This Saturday and Sunday the Holy Father is visiting the Italian dioceses of Vigevano and Pavia, and will be visiting the tomb of Saint Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, which is located in the Basilica of St. Peters in the Golden Sky in Pavia. In an April 19th column for the National Post, Fr. Raymond J. de Souza writes:
St. Augustine is more than the principal intellectual influence on Benedict; the greatest of the first millennium’s Christian scholars is the Pope’s constant intellectual companion. His preaching and teaching are unfailingly leavened with Augustinian quotations. If John Paul II was a great philosopher pope, teaching the wisdom of Saint Thomas Aquinas to the late 20th century, Benedict is doing the same for Augustine in the 21st.
“Augustine defines the essence of the Christian religion,” then-Cardinal Ratzinger once said. “He saw Christian faith, not in continuity with earlier religions, but rather in continuity with philosophy as a victory of reason over superstition.”
It is a favourite theme of Pope Benedict, one that provided the high point of his papacy thus far, the world-shaking address at Regensburg last year, when he argued that to act contrary to right reason was to act contrary to God — a critical message in an age of religously motivated violence. ...
Benedict follows St. Augustine in seeing the Christian logos, the divine Word that rationally orders all things, an entirely different conception of God. Here is a God who is rational, whose creation reflects the order and goodness of right reason, and who can be known by human beings, made in His image and able to reason themselves. And even more extraordinary than that, this God revealed Himself as one who was love — a love that creates, redeems and calls His creation to Himself. The logos of philosophy becomes the God who is love, as Benedict put it in his first encyclical.
The God of Judeo-Christian revelation is not merely the god of the philosophers, acting as a remote first cause or principle of motion. Rather this God is a rational person, the principle of rationality and truth. This God can be approached by human creatures in truth — both the natural truths of science, and the revealed truths of faith. The ancient gods of the Nile or Mount Olympus, with their need for power and domination, had no standing in the world of philosophy. They belonged to a world of superstition. St. Augustine demonstrated how the God of Abraham belonged the world of philosophy, but pointed beyond it to the world of salvific love.
Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., in his excellent book, The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger (T&T Clark, 1988; republished in 2005 as The Thought of Pope Benedict XVI: An Introduction to the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger [Burns & Oates]), dedicates an entire chapter, "Augustine and the Church," to examining the influence of the great Doctor on Ratzinger's thought and theology, especially his approach to ecclesiology:
Believing with Romano Guardini that the twentieth century was proving, theologically, the "century of the Church", when the idea of the Church was re-awakening in all its depth and breadth, Ratzinger chose to scour the Augustinian corpus for insight into the nature of the Christian community of faith. ... For Augustine, the Church is at once the "people and the house of God". (p. 29)
And this interesting note:
None the less, the culture which Augustine brought to the exploration of the Christian faith in his early writings was largely philosophical, and so it is, naturally, from a philosophical perspective that Augustine first considered the mystery of the Church. Here Ratzinger identifies two main elements that form the Ansätze, "starting-points" of Augustinian ecclesiology. Augustine's reflections on the concept of faith will be vital for his understanding of the Church as people of God. By contrast, his concept of love is more important for his portrait of the Church as the house of God ... (p. 33).
Ecclesiology was a primary focus in many of Joseph Ratzinger's writings, while a central theme of his pontificate, of course, has been love. As both Frs. de Souza and Nichols indicate, the effect of Augustine's thought on Benedict has been profound. And while there are many obvious differences between two bishops who lived so many centuries apart, there are, I think, several intriguing parallels, or commonalities: the theological and philosophical erudition, the deep knowledge of both Christian and non-Christian beliefs and philosophies, the interaction with non-Christian philosophies, an ability to both be open to such systems while at the same time defending Catholic doctrine, the ability to be both theologian and pastor, a theologicial focus on ecclesiology, and so forth. Someday, I trust, someone will further explore much further, at book length, this fascinating relationship.