Benedict XVI – A Follower of Augustine?

Once again, Wednesday 22nd September saw the Cleveland Newman Circle’s annual cycle of talks get underway. Professor Lewis Ayres, who currently holds the Bede Chair of Catholic Theology in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, began by posing the question

What does it mean to call Pope Benedict an Augustinian and does it help us to understand him?

He argued that in order to understand Fr Joseph Ratzinger’s continuity in Augustinian thinking, one first of all had to appreciate who this early fifth century Bishop of Hippo (the largest diocese in North Africa) really was. He explained that Augustine was a thinker of massive stature in the Latin Catholic Tradition because although imbued with a former Latin theological tradition, he was also experimental in that he tried to draw his readers into the depths of the mysteries which Scripture reveals. He was also a defining thinker, forcing his successors to consider how God’s grace works; its necessity and irresistibility.

So a lover of Augustine, so the story goes, is someone who takes a rather pessimistic view of human nature after the fall; someone who is likely to think that we need a clear external authority to guide us, someone who sees the Church in conflict with the world until the end of time. Some have subsequently argued that we should understand Pope Benedict’s attitude to Vatican II as the product of an Augustinian mindset, having written his own doctoral thesis on Augustine (‘The People and House of God in Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church’, completed in 1953 and, unfortunately, never translated into English). However, scholars of Augustine also always have to balance this pessimism about the state of fallen humanity with his vision of a beautiful and ordered creation revealing its Creator.

At the heart of Ratzinger’s doctoral dissertation was the notion that the People of God reflects the African Bishop’s understanding of the Christian community as spiritually united in the liturgical worship of God. The Holy Spirit gradually bringing God’s People into harmonious relationships with each other and with God because Christians are members of the Body of Christ drawn mysteriously into Christ and united to him. The unity begun will only be manifested after the judgement and most fully seen when we gather for the Eucharist. The Church, therefore, shows its true nature, the transforming presence of Christ with the Spirit at its heart, in the Eucharist.

Augustine thought that Christ could be named in three ways (Sermon 341):-

* as God and according to the divine nature which is coequal and coeternal with the Father before he assumed flesh
* when, after assuming flesh, he is now understood to be God who is at the same time man, and man who is at the same time God; the mediator and head of the Church
* as the whole Christ in the fullness of the Church, that is as head and body, according to the completeness of a certain perfect humanity, the man in whom each of us are limbs

Ratzinger took these themes in an interesting direction by arguing that Augustine adapted and radically changed the Platonist view, of spiritual reality being far superior to material, and in doing so offered a rational Christian philosophy to the world. Ratzinger wrote that Augustine’s view of Christianity offers a vision of a beautiful created order that can lead toward the spiritual informing presence of the Word of God. He also thought that awareness of the intelligible and purification of the soul, the very goals of philosophy, could be taken up and rendered universally possible through the Church’s faith in God’s redemptive drawing of us toward eternal life. Christianity is thus not only a religion but also a rational philosophy.

It is not so much that the Church finds itself in a constant battle with the world, but that it finds itself called to show to the world the meaning and consummation of human culture, philosophy, art and life. Ratzinger’s vision of Augustine at this time sowed the seeds for a great deal of his later work. One place where this Augustinian perspective may still be seen working is in his position on debates over Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Many interpreters have presented the theme of the Church as the People of God rather than as the Body of Christ, a more common term during the first half of the twentieth century. Pope Benedict believes that both are interwoven in the document, and in Catholic tradition. By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body. However, the phrase People of God introduces language which gives sense to the historical progress of God’s People towards a heavenly kingdom. At a number of points in the document, Lumen Gentium, the text actually interweaves the imagery of the body with that of the people.

For Ratzinger, as for Augustine, the Christian tradition brings unity and consummation to human striving because it orients all human activity towards praise. However, the consummation of human activity is found in recognition that God works in the liturgy of the Church, our praise finds its form through the Spirit’s work among us. In Ratzinger’s The Spirit of Liturgy, published in 2000, the key to a thriving human culture is God’s descent to us, enabling our worship of God. He insists on the character of the Mass as a sacrifice, that is the humble and contrite gift of love and self to God, rendered possible by the Spirit within us. He argues that Christian worship also has a significant cosmic dimension and that the task of reform is always to make our liturgical practice reflect its core theological principles and the character of the most basic liturgical attitude toward the divine.

With the importance that Ratzinger placed on continuity in reform, there is one further Augustinian aspect to his thought. In the City of God, Augustine gave an organic unity to human history by reading it as the history of Fall and Redemption. The Church takes its place in this story by God manifesting the history of Christ’s Body on earth, the Apostles, Saints and Martyrs, through their humility and devotion to God. This vision formed the mind of the young Fr Ratzinger with a deep appreciation for the work of Cardinal Newman in offering a vision of the development of doctrine through the early centuries of the Church. Newman suggested that doctrines developed slowly by unfolding a mystery over the life of the Church. Faithful reform is a constant returning to the heart of the matter, attempting to reveal the continuous presence of the Spirit through the historical life of the Church.

Professor Ayres concluded a very good evening by stating that there was much to be gained by considering Benedict as an Augustinian. If we listen to the positive heart of the young Fr Ratzinger, we find ourselves also hearing the voice of the Ratzinger who spoke at the Council and who now speaks today as Pope Benedict XVI.

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