Since his election as pope, Joseph Ratzinger has softened the image he acquired as head of the Holy Office. He greets the possible entry of Turkey into the European Union more warmly than he once did, and has even invited Hans Küng, the priest and theologian he helped remove from the Catholic faculty at the University of Tübingen, to a leisurely dinner. Although his remarks about Islam and violence, and about excommunicating Catholic politicians who favor legal arrangements for abortion, have provoked controversy, Benedict XVI has set a more conciliatory tone than liberal Catholics feared he would at the time of his election.
In a remarkable and elegantly written book "Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration" (Doubleday, 400 pages, $24.95), Benedict sets out a "personal search ‘for the face of the Lord'" (Psalm 27:8) which might mark a more dramatic change of course for theology in the Vatican. In two areas, in particular, he goes a long way toward accepting positions he once seemed to reject as head of the Holy Office.
Benedict dwells long and lovingly on the quest to know God. He insists that God sets no conditions on who may know him, beyond seeking his face sincerely and thirsting after righteousness This mystical knowledge of God, whose capstone is Jesus Christ, is for Benedict at the center of faith. He cites his namesake, Benedict of Nursia as a guide to mystical prayer, and argues his case graciously, deliberately using the homiletic presentation of the Church Fathers, as well as quoting them, to produce a seamless interweaving of historical and theological considerations.
Benedict emphatically sets aside the view that faith amounts to a form of law, and insists that the relationship of the believer to God through Christ defines Christian belief. He does not acknowledge his debt to Martin Luther, but it is palpable. He also says nothing of the priest, Matthew Fox, whom Cardinal Ratzinger silenced for his views on the centrality of the mystical knowledge of God to Catholic teaching. Theology is sometimes a contact sport, and this may be an example of yesterday's heresy becoming today's orthodoxy. A considerable body of non-Catholic biblical scholarship now accepts that Jesus himself taught his disciples mystical union with God, on the basis of the Judaism of his time, so the the position Benedict describes is more widely founded than he indicates.
The second surprise of this rich book is equally stunning. Benedict asserts that because the decisive element of faith is "the underlying communion of will with God given by Jesus," the "political and social order is released from the directly sacred realm, from theocratic legislation, and is transformed to the freedom of man." To be sure, Benedict qualifies that freedom with the human ability "to see the right and the good," so that he distinguishes "legitimate secularity" from "absolute secularism," but he is crystal clear that political authority has an appropriate scope within his Catholic vision of truth, and that the social order "must address changing historical situations within the limits of the possible, but without ever losing sight of the ethical standard as such, which gives law its character as law." There is obviously a high degree of nuance here, but also recognition of basic insights from Liberation Theology, one of whose theologians, Leonardo Boff, Cardinal Ratzinger also silenced.
What do these changes in course mean? In the short term they will not likely lead to radical change. Benedict cautions, in the first place, that he is speaking personally, not in his role as asserting authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. For all his vigor in decrying the ravages of secularist capitalism, he also attacks aid from the West to developing nations because "it has driven men away from God." And finally, although Benedict sees Christ as replacing the Law, in a crisp dialogue with the works of Rabbinic scholar Jacob Neusner, he nonetheless holds fast to the position that this vision of Christ implies ethical imperatives that have the force of law.
For all these reasons, aside from personal considerations, it is unlikely that the next time Pope Benedict invites Hans Küng for supper there will also be place settings for Matthew Fox and Leonardo Boff. Nor will Benedict easily give up his habit of berating Protestants and those he calls liberals, while at the same time absorbing some of their theology. But underneath those gestures, and the old-style robes he is fond of wearing, Benedict XVI here announces as principles of Catholic faith what many theologians have suffered for saying: A person's relationship with God through Christ alone fulfills our human nature and the image of God within us, and mandates a social order of mutual care.
Even if this book's impact on church doctrine is not immediate, it is inevitable. Yet given Benedict's age and state of health, it would be fitting for him to find a way to project his vision into the public life of his Church. One way to do so would be to attend to the wishes of millions of Catholics in Latin American, and see that Óscar Romero is canonized a saint. A death squad assassinated Archbishop Romero in San Salvador in 1980 while he was celebrating Mass, and many Catholics revere him as a martyr who resisted a tyrannical regime.
Unlike Antônio de Sant'Anna Galvăo, the 19th century cousellor and healer whom Benedict did canonize in Săo Paulo during his recent visit to Brasil, Romero addressed public polity as well as private conversion. Romero knew that faith is "looking at God, and from God at one's neighbor as a brother or sister, and an awareness that ‘whatever you did to one of these, you did to me'" (Matthew 25:31-46). Although Archbishop Romero spoke less intellectually than Pope Benedict does in this book, their basic agreement should be championed openly, not merely by implication.
Mr. Chilton's book, "Rabbi Jesus. An Intimate Biography," is available in paperback from Doubleday.