Ratzinger on the record


This is an article that appeared in the October 1973 issue of U.S. Catholic. We are publishing it as part of our 75th anniversary celebration.

Lost in the Shouting: The Meaning of Vatican II
By Desmond O’Grady

At the time of the second Vatican Council, it was said the bishops were learning their two R’s: Rahner and Ratzinger.

The first of the German pair, the Jesuit Karl Rahner, was at the height of his theological fame and influence. His friend and colleague, Joseph Ratzinger, was much younger. Only 35 when the council began, he attended both as a theological expert and as counselor to one of the council’s protagonists, the almost-blind Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, who had memorable clashes with Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, prefect of the Holy Office.

It is a long decade ago. The expectations of many have not been fulfilled. Ratzinger himself admits that he has been disappointed by the aftermath of the council. He feels it is now clear that handing down reforms from above will not bring about the desired renewal.

“There has been some renewal,” says Ratzinger, “but we have to delve deeper still to discover just what the council really intended. The council wanted to pave the way for the full flowering of the church’s life; instead, we have confusion. The difficulties are not due to any activity or inactivity of the bishops or the Roman Curia, nor to the efforts or lack of efforts for integration of Christian communities by means of greater participation of all members. The difficulties are due more to the failure to understand the underlying reason for structures in the first place and thus the need for reform.


“Obsession with structural refor– however good and necessary in itself– has distracted us from the radical renewal the council called for: inner or interior renewal. The council called for the transformation of the world through a church intensely conscious of her divine mission and newly awake to the responsibilities arising from the saving Mysterion which she is: in other words, the council called for a church made up of men and women open to the transforming activity of God’s grace and united, not by democratic consent, but by the one objective, in the one Spirit, and within the one divinely-given structure.”

Despite his greying hair, Ratzinger looks younger than 45. Neatly-built, he is calm and relaxed. He teaches dogmatic theology and the history of dogma at the University of Ratisbon, on the Danube in Bavaria. The university, founded in 1969, has 300 theological students out of a total enrollment of 7000.

Ratzinger was born at Marti, near the Austrian border of Bavaria, in 1927. One of three children of a police commissioner, he had an early vocation to the priesthood. But, in 1943, at the age of 16, he was called up for two years of military service.

While some of his contemporaries were sent to die trying to halt the Allied advance at Monte Cassino south of Rome, Ratzinger was relatively lucky. After a year in an anti-aircraft battery in Munich, he was sent with an infantry unit to the Hungarian frontier. Taken prisoner by the American forces at the war’s end, he spent six weeks in a prisoner-of-war camp near Ulm. He considers fellow theologian J.B. Metz more “fortunate”: he was a prisoner-of-war in the United States where he learned fluent English.

After the war, Ratzinger entered Freising seminary, and in 1947, began studies at Munich University under the renowned theologian Romano Guardini. In 1953, he became a curate priest in that city and took his doctorate in theology. He taught theology in Munich from 1957 to 1959, when he shifted to Bonn as professor of fundamental theology.


A year after the council began, he was appointed professor of dogmatic theology at Munster, where he became a very close friend of the philosopher Josef Pieper. In 1966, in his last move before the one to his present post, Ratzinger accepted a position on the theology faculty of Tübingen University, where Hans Küng also teaches.

Because of his training and experience Ratzinger seems a good man to ask if we are witnessing the twilight of the theologians. The great efflorescence of theology which accompanied the council has been followed by an impatience with its exponents, epitomized in the slogan: “(German) theologians, go home.” Is it as bad as all that and does it hurt? Or is the death of theology as temporary as that of God?

Ratzinger explained that the tradition of an independent theology in Germany, where state universities have theology faculties, meant that for the Germans the council was not such a theological breakthrough as it seemed in the United States and other countries. German Catholics were used to theologians who did something more than explicate Roman announcements. In fact, the German theologians provided stimulus for the liturgical and ecumenical movements which were endorsed subsequently by the council.

