Pope Benedict XVI and Eschatology

Within a long report by John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter, I found the following:

In graduate school in the 1950s, Ratzinger found himself fishing around for a topic for his Habilitationsschrift, the book-length contribution to research a German doctoral student has to complete after his dissertation. His mentor, professor Gottlieb Söhngen, suggested that he work on St. Bonaventure.

Ratzinger liked the idea, and produced a daring thesis on revelation. He showed that according to Bonaventure, words on a page mean nothing without someone to interpret them. Ratzinger saw this insight as a refutation of Luther’s sola scriptura principle, but his superiors accused him — in what many cannot help but see today as a supreme irony — of relativism. Ratzinger seemed to be saying that scripture could mean different things to different people!

The work was rejected.

Ratzinger then focused on Bonaventure’s conflict with the “Spiritual Franciscans.” That branch of the Franciscan movement had been inspired by the apocalyptic visionary Joachim of Fiore to expect a third age of history, an era of the Holy Spirit, in which the poor would be liberated and the rich torn down. Bonaventure, Ratzinger argued, rejected this expectation of a dramatic intervention by God inside human history.

The reign of God, in other words, had to wait for the next world. Ratzinger put it this way: Orthodox belief “tears eschatology apart from history.”

Thus when Ratzinger began investigating liberation theology in the 1980s, he thought it had a familiar ring. The liberation theologians too, Ratzinger felt, wanted redemption inside history, and he saw their hopes as equally false.

In taking on liberation theology, Ratzinger saw himself picking up Bonaventure’s argument against the Spiritual Franciscans from several hundred years before (he also, according to friends, saw echoes of the Marxist-inspired 1968 student revolts in liberation theology).

History town apart from eschatology… This way of depicting the God’s relation to creation seems to have been a dominant view in modernity, and, by my assessment, one of the most deadly failings of the church. Though I doubt Ratzinger – or Bonaventure for that matter – would take it as far as Lessing’s Ugly Ditch, their theological position seems like a step on the way toward accepting the rationalization and dehistoricization of the church and doctrine.

The view of eschatology inherent in this view sees it as something so absolutely otherworldly that it becomes difficult to see the church as continuing in the eschatological age inaugurated by Jesus. Salvation – in so far as we are concerned – too easily becomes something for the individual. The Pauline view of the salvation of all creation (Romans 8:17ff), if it is retained, is pushed to the end of history – or to after the end of history.

I think I will look at this further in the future.

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1 Response to Pope Benedict XVI and Eschatology

  1. Guy says:

    Hmm…I wonder how this position would relate to the work of the Catholic church on behalf of the poor. How does this view critique Mother Theresa’s ministry, for example…or vice versa?

    It seems to me that removing eschatological significance from events in history does indeed strip from the church our calling to participate in Jesus’ Kingdom inauguration ministry. Though it’s best to remain humble concerning how God will choose to use the church eschatologically, this view certainly seems to think of “salvation” as something that only applies to the afterlife instead of the biblical picture of the redemption of all of creation. Sound eerily akin to the bad versions of evangelical preaching in America that seeks to merely preserve souls for heaven and neglects producing an alternative community centered in Jesus Christ that grows in holiness of heart and life together.

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