It is difficult to underestimate Joseph Ratzinger’s influence within the Church over the last sixty years. During the Second Vatican Council he made an important contribution as a theological expert (peritus) to the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). He emerged from the Council as a leading Catholic theologian and, in 1972, helped found the journal Communio. In 1977, he was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising and a cardinal. Five years later, St. John Paul II appointed him as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. For over twenty years, Card. Ratzinger assisted the pontiff in issuing important doctrinal documents, drafting encyclicals, and overseeing the preparation of the magnificent Catechism of the Catholic Church. Finally, he was elected Bishop of Rome and exercised the Petrine ministry until his resignation in 2013.
On this first anniversary of Benedict XVI’s death, Prof. Tracey Rowland selects and discusses five of his books that we should read.
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Why should Catholics read the writings of Joseph Ratzinger? Ratzinger is the Card. Newman of the twentieth century. In the future, he will be regarded as a great theologian, even a Doctor of the Church. Unlike many other theologians, he is easy to read if you have a basic grasp of the faith and are a practicing Catholic. Most of his books are accessible to any Catholic who has had an undergraduate education.
Moreover, Ratzinger is valuable because he did not create his own original theological system. Instead, he looked at pastoral or intellectual crises in the contemporary Church and wrote articles and books that addressed these crises. This means that his work is very relevant to the issues we are dealing with today.
You have written extensively on Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. What drew you to study his writings? I was like many of my generation, the one that came immediately after Vatican II. When I went to school, I still had some teachers who were in a pre-Conciliar mould and others who were typical 1960s-style teachers. I was exposed to both the pre-Vatican II ecclesial culture and that of the late sixties and the seventies. Moreover, I could see the tensions between the two.
As a schoolchild, I was academically inclined and did not like the transition from an intellectual presentation of the faith to something subjective and emotional. In the seventies, religious education often took the form of separating students into small groups, inviting them to hold hands, usually around a coffee table covered in candles, and then demanding that such students share with others in the group their deepest spiritual experiences. Apart from the dubious pedagogical value of this practice, it was a huge invasion of a child’s privacy.
As an undergraduate, I discovered The Ratzinger Report. It was an interview with Card. Ratzinger about the hot button issues in the Church. I read that book when it first came out in 1985 and thought, “I agree with this fellow! He understands the issues. He is not opposed to Vatican II but he understands that it has been followed by some problematic pastoral experiments.” I had been one of the guinea pigs in those pastoral experiments and so I could easily relate to his criticisms.
When I went to Cambridge for my doctorate, I was interested in the issue of culture and moral formation. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre had written a lot on this subject and, though a Marxist at one stage, he became a Catholic. I found that I was not allowed to write positively on a Catholic philosopher in what was then called the Faculty for Social and Political Sciences. As a consequence, I ended up in the Divinity school and my doctorate morphed into a study of the theology of culture. I drew on the work of the theology of Joseph Ratzinger and Henri de Lubac together with the philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre and synthesised this material.
Ratzinger is valuable because he did not create his own original theological system. Instead, he looked at pastoral or intellectual crises in the contemporary Church and wrote articles and books that addressed these crises.
In your book, Ratzinger’s Faith, one of the issues you broach is whether there is a continuity in his thought. Sometimes, he has been criticised for breaking with his early, allegedly liberal tendencies and becoming a conservative after the Council, especially following the events of 1968. Do you share that view? No, I do not believe that he changed his theological spots. The person who promoted that view was Hans Küng. Küng went even further and said that Ratzinger had a breakdown in 1968, when he was at the University of Tubingen, a centre of the student protests in Germany.
The theology faculty at Tubingen was picketed by students claiming that Jesus Christ was a sadomasochist. According to Küng’s narrative, Joseph Ratzinger found that so distressing he had some kind of break-down and changed from being a liberal to being an arch-conservative. I argue—and more importantly, people who were students of Joseph Ratzinger’s during the sixties have argued—that he never changed his theological spots.
He was always interested in the Church Fathers, particularly in St. Augustine. During the early sixties, that made him somewhat radical because he was not into Thomistic scholasticism. The prefect of studies at his seminary said that scholasticism was not Ratzinger’s beer. In short, he was not a typical 1950s style neo-Thomist. He preferred what he found to be the more personalist approach of St. Augustine. He was also influenced by the early 20th century personalist philosophers, people like Martin Buber. That made him look a bit radical at the Second Vatican Council. As a young peritus or theological advisor to Card. Frings, he often came up with ideas that were not part of the typical pre-conciliar, scholastic framework.
In the late sixties, there was a split among the theological advisors of the council. It became very apparent at a 1970 Congress in Brussels that the former periti were not all on the same theological page.
In 1972, Ratzinger, Henri de Lubac, and Hans Urs von Balthasar (who had not been at the Council but who was part of de Lubac’s circle) formed their own journal, Communio. Its interpretation of the meaning of the Second Vatican Council was very different from that of Concilium, the journal that some of the other periti supported.
Ratzinger said that he never changed his theological position but that, in the late sixties, some of the other periti changed their positions.