He acknowledged, however, that a new situation was created after the council. For one thing, theology moved out of the theological reviews into publications such as the German weekly Publik. Theologians were sought for interviews by mass-circulation magazines and television. For another, Küng propounded a theory that there were two forms of leadership in the church: the bishops, who are mainly pastors, and the theologians, who are prophets.

“Küng’s theory,” Ratzinger commented, “was really a fairly accurate description of the new, rather exaggerated, self-consciousness of the theologians immediately after the council. The experience of addressing scores of bishops–and being listened to–proved rather heady wine. This theory, however, is neither true to the theologian’s function nor does it do justice to the total concept of the bishop’s office–which cannot be so simply opposed to the role of the theologian.”

In the 70’s however, he believes things are different: “I find that young priests and laity are not satisfied with a purely academic theology and still less with a merely critical theology which, owing to its negative nature, is so limited. Some theologians seem to be totally involved only in problems of inadequate structures. Some appear to have overstepped their bounds.’

Ratzinger feels that what is needed now is a theology which helps people to live their faith. “People are seeking a positive, spiritual basis for life from theology. Scientific earnestness, and all that the serious study of theology demands, must naturally remain. Yet theologians must take account of the need to indicate how the Christian life can be lived now; they ought, thus, to point out the basis of our hope rather than to destroy hope.”

Positive thinking for theologians? Ratzinger gave some examples. He said that, when considering the question of church structures, theology can become exclusively critical of real or imaginary triumphalism, paternalism and authoritarianism in the church, giving the impression that it is all fit for the refuse heap. A more positive and realistic approach, he maintains, would be to exclude no form of government a priori but to seek first to identify the church’s “essential structure” and then to examine the suitability of the available structures in the light of this.


He points out, however, that while the church’s essential structure, her uniqueness cannot be confined to or totally expressed by any human structure, yet, since the church is to a certain sense the product of history, this structure cannot be discovered in the abstract. It must be found in the form in which it has existed and continues to exist. Harnack, the great liberal Protestant theologian, once likened the attempt to establish the “essence of Christianity” to the effort of the man who, trying to find the essence of a rose, removed the petals one by one until the rose disappeared; the essence was in the petals. The “essence of the Church,” Ratzinger maintains, is to be found in the community of hope, prayer, and sacraments.

More specific examples: Ratzinger pointed out that the Resurrection can be treated negatively or positively. One approach emphasizes the contradictions in the Gospel, stressing that we cannot know what took place and concluding that the Resurrection means only that Christ survives in those who believe in Him. It makes nonsense of all that has been said about the Resurrection from the event itself until the present.

A more positive approach, one suggested by Ratzinger, is to try to penetrate the historical fact that Christ did not return to the same kind of life He had before the crucifixion but that He lives on transfigured. Through his death, Christ crossed the frontiers of the created cosmos into the uncreated life of God, carrying humanity with Him in his human nature. In this way, He transformed his earthly mode of existence and opened the possibility of our transformation. This could only be expressed by the evangelists in the symbolic language they used. What is clear in all New Testament reports is that He really lives and truly encounters man, but in a mysterious new way. This real life, this new mode of existence demonstrated the end of death, the end of its power to destroy man hopelessly and finally. As a result, hope is now possible for every man, since the power of death is overcome and salvation is open to all.

Ratzinger asserts that theologians must not only confirm their brethren in the faith but must also respond to the most urgent contemporary problems.
The hottest theological issues of the moment, he believes, are politics (neo-Marxism, violence, the real meaning of liberation) and spirituality (the content of our hope, in what way God is the basis of our life). These two themes, according to Ratzinger, are deeply related, although this is not obvious at first sight. Moreover, both are linked with the question of freedom.

“For me, priority must be given to the urgent question of how to discover God in our life,” said Ratzinger. “This is not an academic question; it is a radical question, which must somehow be answered before one can ask academic questions in theology, particularly those questions which relate to the political sphere.

