Following the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, I have read or re-read half-a-dozen of his works in an effort to better understand the new pontiff. Doing so illuminates both the man and (through him) the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. Ratzinger provides us a brief overview of his first 50 years in Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998). Born and reared in Bavaria by devout parents, he enjoyed a blessed childhood. His father, a rural policeman, moved frequently about the region between the Inn and Salzach rivers, and he retired at the age of 60 (in 1937) to a house outside Traunstein. The area is richly rooted in history, reaching back several millennia to the Celts and Romans. It was early christianized by Irish missionaries. Ratzinger conveys the sense that he knows his land and people and finds stability therein.
Ratzinger attended the gymnasium in Traunstein, where he thoroughly mastered Latin and Greek, a linguistic foundation for his later mastery of theology. He began such studies just in time, for Hitler’s National Socialist regime soon required students to study science and modern languages rather than the classics. Students such as himself, however, were “grandfathered” in and allowed to complete their classical curriculum. Entering adolescence, he decided to enter the priesthood. In 1943, as Hitler’s war effort began crumbling, all boarding school students (Ratzinger included) were required to serve in a civil defense force. When he became eligible for military service, he was spared active duty, but he was forced to work in a labor camp (which he fled as the war was ending) and thus support the regime.
When the war ended, Ratzinger resumed his seminary education at Freising. Despite the lack of virtually everything material, the students joined together and zestfully studied for the priesthood, delving into a broad spectrum of philosophy and literature as well as theology. From Freising, Ratzinger went to Munich to study at the university. Here he encountered outstanding scholars and relished the challenge of new ideas and diverse perspectives. He also dug deeply into biblical studies and the thought of St. Augustine. “When I look back on the exciting years of my theological studies,” he recalls, “I can only be amazed at everything that is affirmed nowadays concerning the ‘preconciliar’ Church” (p. 57). Rather than being a tradition-bound static era, it was a time of ferment and radical questioning.
His intellectual brilliance fully evident, Ratzinger was encouraged to pursue the doctorate and did so while serving as an assistant pastor in Munich. He worked hard in youth ministry, received his degree, and then began teaching in the seminary in Freising. Subsequently he moved to Bonn, where he as awarded the chair in fundamental theology. Soon thereafter (moving quickly up the academic ladder) he was invited to Munster, then Tubingen and Regensberg. In the midst of his moves, he was fully involved in the theological discussions of the ’50s and ’60s–including the efforts of some to reduce Revelation to the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis. While at Tubingen, he saw existentialism literally collapse, to be replaced by the pervasive Marxism that continues to shape European universities. His encounters with Karl Rahner ultimately led him to note that “despite our agreement in many desires and conclusions, Rahner and I lived on two different theological planets” (p. 128). Scripture and the Fathers, not Kant and modern thought, were his beacons of truth.
Fully expecting to remain in academia for a lifetime, Ratzinter was, quite unexpectedly, appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. He chose, as his Episcopal motto, a “phrase from the Third Letter of John, ‘Co-worker of the Truth'” (p. 153). To fulfill that calling, he sought to anchor his diocese to the eternal Rock of Christ. Committing one’s all to “the side of God,” of course, never guarantees worldly success, even in the Church. But it does give stability to one’s decisions. And it explains why Pope John Paul II soon called on Ratzinger to take control of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
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Not long after assuming his new position in Rome, Cardinal Ratzinger was interviewed by Vittorio Messori, an Italian Journalist. The written record of that meeting, The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1985), provides considerable insight into both Ratzinger himself and his concerns for the Church. He appears as a deeply devout man, clearly troubled by certain developments in the Catholic world following Vatican II that changed the Church more in 20 years than in the previous 200. Especially troubling were theological currents, recklessly justified as in “the spirit of Vatican II,” which undermined the very foundations of faith.
