A conversation with Tracey Rowland about Ratzinger, Christian humanism, bourgeois Christianity – Catholic World Report

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“Bourgeois Christianity”, says the 2020 Ratzinger Prize winner, “is the attitude of people who identify themselves as Christians but define Christianity by a series of markers that are in no way different from the prevailing social fashions.”

A conversation with Tracey Rowland about Ratzinger, Christian humanism, bourgeois Christianity – Catholic World Report
Australian theologian Tracey Rowland, recipient of the 2020 Ratzinger Prize for her theological work, is pictured with retired Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in this November 13, 2021 photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation)

Tracey Rowland holds two doctorates in theology in addition to degrees in law and philosophy. After studies at the University of Queensland, she lectured in Soviet and Central European Politics at Monash University while completing a Masters degree in contemporary Central European political theory. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Notre Dame (Australia), she was the Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne for sixteen years. In 2014 she was appointed to the International Theological Commission.

Her books include Culture and the Thomist Tradition (London: Routledge, 2003), Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Benedict XI (Oxford University Press, 2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury, 2010),Catholic Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic, 2017), Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (New York: Angelico, 2019), and Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (London: Bloomsbury, 2021). She is also the author of over 150 published essays.

In 2020 she was awarded the prestigious Ratzinger Prize for Theology. Last month, she was finally able to meet with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the Vatican, as the the 2020 prize ceremony was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. She corresponded recently with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, and reflected on her time with Benedict XVI, her research and study of his writings, and her recent book, which sheds light on Germany theology and “bourgeois Christianity”.

CWR: You recently were in Rome to accept the Ratzinger Prize for your work in theology. You and the other winners (2020 and 2021) were able to meet with Benedict XVI: what was it like to see and visit with the 94-year-old pope emeritus? How as he? And can you share anything you spoke about?

Tracey Rowland: It was of course a huge privilege to be able to spend an hour with him. While he is clearly frail, intellectually there is no dimming of the light.

We were invited to discuss our academic research with him and he asked questions about our work. I got the impression he most enjoyed hearing about what is happening in the world of scripture studies.

I told him that I was the English sub-editor of the forthcoming Ratzinger Lexikon. I thanked him for writing a foreword to the Lexikon where he made much of the fact that 72 scholars have contributed essays to it. There were 72 translator contributions to the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (hence the name the Septuagint), so he was delighted by the idea of there being 72 contributors to the Lexikon. However I explained to him that after receiving his foreword our general editor recounted the number of contributors and discovered to his horror that we had only 71 contributors. It was one of those “Houston we have a problem” moments. We solved this by inviting Professor Hannah-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, one of the 2021 Ratzinger Prize winners, to submit an essay on Joseph Ratzinger’s influence on the work of the writer Ida Friedericke Görres. Professor Gerl-Falkovitz is proudly our number 72. Pope Benedict appreciated the humor of the “problem” created by our poor maths and his approach to the foreword.

CWR: For those readers not familiar with your work, what has been the focus of your theological work? And, more specifically, what aspects of the thought and life of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI have you written about?

Tracey Rowland: The focus of my work has been the relationship between faith and culture, history and ontology. My PhD thesis could be described as a synthesis of the philosophy of culture of Alasdair MacIntyre with the theology of culture of Joseph Ratzinger and others in the circle of Communio journal scholarship. This bridges the fields of fundamental theology, theological anthropology and historical theology.

I have described Ratzinger’s theology of culture, or understanding of the faith and culture relationship, as one of Trinitarian transformation. He wants the graces of the Incarnation to penetrate cultures to their core. He is not in favor of correlating Christianity to the spirit of the times. That was a very 1960’s era project. Wherever the correlationist strategy was put into practice it was a pastoral disaster. Just look at Belgium!

My deepest articles on Ratzinger’s thought are those dealing with his understanding of secularism, his approach to the faith and reason relationship, to cultural issues and the new evangelization.

CWR: You mentioned back in 2020 that you are working with an international team in producing a dictionary on Ratzinger’s theology. How is that project going?

Tracey Rowland: We are very close to being able to send the manuscript of the English version to the publisher. This work is what I called the Lexikon above. The different language publishers may give it different names but in substance it is a collection of essays on over 100 facets of the theology of Ratzinger compiled by an international team of 72 scholars.

CWR: If you had to explain to a non-specialist—an ordinary Catholic—in just a few sentences, what is significant and noteworthy about the theological work of Ratzinger/Benedict, what would you say?

