Joseph Ratzinger — Theologian to the Church

Throughout 1995, the air in Rome was thick with rumors that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger might be stepping down from his post as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As the longest serving curial official to be appointed by Pope John Paul II over a major Vatican office, Ratzinger has hinted at a desire to return to full-time academic work in the areas that gave him prominence as one of Europe’s leading postconciliar theologians.

During his three five-year terms, Joseph Ratzinger has continued to write and lecture on numerous topics pertaining to a variety of theological specialties, even while overseeing the work of the Congregation to monitor adherence to Church doctrine among Catholic institutions and faithful. It is one of the curious traits of Ratzinger’s tenure in the Vatican that he has managed to blend the role of prefect with that of scholar in a way that none of his predecessors had done. Should the cardinal leave the doctrinal office anytime soon, he would likely return to a scholarly agenda without the burden of his pastoral duties for the universal Church.

What projects Joseph Ratzinger the theologian might undertake in his “retirement” from the Vatican may be suggested from taking a brief look at his forty-five-year career as a theologian. It is best to begin in the early to mid-1950s with Ratzinger’s two earliest works, which allowed him to qualify for the doctorate and postdoctorate habilitation at the University of Munich. The first dissertation on Saint Augustine’s concept of the Church was written against the background of many of the important discussions that were taking place among German and French ecclesiologists on the eve of Vatican II. The second dissertation on Saint Bonaventure’s theology of history laid the foundation for working out the relationship between human activity within history and the future coming of the Kingdom. These two engines, as it were, that have driven Ratzinger’s scholarship over the years were already in place early in his life. Thus the cardinal’s work, even in such a brief sketch as this one, can be considered in light of ecclesiology and eschatology.

The Church Question

In 1950, Ratzinger was commissioned by his teacher, the theologian G. Söhngen, to research the theme of “people of God” in the writings of Augustine. Inspired by the research of German scholars like M. D. Koster and Erich Przywara, Ratzinger sought to determine whether this metaphor better expresses the essential nature of the Church than the term “Body of Christ.” The latter usage had been a popular concept in German theology since the Romantic period and had recently received hierarchical endorsement in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis (1943).

Ratzinger’s conclusions can be found in the work entitled People of God and House of God in Augustine’s Teaching on the Church. Here the Bavarian theologian shows that for Augustine, who is in line with the New Testament and wider patristic tradition, “people of God” refers not directly to the Church but to the Israel of the first covenant. Only through a christological transposition, which follows from an allegorical reading of the Old Testament, can the people of God concept be used to designate the community that is formed from the body and blood of Christ. Ratzinger’s favorite formula during this period was aimed at preserving the unique Eucharistic character of the Christian community: “The Church is the people of God only in and through the Body of Christ.” In the years after the Council, Ratzinger would be led to argue that a horizontal/political reading of people of God is the logical consequence of separating this metaphor from its essential complements, namely, Body of Christ and sacrament.

Reflecting on the nature of the Church in the earlier work on Augustine and in subsequent talks and articles, helped Ratzinger to prepare for service at the Vatican Council, where he was a theological adviser to Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne and a perceptive commentator on the much debated drafts of the Church constitution, Lumen Gentium. Along with other German and French advisers, Ratzinger had written extensively on the various ecclesial concepts that were making their way into conciliar texts. Up until Vatican II, the terms favored by the magisterium tended to emphasize the visible institutional aspect of the Church (i.e., its being a “sign of faith”), over and against Protestant interpretations that gave greater weight to the invisible aspect.

Yet for several decades before the council, Catholic scholars like Romano Guardini had drawn increasing attention to the faith-mystery dimension, that is, the Church’s interior life seen only through the eyes of faith. Ratzinger saw as a principal task of his work to demonstrate “the inner and outer dimensions of the Church as a unity.” Only a church conceived as an indivisible unity—as both mystery and sign of faith together—can avoid an imbalance that reduces the Christian community to being either a completely hidden reality, never to be identified with any empirical church, or something that knows itself only sociologically.

In the conciliar period of openness to the world, Ratzinger also authored a short book that addressed the distinctive character of the Christian community, which is only set apart from other social groups in order that it may perform its unique service on behalf of the world. In The Christian Brotherhood, Ratzinger explains the paradoxical nature of the Church by grounding its universalism in the very “particularism” of the Incarnation. “The separating-off of the limited Christian brotherhood,” he asserts, “is not the creation of some esoteric circle, but is intended (as the incorporation into the sonship of Jesus) to serve the whole … through missionizing, agape, and suffering.”

In addition to a balanced understanding of the Church’s nature, Ratzinger’s work in this phase is also concerned with the interrelatedness of ecclesial structures. It is sometimes noted that early in his career Ratzinger was an enthusiastic supporter of bishops’ conferences, whereas in later years he argued for their delimited pastoral and teaching authority. This apparent change in evaluation of these regional bodies is perhaps owing both to Ratzinger’s concern with nationalism as a threat to ecclesial unity and to a more deepened understanding of the nature of the Church as a communion—in which the structures of primacy (office of the pope) and collegiality (college of bishops) perform their greatest service when they are firmly ordered toward each other. It is this appeal to an understanding of the Church as communio that becomes Ratzinger’s most enduring safeguard against skewed interpretations of the Church’s essence and functions.

