The Christocentric Shift

October 2011By Arthur C. Sippo

Arthur C. Sippo, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is a physician and specialist in aerospace medicine who has written and lectured as a Catholic apologist for over thirty years. He writes from southern Illinois.

The Theology of Benedict XVI: The Christocentric Shift.  By Emery de Gaál. Palgrave Macmillan. 386 pages. $95.



Once in a while, a book appears on the scene that not only fulfills the promise of its title but transcends it and gives us so much more. This is what we have in Fr. Emery de Gaál’s Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. In fact, it covers so much more that it could have been titled The Progress of Catholic Systematic Theology in the Twentieth Century Illustrated by the Theological Career of Joseph Ratzinger, the Man who Became Pope Benedict XVI.

I have been waiting thirty years for a book like this to explain the developments that led up to, inspired, and have proceeded from the Second Vatican Council. Heterodox opinions about what happened offered by the usual theological “experts” who want to use Vatican II as an excuse for jettisoning traditional Church teaching are virtually beyond number. They extol modernistic “updates,” which the papacy resisted over the previous century. Fr. de Gaál’s book is refreshing in its orthodoxy and its loyalty to the Magisterium. Nevertheless, it is critical of the state of Catholic theology prior to the Council and shows why reform truly was necessary.

In the life story of Joseph Ratzin­ger we can see how the Catholicism of his native Bavaria shaped his character and his mind. Ratzinger’s father was a policeman who retired early from his job during the rise of the Nazi regime to avoid being morally compromised. He moved his family to the countryside to escape the violence and amorality of the cities. Cities foster the myth of human autonomy and place God at a distance from everyday life; the rural life has always kept people closer to the rhythms of nature and thus given them a greater awareness of God’s providence. The Ratzinger family was blessed with good parishes and good pastors, and Joseph was steeped in a world in which his Catholicism was a living reality, not merely a set of arid propositions. His parents sent him to school for an education that immersed him in classical literature and gave him an appreciation for the pleasures of contemplation apart from the distractions of modernity. He was raised in the Baroque tradition, which did not separate mind from body, and which encouraged the integration of the spiritual life with everyday life.

The direct experience of God in his upbringing made Joseph more open to meditation and contemplation and less interested in the rigorous ratiocination that had become popular among Catholics in that period, particularly the Neo-Thomists of the time. They were not really true to St. Thomas but reacted dialectically to the idealism of Kant. This impulse was so strongly Aristotelian that many of them preferred systematic theology to biblical or patristic studies. In fact, there was a theory circulating at the time that the Catholic faith could be derived as propositions from Tradition and Scholastic reflection while relegating the Scriptures to an adjunct to piety.

When he decided to pursue a vocation and began studying theology and philosophy in earnest, Joseph was attracted to St. Augustine and his views about faith as a personal encounter with the risen Christ. He also discovered St. Bonaventure’s views on history and the theology of love. It is no surprise that St. John’s Gospel is Ratzinger’s favorite.

In response to the Kantian challenge, but backing away from the excesses of Neo-Thomism, Ratzinger followed the work of Romano Guardini and Hans Urs von Balthasar, to name but two of the Catholic theologians who began to jostle the Barque of St. Peter to awaken her from her “Thomistic” slumbers. Personalism — the belief that religion is the experience of the whole man before God — was the methodology Ratzinger preferred. He was influenced by the work of Max Scheler and Edmund Husserl. He was a brilliant student and became one of the most beloved professors of the Catholic university faculties in Germany.

Ratzinger did very little serious study in St. Thomas, which is ironic considering his later reputation as a conservative. In fact, Ratz­inger was perceived to be “soft” on the Analogia Entis (the “analogy of being”) at a time when the conflict between Karl Barth and Fr. Erich Przy­wara was a cause célèbre. He is on record as affirming the Analogia Entis but without enthusiasm. As a proposition, it is necessary to make God relevant to the created order; but for Ratzinger, it must be properly juxtaposed with the Analogia Fidei (the “analogy of faith”) to prevent immanentism from collapsing into pantheism. In this he followed von Balthasar and built bridges toward the thought of Barth. It is no surprise that today both von Balthasar and Ratzinger enjoy a following among serious Protestant theologians.