Tracey Rowland: I would say that he is one of the few people who understands the intellectual assaults on Catholic belief and practice over the last couple of centuries and can answer the critics on their own academic levels using their own idioms.

I would also say that the world of Catholic theology is very fractured and he can explain where and why the fractures occurred and suggest means for healing the fractures.

He also belongs to one of the best theologically educated generations in the history of the Church. The University of Munich where he was a student was the home of many of the most creative Catholic minds in the first half of the twentieth century. He is the “product” so to speak of a renaissance of Catholic scholarship in inter-war Germany. It was a renaissance inspired by some home grown scholars in the nineteenth century – men like Matthias Joseph Scheeben and Johann Michael Sailer – but also by Newman from England and people like Blondel, Péguy and Claudel from France. The Nazis, of course, tried to snuff it out and the post-World War II generation of German youth, those who became the generation of ’68, were more interested in the Frankfurt School’s “Critical Theory” than the ideas of people like Romano Guardini, Gottlieb Söhngen and Erich Przywara.

Ratzinger’s scholarship is something like the last burst of light of that heroic inter-war generation. It is the fusion of deep Bavarian piety with the highest degrees of intellectual formation available anywhere in the world.

CWR: Your most recent book is Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (T&T Clark, 2021), which is an academic work that has some keen insights to offer into some current challenges and controversies. How did this book come about? What is the basic focus and thesis?

Tracey Rowland: I was invited to contribute a volume to Bloomsbury’s “Illuminating Modernity” series. One volume in the series is called “Illuminating Faith”. I was intending to write an “Illuminating Hope” volume based on the experiences of the inter-war generation of German Catholic scholars who were clustered around the University of Munich. These were people who had to contend with fascism and Marxism and Freudian psychology – the usual rag bag of ideologies we have come to know only too well.

As often happens, book titles are decided by people in marketing departments, so the book became Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism. To be fair to the marketing people this is also an appropriate title because the focus is on how six scholars of the inter-war generation defended Christian Humanism in an intellectual engagement with German Idealism on the one side and Nietzsche’s anti-Christian humanism on the other.

As I worked on the book it became clear to me that contemporary Catholic scholars have a lot in common with this inter-war generation. We are contending with many of the same ideologies but in a more developed form.

CWR: Each of the six authors you discuss in the book were German intellectuals and Catholics who wrote about Christian humanism at a time (the early through mid-20th century) when Christian humanism was under direct assault by an array of ideologies. What common themes and observations did they make? How might some of these be applied to today’s situation, first in Germany and then, secondly, in the Church at large?

Tracey Rowland: One of the themes was the need to develop a theological anthropology that integrates the affective dimension of the human person with the cognitive dimension. The head and the heart, love and reason, need to work in tandem. This was one of Newman’s insights. Another insight they took from Newman was the problem of what Newman called ‘the religion of the world’ and what the Germans tend to call “bourgeois Christianity”. Newman argued that for every generation of Christians there is a temptation to take bits of the Christian tradition – the ones that are most easily assimilated to contemporary social ideas – and to amplify these bits, while ignoring the more socially unfashionable elements of the Christian kerygma.

This “bourgeois Christianity” is the attitude of people who identify themselves as Christians but define Christianity by a series of markers that are in no way different from the prevailing social fashions. The adjective “bourgeois” is used because it is typical of middle class people that they want to foster their upward social mobility. “Bourgeois Christians” are therefore people who are careful not to allow their Christianity to stand in the way of their social success. This usually means “muting” or even rejecting, certain elements of the tradition.

Ratzinger used the expression “bourgeois Pelagianism” to refer to the mentality that Christ does not expect us to be saints. It is sufficient that we are decent types who recycle our rubbish, donate a few dollars to charity, and refrain from murdering and raping our neighbors or stealing their property. The mentality is that Christ was not really serious when he said that we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

A common theme in the scholarship of the authors I surveyed is that it is precisely “bourgeois Christianity” that Friedrich Nietzsche found so contemptible and that if Catholics are to offer any kind of effective opposition to Nietzsche’s alternative post-Christian humanism we have to recognize that a bourgeois Christianity is not the solution but the problem.

Another theme is that there is truth and that the Church has always been on the side of truth and reason. I found the works of Theodor Haecker to be the most inspirational on this front.

Part of my reason for writing the book was to give hope to people who think that the world has gone completely mad. I found that the authors I surveyed had lived through another time when the world was completely mad and they did not despair but continued to defend truth and reason.

