New generation of theologians to promote retired Pope Benedict’s teachings
With Pope Benedict retired behind the Vatican’s walls and his former students getting on in years, a new generation of theologians is taking up the challenge of spreading his views on God, faith and modern society.
The ex-pontiff, who stepped down in February, met every year since 1979 with several dozen former students whose doctoral theses he mentored as a theology professor in Germany before climbing the Roman Catholic Church’s career ladder to the top. He was absent when his students, who have mostly reached or passed retirement age, gathered at the papal summer residence Castel Gandalfo outside Rome two weeks ago.
But a new generation of scholars joined them there and announced plans for two conferences in Africa to introduce the theology of Professor Joseph Ratzinger, as he was known in his university days, beyond its European context.
“We students of his are old hands who are reaching retirement age or well beyond it,” Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn told Vatican Radio after the meeting. “It’s very good to see that a younger generation is coming along that is bright, very interested and very competent. I think it’s also a joy for Pope Benedict to see that the students circle that he started 34 years ago when he was archbishop of Munich will live on.”
“Not only Professor Ratzinger, the pope emeritus, is getting older, his students are as well,” said Rev Achim Buckenmaier, a member of the new group. “There is a danger that Ratzinger’s theology will no longer be taught.”
The new group counts 29 scholars specialised in the former pope’s theology rather than the older ones in the “Ratzinger student circle” who wrote their doctorates with him. They met together at Castel Gandolfo for the first time this year. Its first project will be a seminar on his writings in Benin next week for French-speaking African priests and theologians and one in Tanzania next March for English speakers.
Benedict was a well-known and widely published theologian before he was elected pope in 2005. He kept up his writing at the Vatican, producing a three-volume biography of Jesus that hit the bestseller lists in several languages. He signed them “Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI” to show they were his personal views, not statements of papal dogma, and open for debate rather than set out as infallible teachings.
Before the conclave that elected his successor Pope Francis in March, a senior official in the Vatican Curia said the new pope need not be another theologian. “Ratzinger has left us enough to study for the next 40 years,” he remarked.
Ratzinger is known as a conservative thinker, and his writings reflect loyalty to orthodox Catholic theology, but he could surprise readers by debunking some old myths with the latest insights from academic research. In his last Jesus volume, for example, he said there was no ox and ass at the Nativity and Christ was probably born in a cave rather than a stable, as Christian tradition says.
He also said a monk’s miscalculation put Jesus’s birth a few years earlier than it actually happened – a widespread view among academics that can still surprise average churchgoers.
Buckenmaier, a German-born theologian at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, said another hallmark of his theology is his defence of Christianity as a religion that tempered faith with philosophical reason inherited from the ancient Greeks.
This link between faith and reason, a recurrent theme in Benedict’s speeches during his trips abroad, is especially important in Africa because of the persistence of traditional animist religions there, Buckenmaier said.
“Christianity in Africa is still young, only 100 or 150 years old, and there is still magical thinking among the people that presents a challenge for priests and catechists,” he said. “There is a great potential for Ratzinger’s theology in Africa,” he said, but the problem is first to introduce it to priests and theologians there from a very different culture.
Buckenmaier, who organised the conferences with Benedict’s last doctoral student, Bishop Barthelemy Adoukonou from Benin, said the retired pope wrote for normal readers in his native German, but its clarity sometimes gets lost in translation. Some translations of his books made decades ago were updated after he became pope to better reflect the ideas his theology was putting forth.
“It assumes a cultural background that is quite European,” he said. Ratzinger also likes to coin new words, which works in German but makes some concepts very hard to translate. “Take his term Entweltlichung,” he said, which literally translates as unworlding. “I’ve seen many attempts in Italian or English — like liberation from worldliness — but none get it exactly right,” Buckenmaier said.
“It’s not so easy for an African priest or student to have access to this,” he said. “So we will have accompanied readings to help them.”