Ratzinger focused his theology on the encounter with Jesus Christ as the one true source of revelation from God to man. This is the “Christocentric Shift” of the book’s title. Rather than looking for an impersonal natural revelation, or a merely exegetical biblical revelation, Ratzinger sought a personal revelation of Jesus Christ as the basis of all divine revelation. He found Jesus not only in Tradition and Scripture but also in the Catholic Church as the Mystical Body of Christ and most directly in the Real Presence of the Holy Eucharist. This fourfold understanding of divine revelation truly supports the historic claims of Catholicism. Christ can be found not merely in a book, but in the life and history of the Church over the centuries, punctuated by the direct and personal encounter with Christ in the sacrament of the altar. The danger of reducing Christianity to mere philosophic speculation, literary exegesis, sociology, or unformed mysticism is eliminated by placing Christ as the source and goal of all truth.

In the period from 1930 to 1960, Catholic theologians began rediscovering the Bible and the Church Fathers. The work of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman was largely responsible for this. Studies of the patristic period challenged some of the treasured assumptions of Coun­ter-Reformation Catholicism, especially with regard to the liturgy. Still, some went too far and challenged previously defined teaching. There was so much revisionism and dissension that a Neo-Thomist backlash was inevitable and many scholars were silenced or worse. The veneer of tranquility in the Catholic Church that so many of us felt in the 1950s concealed a raging battle between reactionaries, reformers, revisionists, and radicals.

When Pope John XXIII called for an ecumenical council in 1960, it surprised the rank and file in the Church, but not those involved in this ongoing conflict. The forces seeking reform prevented a hijacking of the Council at the very beginning by reactionaries who drew up initial schemas that merely rubber-stamped the “manual theologies” to which the forces of renewal were opposed. Ratzinger was among those who fought successfully to table these schemas and to open the discussion in new directions. He was considered such a maverick that Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani tried to bar him from acting as a periti at the Council.

Ratzinger made several contributions to the Council and was part of the group that created the journal Concilium, which acted as a sounding board for progressives. Among others who contributed to Concilium were Johann-Baptist Metz, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, and Hans Küng. But Concilium’s editorial policy soon began to trouble Ratzin­ger. The “Transcendental Thomists,” in their engagement with the Kantian challenge, had turned away from the theocentric methodology of the pre-conciliar period and replaced it with an anthropocentric one that virtually reduced religion to anthropology. Ratzinger firmly championed a Chris­tocentric methodology that founded the Christian religion on the Incarnation as the source of knowledge about what was true about God and what was true about man. Only at this intersection between the divine and the human could there be any religious truth. So he and von Balthasar began their own journal, Communio, and became critics of the post-conciliar excesses of the more radical periti.

In 1968 Ratzinger became involved with the Catholic Integrated Community in Munich, a lay spiritual movement that sought to live a communal Catholic life to a much deeper degree than that which existed in traditional parishes. This experience helped shape Ratzinger’s understanding of what it means to be a Catholic in modern times, to be in the world but not of it.

Ratzinger eventually became the archbishop of Munich, and over a five-year period of pastoral work put his experience with the Catholic Integrated Community to good use. His efforts as a bishop were considered a success, but at the same time he continued his academic work. In 1982 he was made prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope John Paul II and began reining in the more excessive radicals who had taken the aggiorna­mento of Vatican II too far. For his strong actions he was often labeled a conservative, though Ratzinger always insisted that he had remained consistent in the central principles of his theology since his time as an academic.

Ratzinger remained a champion of personalism, a methodology that was quite influential during Vatican II, as can be seen in Digni­tatis Humanae, the Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty.” It was also reflected in subsequent papal teaching. Humanae Vitae, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, used a personalist argument to explain the immorality of contraception. This won the ire of ultra-conservatives who, while agreeing with the conclusions of the encyclical, thought that a stronger argument could have been made on Thomistic grounds. Similar personalist methodologies were also used by Pope John Paul II, who was likewise critiqued by ultra-conservatives. When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected to the papacy, he carried on this personalist tradition.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have noted that the modern world dehumanizes mankind with consumerism, scientism, hedonism, and the culture of death. The dignity of the human person is at stake. Rarefied arguments based on sound logical principles are trumped by the promptings of human urges and irrationality. Intellectualism will not persuade modern man. What is needed is a return to an integrated humanism based on the dignity of man made in the image of God and born again in the likeness of Jesus Christ. Humanity needs to regain its sense of self and the personal concern that can only be found in God’s love for each and every one of us.

Fr. de Gaál has written a masterwork that brings us up to date with the new directions in which the Holy Spirit is leading the Catholic Church. He has taken the life of one faithful Catholic man who answered God’s call to the priesthood and who, through his subsequent career, helped the Church to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In the life of this one man, we see how a faithful Catholic can influence the mission of the Church in the Third Christian Millennium.



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