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from issue no. 03 - 2007

Nova et vetera

by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins CMF

Like those who from their treasure can draw ancient things and new things (cf. Mt 13, 51), elements of Tradition emerge in the theological work of Joseph Ratzinger through which he has enabled the absolute novelty of the Christian happening to express itself, resplendent in all its beauty. It is precisely on this Christian novelty that I want to dwell for a few moments, reflecting on the “person” in the thought of who is today the Holy Father Benedict XVI.
There is an emergent datum in Christian revelation: it is the Novum! Under every form it tells mankind something that it didn’t know, that it would never have been able to imagine. Ratzinger the theologian has remarked that «the creative process always constitutes however a receptive process; […] the creative shaping has become possible solely in the form of reception on the wavelength of Revelation»1.
This means that the decision taken by the fathers of Israel for a personal and transcendent God, or the confession of the Church that God is Trinitarian communion of persons, does not respond primarily to an initiative of theirs, outcome of a cultural invention, but necessarily implies a gift, a reception, and thereby also a real historical initiative on the part of God toward mankind.
This aspect of absolute novelty of the identity of God, which by revealing itself discloses to mankind a wholly new dimension, emerges constantly in the biblical interpretation that the present Pontiff has conducted, whereby the idea of person is a gift that is disclosed to us with the self-revelation of God: «It introduces us into in that intimacy of Jesus, into which he admits only His friends. It shows Jesus from the point of view of that experience of friendship that enables one to look within, and it is an invitation to enter this intimacy»2.
Similarly one must also remark the fact that not only the idea of person is fruit of Revelation, but that it represents one of the most significant expressions of that semantic and linguistic revolution that Christianity was able to bring about.
Consider here the contribution to theological thinking brought by Tertullian mainly through the creation of a theological language; Ratzinger says of this: «Tertullian transformed Latin into a theological language and, with a certainty almost inexplicable, he was soon able to formulate a theological terminology […] centuries passed before this expression could be received and completed also spiritually […]»3. Just as significant is what is affirmed about the origin of the idea of person: «To answer these two basic interrogatives (who is God and who is Christ), that were posed as soon as thinking was introduced into faith, the latter used the term of prósopon = person, that up to then had been insignificant in philosophy or was not used at all; a new meaning was given to it and a new dimension of human thought was disclosed»4.
The force of novelty of the Christian happening was not limited to the linguistic aspect, obviously, but expressed a still deeper thrust of cultural novelty through it. If the Christian tradition of prosopographical exegesis expressed a literary novelty, the introduction of the category of relation and that of person by the Fathers and by Augustine, above all, speak of upheaval in the ancient cultural parameters of a world deeply marked by classical thought.
It is enough in this case to refer to the theses of Trinitarian dogmatics that the theologian now risen to the throne of Peter has formulated, in which he states that the paradox of a single Being in three Persons puts order into the problem of oneness and multiplicity; further this paradox is subordinated to the problem of the absolute and the relative and highlights the intra-Trinitarian absoluteness of the latter. This paradox is also in function of the concept of person5. In the simple admission, then, that, as equally original form of being, beside substance relation is also found (the person in God is constitutively relation) a genuine revolution of the world is hidden: the supremacy of thought centred on substance is undermined: «Relation is discovered as primitive and equipollent modality»6.
All that has made possible and again makes possible the going-beyond of what we call “objectivating thought”, in so far as it looks to a new plan of being. In all probability, our author has observed, «one should also say that the task devolving on thinking from these circumstances, in fact, is still very far from having been performed, albeit modern thought depends on the perspectives here opened, without which it would not be even imaginable […]. I believe that, following the unfolding of this struggle […] one might see what enormous effort and what change in thinking lies behind this concept of person, which in its format is wholly extraneous to the Greek and Latin spirit; it is not thought in substantive terms, but from the existential point of view»7.
The theology of the man who has described himself as «humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord» could be designated as the capacity of always tracing everything back to its origin, to the genetic point. In fact, «the concept of person arose out of two questions that imposed themselves, from the beginning, on Christian thought as central problems; they are the two interrogatives: what is God and who is Christ?»8.
The idea of person within the Christological discourse, reveals itself to be of capital importance. In the very moment in which Ratzinger deals with the theology of the Incarnation and with the theology of the Cross, or when he analyzes Christology, as doctrine on the being of Christ, and soteriology, it is clear that the Christological idea of person as relation enables one to escape from the blind alley of the separation of approaches in which Christian theology has so often stumbled. In fact it is precisely the relational understanding of the personal being of Christ that allows the theology of the Incarnation to flow naturally into the theology of the Cross and vice versa; just as awareness of the identity, in Christ, of person and action (the person does not have the relation, but is relation) enables the formulation of a Christology in a soteriological perspective and a correctly based soteriology9.
I conclude with a further thought of Ratzinger’s the point of which could hardly be more relevant: «God, founding himself on the self-comprehension of the faith, denominates himself, expresses his inner essence and becomes nameable, abandoning himself to mankind to the point of allowing Himself to be called by name by him»10. God, in Jesus by the gift of the Spirit, lets himself be called Abba, Father, and leads us into his divine intimacy. «The Book of The Apocalypse speaks of the enemy of God, the beast. This beast […] does not bear a name, but a number […] the beast is a number and translates into numbers. What that means is known to us who have experienced the world of the concentration camps: its horror was due to the fact that the camps obliterated faces, they transformed people into numbers. Mankind becomes a function. […] God instead has names and calls us by name. He is a Person who seeks other persons; He has a countenance and seeks our countenances; He has a heart and seeks our hearts. For Him we are not functions!»11.
Benedict XVI with his brother Georg visiting the parish church of Sankt Oswald, in Marktl am Inn, his birthplace, 11 September 2006

Benedict XVI with his brother Georg visiting the parish church of Sankt Oswald, in Marktl am Inn, his birthplace, 11 September 2006

I wanted to dwell on an aspect of the theological thinking of Joseph Ratzinger and not on the Magisterium of Benedict XVI, while aware that the Pope or a bishop, as he himself made clear years ago, must not set out his personal conceptions but must make room for the shared word of the Church12. Nevertheless I have done so precisely to set out the hope, following the example of all the saints of the Church, that bishops, priests and laity may have this awareness. Finally, it is just this that I want to wish the Holy Father, on the happy occasion of his eightieth birthday, that all may greet his high Magisterium as expression of the unity and charity of the Catholic Church, as Cyprian told Pope Cornelius13.
The unanimous anthem of the Church brings us all together in affection and in devotion to the successor of Peter that Providence has seen to give us: «Dominus conservet eum et vivificet eum...».

1 J. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity. The Seabury Press, New York, 1969
2 Idem, Guardare al Crocifisso [Look at the Crucifix], Jaca Book, Milan 1992, p. 21.
3 Idem, Dogma e predicazione [Dogma and preaching 1973], Queriniana, Brescia 2005, p. 174.
4 Ibid. p. 173.
5 Cf. Introduction to Christianity, op. cit., pp.
6 Ibid. p. 141.
7 Idem, Dogma e predicazione, op. cit., p. 183.
8 Ibid., p. 173.
9 Cf. Introduction to Christianity, op. cit., pp. 172-174.
10 Ibid. p. 92.
11 Ibid. The God of Jesus Christ, Meditations on God in the Trinity, Chicago 1979, pp. 15-16.
12 J. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Vi ho chiamati amici. La compagnia nel cammino della fede [But I have called you friends], San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 2006, pp. 31-32.
13 Epistola 48, 3 (CSEL 3/ 2, 607).

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