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Ratzinger and Rowan Williams side by side


Pope Benedict and Rowan WilliamsWhen Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope as Benedict XVI in 2005, the western Christian world found itself in the remarkable position of having both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches led by men viewed by many as their leading theologians. Rowan Williams and Ratzinger, although a generation apart in age, had more in common than academic credentials when they came to office.

Both are steeped in the theology of the early Christian writers known as the Church Fathers, and although Williams focused his Oxford doctoral studies on eastern Christianity, he also has a deep and sympathetic engagement with Augustine of Hippo, on whom Ratzinger had written at Munich, before going on to his second doctoral thesis (as is normal in Germany) on Bonaventure.

Both have also used this training in the depths of Christian tradition to do theology in a way that involved new insights and potential controversy. This is reasonably well-known on Williams' part; his famous essay 'The Body's Grace' remains one of the most important starting points for a revised assessment of homosexuality that is more than lazy indifference to sexual morality in the name of inclusion.

It may seem a more surprising assessment of Ratzinger, who had a reputation for being a guardian of orthodoxy rather than an explorer of its frontiers. His Bonaventure thesis had however been savaged by an examiner for alleged traces of 'modernism', and he was one of the theological advisers at the Second Vatican Council.

If he subsequently leaned towards tradition more clearly, it is fair to say that Ratzinger has, like Williams, always written and acted with a deep commitment to the truth as well as to his perceptions of the needs of the Church.

Yet Ratzinger came to the papacy, as far as many in the West were concerned at least, as threat more than promise. Having headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for most of John Paul II's papacy he had a reputation as a watchdog, who had acted against theologians such as Leonardo Boff and Anthony de Mello as well as seeming to slow or reverse the momentum for change initiated at the Council.

Williams on the other hand was a figure greeted with hope by Anglicans and others who anticipated that his grounding in tradition and openness to change would be reflected in his role as Archbishop of Canterbury. He had not, however, had to exercise comparable authority, or at least to occupy a role relevant to the whole Anglican Communion, before that.

Now that Williams has returned to academic life and Ratzinger's retirement has been announced, it is tempting to commit both their reigns to the category of failure, and debate mostly the nobility or otherwise of their inability (or unwillingness) to bend lurching structures or less gifted minds to their own wills. This would not, however, be the whole picture in either case.

Their shortcomings, real or perceived, have tended to cluster around the Church as institution and the way it treats its members. Williams struggled to hold together the disparate views of the various national Anglican groups, on human sexuality in particular. Ratzinger's Church and its challenges were altogether different, but he struggled to master a Vatican bureaucracy whose disarray has become more apparent with time.

Opinion is divided about whether the increased attention he paid to the reality of clergy sexual abuse has made sufficient difference to be a matter of great credit to him.

There will be those who see this real or perceived failure of the theologians as implying a need for a different kind of leadership; Justin Welby's elevation to the see of Canterbury arguably reflects not only his personal virtues, but a shift towards managerialism, given his previous corporate experience.

If the Cardinals perceive what the faithful in general and the world at large do, they too will surely respond to the present needs of the Roman Catholic Church in terms that allow for some sort of new broom.

This may do the departing prelates some injustice. The deepest problems faced by these churches have to do with the changing environment in which they find themselves, and the growing secularism of the West in particular. Both Williams and Ratzinger have made important contributions of an 'apologetic' nature — that is, related to the defence of faith as possible and powerful.

Williams' dialogues with such as Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins have been important and public examples. The outgoing Pope has not been willing or able to contend on similar ground — his important Regensburg lecture in 2006, which was a thoughtful reflection on religion and power among other things, caused an outcry after a misleadingly-excerpted quote from a Byzantine emperor was attributed to the pontiff himself.

His encyclicals and other writings deserve more attention than sound bites or mainstream media have allowed, and will continue to get it from the thoughtful among Catholics and others. His books on Jesus have been popular, but while they involve an important critique of reductionist interpretive methods, it is hard to see them going beyond mere traditional piety in the actual working out of a picture of Jesus.

