We were excited to speak to Aaron Pidel, SJ about his newest book, The Inspiration and Truth of Scripture: Testing the Ratzinger Paradigm (CUA Press, 2023), part of our Verbum Domini series. Fr. Pidel is assistant professor of theology at Marquette University.
Q: When did you realize that you wanted to focus your scholarship on Pope Benedict XVI’s theology of inspiration? What about it captures you?
A: As I was going through my theology studies, I noticed that the most common arguments for changing traditional Catholic teachings appealed to the historical conditioning of its sources. “Yes, the Bible opposes remarriage after divorce,” my interlocutors would say, “but this made a lot more sense when women were not economically independent and could be divorced by men arbitrarily. Now we live in a different world where the underlying principle—that is, protecting women, eliminating sexual double-standards—might lead to a very different conclusion.” I also found discussion of the role of human inventiveness in Gospel composition strangely unsatisfying. We used to joke that, if an exegete could rewrite the Annunciation, the angelic salutation would run, “Fear not, Mary, for I am just a literary convention . . .” I always found intriguing, by contrast, the Eastern Christian tradition of identifying certain icons as “not made by human hands.” While not true in any ordinary sense, it reveals a sounder religious instinct, one that sees the scenes depicted as products more of divine than of human artistry.
At all events, I found a rather different atmosphere in Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. He could give the historical situatedness of revelation its due without giving the impression that Scripture was culturally conditioned “all the way down.” He could integrate the human factor into his Gospel exegesis without obscuring the fact that Christ remained the chief artisan of the narrated scene. This intrigued me enough to make me want to dedicate my licentiate thesis to Ratzinger’s biblical hermeneutics a dozen years ago. That project planted the seed for The Inspiration and Truth of Scripture.
Q: What is the main way St. Bonaventure’s thought influenced Ratzinger’s? Are there any other famous or even obscure theologians who also provided the building blocks to his model of inspiration?
Bonaventure furnishes Ratzinger with a Church-approved model for understanding Revelation as information-plus-relationship. According to Bonaventure, a doctor of the Church, Scripture, apart from a supernatural relationship with God mediated by the Church, would not be Revelation at all, just a “dead letter.” Bonaventure’s insight allowed Ratzinger to reconceive the People of God as Scripture’s true historical author, the “subject” whose intention elevates Scripture into Revelation and imbues it with its inerrant meaning.
A couple twentieth-century Jesuit authors also turn out to be important for Ratzinger: Henri de Lubac and Erich Przywara. Both impress upon Ratzinger the analogous unity of the Old and New Testament, such that the two can never be simply identified nor simply opposed.
Q: What surprised you the most while you were researching and writing this book?
A: What surprised me most, I think, was to see how early Ratzinger’s mature theological vision emerged—at least in regards to Scripture and Revelation. He wrote his Habilitationsschrift on Bonaventure in his late 20s and, as far as I can tell, never fundamentally revised the model of Scripture and Revelation he discovered there. I’m in my mid-40s now and I don’t think I’ve yet developed such a consistent theological “style.”
Equally surprising, though, was to see how these enduring principles could lead Ratzinger to different conclusions at different points in his career—especially on questions of marriage and divorce. I’m currently doing a little research on Ratzinger’s understanding of “synodality”—another topic where his pastoral judgment changes over time, despite his enduring commitment to what he calls a “eucharistic ecclesiology.” It’s a good reminder that theology is more an art than a science, often reflecting personal experience and the Zeitgeist—even for a thinker who was as critically distanced from his age as Ratzinger.
Q: What’s one thing about Pope Benedict himself that you hope readers will take away from your book?
A: I hope my readers take away Ratzinger’s “aids to judgment” for discerning what notions Scripture properly intends to affirm: an idea’s trajectory from Old Testament to New, its centrality to the figure of Jesus Christ, its reception into the faith and life of the Church, and its compatibility with sober scholarship. While these four criteria don’t instantly resolve every disputed question, they offer sound guiderails for thinking through nearly any disputed question. Above all, they provide a middle course between two extremes: a fundamentalism that cannot admit the need for any transposition of Scripture’s message from one cultural context to another, and a historicism that treats Scripture like any other document, denying it any God-given ability to transcend the prejudices of its age.