardinals at the Vatican Feb. 28, the final day of his papacy. In attendance were 144 cardinals, including many of the 115 younger than 80 who are eligible and expected to vote in the upcoming conclave. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI addresses the College of Cardinals at the Vatican Feb. 28, the final day of his papacy. In attendance were 144 cardinals, including many of the 115 younger than 80 who are eligible and expected to vote in the upcoming conclave. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

By Sean Gallagher

One of the principal duties of a pope is to be the Church’s first teacher of the faith.

Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down as bishop of Rome on Feb. 28, was well known for that aspect of his papal ministry through his homilies, speeches and various teaching documents. (Related: More coverage of the papal transition)

Teaching the faith has been central to his ministry, however, since his ordination to the priesthood in 1951. For much of the next 26 years after his ordination, he taught as a theologian in various German universities before being named archbishop of Munich and Freising in Germany in 1977.

In 1981, he was appointed prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an office he held until his election as pope in 2005.

Three theologians who teach in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis shared their thoughts recently on the legacy of Pope Benedict in regard to his office as the principal teacher of the Catholic faith for the universal Church.

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, the main teacher of the faith in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, also reflected on this aspect of the resigned pope’s ministry in a recent interview.

Benedictine Father Guy Mansini, a theology professor at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, thinks Pope Benedict is one of the most accomplished theologians to have been elected bishop of Rome in recent history, pointing to his research on the theological writings of St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure and his experience as a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council.

“Because of his experience at the council,” Father Guy said, “he could convincingly and persuasively distinguish between the real council—the council that spoke in continuity with the great Catholic tradition of the Fathers, the Middle Ages, [the Council of] Trent, and the 19th- and 20th-century papacy—and the council that was the invention of the secular media, the council according to which the Church should be nothing more than a sort of cheerleader for post-modern sexual and social liberations.”

Andy Hohman, who teaches theology and philosophy at Marian University in Indianapolis, thinks Pope Benedict’s priority on the re-evangelization of the secularized West is rooted in his work as a theologian that dates back as far as the 1960s.

“His emphasis on the evangelization from the beauty [of the Gospel], his commitment to the new evangelization of Europe—these certainly can be found in his Introduction to Christianity,” said Hohman, referring to a book that Pope Benedict wrote in 1968. “Here one sees his careful analysis of secularization and modernity. His concern for a Christian humanism and the heritage of Christian culture certainly has roots in his basic theological commitments.”

Kevin Schemenauer is one of Hohman’s colleagues at Marian. Born after the election of Blessed John Paul II, Schmenauer attended World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005 just months after Pope Benedict’s election, and later was a graduate student at The Catholic University of America in Washington when the pontiff visited it in 2008 and delivered a speech about the meaning of Catholic higher education.

He appreciates what he describes as the retired pontiff’s “intellectual humility.”

“Benedict XVI has a way of bringing together diverse perspectives and drawing insights even from the writings of those with whom he disagrees,” Schemenauer said. “This intellectual humility and ability to bring together often polarized ideas is an inspiration and model for me as an aspiring moral theologian.”

Archbishop Tobin was amazed by this humility in Pope Benedict’s choice of the first writer that he cited in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love”)—Friederich Nietzsche.

“I was astounded that anybody would use such an ‘unchurchlike’ source to focus his reflection,” he said.

Archbishop Tobin had the chance to witness the retired pope’s theological acumen firsthand during a session of the 2005 World Synod of Bishops meeting on the Eucharist.

“The pope presides over most of the synod sessions. And he sits there in the front,” Archbishop Tobin said. “Benedict listened. And in front of him he had the Vulgate and Greek New Testament—just those two books. He listened for about a week and then finally said, ‘I hope you don’t mind if I say something about the Eucharist as sacrifice.’ He said that this was a problem that he had been wrestling with for 50 years.

“It was a magisterial lecture. It was absolutely brilliant. You could have heard a pin drop as he talked.”

Hohman appreciated that Pope Benedict continued his theological work as pope in Jesus of Nazareth, his three-volume reflection on the life of Christ, which was published under his pre-papal name, Joseph Ratzinger—a move the Marian philosophy and theology professor thought was intriguing.

“He was aiming to engage as a theologian in the contemporary theological debate,” Hohman said. “This certainly put him at a certain disadvantage. He put his ideas out, they were critiqued, [and] he had no voice to reply to his critics.

“It will be interesting to see if the retired Pope Benedict continues to engage or engages more actively in explicit theological methods and claims once he is free to speak his theological mind without the same level of restriction.”

Whatever Pope Benedict does theologically in retirement, Father Guy will look back on his pontificate and see love behind the way in which he carried out his teaching office.

“As every pope must, he spoke the truth, the truth of the Gospel, as God gave him light to understand it, and against the distortions of the modern age,” Father Guy said. “But what is distinctive in his teaching is the love with which he taught—his manifest love of Christ and Christ’s teaching and mission and his love of those he was addressing. Benedict followed St. Paul’s dictum completely to ‘speak the truth in love’ ” (Eph 4:15). †

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