THE works of Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, will be an extraordinary gift from the Church of the current and previous centuries to that of the future. Tackling over a 70-year period of writing subjects that include the Bible, the church Fathers, ecclesiology, liturgy, and fundamental Christian theology, he never fails to shed the clearest light on whatever subject is under discussion. In this readable and informative work, Ambrose Mong, a Chinese Dominican friar and academic, presents a lucid and scrupulously fair exposition of Ratzinger’s thought, as well as a serious critique of it.
He argues that Ratzinger has an excessively Eurocentric outlook, nurtured in the monochrome Catholic culture of Bavaria, and unsuited to the challenges that the Church faces in pluralistic Asian countries. He charges Benedict, who was schooled in the thought of St Augustine and St Bonaventure, with having a Platonist, idealised view of the Church, and an over-developed doctrine of original sin.
Adhering to the “principle of non-contradiction” derived from Greek philosophy (an essential companion to the Judaeo-Christian revelation, in his view), Ratzinger has little time for the relativism that now dominates discourse in Western countries. “If all positions are of equal merit,” he says, “then cannibalism is only a matter of taste.”
This does not, however, mean that he is hostile to other philosophical and religious traditions. Mong describes Ratzinger’s theology as “inclusivist”: he believes that there are good grounds in Christian doctrine to affirm that other religions also speak of God and lead people to him, and that Christians have much to learn from some of them. There are, however, definite red lines that he will not cross, such as the uniqueness of Christ, the importance of revealed truth, and the authority of the Church.
Rubber hit the road when, in the 1990s, Ratzinger smelt a decided whiff of relativism in assertions of the Sri Lankan priest and professor Fr Tissa Balasuriya (1924-2013), such as that “normative norms . . . are not absolutely absolute”. In Balasuriya’s view, shared by Mong, in Asian countries, where Christians are vastly outnumbered by Buddhists and Muslims, Christian theology should be more pluralistic than Ratzinger’s adherence to Greek philosophy and Roman legal structures will allow.
Balasuriya was excommunicated (or, technically, held to have excommunicated himself), a punishment that many found excessively severe, given that the Vatican had not meted it out to South American dictators, Mafia members, and IRA bosses.
Those who find the heavy-handed antics of the “Panzer Cardinal” distasteful might pause to reflect on some of the theological issues that are at stake in such disputes. For example, in contrast with Buddhist teaching that God is impersonal and unknowable, Ratzinger asserts that God, as Christians (and Jews) understand him, is personal and seeks the human person, that “he has a face, and he seeks our face; he has a heart, and he seeks our heart.” In contrast with the unflinching monotheism of Islam, Ratzinger teaches that in Jesus we see God truly revealed, and in the Spirit we know him truly at work.
Whie noting Mong’s penetrating critique, we must also be grateful for somebody who, throughout his long life, has always wanted to stand up for such central Christian truths, and steadfastly refused to negotiate or relativise them away.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings, in the diocese of Chichester.
Dialogue Derailed: Joseph Ratzinger’s war against pluralist theology
James Clarke £30