October 11, 2010

As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger has been effusive in calling on Catholics to develop a relationship with the Holy Spirit.

At a 2008 outdoor Mass in Washington, D.C., for example, he said he had come "to implore from the Lord a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit in this country." Speaking like an enthused charismatic, he called for the people of the United States to be renewed in the Holy Spirit and for the Spirit to pour out his gifts upon the Church.

But seven years prior to his rise to the papacy, Ratzinger published an article in a theology journal warning that there is "a certain danger" in speaking about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is elusive and does not speak about himself. "He withdraws from us into mystery, even more than Christ."

In his 1998 article in the journal Communio, Ratzinger noted that because of this elusiveness, one's own spirit can easily replace the Holy Spirit. Moreover, in our age, there is a tendency to associate the Spirit with what is new, spontaneous and unexpected. The Spirit is frequently set in opposition to the institution or indeed to anything that is stable and enduring.

One can easily see the consequences of this. A Christian captured by this notion of the spontaneous Spirit can be found darting from one new spiritual practice or group to another, never setting down roots and accomplishing little of value. A life of this would leave one with many and varied experiences, but little depth. One's spiritual biography would contain lots about "me" and precious little about "us."

Ratzinger was not pleased with this tendency. It is a serious distortion of the nature of the Holy Spirit. The life of the Spirit is not like a string of TV commercials, dazzling us first with one product before quickly extolling the supposed virtues of another completely unrelated toy.


The Holy Spirit, rather, abides. The Spirit is begotten from the eternal love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father. The Holy Spirit is love and gift.

One thing we can say about love is that it is faithful. It endures. "Love proves itself in constancy. Love is not recognizable right at any given moment or in just one moment; instead, love abides, overcomes vacillation and bears eternity within itself, which also shows, in my opinion, the connection between love and truth."

Ratzinger lays out three criteria for speaking "meaningfully, reliably and defensibly" about the Holy Spirit. First, the discussion must not be theoretical, "but must touch our experienced reality." Second, this experience must be tried and tested. Third, one's discussion must not be based on one's private authority, but must be submitted to the experience of the entire Church.

The proper way to explore the topic is by examining the great witnesses to the Holy Spirit in the Church's history. Ratzinger admits he hasn't studied the topic thoroughly, but he is familiar with one such witness - St. Augustine.

Through the Church, St. Augustine found freedom

Through the Church, St. Augustine found freedom

Augustine, he notes, recognizes the problem of being able to talk reliably and objectively about the Holy Spirit. "He questions originality and trusts whatever can be objectively found in the common faith of the Church."


Augustine's own experience was that of one who wandered aimlessly through life under the guise of being free. He was enslaved in "an existence in which everything was possible but nothing was meaningful," wrote the future pope. It was through the Spirit who is rooted in truth and in and through the Church that Augustine found true freedom.

The Holy Spirit is love and the Church, which is the creation of the Spirit, embodies love. One cannot follow the Spirit out of the Church because whoever abandons the Church abandons love. "One possesses the Holy Spirit to the degree that one loves the Church," wrote Ratzinger.

In today's society, such assertions go against the grain. The Church is portrayed as the antithesis of the Spirit. To achieve personal authenticity, it is thought, one must escape established religion and find one's own zen.

Ratzinger and Augustine say this is a mirage. Man's greatest dignity is that he is created in the image and likeness of God. God is love. Our dignity then is found in fidelity to the truth of love. That is the only place the Spirit can lead us, because the Spirit is love.

Ratzinger here has provided an essential corrective to loose, even self-indulgent talk about the Holy Spirit. With his reflection as a background, we need to go one step further. Next week, we will see how the Spirit touches each individual personally by calling him or her to a unique vocation within God's saving plan for humanity.