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Flock and key

To understand theology, you need to attend not only to the tune, but to the key it is played in. I was reminded of this by responses to Benedict XVI’s inaugural sermon at his enthronement. He quoted John’s Gospel in speaking of Christian unity: ‘I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must lead them too, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd’ (Jn 10:16). Some observers took him to mean that other churches should return to unity with Rome under the Pope, instead of journeying together towards an unforeseeable unity.

It was natural to draw this conclusion. This quotation from John’s Gospel was long played in Barrister’s Key. It was sawed to size and hammered together with other texts about Peter, to argue against Protestants that Peter is Christ’s vice-regent and that the Catholic Church is the one true Church. Documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, are also often composed in Barrister’s Key, using texts to build a case.

In his sermon, Pope Benedict explored the symbols entrusted to the Pope in the ceremony: the pallium—a woollen piece of cloth—and the ring. He associated the pallium with the image of the shepherd, and the ring with the image of the fisherman. In the Gospel reading used at the ceremony, these two images are tied to Peter. After he had taken an amazing catch of fish, Jesus invited him to feed his sheep.

In his sermon, the Pope refers to many scriptural texts. He does not use them to make a case, but plays freely with them, allowing them to generate new images. The shepherd, variously identified with Christ, the bishops, Peter and the Pope, evokes the sheep, who are the lost sheep of humanity, Christians generally, and Christ, the sacrificial lamb. The lost sheep in turn evoke the desert, the place where humanity is lost. The images of fisherman, fish, and the sea from which fish are paradoxically rescued, are similarly fluid and generative.

This is theology played in Poet’s Key. Heard in this key, Pope Benedict’s reference to the one flock and one shepherd does not of itself make an intransigent papal claim. Images of the one flock and of the fishing net that remains unbroken naturally generate images of church unity, and have done so since the second century. The association is natural, and the interpretation of the text is fluid. In this key, texts do not define meanings; they open possibilities. The journey to unity is open.

The challenge to any theology played in Poet’s Key is to find some firm structure in the soup of images. In Catholic theology, the shaping principle of theology is the life of the Church, which involves a complex set of relationships between prayer, liturgy, teaching and history. In life, nothing is lost. So the Pope’s play of images echoes interpretations of these images over 20 centuries. Nothing is forgotten, not even the papalist interpretation of the passage. But each interpretation is like a facet on a prism that combines with others to generate new perspectives.

A theology that attends to images is always wild. Augustine, on whom the young Ratzinger went to theological school, believed that scriptural texts trail interpretations like baited hooks, each waiting for its reader. He knew that neither texts, nor fish, nor people swim in straight lines.                 

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.


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