During the time of the Church Fathers, to serve the Church as an intellectual and to answer the call to holiness were not mutually exclusive. The desert monk Evagrius (c. 346–399) exhorts us to remember that “the one who is a theologian, prays.” Over time, to be both an intellectual and saint was the norm for certain men and women such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, and St. John Paul II.
In his writings and through the witness of his life, Benedict XVI demonstrated how we should answer the exhortation of the Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar to begin and end our theology “on one’s knees.” In other words, the vocation of the academic and the call to sanctity should never be mutually exclusive.
In his reflections on the history and development of theology in Church history, Benedict XVI carefully distinguished between two distinct theological methods: scholastic and monastic theology.
Monastic theology, which was obviously represented by monks (typically abbots), is dedicated essentially to inspiring and nourishing God’s loving design. Whereas scholastic theology is interested in demonstrating the close relationship between faith and reason. Scholastic theologians are interested in a systematic explanation of the reasonableness of faith and the unity of divine revelation.
Now and at all times, Christianity is expected to offer to the world a reason for its hope. (1 Peter 3:15) All believers must be able to offer a reason or an apology (apo-logia) for their hope to anyone who asks for it in this world. The monastic theology or the scholastic theology of the medieval period are not fully capable on their own of penetrating the hardened hearts of modern women and men.
The theologian in the modern world must drink deeply from wisdom of both methods in study, prayer, faith, and contemplation. If the theologian wants to make the logos reasonable, then he or she must be rooted deeply in a life nourished regularly with the Incarnate Logos through the prayerful reading of Scripture, consistent mental prayer, and the celebration of the liturgy.
When it comes to the truth, we are faced with two different paths: a truth (logos) that we have received or one that we have made for ourselves. In the course of his work, Ratzinger has highlighted the insight of Giambattista Vico (1668-1774), who distinguished between a truth that is exclusively produced (verum quia factum) vs. a truth that is prior to our own making (verum est ens). These stark choices led Ratzinger to appropriate the thesis of Romano Guardini: the primacy of logos over ethos.
The distinct threat of post-modernity is that society has opted for the choice that the truth is only the product of our own efforts. Truth becomes subject to the caprice of the autonomous individual or the will of the mob. The anti-philosopher king, Justice Anthony Kennedy, became the spokesperson for this mentality in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The logos becomes subordinated to ethos via liberalism and every form of materialist philosophy.
The current refrain in the media has been that the greatest contribution of Benedict XVI’s pontificate has been his abdication of the papal office. Yet history may demonstrate that he has reminded the Church how we can effectively engage the modern world – and particularly the modern State – with a consistent message that reason, natural law, the logos is capable, with the assent of faith, to greater heights than the modern person’s narrow conception of reason. As James V. Schall, S.J. has written, Benedict has laid the foundation for a truly Christian theology of politics or political philosophy.
In speeches at the University of Regensburg, the German Bundestag, Westminster Hall in the United Kingdom, and in a great speech he was blocked from delivering at La Sapienza University in Rome, Benedict XVI explained to people who were willing to listen and read carefully that society can only fully flourish with the free exercise, in tandem, of faith and reason.
Benedict XVI has described his own theology as “unfinished” or “fragmentary,” yet when as we continue to mine the treasures found in his books, articles, sermons, and speeches, we discover a rich theology that is rooted in the Word of God as it has been unveiled in Scripture and Tradition and interpreted faithfully by the Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine.
While various parts of his theological symphony remain incomplete, he developed the contours of a theological method that reemphasizes the unity between faith and reason, East and West, Scripture and Tradition, ancients and moderns, and much more. He developed a completely open theology that enters into a fruitful dia-logos with others.
Benedict XVI also bequeaths to the Church a new missionary theology that has the potential to reach modern humanity via both faith and reason. Benedict’s description of monastic theology is an apt description of his own theological approach:
Faith and reason, in reciprocal dialogue, are vibrant with joy when they are both inspired by the search for intimate union with God. When love enlivens the prayerful dimension of theology, knowledge, acquired by reason, is broadened. Truth is sought with humility, received with wonder and gratitude: in a word, knowledge only grows if one loves truth. Love becomes intelligence and authentic theology wisdom of the heart, which directs and sustains the faith and life of believers.
We no longer “wait for a new and no doubt quite different St. Benedict” (Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous phrase) because Benedict XVI has drawn upon the wellspring of God’s Word and the celebration of the sacred liturgy to give theology its definitive path towards renewal and sanctity: the face of Jesus Christ – the eternal Logos.
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s A Luminous Life of Benedict
Matthew Hanley’s Misrepresenting Benedict’s Bravery