Benedict the “Bonaventuran”

Are you looking for insight into how Pope Benedict is going to treat the SSPX or make other decisions concerning dissent or practices that require correction?  We can learn something about how Pope Benedict operates through a glimpse at how he studied St. Bonaventure.  As you know, today is the Feast of St. Giovanni di Fidanza, otherwise known as Bonaventure Bagnoregio (+1274), Doctor of the Church.

Way back when, His Holiness Pope Benedict explored St. Augustine’s theology of the House and People of God (Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustine Lehre von der Kirche, 1954).  Steeped in Augustine, Joseph Ratzinger made significant theological/ecclesiological contributions to the Second Vatican Council.  After his work on Augustine, Ratzinger turned his considerable attention to St. Bonaventure for his Habilitationsschrift (his second doctoral dissertation).  Ratzinger was interested in exploring questions having to do with the relationship of salvation history to metaphysics. In other words, how are God’s nature and this universe created under God’s plan related?   In short, Ratzinger (and many others) were interested in a theology of history.  It was natural to turn to St. Bonaventure for these questions.  His work called Geschichtstheologie des heiligen Bonaventura or (The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure) was published in 1959.

BonaventureBack in the 13th century, Bonaventure, in his role as a theologian and the Minister General of the Franciscans, had written about this subject as part of a response to the Calabrian writer Joachim of Fiore.  Joachim and his followers were creating great tensions amongst the Franciscans themselves and theology at large.  Joachim was making claims that the world was about to enter into a new “charismatic” phase, a reign of the Holy Spirit, during which people would receive unmediated graces.  For Joachim, St. Francis of Assisi had been the forerunner of this new age.  While St. Thomas Aquinas’ response totally rejected Joachim’s ideas, Bonaventure’s own response in Collationes in Hexameron sought to apply corrections to the theory.  The radical followers of Joachim were interpreting Joachim in a way that was contrary to the Church’s theological tradition.  Bonaventure, on the other hand, attempted to interpret Joachim’s ideas in a manner consonant with tradition.

In the 20th century, as a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger used the same technique as Bonaventure.   He sought to correct rather than reject.  For example, Ratzinger sought as a theologian to make good use of what could be salvaged from Liberation Theology which, as the Prefect, he had had to correct but also repress in some of its aspects.  For example, in his work A New Song For The Lord, Ratzinger lays the groundwork for a liturgical theology taking ideas from positive ideas gleaned Liberation Theology.    I think it is fair to say that, as Prefect, Ratzinger came to know Liberation Theology better than anyone else in the world, including its own proponents.   He was in a good position, therefore, to make judicious use of the good things that Liberation Theology produced while rejecting the dross.
Another example might be to go back to his first encyclical Deus caritas est and consider his discussion of eros and agape.  This and the exitus/reditus theme were constant considerations of the neo-Platonising theologians of the Augustinian tradition, such as Bonaventure.   But I digress…

This could be instructive about Pope Benedict’s modus operandi both as a theologian and as a disciplinarian and, now, legislator, etc.  It might be useful to regard Pope Benedict through this lens as he follow his dealing with the SSPX and matters of liturgical discipline, even curial appointments.  It might be helpful to keep in mind when thinking about how Pope Benedict acts to remember that he is in some respects “Bonaventuran” and decidedly eclectic in his influences.  I am not alone in making this observation.   There was an interesting article about this idea last year in Commonweal (not my usual reading material, please note) by Joseph A. Komonchak. 


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  1. I do not pretend to be a theologian, but if we follow the trend experienced by the church after Bonaventure, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that conservatism will once again win out in out time as it did after Trent, simply because a simplistic and undiscerned reliance on the actions of “the Spirit” (in our age as in his) tends to admit too much of what is not of the Spirit of God, but rather of the world? Are we not heading inevitably (and thankfully) for a vast reining in of liturgical and theological expression, and isn’t Benedict XVI merely a first step along that path?

  2. marc says:

    Bravo! the Collationes in Hexaemeron are wonderful (as are the other two sets of collationes); I wonder if the Itinerarium are read in seminaries these days; who knows. “…(I)nterroga gratiam, non doctrinam; desiderium, non intellectum; gemitum orationis, non studium lectionis; sponsum, non magistrum; Deum, non hominem, caliginem, non claritatem; non lucem, sed ignem totaliter inflammantem….” I wonder if perhaps the search for the ‘ignem totaliter inflammantem’ isn’t what was missing in the decades preceding the Council that made us liable for the various deserts that have appeared since.

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