“I’m talking about what may awkwardly be described as coming into contact with God, finding Him as the basis of our being and all our acts–discovering that real sense of interiority which gives us an independence from the things of this world and a new relationship to them.

“In prayer and meditation, we can find the tranquility and the transforming power of the presence of God, This union with God is, ultimately, the only real basis on which community with others can rest. Our interior liberty enables us to live in community, and to see and serve the needs of all, especially the poor. The type of committed detachment which is the byproduct of this interior liberty destroys the roots of all forms of exploitation including the lust for power inherent in political activity; and it opens the eyes to the injustices that are concealed in every system.”

Ratzinger said that at the end of the council, many thought it sufficient for Christians to open themselves to the world. But experience has shown, he maintains, that opening-up is not sufficient. It was and is necessary to give.
It is absolutely important, he insisted, to continue what started almost two thousand years ago and has continued uninterrupted to the present, admittedly at various intensities: and that is not simply to contribute something to the world but to open the world to its own reality and mystery and destiny, to restore the world to its own real self, which means, ultimately, to redeem the world. This does not mean to attempt to explain the world to itself from the exalted viewpoint of some special gnosis but to transform the world by a blood and sweat process–and this blood includes that of the martyrs.

“Moreover,” Ratzinger added, “Christians can offer a real sense of festivity instead of the false liberation which really becomes another kind of uniformity. This is obvious in the sexual sphere. Joseph Pieper has shown very well that what looked like the green island of sexual liberation has turned out to be a mirage, another form of consumerism. That liberation did not lead to liberty; it was false because it treated sex acquisitively. The same goes for drugs, which clearly lead to slavery after a superficial ‘liberation.’

“There is a real need for transcendence, and, in an elaborate but essentially empty technological world, it is expressed through such substitutes as drug- taking. But it can really be satisfied only through living up to the radical demands of the Gospel and the liturgy. The liturgy cannot be understood simply as a private or semi-public prayer meeting, nor as a devotion determined by the mood of the moment nor, still less, by the expression of the individual piety of the celebrant.

“The liturgy must be seen as the most concrete and definitive form of God’s breaking-through to man, drawing man into Himself and closer to others at the deepest level of human existence. The medium used by God is the only medium suitable to man: his total humanity–that is, his material, intellectual and spiritual nature. Symbol, word, song, action, even the material world, all combine to draw man into the eternal cosmic liturgy in which, alone, man can experience his true dignity and calling.

“One may ask whether the modern liturgical reform has not so dehydrated the liturgy that real celebration–in depth–has been made more difficult than it was before. One may ask whether it has not turned liturgy into a one-dimensional ‘liturgy of the Word’ which tends towards moralistic piety preoccupied with social involvement.”

Ratzinger said that young theology students these days are looking for a new spirituality which will not be tied to pragmatism or to a moralistic approach, centered upon purely intellectual methods of meditation and on moral perfection. Ratzinger traces this excessive emphasis on the pragmatic to the Middle Ages, when the Gospel acquired its fully Western embodiment. At the high point of this development, the active and passive methods formed a harmonic unity. The more intellectual approach not only balanced the more mystical approach, but one was an expression of the other, one led to the other. But with the advent of Quietism–a seventeenth-century form of passive mysticism, and the church’s necessary reaction to it–a new trend emerged. This was the pragmatic, almost exclusively active approach which became widespread in the West through Jesuit spirituality.

“Young people today are looking for something different,” said Ratzinger. “The Jesus people and the Pentecostalists may look strange and even dangerous, but there is a real spiritual need expressed through them.”

Ratzinger says that theology not only needs freedom for research but also contact with the teaching authority of the church. He is an advocate of renewed collaboration between theologians and bishops, because each needs the other.

An example of this collaboration which he cited was the German episcopal conference’s theological commission of seven bishops and twice that number of theologians, including Ratzinger. President of the commission is Bishop Herman Volk of Mainz who was Ratzinger’s predecessor as professor of dogmatic theology at Münster.

