Ratzinger’s Theology: Freedom Is Made Possible By Rules

The ways in which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II address the question of theology and authority is frequently described as “integralism.” They are accused of integralism, needless to say, by their opponents, for integralism is a very unpleasant word in the history of Roman Catholic thought. Integrisme was the motto of a particularly virulent campaign that championed, and carried to extremes, Pius X’s 1907 condemnation of modernism. The campaign was centered in France, which was also the center of Roman Catholic scholarship at that time, and aimed to preserve integrally the teachings of the church against critical studies in Scripture and doctrine. Smiting its opponents hip and thigh, the integralists succeeded in casting a shadow over the work of Europe’s most distinguished theologians. Among other “reductionisms” they attacked was the “heresy” then known as “Americanism,” about which more in due course. In any event, within a few years it was apparent that the zealots had gone too far. In a 1914 encyclical (Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum), Benedict XV noted that the word integral is something of a tautology, since the corpus of faith is accepted entirely or not at all. Within that acceptance, research and debate are not only permissible but mandatory, said Rome. The secret society that promoted integralism, the Sodalitium, was suppressed by Rome in 1921, and that was the end of integralism. Whatever remnants of that way of thinking that still lingered were effectively exorcised by Vatican II. Or so it was thought.

It is the farthest from our purpose to put in a good word for integralism. From all that the historians tell us, the movement was narrow, nasty, anti-intellectual, fanatical, fideistic, and generally disagreeable. And yet, had the word not be so thoroughly discredited by its champions, integralism speaks of a concern that is of continuing and intense interest among theologians in all the churches. The question of what is integral to, what is inherent in, what makes for the wholeness of the faith can hardly be avoided by thoughtful Christians. The connection between integral and integrity is more than an etymological curiosity. To be sure, concern for theological integrity is not everybody’s cup of tea. That is to say, many theologians are more practiced in speaking about the “relevance,” or even the “possibility,” of theology rather than about its integrity. But if the identity of Christian theology (What is it that makes Christian theology Christian?) is not to be dissipated, and if the search for a theologically grounded ecumenism is not to be abandoned, the fear of integralism must not dissuade us from a fresh examination of what makes for integrity in Christian thought.

In almost every field of thought today there is discussion about what it means to be postmodern or postliberal. Theology is no exception. (See especially George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 1984.) It is important to see how Cardinal Ratzinger’s understanding of the theological task and its integrity may be related to this larger discussion. Large parts of his argument would seem to fit a type of theology that is aptly described as postliberal or postmodern. It is an approach that is on the far side of modernism, including the modernism peculiar to an earlier phase of the Roman Catholic experience. In speaking of different “types” of theology, one is reminded of E. M. Forster’s remark that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t say that. Much the same may apply to saying there are three kinds of theologians in the world. But we will say it nonetheless: there are preliberal, liberal, and postliberal theologians. Then the language becomes heavy going, but the terms sort themselves out after a while. Very briefly, the scheme is this: preliberals take a “cognitive-propositional” approach to doctrine, liberals take an “experiential-expressive” approach, and postliberals favor a “cultural-linguistic” approach.

In other words, there are three different answers to what doctrines are and what they are for. Preliberals assume that doctrines are propositions that express revealed and therefore unchanging truths. Liberals assume that doctrines are symbolic expressions of religious experiences. Postliberals incline to the view that doctrines are essentially “rules” reflecting the “grammar” of specific religious traditions. Postliberals tend to be more critical of liberals than of preliberals. That is because postliberalism shares preliberalism’s suspicion that liberalism ends up in robbing doctrines of their normative status. On the other hand, postliberalism is convinced that, even if we wanted to, there is no going back to preliberalism. In the case of the postliberal, as in the case of the postmodern, the “fiery brook” has been crossed.

