DAY THREE: Making space for theology 'on bent knee'

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Vienna, Austria

Back in 1993, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger mused that perhaps what happened to Catholic theology in the 12th century, when it relocated from the monasteries to Europe’s newly emerging universities, sowed the seeds of future confusion. The transition, Ratzinger wrote, “radically altered its spiritual and scientific complexion.”

The essay was styled as a reflection on a 1990 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by Ratzinger, called Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. It insisted that the “vital milieu” for theology must be the church, not the secular academy.


tToday as pope, Benedict brought those reflections full circle, visiting a Cistercian monastery in Austria whose 200-year-old theology program to train future priests and theologians has recently been named a Pontifical Academy in honor of Benedict XVI.

Once again, the pope emphasized the need for theology to take its cues from Catholic faith and worship.

“In its desire to be recognized as a rigorously scientific discipline in the modern sense, theology can lose the life-breath given by faith,” the pope warned. Instead, paraphrasing the famed Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Benedict called for theology to be practiced “on bent knees,” meaning in close connection to “lived spirituality.”

“Scientific rationality and lived devotion are two necessarily complementary and interdependent aspects of study,” the pope said. “A theology which no longer draws its life-breath from faith ceases to be theology. It ends up as an array of more-or-less loosely connected disciplines.”

At the same time, the pope did not insist upon rolling the clock back to before the 12th century. While applauding initiatives such as the Heiligenkreuz academy, Benedict said it’s equally important for theology “to be part of the universitas of knowledge through the presence of Catholic theological faculties in state universities.”

In his very choice of name, Pope Benedict signaled his affection for the founder of European monasticism, St. Benedict, who died in the sixth century, and for the monastic life generally. That esteem was clear today.

“As a spiritual oasis, a monastery reminds today’s world of the most important, and indeed, the only decisive thing: that there is an ultimate reason why life is worth living, God and his unfathomable love.”

Heiligenkreuz Abbey, founded in 1133, is the oldest continuing operating Cistercian Abbey anywhere in the world and the largest Cistercian monastery in Europe, with 80 monks and more than 100 students in its theological academy, founded in 1802.

The abbey takes its name from a 23-centimeter piece of wood preserved in it that tradition regards as having once formed part of the Cross of Christ. Heiligenkreuz has suffered the vicissitudes of Austrian history over the centuries. The monastery was virtually destroyed and its library burned during the Ottoman siege in 1683, and at the time of the Second World War the monastery was expropriated and many of its monks imprisoned.

The project of launching a pontifical academy at Heiligenkreuz reflects Pope Benedict’s desire for a more direct link between theological study and spiritual life.

At present, most seminarians in Austrian dioceses follow the general European custom of taking their courses from Catholic theology departments at state-run universities, studying alongside lay theology majors. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is the official chancellor of the theology department at the University of Vienna.

Those seminarians currently studying at Heiligenkreuz generally are preparing to become priests either in monastic orders or for one of the “new movements” in the Catholic Church, such as the Neocatechumenate, who Schönborn has enthusiastically welcomed in Austria. Some observers believe that Schönborn and other bishops may eventually send some of their own diocesan seminarians to Heiligenkreuz, feeling that it may be in a better position to foster the theology “on bent knee” to which Benedict XVI referred.
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tThe abbot of Heiligenkreuz, Gregor Donnersmarck, is a strong voice for traditional Catholic identity in Austria’s increasingly secular culture. As part of its wrap-up of the first day of Benedict’s Sept. 7-9 visit, the Austrian state television service ORF pitted Donnersmarck against Hans Peter Hurka of the “We Are Church” reform movement in an informal debate about issues in the church.

In his remarks to the monks, Benedict also urged them to be men of prayer and worship, which is the primary purpose of the monastic life. Among other things, Benedict said, this means celebrating the rites and rituals of the church with care, ensuring that God is the focus rather than human creativity.

“It would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centered on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity,” the pope said.

Efforts to defend Catholic liturgical traditions are a core concern for Pope Benedict, who recently authorized wider celebration of the Latin Mass in use prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). One of the pope’s longstanding concerns with liturgical changes that followed the council is that they placed too much emphasis on the priest, obscuring the common focus between priest and people on God.

“Whenever in our thinking we are only concerned about making the liturgy attractive, interesting and beautiful, the battle is already lost,” the pope said.

Addressing Austrians generally, Benedict called on them to see their monasteries not just as “strongholds of culture and tradition, or even simple business enterprises,” but rather as “a place of spiritual power.”

Referring to a play on words in German, Benedict said that Österreich, or Austria, is also Klösterreich, meaning a kingdom of monasteries.


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