Ratzinger's powerful defence of reason and critique of relativism are more important than his own quick jump from these to intractable positions about a set of difficult moral questions allows many to see. Like Williams, he is capable of defending and promoting a Christianity which is intellectually plausible and challenging not only to obvious forms of moral relativism but also to injustice and environmental irresponsibility.

His pontificate has not been a time when many beyond the Roman Catholic Church took him seriously in this regard — we could hope that relinquishing the burden of office may free him to be read, and heard, again. 

Andrew McGowan headshotAndrew McGowan is Warden of Trinity College, The University of Melbourne, and Professor in the MCD University of Divinity. He blogs at Andrew's Version and Royal Parade Diary


Topic tags: Andrew McGowan, Pope Benedict, Rowan Williams



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Existing comments

Ratzinger and Rowan are miles apart. The former is the successor to St Peter and vicar of Christ, The latter a legacy of King Henry's breakaway church. Individual attributes are incidental to the Petrine Commission, as was Peter's affinity for an advantageous Galilean fishery industry[the petrine office is set in concrete[from scripture and tradition] and not a plaything of flavour of the month reductionisms or idiosyncratic weltanschauungs.

Father John George | 13 February 2013  

Two gifted theologians, Joseph Ratzinger and Rowan Williams, have contributed their gifts to the church. When I reflect on leadership, however, qualities such as courage (both moral and physical), generosity and fidelity come to mind. Both these men displayed those qualities also. But how they are judged by the secular world may be more telling. I think a true perspective on effective leadership often comes from 'without' an organisation rather than 'within' it. The church likes to stand by paradoxical values and this is important. But, I venture, effective leadership within the church requires an elusive talent held in high esteem by both secular and religious.

Pam | 14 February 2013  

Unfortunately, to the average lay person, all the Pontiff did, was pontificate - on theology, morality, philosophy and environmental responsibilities. What he failed to do and never seemed to understand have been the actualities of realism - people living and working, suffering and dying and struggling to exist in a 21st century world where Catholics have been betrayed by the Church it trusted. The Pontiff had the opportunity to reverse the reversible and amend the amendable and he didn't. He kept reading and writing and pontificating.

Shirley McHugh | 14 February 2013  

Fr. John George shows concretely while long ago I abandoned the official catholic church. The statement about the Petrine commission is nonsense in the light of papal history as well as the early imagined bits. And then "You are Peter" if said by Jesus at all and not inserted by a Peter supporter was addressed to Peter and how one extends it is a remarkable exercise in justifying a power base

Brian Poidevin | 14 February 2013  

A very good article and an interesting topic Andrew. Despite their great thinking having evolved from differing politics, I do believe that both Ratzinger and Williams have a great sense of cosmic commonality in their understanding of human nature and its existance. I feel Fr.J G's prejudice has disallowed him from viewing Williams with the magnanimity that he deserves, and perhaps indicates more about himself than it does about the actual thinking.

John Whitehead | 14 February 2013  

The clause in this essay that gives cause for concern is “it is tempting to commit both their reigns to the category of failure.” I have real problems with the word ‘reign’. It implies that brilliant but fallible humans like these two bishops have to take the whole burden or blame for whatever happens to be going on during their time in office. The ungainly nature (by definition, I would thought) of the two churches makes it impossible for one man with one agenda to solve, or even address, all the issues. I also question why we need to talk in terms of ‘failure’ here, or need to feel tempted to make such a judgement. Although both men have had to live with some serious unresolved issues, and they would know what they are better than anyone, why do we have to be so hasty to sum up their performances as success or failure? Blessedly, Canterbury does not hold or assert the pretensions to authority of Rome. Tenure for a period rather than for life is wise, it means that different traditions in the church can be represented in turn and this has always worked with Canterbury, as Rowan Williams would say “more or less”. Perhaps Benedict, by his resignation, has set in place an opportunity for Rome to consider limited tenure pontificates. This would be a good thing, I believe, but whether the powers in Rome think so is another matter. Benedict, by his remarkable action this week, has confronted them with the idea. Theologians, social theorists, diplomat-politicians, headkickers, but how many popes in the past couple of centuries have been saints?

