MUNICH, Germany, JAN. 29, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the introduction Siegfried Wiedenhofer, one of Benedict XVI’s former assistants, gave Nov. 12 at the launch in Munich of the Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI Foundation. The foundation is the project of a group of Joseph Ratzinger’s former doctoral and postdoctoral students, known as the Schülerkreis (Circle of Students).
His address was titled “Key Aspects of the Theology of Professor Joseph Ratzinger.”
* * *
In seeking to give a brief overview of the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, one is of course first confronted by the problem of its range. Joseph Ratzinger is among the most prolific theologians of our time, and probably of the history of theology as a whole. His published work to date is contained in the bibliography that has been produced by the Schülerkreis, and in particular by Vinzenz Pfnür, and which will soon be published: 130 books and writings, numerous of which have been translated into many languages, and over 1300 articles, many of which are also available in translation.
But the breadth of the themes is also stunning. Most of these writings are from the field of dogmatic theology and take up the exposition of the main tenets of the Christian faith. However, he began as a fundamental theologian and has continually dealt with particular foundational questions, such as the question of faith and reason, questions of theological method, and especially questions of ecumenical theology. But this is also a theology that understands itself to be particularly in the service of the ecclesial praxis of the faith.
Thus there are also many writings such as homilies and meditations that emerged directly from pastoral tasks, and writings that pertain to ecclesial praxis and would ordinarily be considered to belong to the field of practical theology: writings about spirituality, about the liturgy, but also about ethics, particularly political ethics. In addition, his interpretations of dogma almost always have a strong exegetical dimension, and he has also contributed several recognized works of theological and dogmatic history. A final characteristic that makes an overview of Joseph Ratzinger’s theology difficult is the fact that his theology is a dialogical theology through and through — a theology that develops not only through a listening to what the sources have to say, but also through a critical conversation with other perspectives, a conversation that is not afraid to identify errors and sometimes to argue quite polemically. What Joseph Ratzinger said in his first book, his dissertation on Augustine, surely applies to his own work as well: “Like every great theology, Augustine’s grew out of polemics against error, which here too showed itself to be the fruitful power without which living intellectual movement is hardly imaginable.”
On the other hand, like probably every other great theology, Joseph Ratzinger’s is marked by a great inner unity. By this I mean not only a deep integration of thought and belief, reflection and meditation, but also the unity of his fundamental theological vision. It is true that the theology of Joseph Ratzinger has in fact been read, criticized, and taken up in quite different ways, but the decisive aspect of this basic vision can be fairly clearly identified, in my opinion.
1. The theology of Joseph Ratzinger is not a theology for all times or a theology about history, but rather a theology for this time, and this time is for him above all the time of a fundamental crisis.
In the first place, there is the crisis of the Catholic Church, out of which the Second Vatican Council –prepared for and accompanied by a broad stream of Catholic reform theology — sought to lead us. The theology of Joseph Ratzinger is a part of this theology of reform. Nonetheless, it differs from the work of the other theologians of reform, in the main, in that the question of the identity of faith and Church soon found its way to the fore in his theology. This came about because for Joseph Ratzinger after the Council, the ecclesial and theological situation in the Catholic Church increasingly emerged as a crisis such as had not been seen since the 13th century, as he once said. In addition to this first diagnosis of crisis, there is — in connection with the great departure from tradition in the last third of the 20th century, and also in connection with the collapse of communism — his diagnosis of a fundamental crisis in morality and meaning in modern culture and society, which finds increasingly decisive expression in the charge of relativism. Finally, toward the end of the second millennium and in the beginning of the third, in light of the new sense of globalization, he also diagnoses and reflects upon a fundamental crisis of Christianity and its truth-claim.
2. A theology in such a time of crisis and transition must concentrate upon what is essential in Christian faith, its identity and specificity, as these are recognizable in the basic structure and constitution of the faith.
This essence of the faith can be summarized in three decisive aspects of Ratzinger’s understanding of Christian faith: the rationality of faith, faith’s historicity as centered in the revelation of Jesus Christ, and the personal nature of faith as summed up in love.
The rationality of faith as a claim to truth, a claim of knowledge
The theology of Joseph Ratzinger had developed above all in conversation with the Fathers of the Church and with the theology of the High Middle Ages, especially in conversation with Augustine, then also in conversation with Bonaventure — thus on the whole much more strongly in dialogue with the tradition of Christian Platonism than with Christian Aristotelianism. It is from the ancient Church’s constitution of Christian theology, to which he continually makes reference, that 1) the epistemological claim of Christian faith, its truth claim, and 2) a dialectical relationship of faith to reason, philosophy, and science, come to be a dominant strain of his own theology.
On the one hand, the truth of God has, according to the witness of Christian faith, entered history definitively with the final revelation in Jesus Christ. But this knowledge of faith necessarily requires thought, requires philosophy, because it claims to be a knowledge of all of reality, and because, in any case, it has to make its witness to the truth comprehensible. On the other hand, thinking needs the challenge of faith’s recognition of truth, so that it can remain on the right path in the search for the real, one, whole truth, amid the intensifying Western dichotomization of faith and reason, theology and philosophy.