With reference to the Nazi ideology of the “Volk”, Haecker observed that while it is true that Christ died for barbarians, he did not become man as a barbarian, nor did he live among them, or choose his disciples from among them. He also noted that religions, even false religions, arise in the East, not in the neighborhood of Braunau (the birthplace of Adolf Hitler). Haecker was not a professional academic but a satirist, translator and what today is called a public intellectual.

The message of these authors for the Germany of today would simply be that if you want to foster the demise of Christianity just continue to offer people the bourgeois version. If you want to re-evangelise Germany than you need to be heroic and present the entire kerygma, including the theology of the cross, as Ratzinger/Benedict tried to do.

The same applies to the Church in the rest of the world.

CWR: How had Kant and Nietzsche influenced German thought and culture? How did these six authors fight back against that influence?

Tracey Rowland: Kant was the father of German Idealism and his influence was huge. He fostered the separation of faith and reason, two things that need to be integrated if the Catholic faith is to make any sense. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009) once observed that the ‘recurrent German philosophical desire’ is one which ‘consists in the attempt to discover God without God, to find secular and transcendental foundation for moral and epistemological security apart from God’. In his Love Alone is Credible, Hans Urs von Balthasar summarised the German philosophical descent into nihilism with the statement: ‘Luther deposes Aristotelian reason in order to make room for faith, but this rejected reason acquires a Cartesian structure and Kant tries to tame it by bringing it under human control. Being thus limited, reason no longer has anything to do with religion and it becomes what Karl Barth called an “idol factory”’. One could add that before Barth criticized the idol factory from a Christian perspective Nietzsche had already criticised it from his own neo-pagan perspective.

Nietzsche has been described as a ‘radical aristocrat’ in the sense that Nietzsche was interested in the highest forms of human life. Erich Przywara offered an interesting reading of him as a kind of “failed Jesuit”. Przywara thought that what Nietzsche really desired was something like the spiritual heroism one finds in the Ignatian Suscipe prayer that begins with the words “Take Lord, receive, all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will…’. If Nietzsche had encountered an authentic Ignatian Christianity rather than the bourgeois Christianity of his Protestant maiden aunts, his whole attitude to Christianity may have been different.

Theodor Steinbüchel thought that Nietzsche’s indictment of Christianity should be read as a wake-up call to bourgeois Christians. The religion of the world cannot compete with neo-paganism.

CWR: In addition to Nietzsche and Kant, but in a completely different way, how does St. John Henry Newman plays a key role?

Tracey Rowland: Newman plays a number of key roles. First, as mentioned above, he understands the problem of the religion of the world so one can read this part of Newman’s work and conclude that he was already alert to the issue of an anaemic Christianity. He had already diagnosed the pathology that made Nietzsche’s criticisms so credible. Secondly, Newman was interested in affectivity and the role of the human heart as a centre of integration for the various faculties of the soul. He was also interested in the human imagination and in the work of the conscience. Taken together these interests opened up new areas for exploration in the field of theological anthropology. This was highly necessary because the existentialist movement, so powerful in 20th-century Europe, was focused on the individual human person situated in a particular social milieu. This opens up the question of the relationship between history and ontology. Newman did not offer a systematic account of this relationship, but he did at least venture into the territory. Thirdly, he offered an account of the role of history in doctrinal development and this was a burning issue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

CWR: Finally, the Conclusion to your book, while relatively short, is a powerful broadside against “Bourgeois Christianity”. You write, for instance, that Bourgeois Christianity “does not fight on sacramental ground. It does not fight at all. It simply goes in search of Christian-friendly elements of the zeitgeist with which it might identify and market itself. It views ‘sin’ therapeutically and bureaucratically.” What can or must be done to both identify and reject Bourgeois Christianity?

Tracey Rowland: One way to identify it is to ask the question: does Christ make any difference at all in this presentation of the faith? Could this proposition or practice be supported by persons without any faith in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit? Another question would be: is this the whole truth or just part of the truth? Is there some other aspect of divine revelation that is needed to complete the picture here? Has something been omitted because it is hard for the modern mind to accept?

In my experience the place where bourgeois Christianity flourishes is in church agencies. This might explain why the faith in Germany is in such a mess. There seems to be a high correlation between the ethos of bourgeois Christianity and institutions that are nominally Christian but funded by civil authorities. Once government money becomes an issue those who run such institutions become scared of offending government officials and the specific difference that belief in divine revelation makes suddenly becomes a social burden, even an embarrassment, and thus something needing to be “muted”. The problem then becomes that people encounter what they think is Christianity in their exposure to these institutions. What they are experiencing is not however an authentic Christianity, but something like secular humanism with a bit of Christian window dressing.

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