By Invitation
Ratzinger on Epistemology and History

Was Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, more of a “Franciscan” than the Jesuit Bergolio, Pope Francisco?

One key to Ratzinger's world is his study of St Bonaventure, the 7th Franciscan General at a time when radical Joachimite spirituals had taken over the Franciscan order in the 1200s. Ratzinger offered a study of this age and Bonaventure in Die Geschichtstheologie des heiligen Bonaventura (The Historical Theology of Saint Bonaventure) (Munich 1959). In it, Ratzinger argued, like Bonaventure, against "Modernity."

Bonaventure flourished at the time when science came back roaring in Catholic circles: Aquinas had appropriated Arabic interpretations of Aristotelian physics, biology, and politics to interpret nature and God through Reason. Western Christianity had not witnessed such love for Reason since its first encounter with Greek and Roman sciences under Constantine.

The age of Bonaventure was contradictorily an age of Reason, even for Revelation, as Joachimites rendered history into a science too. The Calabrian Abbott Joachim di Fiore argued that history was the key to biblical interpretation. Interpretation, in turn, was the science of typology. History was fully laid out in the Old Testament. For every event in the Hebrew Bible, there was a corresponding one in the New Testament and the history of the Church. There were 7 ages in the OT, from Adam to David to Christ, and so too in the history of Christianity from the Christ of the Gospels to Constantine to the present 

For Joachimites, the future, prophecy, was a science of scriptural interpretation. Reason conquered it all. Joachim's texts became the third text, along with the OT and the NT, to illuminate both the present of Christendom and the eschatological future. This is what the Franciscan spirituals stood for:  A logic to the past and certainty to the future.

For Spiritual Joachimites Prophecy was not mystical insight. It was an excruciating typological reading of every event in the Old Testament and every parallel in the evolving history of the Christendom, from Christ to the present history of the Papacy and the Antichrist.

Bonaventure contested these premises while embracing Joachim's typological assumptions of OT-NT-Christendom seven age correspondences. There was a logic to the past, he argued, but not to the future. Revelation as the meaning of present and future was outside the purview of Reason.  There was only Faith available to the finding of meaning in the future. According to Bonaventure, the future and prophecy could not be conquered by Reason. 

Ratzinger modeled himself after Bonaventure.  Like Bonaventure, Ratzinger was an epistemologically moderate Franciscan (skeptical of reason): Theology was best interpreted through History. Meaning came from an interpretation of the past and the indeterminacy of the future. Bonaventure critiqued the spiritual radical Franciscans who embraced the new Joachimite biblical interpretation and the science of prophecy.

Aquinas also dismissed Joachimite prophecy but without dismissing the faith in Reason. For the scholastic followers of Aquinas, contemporaries of Bonaventure, Theology was the Science of Logical interpretation of nature and human behavior. The path to God was not just Biblical interpretation of Revelation, that required skeptical reliance on faith, but the Natural-Human Sciences, that led to certainty through Reason.

Ratzinger’s study of Bonaventure allows us to get to Ratzinger’s critique of Modernity even when Ratzinger was at the left of the political spectrum, in the 1950s. Ratzinger was an epistemologically moderate Franciscan deeply suspicious of the secular narrative of the triumph of Reason over Revelation, in short, of Modernity. This underlying sensibility was to remain with him over time, particularly after Vatican II.



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