In his conversation with Jürgen Habermas on April 19, 2004, here in the Katholische Akademie Bayern in Munich, Cardinal Ratzinger could speak, in the face of dangerous pathologies of both religion and reason that cannot be ignored today, “of a necessary correlationality of reason and faith, reason and religion, which are called to mutual purification and healing, and which need one another and must each acknowledge this” (Habermas/Ratzinger 2005, 57). It is only through a prolonged struggle with the present intellectual situation that it became evident to him that the question of truth must become a basic question for theology and philosophy: as he says, we do not dispose over truth — rather, only in acknowledging ourselves to be claimed together by the truth can we escape the dictatorship of arbitrariness and relativism and rescue the true humanity and human dignity.
Against this backdrop, the doctrine of creation, for instance, which J. Ratzinger has continually taken up since his early lectures in dogmatics, acquires an elevated theological significance. Ethical questions, too (regarding education, culture, politics, the state, democracy, and so on) are increasingly discussed. On the other hand, the thought of modernity finds itself the object of a radical critique (explicit for the first time in Introduction to Christianity): While in the metaphysics of antiquity and the Middle Ages the world, as an expression of the (creative) divine reason, was meaningful, comprehensible, reasonable, and transparent to its finality, the dominant modern notion of reason restricts itself to the knowledge of phenomena and the bare facts of history and to the cultural and technical production of goods in the service of man’s self-realization. In this reconfiguration of values, according to Ratzinger, reason becomes blind not only with respect to the truth of God, but also — and in connection with this — with respect to the difference between bare human existence and truly being human, a distinction essential for man’s humanity.
The historicity of faith and its christological center
According to the Christian confession of faith, the truth of God, the subject matter of theology, has appeared definitively in history in the person and history of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, the decisive sign of God’s revelation and salvation in the world — a revelation which, by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, is ever made newly present and effective. God has really bridged the abyss of infinity and has become approachable in a wholly human way, in Jesus Christ and in the witness of the ecclesial community of faith immersed in history. And here we find not only that Christian faith bears a certain claim to absoluteness, but also the importance of the Church as a theme in the theology of J. Ratzinger. The significance of this historical positivity of Christian faith can be seen also in J. Ratzinger’s important historical works, in his lectures on dogma, which interpreted faith as a living path through history, and in his dogmatics, which, like few others, rests upon an intensive personal exegetical study of the biblical sources.
The personal nature of faith
According to the logic of Christian faith, the question of truth is, in the final analysis, the quest for a truth that is really humane, that is, the truth of love, which permits the person to realize himself precisely in what most fully characterizes him: his being a person. In this emphasis on personhood as entailed in being human and in faith, we certainly see resonances of the personalist thinking of the period between the World Wars (Scheler, Guardini), which greatly influenced the theological development of Joseph Ratzinger in his early years. For it was possible to show, from this perspective, that the Christian message of the truth of God does not reach man as a foreign message that imposes itself from the outside, but rather that it is a message of life that permits him to live in the full and proper sense. And it is this precisely because it is a message of love. For man lives, finally, from the love that he receives and passes on, first and finally from the love that God is and that has become visible in the history of Jesus Christ. No one can live if he is not able to accept himself. But no one is able to accept himself if he has not already been accepted and loved by another. Truly being human is dependent upon being loved — but of course what we mean here is true love. For love, in its own concrete expression, is no less multifarious and ambivalent than faith and hope. Thus it is only where love is identical with truth that love is able to offer the salvation of man. And, of course, the inverse is also true: Only where truth is connected with love does truth become a possibility that does not need to be forced upon a person, but rather one that he can take up in freedom. Love is thus the true center of Christianity.
* * *
Naturally one might ask in closing, in light of all this: Why establish a foundation? Do we not have before us a very attractive understanding of Christian faith without the need for such a thing? And don’t the unbelievable book sales (“Jesus of Nazareth” alone, for instance, began by selling 200,000 copies just in the first edition of the German) show that this message has in many ways arrived — that this theology has already generated a strong response?
But in order to remain alive and effective, every great intellectual impulse needs cultivation, elaboration, interpretation, application, concretization, defense against misunderstanding and false criticism, but also expansion, debate, and critique. It was never the goal of Joseph Ratzinger, the theology teacher, to found a school in which every member would be bound to his own theological conceptions. His purpose was always, in the first place, to understand and articulate for the present day the liberating and redeeming claim of the truth of faith — most often through dialogue but also not infrequently through quite polemical disputation for the sake of this truth.
A foundation that wishes not only to promote the study of his theology but also to foster a theology in his spirit might be aided by a word of guidance from the Council. The Second Vatican Council’s constitution on revelation summarizes its fidelity to the previous councils in the expression “vestigiis inhaerens”: cleaving to the paths of these councils. To which, however, we ought to add Karl Barth’s suggested translation (which, incidentally, Joseph Ratzinger affirmed in his commentary): “going forward along the paths of these councils.” For this foundation is not merely dedicated to the study and cultivation of the powerful theological work that we find before us, but is still more committed to its living future — in the various modes of reception, continuance, debate, and also criticism — as an effective orientation along the path of faith.
[Translation by Lesley Rice]