Eschatology and History

While Christian existence cannot be defined, according to Ratzinger’s theology, except in relation to the Church, neither can its elucidation escape the eschatological character of Christian faith. In the writings of St. Bonaventure, Ratzinger discovers a multilayered theory of biblical exegesis that links the Old and New Testaments and provides an interpretive key for understanding the whole of world history. Because history develops in one unbroken line of meaning, the Church’s present and future can be made intelligible only in relation to its past. With his cross, Christ is the lost center of the world’s circle; he is the eschatological sign that gives “true dimension and meaning to the movement both of individual lives and of human history as a whole.”

Ratzinger’s 1959 study, later published in English as The Theology of History in the Writings of Saint Bonaventure, was a tour de force in Bonaventurian studies. It not only provided important analysis of key medieval texts, but it also prepared Ratzinger for how schools of theology in the contemporary period would seem to collapse eschatology with concrete historical forms. To the degree that Bonaventure and the more radical Joachim of Fiore saw the “last age” ushered in by St. Francis as the reign of the poor on earth, this early Franciscan theology anticipated some of the perspectives in liberation theology. In Ratzinger’s later criticism of positions that tended to view human perfectibility as attainable within history, the cardinal would assert the task of Christian theology “to tear asunder eschatology from politics” in order to make room for prudential ethical reasoning within the political arena.

In the late 1970s, shortly after being appointed archbishop of Munich, Ratzinger contributed a volume on the eschatological theme to a series on dogmatic theology, which he coedited with the historical theologian Johann Baptist Auer. Against the de-Christianized eschatology of Marxism, Christianity sees survival beyond death as a necessary condition for a commitment to justice in the life of any society. Building on this and other anthropological considerations, Ratzinger goes on to show how the prayer life of Israel pointed the way to Christ’s entering the realm of death and transforming “the space of non-communication” into the “place of his own presence.” The traditional doctrines of heaven and hell, purgatory and judgment, death and the immortality of the soul, all find their contemporary elucidation in light of every human being’s vocation to communion with the Trinity. This “vertical communion,” Ratzinger notes, has its immediate consequences for ethics and the common worship of believers, for whom “the walls separating heaven and earth, and past, present, and future, are now as glass.”

Eschatological Church

Just as prayer requires insertion into Church communion, so does theology need an environment where its own proper object can be known. Logos (reason) requires its own ethos, which Ratzinger understands to be the tradition in which revelation has unfolded down through the centuries. The theologian as well as the biblical exegete, without prejudice to the important role of modern critical methods, must approach truth synchronically (attentive to voices within today’s Church), as well as diachronically (attentive to voices down through the ages). Many contemporary scholars, Ratzinger notes, fall into error when their use of historical criticism is itself uncritical, forgetting that every interpreter brings a “pre-understanding” to the text and that today’s exegesis reflects the bias of the present day to reduce all knowledge to the model of the natural sciences. A greater integration of scientific theology and spirituality, as well as dogma and exegesis, would renew theology’s commitment to providing a rational account of the Church’s faith for the present generation. The unity of faith as well as the unity of the churches become important themes in the two volumes of essays that reflect key developments in Ratzinger’s thought over the last two decades: Principles of Catholic Theology and Church, Ecumenism and Politics.

Since the early period on the eve of the council, Joseph Ratzinger has been a frequent participant and commentator on ecumenical discussions. The cardinal’s assessment of the official Lutheran-Catholic and Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogues includes a trenchant analysis of conflicting views regarding the authority of tradition and office. His sober remarks in recent years on the question of achieving inter-communion in the near future are qualified by his hope for further collaboration between Catholics and reformation Christians in those areas of ecclesial and cultural life where the already present bonds of communion give both sides common purpose.

As regards the Orthodox, however, Ratzinger’s commentary reflects much greater optimism, particularly over the matter of full Eucharistic communion that recent papal teaching holds out as an attainable goal in the proximate future. At an earlier stage in Ratzinger’s career, he argued that Rome’s single condition for intercommunion should be that the Orthodox merely accept the teachings of the first millennium on the primacy of the pope and no longer view any subsequent dogmatic developments in the West as heretical.

“Unity” remains an abiding theme in Ratzinger’s near-half-century career as a theologian. One might suppose that the unity theme arises naturally from viewing the Church as an eschatological people or communion. It would not be unfaithful to Ratzinger’s thought to say that in his theology unity is the gift that eschatology bestows upon ecclesiology. For as Ratzinger has argued in many of his writings, it falls to the new people of God to announce and make present the eschatological unity into which the scattered and divided peoples of the earth are called. This unity, he notes, belonged from the beginning to “the Twelve,” who represent the new creation and the transfiguration of Israel. To be the sacrament of that lost communion between God and human beings implies a servant-role for the Church vis-a-vis whatever culture she may find herself, as she continues on her pilgrim journey to the Kingdom of God.

For Joseph Ratzinger, whose ecclesial service spans the second half of the twentieth century, the Church has a great role to perform in renewing consciences and giving eschatological hope to the people of our time. Whether he remains in the doctrinal office or resumes full-time work as a scholar, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger will continue to be a conscience for the Church and for the culture of our day—and perhaps offer not a small glimmer of hope, as well, with respect to those “last things” about which he has also written so powerfully.


tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...