The approach suggested here can be related to many issues in current dispute. It is pertinent also to misgivings expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger and others regarding ecumenism. Liberalism has proved to be of little help in attaining ecumenical agreement or disagreement. That is because liberalism typically claims that apparent doctrinal disagreements are only apparent. Different doctrinal formulations are, in this view, only different ways of saying the same thing. Liberal ecumenism thus tends to produce a type of lowest-common-denominator dialogue that is depressingly vacuous. Successful ecumenical dialogue must produce not a synthetic new tradition but a confession in which both parties to the dialogue can recognize their own tradition. Preliberals, on the other hand, view the ecumenical effort itself with grave suspicion. Put more bluntly, they suspect that all ecumenical agreements must be the result of one party or the other (or both) selling out. After all, if it was agreed that there was a doctrinal disagreement, and then it is later said that there is reconciliation, it would seem that somebody must have changed his position. That does not necessarily follow.

To say there are three types of theologians does not mean that all or most theologians are “pure types.” Many Roman Catholic theologians, for instance, seem to be ‘mixed types,” frequently being liberal in their theological method but preliberal when it comes to a crunch with church authority. A postliberal “rule theory” of doctrine would seem to be more promising. In an important sense, this idea is not all that new. From earliest times, the Christian notion of regulae fidei has underscored the similarity between doctrines and rules. Doctrines set limits. This is a limit setting not by institutional authority but by the inherent (were it permissible, one might say integral) logic and language of doctrines themselves. If we understand doctrine as church teaching, then the purpose of doctrine is to set the range within which theology goes about its business of propositional statements and symbolizing activities. (Of course doctrines are more than formal church teachings and play very different roles in evangelism, catechesis, liturgy, and the devotional life. But here we are primarily concerned with church teaching, which is the question to which Joseph Ratzinger addresses himself in his reflections on the church and the theologian.)

Critical aspects of Ratzinger’s argument, I believe, are consonant with this postliberal understanding of doctrine. The most critical aspect is the relationship between theology and the Church, which includes also the grammar of the community of faith. The postliberal approach can be fruitful for ecumenical reconciliation, for example, because reconciliation can happen when each party to the dialogue acknowledges that the other party’s statement is within the communal grammar, within the limits set by the doctrinal “rules.” Within each tradition there are truth claims that are described as “encoded propositions.” What is positively affirmed in encoded propositions need not be agreed upon by the other party, so long as it is recognized that what is encoded does not violate the “doctrinal code” of the larger and shared tradition.

A useful example is the early Church’s controversies over christological and trinitarian doctrine. Consubstantiality was an important issue, the doctrine that in the Trinity, the Father and Son are of one and the same substance or being. Athanasius, the champion of orthodoxy, asserted a regulative or “rule theory” understanding of creedal statements. He said that consubstantiality means that whatever is said of the Father is said of the Son, except that the Son is not the Father. Positive affirmations about the relationship between Father and Son can then take many forms, so long as they do not violate this doctrinal rule.

There is something powerfully liberating in this approach. As Cardinal Ratzinger emphasizes, in theology, as also in liturgy and indeed in all serious life activities, freedom is made possible by rules. Such activities are anxiety ridden and paralyzed when nothing is established, when nothing is “in place.” Skating on a lake where the thin ice has not been marked is a dicey venture, and the almost infinite variations of skill and experiment in baseball are possible only when the game itself has been defined. Thus words such as doctrine, dogma, and orthodoxy lose the oppressive connotations they carry in contemporary culture. To be sure, dogma sets limits, but the limits are set in order to clear space for the free play of the best that we can bring to the enterprise at hand.

Of course, Christians may still disagree about the grammar of doctrine. But those disagreements are not likely to arise along existing ecclesial boundaries. In addition, it is probable that those disagreements will be more theologically fruitful than contestations over different propositions. For instance, people may believe different things about the proposition that the Blessed Virgin was bodily assumed into heaven (as indeed those who now say they “believe in” the Assumption undoubtedly mean different things by that statement), but they can be agreed upon rules of doctrine by which the Assumption may be believed. The postliberal approach being proposed is not without difficulties, but it would seem to be a great advance over prevailing liberalisms in Roman Catholicism and elsewhere. In the postliberal approach, as in Ratzinger’s argument, the regulating accountability is to the community and its tradition. This is in sharp contrast to the lines of accountability in conventional liberalism.

