Just one of the benefits of the election of Pope Benedict XVI is that his books written while still a Cardinal are more easily found in bookstores. I recently came across The Nature And Mission Of Theology:
Approaches To Understanding Its Role In The Light Of Present Controversy which was written in 1985.
It is a book of medium length and as always when reading his works I both wish I was much smarter and that I had become a Catholic much sooner. This book is densely packed, but quite worthwhile as an overview of theology and its end.
The first chapter discusses both philosophy and theology, their varying competencies, and how they interact together. The second chapter on the essence of academic freedom is really quite enjoyable as Cardinal Ratzinger fleshes out a true academic freedom and its service to truth. He of course touches on dialogue and the importance of truly listening. From source I have read this is another of the admirable traits of Josef Ratzinger is that despite his hard nose reputation that he does truly listen to what others have to say and not just to find entries where he can interrupt and disagree. He also notes:
"… what does the word ‘dialogue’ really mean? After all, dialogue doe not take place simply because people are talking. Mere talk is the deteriorization of dialogue that occurs when there has been a failure to reach it. Dialogue first comes into being when there is not only speech but also listening. Moreover, such listening must be the medium of an encounter; this encounter is the condition of an inner contact which leads to mutual comprehension."
He then goes on to describe how St. Augustine concludes that his friends were capable of this mutual listening because they heeded the interior master, the truth. This book was certainly an answer to the current climate of theologians who mostly are merely talking and lack the same interior master.
Another chapter goes on to explain the eccclesial identity of theology and exactly how it is not truly possible to be a theologian outside of the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger while head of the CDF wrote the Instruction on the Eccclesial Vocation of the Theologian and this book in many ways expands on what he wrote in the instruction. Towards the end of the book he addresses some of the complaints made throughout the world to this instruction and really shows how little merit these criticisms had. I hadn’t read this instruction previously and took the opportunity to read it after finishing this book and I think it is quite unfortunate that this instruction was so thoroughly ignored among so many Catholic theologians.
What I really found interesting in this book is that it was not just a challenge to dissenting theologians, but also to orthodox ones.
"There are, of course, many petty minds and repeaters of the past even among orthodox theologians. They are to be found everywhere; hack theology has enjoyed a particularly rapid growth precisely where their was too much noisy chatter about creativity."
Surprisingly he admits to having once found the so-called heretic theologians to be much more interesting than theologians of the Church, especially in modern times and then list those orthodox theologians who are actually much richer and relevant. I think creativity for creativity sake that is divorced from the Church is the cause of so much dissent. A individualistic attitude of coming up with something new and different seems to drive this, though normally what they find so new is a old as gnosticism or some other heresy. The point he makes is that there is plenty of room for creativity and building upon the Church’s theology. After all mysteries are inexhaustible.
Reading the Pope’s books one thing I have noticed is his wry sense of humor. It is not introduced much into his writings and when used is used to make a point. For example this is from the foreword to this book.
"…If I am right two things are expected of a theologian in the modern world. One the one hand, he is supposed to subject the tradtions of Christianity to critical examination by the light of reason, to distill from them the essential core which can be appropriated for use today, and thereby also place the institutional Church within her proper limits. But at the same time he is also expected to respond to the need for religion and transcendence, a need which simply refuses to be ignored, by giving guiding orientation and meaningful content which can be responsibly accepted today. In the emerging world society an additional task devolves upon him: he must promote interelgious dialogue and contribute to the development of a planetary ethos whose key concepts are justice, peace, and integrity of creation. Finally, however, the theologian should also be a comforter of souls, who helps individuals to be reconciled with themselves and to overcome their alienations. In fact, the purely collective consolation of a better world of the future where universal peace reigns has proved to be thoroughly unsatisfying.
While the theologian is busily working to meet these expectations, the institutional Church often appears to be an annoying impediment. This is especially true of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, which presupposes that Christianity especially in its Catholic variety, has determinate content and thus confronts our thinking with a prior given, which cannot be manipulated at will and which alone gives to the theologians words their distinctive significance and above and beyond all purely politician and philosophical discourse. …"
It wasn’t until the second paragraph that I realized he was giving a critique of the modern theologian, of which I should have realized sooner when he used the words "institutional church" of which modern theologians are so fond of using as in a dismissive way.
So if you are interested in theology and its sphere within the Church, then this book is highly recommended.
In related news R.R. Reno has a post today in First Things called That Seventies Show that partly addresses theology in the last century.