To Ratzinger, orthodoxy–right belief–must ever remain preeminent in the life of the believers, for “faith is the highest and most precious good–simply because truth is the fundamental life-element for man. Therefore the concern to see that the faith among us is not impaired must be viewed–at least by believers–as higher than the concern for bodily health” (p. 22). Timeless truths (e.g. sin and grace) ever offend secularists, but the Church must proclaim them. Providing an example, the cardinal noted that he hoped some day to have the time to probe “the theme of ‘original sin’ and to the necessity of a rediscovery of its authentic reality” (p. 79). Failing to take seriously this doctrine “and to make it understandable is really one of the most difficult problems of present-day theology and pastoral ministry” (p. 79). But unless we’re sinners, we need no salvation! Yet all around us “Christian” preachers refuse to tell folks the truth about sin! Poorly informed, many folks just assume that everyone somehow goes to heaven because we’re all good enough to deserve it. The Church has been entrusted with one great task: to tell Truth to the world. You don’t discern Truth by counting ballots. She is sacramental and hierarchical, not social and democratic. By teaching the Credo, the Our Father, the Decalogue, and the sacraments, Christ’s ministers can effectively lift up the Truth that’s sufficient for man’s redemption.
Thus the Church is, Ratzinger insisted, a divinely directed rather than a purely human institution and as such must live differently from the world. Sadly enough, “We have lost the sense that Christians cannot live just like ‘everybody else'” (p. 115). There is, along with orthodoxy, an orthopraxy that should characterize the Church. So he insists on the ancient phrase: Ecclesia semper reformanda. But true reform comes neither from bureaucrats nor critics. Reform ever results from the leaven of saints! “Saints, in fact, reformed the Church in depth, not by working up plans for new structures, but by reforming themselves. What the Church needs in order to respond to the needs of man in every age is holiness, not management” (p. 53).
The manifest lack of–indeed, contempt for–personal holiness characterizes the sexual revolution birthed in the ’60s. In time we will lament, Ratzinger said, “the consequences of a sexuality which is no longer linked to motherhood and procreation. It logically follows from this that every form of sexuality is equivalent and therefore of equal worth” (p. 85). Unfettered from any real end, “the libido of the individual becomes the only possible point of reference of sex” and everyone does pretty much as he desires. Consequently, “it naturally follows that all forms of sexual gratification are transformed into the ‘rights’ of the individual. Thus, to cite an especially current example, homosexuality becomes an inalienable right” (p. 85). Yet another current of the sexual revolution, radical feminism, has greatly troubling the Church, seeking to alter her very structure and message. The cardinal was “in fact, convinced that what feminism promotes in its radical form is no longer the Christianity that we know; it is another religion” (p. 97).
In the face of much moral chaos, however, Ratzinger insists the Church must retain her focus and restate her message, come what may!
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A decade later another journalist, Peter Seewald, interviewed Ratzinger and published their conversations in Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1996). Seevold provides a personal introduction, indicating that he had, as a youngster, rejected the Faith and thus interviewed Ratzinger with some genuine personal concerns regarding himself as well as his subject. So his first section focused on “The Catholic Faith: Words and Signs.”
Ratzinger’s interested mainly in philosophy, theology, doctrine, ethics. He grants that knowing theology doesn’t make one a better person, but when rightly studied and appropriated it matters eternally–both for an individual and the Church. Though more celebrated “problems” may capture newspaper headlines, the real crisis in the Church today is theological, for she’s entrusted with declaring what one ought to believe. To Ratzinger, “To the substance of the faith belongs the fact that we look upon Christ as the living, incarnate Son of God made man; that because of him we believe in God, the triune God, the Creator of heaven and earth; that we believe that this god bends so far down, can become so small, that he is concerned about man and has created history with man, a history whose vessel, whose privileged place of expression, is the Church” (p. 19). In our day, especially in Europe, where the Church now represents a minority of the population, it takes courage to uphold the Faith in the face of mounting hostility.