The major division between them was over which philosophy or discipline should be theology’s intellectual partner. As Catholics, we agree that theology is about the integration of faith and reason. But how do we understand reason? During the seventies, there was a movement among Catholic scholars in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium to take a serious interest in social theory and, in particular, the so-called critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which was then dominant in Germany. They tried to work with new social theories as theology’s partner. This—not Ratzinger’s suddenly becoming terribly conservative or emotionally distressed at the student protests—was a major cause of the cleavage.
You have already mentioned some of the main theologians of the period and how Ratzinger, unlike them, was not a system-builder. This makes his contribution harder to pin down. Henri de Lubac is known for his retrieval of the patristic and medieval tradition regarding grace, Eucharistic ecclesiology, and the spiritual sense of Scripture. Hans Urs von Balthasar is known for his theological aesthetics; Louis Bouyer for his writings on the liturgy and the Paschal mystery. Is there a central theme in Joseph Ratzinger’s theological output? I would argue that it is fundamental theology.
Fundamental theology is in a state of flux. There is no common agreement among theologians about its basic principles. How do we relate nature to grace? How do we relate faith to reason? How do we relate history to ontology? What is the relationship between the Petrine office and the episcopacy? All these fundamental principles of the faith are in a state of flux. The core of Ratzinger’s work is his view on what the fundamental principles should be. This includes his understanding of the basic principles of Scriptural interpretation, which are also in a state of flux.
Ratzinger’s best-known works are his Introduction to Christianity, Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy, and the three-volume Jesus of Nazareth. You have not included any of these in your list. Why have you selected some of his less well-known works, collections of occasional writings. Introduction to Christianity is a magnificent book and has been translated into fourteen languages. However, it is not an introduction. It is a defence of credal Christianity to the German intelligentsia of the late sixties. It answers many of the attacks on Christianity that stem from German philosophy of the first half of the twentieth century, and which reach back to the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. It is a great book, but it requires a rudimentary familiarity with the last two hundred years of German philosophy. Without that familiarity, reading it can be daunting.
The Jesus of Nazareth trilogy is brilliant and very accessible. Often, I tell people who have not read any Ratzinger to start with those books. Everyone I know who has read them has said that they have come away with a deeper understanding of Christ and the faith. I have even heard of agnostics who have converted to Christianity after reading those books. I strongly recommend them. However, I have not put them on the list because any discussion of them becomes a discussion of Benedict XVI’s interpretation of certain passages of Scripture.
"In the current geopolitical situation, we are starting to worship the state. One of Ratzinger’s main points is that Christianity de-deified the state."
The first book you have chosen is Faith and Politics, a collection of addresses and writings of Joseph Ratzinger’s from the early sixties to the year of his abdication as Bishop of Rome. Why have you started with his writings on the relation between faith and politics? In the current geopolitical situation, we are starting to worship the state. One of Ratzinger’s main points is that Christianity de-deified the state. This is one of its great achievements. Once Christianity became influential within the Roman Empire, people ceased to believe that the state, though an important institution, was the highest good. We do not worship the state.
Due to the current crisis within Christianity worldwide, people are starting to treat politics as a religion. Many are treating the state as a kind of highest good. We saw this during the pandemic. Politicians were treated like religious figures. Many looked to the state to save them from the virus.
That is not the only issue. The problem of contemporary political correctness is that many have ceased to believe in truth. Instead of truth, they are accepting ideologies of a Marxist pedigree. All the social theories that derive from Marxism begin with this problematic relationship with truth. This is one of Ratzinger’s main points. In fact, he says that the primary problem with Marxism is not that it is atheistic, but that it is hostile to truth. Its atheism is a secondary problem, a kind of by-product of the hostility to truth. Ratzinger therefore spills more ink over Marx's opposition to objective truth than over his atheism, which, of course, he doesn’t like, but he emphasises that Marx got to an atheist position from his stance against truth.
Ratzinger’s works on faith and politics are also helpful when it comes to current cultural issues. They explain why there are mobs of people who neither think nor act rationally. Many no longer think that individuals are responsible for their actions. Many think that groups, classes, or peoples of a certain colour are to be held responsible for social problems. Ratzinger discusses all these contemporary political and social issues in the Faith and Politicscollection.
One example is his analysis of Pontius Pilate’s behaviour. Pilate, he says, did not think that Jesus was a threat to the Roman Empire. Rather, he thought that unless he allowed Jesus to be condemned, some of the Jewish leaders would create political trouble for him. So, he ends up agreeing to the condemnation and crucifixion of Christ. Though he washes his hands, he allows things to unfold as they did because his highest good was not truth, but public peace. He did not want public unrest.
Today, something similar is happening. Truth is sacrificed on the altar of social consensus. The philosopher John Rawls wanted to disconnect the relationship between justice and truth. There is an analogy between some of today’s leading jurisprudential ideas and what Pontius Pilate was thinking. That is just one example.
Ratzinger’s work in this field is very helpful for people who are struggling with the political claims of contemporary ideologies.
"What happens at Mass must be about the worship of God, not the celebration of the local community. The celebration of the community or the family or just individual friendships is what happens at the pub or café after Mass."
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