Father Thomas Reese, S.J., has an interesting and worthwhile article at the National Catholic Reporter on the legacy of Pope Benedict. The piece is characterized first by an admirable generosity of spirit. Fr. Reese explains that he had a rather serious and understandably distressing run in with the pope before he became pope: one of Cardinal Ratzinger’s last acts when he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was to inform the Jesuit Superior General that Reese should be removed as the editor of America, the Jesuit periodical. Fr. Reese has the candor to admit that this unpleasant history might color his understanding of Benedict’s legacy.
The generosity of spirit shows itself, however, in what follows: Reese credits Benedict with a number of important virtues and accomplishments. He had the courage to resign his office when he thought it was best for the Church, he was the first Vatican official to come to appreciate the scope of the problem of priestly sexual abuse, he began the serious reform of the Vatican’s finances, and he was a marvelously clear writer.
I credit Fr. Reese for all of these remarks. In light of them, it is impossible to say that the article as a whole is unfair to Benedict. There is a part of it, however, that I do think is unfair–obviously a part that comes up when Reese turns to his criticisms.
Fr. Reese observes that Joseph Ratzinger started out as a German university professor, and suggests that this experience colored his understanding of the Church, and especially of the function of the magisterium or teaching authority. German university professors, Fr. Reese contends, are treated as authorities by their students–or at least they were in Ratzinger’s day–and so the students are supposed to give the answers back that they have been taught by their teachers. This was the approach–the problematic approach, according to Fr. Reese–that Benedict took towards theologians.
The problem with Fr. Reese’s contention shows itself most clearly, I think, in the following passage:
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he saw his role as being like that of a German professor. Those who questioned or did not provide the right answers were flunked and dismissed from school. He saw to it that theologians raising questions or having contrary views were removed from seminary faculties. Priests with these views could never become bishops. In this, he and John Paul were on the same page.
The tragedy of Ratzinger was that he related to other theologians not as colleagues and peers but as graduate students to be corrected or junior faculty to be denied promotion. He was chairman of the department, and his views would prevail.
I think that this is unfair to Benedict because it does not even attempt to understand him as he understood himself–which would be the first step (as we learn from, say, John Stuart Mill) to making an intelligent and just criticism of him. I think anybody who has read much of Benedict’s writing, or the lengthy interviews he gave, which were published as books, will see that he did not insist much on what he thought were merely his own views. In the preface to his book, Jesus of Nazareth, he goes out of his way to inform the reader that what he has to say in that book is just his opinion as a theologian and not binding on anybody as Catholic teaching.
My point is this: contrary to Fr. Reese’s formulation–in which Ratzinger and then Benedict used the authority of his office merely to enforce agreement with his own views–the prefect and later the pope surely understood himself to be using his authority to make sure that people claiming to be Catholic theologians were in fact teaching the Catholic faith. There is a big difference between using your ecclesial office to suppress views on which Catholics are free to disagree, on the one hand, and using it to suppress views that no one claiming to be a Catholic has a right to teach. The first is abuse of the office, while the latter is a duty inextricably tied to the office.
Interestingly, Fr. Reese does not give one example of a case in which Cardinal Ratzinger or Pope Benedict tried to silence someone merely for disagreeing with his own views. This makes one suspect that any example Fr. Reese could think of might really be one that involved the integrity of the faith itself, which the pope is bound to protect.
A related difficulty is that Fr. Reese writes as if it is somehow a problem that the pope would discipline some theologians. But (as Fr. Ronald Knox observes in The Belief of Catholics) any revealed religion–such as Catholicism is–would have to have some authoritative teaching office to preserve the integrity of the revelation it claimed to have received. Fr. Reese says that for the Church to have a vibrant intellectual life and present itself credibly to the modern world bishops and theologians need to work together. Nobody would disagree with that, I suppose. But Fr. Reese and everybody else needs to remember that the pope and the bishops have authority in the Church, while theologians have none.