Twentieth Century Theology

The stages of Joseph Ratzinger (I)

Joseph Ratzinger is one of the great theologians of the 20th century and, moreover, an exceptional witness of the life of the Church, with his four stages as theologian and professor, Archbishop of Munich, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Pope.

Juan Luis Lorda-January 12, 2022-Reading time: 7 minutes
Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI

What defines a theologian? It seems obvious to look at the external effect. First, in his books. Then, in the main ideas or clichés attributed to him, fixed, with better or worse success, by a tradition first of essays and, above all, of dictionary entries and manuals. In Joseph Ratzinger, not enough time has passed for this operation. And even his work is not completely fixed, as his Collected Works are being published, grouping his writings by themes and gathering unpublished and minor or little known writings, thus transforming their appearance and, in the long run, their reading. 

Four theological stages

What is fixed are the four stages of his life. After a period of formation comes his work as a theologian (1953-1977), including his participation in the Council (1962-1965); then, as Archbishop of Munich (1977-1981), as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982-2005) and as Pope (2005-2013). Thus, two more stages dedicated to theological thought or discernment are combined, as professor and as prefect; and two purely pastoral stages, as bishop and as pope. It is a happy combination. It would be a grave error regarding the nature of theology, and a tremendous impoverishment, to reduce his theological contribution to "professional" dedication: articles, books, conferences....  

In the four stages he has done theology, although in different ways. And one can try to synthesize what each period contributes as well as the basic lines that run through them all. In his conversations, he himself has stated that he sees himself with a certain continuity, although circumstances have placed him in different positions. Kierkegaard used different pseudonyms to show the different perspectives with which he could look at things. Joseph Ratzinger has been given them by the course of his life. Because a young theologian, a bishop in a complex era, a prefect for the doctrine of the faith who has to pay universal attention to doctrine, and a Pope who has to be a good Shepherd and a reference of communion for the whole Church, with a particular mission regarding the interpretation and application of the Second Vatican Council, do not see things with the same perspective. 

Roots of faith

Joseph Ratzinger has portrayed himself very well in this exceptional and charming autobiographical book, My life (1927-1977)which he published in 1997 and which compiles his trajectory as a professor. It is completed with the four books of conversations with Seewald and with some moments of gatherings and expansion during his pontificate. 

There we can see how much he has been marked by the experience of faith lived in his childhood, in the traditional Bavarian environment, with his simple and believing family, with the liturgy joyfully and solemnly celebrated in the parishes he knew as a child, with the stages and feasts of the liturgical calendar that marked the rhythm of the life of all those believing people. He could have lost or changed these roots, but in the course of his life he has consolidated them, and that Christian experience is the basis of his theology. 

Liturgy as lived faith

In the presentation of his Complete Works (vol. I, dedicated to the Liturgy), he explains: "The liturgy of the Church was for me, from my childhood, a central reality in life and it also became [...] the center of my theological endeavor. As a subject of study I chose fundamental theology, because I wanted above all to keep track of the question: Why do we believe? But in this question was the other question about the right answer to God and, therefore, the question of divine worship [...], of the anchoring of the liturgy in the founding act of our faith and, thus also, of its place in the whole of our human existence." And a little earlier he explained: "In the word 'Orthodoxy' the second half, 'doxa', does not mean 'opinion', but 'glory'; it is not about having a correct 'opinion' about God, but about the correct way to glorify Him, to respond to Him. This is indeed the fundamental question asked by the man who begins to understand himself correctly: how should I meet God?"

His itinerary through fundamental theology, on the nature and problems of faith, which also addresses the situation of the modern world, will find a liturgical response. The faith can and must be thought about in order to understand, explain and defend it, but above all it must be lived and celebrated. From this he also deduces the role of the theologian and his own. 

Theological roots

Joseph Ratzinger was educated at the seminary of his diocese, in Freising, and later at the theological faculty of Munich (1947-1951), still in ruins as a result of the war. At My life reflects very well the enthusiastic and renewing atmosphere of the time. The harsh experiences of Nazism had aroused in the German Church a yearning for renewal and evangelization, which received with enthusiasm the new ferments of liturgical theology (Guardini), ecclesiology (De Lubac) and Scripture, as well as the new philosophical inspirations, especially phenomenology and personalism (Guardini, Max Scheler, Buber). All this gave him a certain tone of overcoming (and superiority) with respect to the old scholastic (and Roman) theology. The young Ratzinger was impressed by Catholicism by De Lubac, and by the Meaning of the Liturgyby Guardini. And, from then until the end of his life, he kept himself well informed of the progress of biblical theology.