The commission has representatives of various theological schools and discusses all topics freely. Ratzinger said the book it produced on the priesthood was praised even by dissident priests and that its statement about papal infallibility, issued by the German bishops, was accepted even by Küng.

Ratzinger had hoped that the international theological commission would do something similar for the universal church but there was one serious difficulty: the 30 members live so far apart that it is difficult for them to work effectively together. He spoke, for example, of the five-man subcommission on pluralism, of which he is a member. He is in Bavaria; the Jesuit, Peter Nemeshegyi is in Japan; Walter Burghardt is in the United States; Louis Bouyer divides his time between the United States and France; Tomislav Sagi-Bunicis in Yugoslavia.

Ratzinger says that under these conditions it is almost impossible to work with any continuity. All that can be expected is one session on one theme each year. Once this limitation was recognized, he added, it had to be admitted that the commission has done useful work, Its text on collegiality was the basis for the work of the first synod of bishops and was also sent to Pope Paul VI. The commission devoted two years to the question of the priesthood, and results of this influenced the last synod. The book of the commission’s conclusions has been widely circulated in France and, to a lesser extent, in Germany and Italy.

Out of the commission’s work on pluralism, sixteen propositions regarding pluralism have been drawn up, and these will be the basis of a 100-page text to be published this year.

“In the Curia there are some opposed to publication of our findings which, they maintain, should serve for consultation. It seems to me, however, that a certain publicity is necessary to show the collaboration which is taking place.”

The creation of the commission was one of the initiatives designed to give the former Holy Office, now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a positive rather than a repressive function. Is this another of the bright ideas which came out of the council but tarnished on contact with reality?

“The congregation is today primarily concerned with giving positive guidelines for faith and theology, and apparently wishes to condemn only in extreme cases,” Ratzinger said, ‘but it has not yet found a positive style. Its statement on the Trinity and Christology was a good example of this. It tried to be positive but the form of the statement was so traditional and abstract that it did not give any direction to the discussion which is going on. It was not speaking the right language.

“If I’ve dwelled on the recent efforts at collaboration between teaching authority and theologians,” said Ratzinger in summing up, “I would not like it to lead to a one-sided view of the matter. While the magisterium and theology need each other, obviously they’re not identical. We have to pay attention to the independence of each sphere. The church would suffer if the teaching authority were too little concerned with theology, but it would also suffer from a false fusion between them.

“The tendency toward such a fusion appears in both camps. Some bishops seem unable to summon up courage to make their own statements. They wait for the utterance of some theological oracle. They become attentive solely to the problems of theological interpretation, of doctrine, where they are inevitably outclassed by specialists. Such bishops more or less overlook the plain realities of the faith to which they are called, in a unique way, to give witness.

“On the other hand, there are theologians who would happily by-pass the laborious, painstaking way of scientific argumentation. They prefer to submit their opinions as expressions of the teaching authority–either by way of commissions or committees, or by episcopal sanction.

“Teaching authority and theology need each other, I repeat, but they also need their independence. In connection with this, it is important to add that the group mentality which has emerged since the council must be replaced by personal initiative. This initiative is grounded in serious study, and is willing to stand the test of scholarly disputation. It is conscious of its duty to the church as a whole rather than to a group or faction.

“Conflicts cannot be completely avoided; they can be fruitful when all involved are willing to serve the church as a whole.

“A clarification of the respective spheres of teaching authority and theology would benefit theology as a science. As such, it has suffered recently. Clarification would also ameliorate the cramped climate in the church. There would be more recognition that there are many difficult problems in the interpretation of the faith which, however, must be dealt with by specialists and not in the market-place of public opinion. Likewise, there would be recognition that, while these questions touch the very roots of the faith, their examination serves the faith. But it would be acknowledged,” said Ratzinger in conclusion, “that the faith itself remains the fundamental guide for human living in the world today and tomorrow.”