The liberal strategy and sense of accountability reflect a vulgarized form of what the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich termed correlation. That is to say, it is claimed that there is a correlation between the questions thrown up by the culture and the symbolic answers provided by the Christian tradition. If the purpose is to “market” Christianity, this liberal or experiential-expressive approach has distinct attractions. Liberalism might be described as a supply-side view of Christianity. The demand side is the “real world” and the questions it poses. The supply side is the rich lode of symbolic meanings provided by the Christian tradition. In this marketing strategy, Christian teaching becomes an optional aid to individual self-realization rather than a bearer of normative realities to be internalized. Theologians run the design department and are in charge of wholesaling the symbolic meanings retailed in the pastoral care division of the church’s mission. But the market finally determines what is, as they say, “meaningful.”

Different religious statements, rituals, and allegiances are then but different ways of expressing a universal and underlying truth. In the second life of nineteenth-century Protestant liberalism that is not thriving among Roman Catholics, that underlying reality is frequently referred to as “mystery.” There is a nice irony here, for “mystery” is also an important term in the thinking of Joseph Ratzinger. One difference is that Ratzinger speaks of mystery with respect to particularities, while liberalism sees the mystery in universals. We earlier considered the ways in which talk about the transcendent and the ineffable can be turned in ways that escape reference to anything in particular. Any specific religious statement, it turns out, is inevitably about something else. Consider the statement, “In Jesus, God became man.” Precisely that, in one view, is the mystery. In the liberal view under discussion, however, that is but the symbolic expression of some other and presumably deeper reality.

With Karl Barth, among others, Joseph Ratzinger insists that the Christian Gospel is not one symbolic expression among others of the universal phenomenon of religion, but is the controlling statement of truth by which all reality, including the phenomenon of religion, is rightly understood. And this returns us to the question of community, tradition, and how we come to understanding. In the postliberal or postmodern view, it is evident that one can no more be religious in general than one can speak language in general. “Religion in general,” in other words, is but another particularism. The liberal tendency to dismiss traditions as being culturally and historically “conditioned” is itself as culturally conditioned as the tradition it presumes to transcend. One of the great intellectual shifts of our time is the recognition that the search for the “universal” place to stand—an Archimedean point to which particularisms can be brought to judgment—is elusive and finally illusionary.

This does not mean (as some liberals may be tempted to think) that we have license to assert any truth claims whatsoever, no matter how arbitrary, in complete freedom from reasonable discourse. It does mean that significant discourse is shaped by community and tradition. Liberalism continues to treat religion as the phenomenon, of which Christianity is an epiphenomenon. George Lindbeck perceptively compares this with trying to learn Chinese by reading translations from the Chinese. Liberal marketing, in its version of correlation, offers translated Christianity, which is something very different from the Christian tradition of which it is a translation.

Our understanding of “authority” in theology changes when we recognize that we can only know a tradition by immersing ourselves in a tradition, by submitting ourselves to the doctrinal, ethical, and liturgical “rules” of a tradition. Christian theology does not begin its work with the “limit questions” posed at the boundaries of universal human experience. It begins at the center of reality, which is Christ, by which the limits are set. Being Christian is a scandalously particular way of being human by which “being human” is defined. Christianity is not a brand name product on the “symbol systems” market that offers exchangeable goods. Jesus cannot be exchanged for Vishnu, nor Vishnu for Jesus. This is not to downplay the importance of interreligious dialogue, but it is to say that only those who have interiorized a normative tradition will have much to contribute to the dialogue. Even the goal of interreligious peace, which is a very great good, is best secured when it is grounded theologically. We do not kill one another, not because we agree that nobody really knows the will of God, but because we know it is the will of God that we not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God.