Somewhat unexpectedly, he became a professor at the seminary and specialized in Fundamental Theology, where the great questions of faith in the modern world, the sciences, politics, and the difficulties of people today in believing were raised. His doctoral thesis on St. Augustine (Village and house of God in San Agustín1953), led him to delve deeper into ecclesiology. And the habilitation thesis on The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure (1959) addressed a new approach to fundamental theology: revelation, before being concretized in formulas of faith (dogmas), is the manifestation of God himself in the history of salvation. This confronted him with Schmaus in the thesis tribunal, but it was an idea that already prevailed and would end up being taken up by the Second Vatican Council: revelation is with "deeds and words" of God, and founds the profound unity of the two sources, Scripture and Tradition. 

Ratzinger professor and theologian (1953-1977)

There followed a very intense period as professor of Fundamental Theology (and later also of Dogmatic Theology) at the seminary (1953-1959) and then at four universities: Bonn (1959-1963), Münster (1963-1966), Tübingen (1966-1969) and Regensburg (1969-1977).

Ratzinger is a young and intelligent professor and feels united to a current of German theological renewal with representative figures, such as Rahner and Küng, who appreciate him. He was also appreciated by Cardinal Frings, who took him on as an advisor and conciliar expert, after having heard him give a lecture on how the Council should be (1962-1965). He will work a lot for the Cardinal (almost blind), and the Council will give him a new experience of the life of the Church and dealings with great and veteran theologians he admires, such as De Lubac and Congar. 

Within that theological enthusiasm, he began to perceive the symptoms of the post-conciliar crisis and, little by little, he distanced himself from the vedetism of some theologians, such as Küng, and also from those who understood themselves as the true and authentic teachers of the faith, a council of theologians constituted as a permanent source of change in the Church. This will be the reason for their adhesion to the project of the magazine Communioby Von Balthasar and De Lubac, in contrast to the magazine ConciliumRahner. Discernment is needed. It is also necessary to discern and focus biblical theology, so that it brings us closer to Christ and does not separate us from him. It is a concern that is born then and grows in his life until the end when, already as Pope, he writes Jesus of Nazareth

The work of this period

At first glance, his work as a theologian is not very extensive and is somewhat hidden, because he has many dictionary articles and commentaries. As a result of his work in Fundamental Theology, he will later publish his Theory of theological principles (1982). In addition, he has collected his articles on ecclesiology in The new People of God (1969) and, later, in Church, ecumenism and politics. New essays in ecclesiology.  

However, the book that makes him famous at this time and that brings together all his concern to explain the Christian faith to a modern world more or less problematized and critical, is his Introduction to Christianity (1968: complex year), soon translated into many languages. It is a course for university students, but it gathers and synthesizes many of his points of view. 

In addition, after he had already been appointed Archbishop of Munich, he completed and published a brief Eschatology (1977), which is more important than it seems in his thought, since it gives the cosmic sense of history, puts human life before the great questions and allows him to approach the problem of the soul and the person from a theological point of view renewed by personalist thought. The human being is, above all, a word of God and someone destined for him. 

Ratzinger bishop (1978-1982)

It came as a complete surprise to him, as he confesses with complete simplicity in My life. Not even when the nuncio called him did he imagine what was coming his way. But Paul VI had thought of him as a theologian-bishop with sufficient personal authority to help settle the difficult post-conciliar ecclesial situation in Germany. Joseph Ratzinger suffered it. The most beautiful and rewarding part of his ministry was preaching and dealing with the simple people. The hardest thing was the resistance and the manias of the ecclesial structures, so developed (and sometimes problematized) in Germany. The first is the lived faith, in which the authenticity and efficacy of the Gospel is appreciated. But the second, which is difficult to handle, also belongs to the reality of the Church in this world and cannot be ignored. 

As the second part remains more hidden, it can be said that this period is characterized by a great expansion of his attention to the liturgy and preaching on Christian holiness. And this consolidates his theology as a pastor, recalling the intense tradition of the ancient Church fathers, theologians and bishops. The mission of a bishop is, above all, to celebrate and preach, as well as to guide the life of the Church. The same activity allows him to develop his liturgical thought, and to develop his reference to the holiness of the Church, reflected in the mysteries of the Lord's life and in the lives of the saints. 

The work of this period

It is a short period, four years, but key in the development of his liturgical theology. What, at first, as a priest and professor, had been occasional preaching, gradually became a body on the mysteries of the faith and the life of Jesus Christ that the Church celebrates throughout the year. For example, the four sermons on Eucharist, center of the Church (1978), The God of Jesus Christ. Meditations on the Triune God, y The party of the faith (1981). His liturgical reflection, previously a bit scattered and occasional, is now consolidated in a general vision, and will end, already as prefect, in his The meaning of the Liturgy (2000). In which he also includes his interest in art and, especially, in sacred music. 

In addition, this period highlights his preaching on creation in the face of questions of modern science and evolution, which results in an intelligent and lucid book, Creation and sin.

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