Shifting from the discussion of Faith, Seewald asked Ratzinger a number of biographical questions. (If one’s read the cardinal’s Milestones, much in this section is repetitious, though one certainly gets fresh perspectives as he answers questions.) He acknowledges that he is something of a Platonist and is openly devoted to St. Augustine. He also cites a turning point, for him personally, when Marxists suddenly gained power, especially in the universities, in the late ’60s. He instantly knew that “Christians” trying to mix Marx with Jesus–flying the flag of “progressivism”–would lose their integrity as Christians. Since that time, “progressives” within the Catholic Church have sought to change her sexual standards, to install female priests, to make the Church something akin to themselves rather than Christ.
Obviously, Ratzinger noted, “not all who call themselves Christians really are Christians” (p. 220). Real Christians seek to live out the Christ-like life divinely imparted to them. They’re not intent on changing the world! Indeed, as the 20th century demonstrates, “everything depends on man’s not doing everything of which he is capable–for he is capable of destroying himself and the world–but on knowing that what ‘should’ be done and what ‘may’ be done are the standard against which to measure what ‘can’ be done” (p. 230). To give us direction we need spiritual renewal, not political revolution. We need saints, not power-hungry protesters. “What we really need,” says Ratzinger, echoing his words in The Ratzinger Report, “are people who are inwardly seized by Christianity, who experience it as joy and hope, who have thus become lovers. And these we call saints” (p. 26).
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The third set of published interviews, God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 2000), further enriches our understanding of Pope Benedict XVI. By now the journalist Seewald had returned to the Faith and his questions are both more informed and sympathetic. The conversations took place during three days in the abbey of Monte Cassino. That a book of 460 pages, dealing expertly with the whole spectrum of Christianity, can be compiled in three days indicates something of the genius of Ratzinger!
Setting the stage in his preface, hinting at his own journey back to faith, Seewald wondered what to make of the fact that “Within a short period of time, something like a spiritual nuclear attack had befallen large sections of society, a sort of Big Bang of Christian culture that was our foundation” (p. 13). To which Ratzinger, “one of the Church’s great wise men . . . patiently recounted the gospel to me, the belief of Christendom from the beginning of the world to its end, then, day by day, something of the mystery that holds the world together from within became more tangible. And fundamentally it is perhaps quite simple. ‘Creation,’ said the scholar, ‘bears within itself an order. We can work, out from this the ideas of God–and even the right way for us to live'” (pp. 14-15). Faith and love, rightly amalgamated, provide us that way.
Consequently, the Faith, rooted in the Truth of Revelation, cannot be compromised. “I always recall the saying of Tertullian,” Ratzinger says, “that Christ never said ‘I am the custom’, but ‘I am the truth'” (p. 35). Thus the task of the Church, in the words of Romano Guardini, is to: “‘steadily hold out to man the final verities, the ultimate image of perfection, the most fundamental principles of value, and must not permit herself to be confused by any passion, by any alteration of sentiment, by any trick of self-seeking'” (p. 65). To the cardinal: “Christianity makes its appearance with the claim to tell us something about God and the world and ourselves–something that is true and that, in the crisis of an age in which we have a great mass of communications about truth in natural science, but with respect to the questions essential for man we are sidelined into subjectivism, what we need above all is to seek anew for truth, with a new courage to recognize truth. In that way, this saying handed down from our origins, which I have chosen as my motto, defines something of the function of a priest and theologian, to wit, that he should, in all humility, and knowing his own fallibility, seek to be a co-worker of the truth” (p. 263).
Seeing the truth, discerning the Logos in creation, enables one to share Sir Isaac Newton’s conviction that “The wonderful arrangement and harmony of the universe can only have come into being in accordance with the plans of an omniscient and all-powerful Being. That is, and remains, my most important finding” (p. 47). The clear mathematical structure of the cosmos reveals its Logos. Equally rational, one discerns moral truths that are as objective and inflexible as mathematical formulae. The Ten Commandments, explained by Ratzinger as “commandments of love” (p. 180), are always and everywhere valid because they tell us the truth about God and ourselves. Thus it follows, he says, that: “Setting moral standards is in fact the most prominent work of mercy” (p. 317).
Since Seewald guides Ratzinger through the major themes of the Catechism, God in the World is a rather handy, informal primer for the Catholic faith. Combined with The Ratzinger Report and Salt of the Earth, it provides valuable insight into the personality and theology of the new pontiff.