As Ratzinger emphasized at Toronto, so the postliberal understanding stresses the external word, the verbum externum. According to the Christian tradition, God has entered into the deliberation. The liberal derives the external features of a religion from inner experience; the postliberal does not neglect the internal word but understands it as the capacity to recognize the true external word. In other words, the internal word is the acknowledgement of the authoritative. It is not authoritarianism, for the person fully and freely participates in and internalizes the verbum externum. Nor is it autonomy in search of community and simply electing this community of symbolic beliefs rather than another. In sum, it is neither preliberal (authoritarian) nor liberal (autonomous). It is the postliberal “I but not I,” in which, in the very moment of our choosing, we acknowledge that we have been chosen.

The connection between theology, on the one hand, and community and tradition, on the other, goes much deeper than questions about “church authority” conventionally understood. Preliberals and liberals are alike in assuming that first you discover a truth (whether through inner experience or revelation) and then you express that truth as adequately as you can. Of course, preliberals of the propositionalist school frequently view both the truth and its expression as revealed. But liberals, although they do not speak of revelation in the same way at all, turn out to have a very similar posture. That is, the liberal and the fundamentalist (appealing to intellectual freedom) both claim to have a universally valid “place to stand,” quite apart from their embroilment in the particularities of a cultural-linguistic tradition. They make the same conceptual “moves,” as it were. First there is the truth discovered, and then one moves to the expression of the truth.

But the emphasis upon theology and community suggests that the conceptual order may be quite the opposite. Perhaps truth and expression are not separable; perhaps the expression is, in important ways, the truth. (Or, as Marshall McLuhan’s mischievously insightful axiom has it, “The medium is the message.”) The language of the tradition is not just an instrument for expressing what we know; the language is a way of knowing. Put differently, it is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have the experience. The richer and more varied the tradition in which we are immersed, the richer and more varied is our experience. Pressing the point just a little, we might say that Paul was in the cultural-linguistic mode when he wrote, “Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’ ” (Rom. 7). John XXIII, on the other hand, was definitely not in the cultural-linguistic mode when, in his opening statement at Vatican II, he declared, “The truths of the deposit of faith are one thing; how they are expressed is another.” That sentence can undoubtedly be understood in many ways, but it has in the past two decades been much invoked as a carte blanche for experiential-expressive liberalism.

The postliberal approach sketched here is akin to the directions that Joseph Ratzinger has been pointing for Roman Catholic theology—akin to, but not identical with. Between theology trapped in preliberal propositionalism and theology awash in liberal expressivism, Ratzinger seems much more exercised about the second. That is undoubtedly related to his reading of the “signs of the times” with respect to the state of Roman Catholic theology. When one considers the theologies and theologians given academic prestige and media attention, his reading may well be justified. But if Ratzinger is not to be misunderstood as embracing a Roman Catholic traditionalist version of fundamentalism, he must make it clearer that the rules of doctrine are not primarily rules of an institution but rules of participation in a communal enterprise. It would also be helpful if he affirmed more clearly the obligation of theology to engage its assertions about reality with other assertions about reality. In fairness, both these requirements are implicit and frequently explicit in his work. But the polemical edge of Ratzinger’s statements is found almost exclusively in his strictures against liberalism rather than preliberal propositionalism. This, as we have noted earlier, may have everything to do with what he describes as his “so awkward” official position.

In any event, to the extent that Ratzinger is correctly perceived as a postliberal theologian, he is not the enemy of theological change. It is preliberalism and liberalism that cannot really cope with change. Preliberals speak much of constancy, and liberals speak much of change. But for neither is there real change, since for one the proposition is constant and for the other the experience is constant. In the postliberal approach, there is both constancy and change; they are not in conflict.

That is, of course, a very attractive prospect. But there are many questions calling for further exploration. One question is whether a preliberal must go through liberalism in order to arrive at postliberalism. For many reasons, one must hope that is not the case. If postliberalism is the happy recovery ward for those who have gone through the catastrophe of liberalism, the entry price is too high. For those who have arrived at postliberalism after having gone through liberalism, liberalism may be viewed as a felix culpa. But one would not wish the catastrophe on anyone, nor is the Roman Catholic Church likely to recommend it.

