Two Supreme Teachers

Michael J. Ruszala
From the Sep/Oct 2011 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

Friends in life and linked in their pontificates, Bl. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI are two supreme teachers the Holy Spirit has graced the Church with for these times. It is not frequent that a pope beatifies his own immediate predecessor, but with extraordinary times comes extraordinary grace. In this article, we reflect on the collaboration and complimentarity in these two Holy Fathers’ apostolic ministry as supreme teachers of the

We are all too familiar with the mischaracterization of our past two Holy Fathers in the world media. Often mistrusted, feared, misunderstood, and sometimes celebrated and revered, a successor of Peter must always “preach the word . . . in season and out of season” (1 Tim. 4:2). Since Christ’s call to Peter, “Feed my sheep,” all popes have been charged with the duty of Supreme Teacher, but not all through history have taken this summons so seriously. Bl. John Paul and Pope Benedict certainly have.

These two Popes have a special connection to each other—both as friends and as Supreme Teachers. Understanding their friendship, their common project, and their particularity as distinct teachers helps us to appreciate their teaching more fully and to see a clearer snapshot of them than we have received in the media.

Ratzinger saw himself as a scholar-priest and aspired to one day write a great theological magnus opum. He did not intend to become one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, but God had more plans for the future Pope Benedict—and John Paul would have much to do with it. George Weigel, in his book God’s Choice, explains that the philosopher Joseph Pieper introduced Ratzinger to the philosophical thought of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II). In fact in 1974 they sent each other copies of their books to comment upon. Pope Paul VI appointed Ratzinger a bishop in 1977 and then a cardinal not long afterwards. This paved the way for him to engage in scholarly discussion with Cardinal Wojtyla at the conclave of cardinals which elected Pope John Paul I. After the brief papacy of John Paul I, the rest is history. The college of cardinals broke from their usual customs to elect the vibrant and spirit-filled Cardinal Wojtyla as the first Polish pope.

Pope John Paul II remembered his friend Ratzinger when making appointments for curial positions. Ratzinger, having only recently begun serving as Archbishop of Munich-Freising, declined his appointment as prefect of the Congregation of Catholic Education, but felt he could not refuse after John Paul asked him a second time to join him as prefect—now of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1981—to promote the integrity of Catholic doctrine. Weigel explains that John Paul’s choice of Ratzinger for the CDF gives us insight into John Paul’s mind and his view of the Church’s needs in choosing a theologian and not an administrator for this position. In God’s Choice, the author says this underscored the need for theology to inform the practice of the Church through the integrity of its doctrines as revealed by God. Also, while many think of Ratzinger as a conservative, Weigel points out that his orthodox theology was not conventional. He is an Augustinian rather than a Thomist. Weigel writes that both John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger “wanted a wide-ranging theological conversation to shape papal teaching.”

Had Bl. John Paul never become pope, he would have been well-known if only for his scholarship in philosophy. While preserving the wisdom of St. Thomas, Bl. John Paul likewise sought other modes of expression in philosophy and theology. He famously used the experience-based phenomenological method inLove and Responsibility and his Wednesday audiences on a theology of the body, from which he drew his teaching in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio and elsewhere. In all, he wrote 14 encyclicals and 15 apostolic exhortations, not to mention his numerous apostolic letters and constitutions. Making use of his phenomenological style, Bl. John Paul upheld the dignity of the human person in the face of Communism, totalitarianism, economic injustice, abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research. He clarified the unity and distinction of faith and reason in an age of relativism. His approach in the face of these dangers was primarily a positive one, calling for a New Evangelization to reach out to the post-Christian European cultures and a renewed centering on Christ in all things. He also called for a culture of life to embrace the dignity of the human person and for true Christian freedom instead of fear in the midst of the dangers in the modern world to the dignity of the human person.

According to Weigel, Ratzinger, as prefect of the CDF, aided John Paul in his project of guiding the Vatican II renewal in the midst of the excesses that followed the Council. Ratzinger clarified an understanding of true freedom in the face of liberation theology, Church teaching on contraception amid dissent, the role of Christ as Savior in the midst of religious pluralism, and offered positive guidance and principles for the role of theologians serving the Church. Ratzinger served on numerous curial congregations and provided theological consultation for John Paul in the writing of encyclicals, including Veritatis Splendor. Ratzinger published many theological books while prefect but always longed to retire to devote himself singly to his theological scholarship (still hoping to write his magnum opus. Weigel writes, “Ratzinger tried to resign—in 1991, 1996, and 2001. Each time, John Paul asked him to stay, and he stayed. The man whom the crowds proclaimed ‘John Paul the Great’ on April 8, 2005, simply could not imagine being pope without Joseph Ratzinger as his principal doctrinal advisor.”

