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Theology in Public: Reflections on the Social Teaching of Benedict XVI

Matthew Neugebauer

Friday, January 6, 2023

Photo by Stefano Spaziani
Gratitude for a generous gift.
That is my overwhelming response to the life, ministry, and towering intellect of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Gratitude for this foremost public theologian of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Gratitude for his tireless efforts to communicate the faith of the Church in a world that is forgetting its theological literacy. Gratitude for a man, a leader, a Pope who gave his life to follow the Holy Spirit into all truth, showing us that studious reflection on the mysteries of God leads to a profound and constant service of charity.
I’m grateful for Benedict XVI’s razor-sharp clarity of mind. He was able to cut through the false dichotomies and needless complications that obscured the simple truth of God's love in Christ and all it entails. This is how he began his 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate:
“I am aware of the ways in which charity has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning, with the consequent risk of being misinterpreted, detached from ethical living and, in any event, undervalued. In the social, juridical, cultural, political and economic fields — the contexts, in other words, that are most exposed to this danger — it is easily dismissed as irrelevant for interpreting and giving direction to moral responsibility. Hence the need to link charity with truth not only in the sequence, pointed out by Saint Paul, of veritas in caritate ('truth in love,' Ephesians 4:15), but also in the inverse and complementary sequence of caritas in veritate ('love in the truth'). Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the ‘economy’ of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed, and practiced in the light of truth. In this way, not only do we do a service to charity enlightened by truth, but we also help give credibility to truth, demonstrating its persuasive and authenticating power in the practical setting of social living.” (#2)
In the context of this quote, he was calling for a pragmatic response to the economic crisis of 2008, one that involved structural change: the formation of a robust global regulatory system that would ensure that everyday citizens would be protected from the predations and manipulations of financial speculators.
But what does fiscal regulation have to do with theology? For Benedict XVI, a whole lot. He wasn’t content to seek purely institutional solutions to institutional crises, or with “justice” in the sense of a merely mechanistic exchange. He called for a truly charitable and generous reordering of our political and economic existence, which during his lifetime had become more globalized and less equitable. Through his argument in Caritas in Veritate, he gave us a brilliant example of his ability to make connections between God's truth and everyday economic and social concerns: God our Creator has given us life, selfhood, and so we are to embrace our vocation to life in society as the gift of ourselves to each other.
The unity of the human race, a fraternal communion transcending every barrier, is called into being by the word of God-who-is-Love. In addressing this key question, we must make it clear, on the one hand, that the logic of gift does not exclude justice, nor does it merely sit alongside it as a second element added from without; on the other hand, economic, social and political development, if it is to be authentically human, needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity.” (#34)
His ability to connect doctrine with everyday concerns came through in the various ways he served the Church. As a genteel professor and an expert theological advisor at Vatican II, Fr. Ratzinger came alongside seminarians and bishops alike as they grappled with the theological and spiritual implications of mid-20th-century life. His connective mindset emerged from within: in a recent interview with Vatican Radio, Cardinal Thomas Collins said that all of Professor Ratzinger’s former students spoke warmly of his “deep piety and deep” love for Jesus Christ that accompanied his academic instruction.
As Prefect of the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger’s role was to clarify the requirements of Sacred Tradition when controversial questions arose. It was St. John Paul II’s role, as Pope, to take the time exploring the theological and pastoral ramifications of Church teaching in a rapidly changing, post-Christian world. It was also the Pope’s task to connect with people where they were. St. John Paul II traveled to more countries and met more people than all previous popes combined, and Cardinal Ratzinger carried on the constant support of his predecessor’s Papacy back in Rome.
Then the unimaginable happened: the beloved Pontiff of 27 years died. Ratzinger was elected, and took the name “Benedict” in honour of St. Benedict of Nursia and Pope Benedict XV: two lighthouses of faith and the common good on the precipice of civilizational decline. Benedict XVI embraced the outgoing, pastoral nature of the papal office so brilliantly fulfilled by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. But he integrated this pastoral leadership with his continuing vocation to theological instruction and clarification.
His audience now went far beyond the seminary classroom or the Church institution. Overnight, he became responsible for the theological formation of the whole Catholic Church, and for the whole world. He clearly saw theological reflection as itself a pastoral task and a tool for evangelization. Catholic News Service Rome Bureau Chief Cindy Wooden describes her own experience with Benedict's very personable and enriching approach to catechesis:
As Pope, Benedict XVI was the world’s foremost “public theologian,” a global leader who articulated the importance of the Christian tradition for the everyday life of Church and society. He brought his characteristic urgency and clarity to this task, rooted in his focus on re-evangelizing Western society, where many no longer believed that the Christian faith could be relevant to their lives. In Caritas in Veritate, he showed us just how relevant faith can be for global economics. And when he spoke on the relationship between Christian faith and rationalist, secular politics, he took it as an opportunity to call contemporary pluralist democracies to raise their commitment to the common good.
During his Apostolic Visit to the U.K. in 2010, he gave an address to the British public sector in Westminster Hall, the symbolic birthplace of western democracy. In that speech, he made his case to the English-speaking world:
“The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason. The role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers, but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.”
He went on to argue for a two-way process, a dialogue between faith and reason that safeguards religious communities from “distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism” and at the same time ensures that rationalist, pluralist societies aren’t “manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person.”
This dialogue, in which faith helps light reason’s way “to the discovery of objective moral principles,” can bear important practical fruit. At Westminster, he said that it is able to “turn solidarity into effective action” by inspiring “fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare.” He praised the U.K. government’s commitment to increase global development aid as an example of such "effective action," calling it a “positive sign of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI rooted the Catholic social tradition in the light and truth of faith, leaving us with a compelling legacy of theology in public, and a compelling case for the enduring importance of theological reflection in our world today. He demonstrated an unswerving commitment to charity and solidarity, lived in the truth of God-given dignity. He taught us that the path of reason must be illuminated by the gleaming beacon of the Christian faith, at least when it comes to the Church’s contribution to building up the human family. He didn’t simply transmit a dry academic discourse that was irrelevant or insensitive to the needs and cares of ordinary people, but led a life of intellectual leadership that constantly called us back to the source of our fundamental dignity and the goal of all our hopes: God's loving gift of himself in Jesus Christ. By pointing to Jesus with everything he said and did, he led our minds, wills, and hearts along the path of holiness.
We join with the closing words of Pope Francis’s homily at his predecessor’s funeral: “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever!”


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