At the same time, for those who have arrived at postliberalism on the far side of liberalism, there is no going back to a preliberal cognitive-propositional understanding of doctrine. Here it may be helpful to risk complicating the terminology just a little further. Postliberalism, it may be argued, is really prepreliberalism. That is implicit in the earlier reference to the early Church’s understanding of doctrine in terms of the “rule of faith.” The point cannot be made too often that what is today described as preliberalism is really a relatively modern, post-Cartesian, understanding of truth. The “old-time religion” of many Protestant fundamentalists and many Roman Catholic traditionalists is in fact a relatively recent development. Each has isolated and frozen a particular historical moment and confused it with the entirety of Christian truth (the Bible for the fundamentalist, The Tradition for the traditionalist). The definitive historical moment for the Protestant fundamentalist was the fundamentalist-versus-modernist controversy of nearly a century ago. The moment for the Roman Catholic traditionalist was post-Tridentine Rome—usually post-Tridentine Rome as they remember it in the reign of Pius XII.

But for most of us who read and write books such as this one, postliberalism is emphatically and inescapably postliberalism. Certainly for this author, it is a position arrived at on the far side of liberalism. Some developments are truly irreversible. After solving a puzzle, for example, one simply cannot return to the way one thought about the puzzle before solving it. After experiencing a place or a person or an idea, it is not possible to be the same person one was when anticipating the experience. And so it is with most of us in our experience of liberal theology’s understanding of the threat that doctrinal change poses to doctrinal constancy. If we cannot accept the liberal “solution” that the change really does not matter (because it does not affect the constant of experience), neither can we pretend that we have not seen the threat. The preliberally orthodox will tell us that this is a good argument for refusing to taste of liberalism’s forbidden fruit in the first place. To which the first answer is that, however that may be, the experience is irreversible. The second and more important answer is that we are morally obligated to a truth that no existing theological method can adequately comprehend and that will not be comprehended adequately before the End Time.

And this returns us again to the reality of paradox. The emergence of paradox signals not a failure of our understanding but the point beyond which our understanding cannot push, given the limits of our historical moment. Such paradox cannot be resolved; it can only be superseded. This future-directed view of theology as understanding anticipating further understanding is not a liberal or postliberal quirk but is firmly rooted in the eschatology affirmed by all who lay claim to being orthodox. Preliberal, liberal, postliberal—these are time-conditioned terms that make sense only within a relatively small part of Christian history to date and, I suspect, a much smaller part of God’s workings in history. That the Spirit is guiding us toward the understanding of the truth that is to be manifested is, on the other hand, an article of faith giving us confidence for the entire sojourn.

The proponents of postliberalism have scouted part of the way ahead on the far side of liberalism. Ratzinger points in the same direction. Those who would join in this part of a thoroughly ecumenical exploration must be pledged to intratextual and intratraditional fidelity, to abiding by the rules of doctrine. Such people must also be pledged to intertextual and intertraditional fidelity, to letting our Christian rules and their truth claims challenge and be challenged by other rules and other truth claims in which we are also immersed. As Ratzinger does make explicit, in encountering the confusion of languages, we must be determined that the “control language” is the Christian tradition. In the process of translation, the priority task is to translate the world into the text, not the text into the world. Those who cannot in good conscience maintain that priority should acknowledge that they are outside the regulae fidei; they are no longer within the communal enterprise by virtue of which Christian theology is significantly Christian. It is in intratextual fidelity that we find our ultimate identity and the cause in which we hope to die. It is in intertextual fidelity that we discover the ambiguities and responsibilities of who we are along the way toward the hoped-for end.


  • Richard John Neuhaus

    Richard John Neuhaus was a prominent Christian cleric (first as a Lutheran pastor and later as a Roman Catholic priest) and writer. Born in Canada, Neuhaus moved to the United States where he became a naturalized United States citizen. He was the founder and editor of the monthly journal First Things and the author of several books, including The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984), The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (1987), and Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (2006).

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