PHILIP HARVEY | 14 February 2013  

William's essay "The Body's Grace" contains a proposition strongly shared by traditional Catholics and voiced powerfully by Elizabeth Anscombe in her essay "Contraception and Chastity": Once you allow for the morality of contraception you cannot, consistently, object to, say, homosexual acts. Humanae Vitae's stance on contraception was thus the "finger in the dyke" (absolutely no pun intended). The Anglicans pulled theirs at Lambeth in 1930, and thus are all at sea on sexual ethics today. Including, of course, Rowan Williams. Plus those "Catholics" who dissent from the traditional teaching on contraception. In stark contrast to the Williams reign, Pope Benedict has attracted a huge number of converts to Catholicism over the duration of his Papacy. The evidence is all around- casually reading a secular blog the other day, I chanced on this: "On a personal level, I’m finding my way back to the church because of this Pope -I happened to meet a young bloke at my work who was reading a book by the Pope – and it’s progressed from there…" Plus, just as important: a number of liberal Catholics have followed their conscience and abandoned a Church whose beliefs, insisted upon by Pope Benedict, they find they cannot accept. This is as it should be. The Church as a result is showing a face to the world which is markedly more authentic and challenging. Viva il Papa.

HH | 14 February 2013  

HH, if your solution is for faithful people to abandon the church, where does this stand with the church's desire to save people? One of the reasons for B16's resignation is to abandon this military bunker mentality and allow people to question their faith once again without being excluded. Exclusion may help some people to feel comfortable with their ticket to heaven, but it's not the role of the church inspired by Jesus in my opinion.

AURELIUS | 14 February 2013  

Far from being miles apart, Benedict and Rowan are pictured smiling in the same room, under the same roof. Their friendship is one of the most fascinating realities of recent church history. The correspondence, if ever published, will be a delight. Rowan's personal influence on Benedict, his ministry even you might say, is something we should all rejoice in.

CONTRA FATHER JOHN GEORGE | 14 February 2013  

While abandoning the 'official church'[sic], Mr Poidivin retains his own brand of hybrid infallibility, encompassing pseudo papal history, exegetical illusions and topped with double dealing Petrine interpolations. [Frankly, such now tired regurgitations, necessitate greater faith than Roman Catholic Dogma, supported by sound modern historico- hermeneutic scholarship.

Father John George | 14 February 2013  

Professor McGowan, you assert that "Opinion is divided about whether the increased attention he paid to the reality of clergy sexual abuse has made sufficient difference to be a matter of great credit to him." Evidence please. (i) What tests of opinion have you used to assess that it is divided? To what extent do you mean it is "divided"? Are you asserting it is equally divided or that you can find a handful of people with views on either side? (ii) How do you measure an alleged increase in the Pope's attention to sexual crimes in the Church? (iii) How and when will we know that whatever this Pope did will cause a "difference"? (iv) How and when will we know that, if a "difference" results, that such "difference" will be "sufficient" to merit "great credit"? (v) Would it not be a reasonable expectation that once the matter received the Pope's attention that he actually would have taken immediate and telling action?

Frank Golding | 14 February 2013  

"Would it not be a reasonable expectation that once the matter received the Pope's attention that he actually would have taken immediate and telling action?" That's what the whole world is asking, Frank, in case you hadn't noticed, and has been asking for some time.

RESPONSE TO FRANK GOLDING | 14 February 2013  

Re "Response to Frank Golding": Are you aware that UPON Cardinal Ratzinger appointed CDF PREFECT BY jp2 Clergy sex abuse plummeted from then on. Forget fictional global surveys on what people think of CDL'S immediate action: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_jCLJb9lPZaQ/S7H6NRl27LI/AAAAAAAACUw/0qKw3dQewLI/s400/sex-abuse-graph-2.jpg

Father John George | 14 February 2013  

Fr John George, I entirely agree re Mr Poidevan's thinking. But at least he took the step most liberal Catholics inconsistently balk at, and (if I read him right) left the Church. My impression is that Pope Benedict's reign has hastened this process, and the movement the other way, of converts and reverts. My one criticism of Pope Benedict (and other recent popes, of course) is that he could have had the weapon of excommunication administered more liberally. It is interesting to note that when a "woman-priest" a few years back was excommunicated, thanks be to God she recanted was restored to full communion.