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Ratzinger played a significant role, as a young theologian, in the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. Soon thereafter, in 1967, he gave a series of lectures at Tubingen that were published as Introduction to Christianity (New York: The Seabury Press, c. 1969). Here we find the scholar, citing current theologians, documenting positions, doing intellectual work of the highest order. The foundation for much of what he said in the intervening 40 years was made clear in this book.
He first addressed “belief in the world of today,” noting the widespread disbelief that challenges the Church. Multitudes cannot believe in anything intangible. Even within the Church, many find themselves troubled with doubts of all kinds. Ratzinger sheds light on the problem by tracing its history, especially evident in the shift from the Ancient and Medieval position that “Verum est ens” to the view of Giambattista Vico, that “Verum quia factum.” Following Vico, thinkers like Hegel and Marx reduce all questions to historical issues and consider what man makes, not what God has made. In time (initially among the intelligentsia but now everywhere) belief in God slowly eroded away.
To introduce modern man to Christianity, then, Ratzinger proposed that Christians primarily declare “I believe in You,” meaning Jesus Christ, and encourage him to find “God in the countenance of the man Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 48). When one recites the Apostles’ Creed, one certainly assents to its propositions, but more importantly he gives witness to his conversion–his “about-turn”–to the way of Christ. Having heard the Word, one takes it in from an outside source. Faith comes to us from God. We do not construct a worldview of some sort and then decide to live accordingly. Rather, we take, as a gift, what is revealed to us. “Christian belief is not an idea but life; it is not mind existing for itself, but incarnation, mind in the body of history and its ‘We’. It is not the mysticism of the self-identification of the mind with God but obedience and service” (p. 64).
To believe in One God involves not merely monotheism but–unlike the tendency to construct localized or tribal deities–the acknowledgement that the “God of our fathers” is “not the god of a place, but the god of men: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is therefore not bound to one spot, but present and powerful wherever man is” (p. 83). This God simply Is. He’s not in the process of becoming something, as is the world around us. This “God who ‘is’ is at the same time he who is with us; he is not just God in himself, but our God, the ‘God of our fathers'” (p. 88). The God of our fathers is also “our Father.” Ratzinger says: “By calling God simultaneously ‘Father’ and ‘Almighty’ the Creed has joined together a family concept and the concept of cosmic power in the description of the one God. It thereby expresses accurately the whole point of the Christian image of God: the tension between absolute power and absolute love, absolute distance and absolute proximity, between absolute Being and a direct affinity with the most human side of humanity” (p. 104.
Creation bears witness to its Maker. “Einstein said once that in the laws of nature ‘an intelligence so superior is revealed that in comparison all the significance of human thinking and human arrangements is a completely worthless reflection'” (p. 106). To Ratzinger, this means that we merely re-think “what in reality has already been thought out beforehand” (p. 106). There is a Logos giving rational structure to all that is. Rejecting the notion that the world is a purely random collection of material things, Christians marvel at it as the artistry of a divine Mind. This God has revealed himself, preeminently in the Christ who referred to both His Father and the Spirit. “God is as he shows himself; God does not show himself in a way in which he is not. On this assertion rests the Christian relation with God; in it is grounded the doctrine of the Trinity; indeed, it is this doctrine” (p. 117). History reveals how easily we err in trying to rationally explain this doctrine–sliding into monarchianism or subordinationism. The Church, wisely, has insisted we be “content with a mystery which cannot be plumbed by man” (p. 118).
So too there is a mystery to Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, reconciling the world to himself. Fully aware of various theories concerning “the Jesus of History” and the “Christ of Faith,” Ratzinger finds “it preferable and easier to believe that God became man than that such a conglomeration of hypotheses represents the truth” (p. 159). Thus the Virgin Birth reveals “how salvation comes to us; in the simplicity of acceptance, as the voluntary gift of the love that redeems the world” (pp. 210-211).
We’re saved by grace, given to us by a loving Father in the person and work of His Son. To respond with faith and love makes us Christian.