It is with a particular fascination that I’ve been following the speeches that Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) has been delivering in his native Germany. We can certainly hear Herr Doktor Professor Ratzinger in the distinctively academic rhetoric of the addresses, but we also hear the voice of a pastor, uttering a cri de coeur to his wandering flock. In his first speech on the tarmac in Berlin, upon being welcomed by the officials of the German government, Benedict XVI specified that his main purpose was not to foster diplomatic relations between the German nation and the Vatican City State—as welcome as that would be—but rather to speak of God.
The second volume of Pope Benedict’s masterful study of the Lord Jesus has just been published. The first volume, issued three years ago, dealt with the public life and preaching of Jesus, while this second installment concentrates on the events of Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection. As was the case with volume one, this book is introduced by a short but penetrating introduction, wherein the Pope makes some remarks about the method he has chosen to employ. What I found particularly fascinating was how Joseph Ratzinger develops a motif that he has preoccupied him for the past thirty years, namely, how biblical scholarship has to move beyond an exclusive use of the historical-critical method.
It is the custom of the Pope to offer Christmas greetings to his official family, the bishops and Cardinals who direct the various departments of the Roman Curia. But his words at this occasion are typically much more than mere pleasantries. They constitute, usually, a kind of review of the previous year from the perspective of the Bishop of Rome. The Christmas statement that Benedict XVI made just this morning to his official entourage was of particular gravity, precisely because it represents one of his most thorough and insightful assessments of the clerical sex abuse scandal.
Over a period of about 15 years, in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the German journalist Peter Seewald conducted a number of interviews with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The edited conversations appeared as two rather lengthy books, The Salt of the Earth and God and the World. Seewald’s pointed questions dealt with fundamental matters—God, creation, Incarnation, redemption, sin and grace—and Ratzinger’s answers—clear, succinct, illuminating—were marvels of the teacher’s art. Perhaps the most extraordinary fruit of these encounters was Seewald’s conversion from an unfocused agnosticism to a full embrace of the Catholic faith.
One of the most intriguing—and original—ideas in Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical on the social order is that the ethics of obligation and mutuality have to be supplemented by an ethic of gratuity. By an ethic of mutuality he means the moral logic that obtains in the marketplace, whereby people, according to the terms of a contract, give in order to receive something in return. So you pay me a certain amount, and I provide certain goods and services to you. This is the essence of what the Catholic tradition calls commutative justice, the fair play among the various members of a society or economic community. By an ethic of obligation, he means the moral logic that obtains within the political arena, whereby people are compelled by law to give to others in order to realize distributive justice, or a fairer allotting of the total goods of a society. For example, through taxation, one is obliged to transfer some of one’s wealth to the government for the sake of the common good. Now the Pope insists that these two types of giving are essential to the right ordering of any human community; we should never, he thinks, fall short of them, preferring injustice to justice. Nevertheless, they must be complemented, leavened if you will, by a more radical type of giving, what he terms the ethic of gratuity. According to this mode, one gives, not because he is contractually obligated or legally compelled to give, but simply because it is good so to do. This is the kind of giving that mimics most fully the divine manner of giving. The God who made the universe ex nihilo could never, even in principle, have done so out of contractual or legal obligation. He received nothing in return for creation, and nothing outside of his own will could ever have compelled him to create. He gave of himself and let the world be simply because it was good to do so.