HH | 14 February 2013  

I'm picking up on a side remark in the article: the exchanges between Williams on the one hand and Pullman and Dawkins on the other. While this would be entirely consistent with Williams' erudition and belief in rational discourse, there are more formidable antagonists to engage with. My point is that the two polemicists above are living in the 19th Century, with an image of the Church as rabidly anti-modernist. Whom we need to engage are those in the dominant neo-liberal, economic rationalist think tanks. That challenge was starkly prefigured 70 years ago by Gregory Dix: ".. as a mystique of technical and scientific mastery [the pagan dream of human power] is swiftly replacing the old materialism as the prevalent anti-christianity of the 20th century. In this subtle form it will more secretly but even more terribly oppress the human spirit" (The Shape of the Liturgy, p. 752). I don't want to minimise the huge internal contradictions in our churches' lives; indeed if we cannot find leaders to help us remedy those, we have no hope of resisting the oppressive dogmas that Dix prophesied and which now fuel our biggest existential threats.

Frederick Green | 14 February 2013  

Here we go - same old, same old - tribal catholicism at its worst - let's just go back the good ol' days before Constantine became a Christian and when Christians were persecuted for actually acting in a Christ-like way!

AURELIUS | 14 February 2013  

I suppose the 24/7 media news cycle and social media themselves spurs us on to start making judgments about Kings, PMs,Popes, Cardinals, etc, down through the ranks of office to the humble sports coach of the local football team. But to me the Papacy is different. It is the longest lasting elected monarchy in the world, even if he is described as Primus inter Pares (His episcopal brothers) and Servant of the Servants of God. With the passage of time we are learning a lot more about John XXIII and the Vatican Council. So let it be with Josef Ratzinger. Interestingly I think his unforced resignation will exercise the minds of ecclesiologists more than his books. With apologies to the Bard of Avon: Nothing in his papacy became him like the leaving it. I wonder what he was thinking when he saw John-Paul II struggling and suffering in his last years.

Uncle Pat | 14 February 2013  

Uncle Pat we know what Cardinal Ratzinger thought. Even before Blessed John Paul's health became critical, Reporters asked the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whether he thought,Pope John Paul could resign. "If he were to see that he absolutely could not (continue), then he certainly would resign," he said.[CW,13/2] Besides the later beatification by pope Benedict, the suffering JP2 was accorded "SANTO SUBITO" by popular acclaim that clearly understood intuitively the salvific language of mystical suffering. JP2 knew such mysticism from his Roman/Jagiellonian doctoral specialisation on St John of the Cross.[The ultimate,purification, stripping and dying to self before the yearned for Divine Union]-All reserved for special souls indeed[not even all popes are called to such]

Father John George | 14 February 2013  

Thank you, Andrew, for this helpful comparison between the 2 Church Leaders - both eminent in their own respective spheres of influence, and both falling short of their initial promise. In Rowan's case - to follow up the empathy of his seminal essay 'The Body's Grace; and in the case of Benedict, his failure to flesh out his first encyclical - which allowed for the place of Eros in Christian thinking.

Father Ron Smith | 14 February 2013  

Father John George has shown us his card, and I now raise him and double it with this card, the Jack of Spades (Christopher Hitchens):http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2010/03/the_great_catholic_coverup.html

RESPONSE TO FRANK GOLDING | 15 February 2013  

RE:'response to frank golding' There are a plethora of willing responses to the Hitchens venom-try just one of those antidotes: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/apologetics/ap0329.htm

Father John George | 15 February 2013  

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