Esteemed among the cardinals, Ratzinger was elected Dean of the College of Cardinals in 2002. When Pope John Paul II died, Cardinal Ratzinger, because of his role as dean, was responsible for overseeing the Holy Father’s funeral and succession as well as delivering the funeral homily in which he recalled a driving theme in John Paul II’s life: “Come, follow Me.” Contrary to his own desires, Ratzinger was proposed as a candidate for the papacy and was elected on the first day of voting. Ratzinger recalled that a cardinal wrote to him, “If the Lord now says to you, ‘Follow me,’ remember what you preached. Do not refuse! Be obedient, just as you spoke of our great pope who has returned to the house of the Father.’”

Taking on the name “Benedict,” the new Holy Father sought to be a modern follower of St. Benedict, bringing Europe out of a time of darkness and into renewal. According to Weigel, Ratzinger, another non-Italian Pope, would neither be a “placeholder pope” nor a “John Paul III.” He was not concerned with becoming a charismatic figure like his predecessor but simply in leading by his sincerity. And as seen at World Youth Day in Cologne and Sydney, the youth flocked to Pope Benedict as their new spiritual father. Pope Benedict reached out magnanimously to the various groups in the Church as well as to those of many faiths and religions, taking on his role as Universal Father.

In his papacy, Pope Benedict has focused on themes such as the freedom of truth versus the dictatorship of relativism, the unity of faith and reason, Catholic social thought, Scripture, the Christian roots of Europe, and liturgical renewal open to both a sense of the transcendent and consistent with the reforms of Vatican II. In his writings and homilies, Pope Benedict’s Augustinian theology and eloquence from his personal scholarship are evident. But true scholarship is able to get to the heart of an issue. Thus in his encyclicals and much of his teaching, Pope Benedict focuses on fundamentals in order to catechize those in the Church and to challenge those outside.

John L. Allen, Jr. writes in 10 Things Pope Benedict Wants You to Know, “Benedict is a pope of ‘the basics,’ which he presents in an intelligent, provocative fashion, striving to make clear that Christianity is not merely a set of rules but a resounding ‘yes’ to the dignity of the human person and the embrace of a loving God.” Pope Benedict’s first encyclical Deus Caritas Est teaches on love, the most basic of Christian doctrines so
misunderstood today. His third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, grounds authentic charity in truth, highlighting this principle as a ground of Catholic social teaching.

Pope Benedict harkens back frequently to the teachings of Bl. John Paul II, as when in Caritas in Veritate he developed John Paul’s theology of gift within the context of Catholic social thought, likewise grounding social teaching metaphysically on truth as in Veritatis Splendor, and emphasizing the unity of faith and reason as in Fides et Ratio and in his Regensburg Address.

The theology of Pope Benedict is, at its core, christocentric and scriptural—a complementarity predating his friendship with John Paul and which likely served as a common ground in their work together. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict shows through his reflection on the Gospel that Christ, the true Son of God, is Himself the content of the message of salvation. In this book, Pope Benedict gives an example of placing modern critical scholarship in the service of faith rather than in competition with it, as so often is the case.

Our current Holy Father is often misunderstood in the media and persecuted through the various crises he has faced during his pontificate—such as the misunderstanding concerning Islam following his Regensburg Address as well as the fallout from the sex abuse scandal which has shaken many parts of the Church. Despite the basic and fundamental topics Pope Benedict teaches on, many dismiss him as an out-of-touch intellectual. The media also often imposes expectations and attitudes on the Pope that are foreign to him.

The papacies of Bl. John Paul II and Pope Benedict’s are of a new era—one in which the Holy Father’s consciousness of his role as Supreme Teacher is heightened because of today’s crisis of truth and morality. His ministry is geared toward the challenge in creative and proactive ways.

Bl. John Paul was a charismatic figure and a great innovator; Pope Benedict is a fatherly figure and a scholar using his wisdom at the service of fundamental catechesis. Bl. John Paul was optimistic about the modern world while standing against its evils; Pope Benedict is in the world but not of the world, often aware of its limitations. Pope Benedict gives a steadfast and often quiet call to authenticity, even at the potential cost of success or popularity. Allen writes, “Probably without being conscious of it, Pope Benedict XVI is teaching the world something through his own behavior. He is exceedingly humble and gentle, which stands in stark contrast to the bluster and braggadocio often associated with global titans in the worlds of politics, finance, and culture. He is living proof that one does not have to be an exhibitionist to lead and to inspire.”

Pope Benedict XVI and Bl. John Paul II are two Popes for a very crucial time in the life of the Church. Both renowned scholars in their own right, their papacies complement each other while remaining distinct in their charisms and gifts for the church, both in their teaching and their pastoral guidance. Lead by providence to each other and to the same seat as Teacher, both Holy Fathers proactively, creatively, and faithfully, by word and by deed, confronted darkness with the Light.

Michael J. Ruszala is a professional catechetical leader at a parish in suburban Buffalo, NY, and has an MA in theology and Christian ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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