Principles of Catholic Theology, by Joseph Ratzinger

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!
–Wordsworth, The Prelude, Bk. 11

Subtitled “Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology,” this book was published in 1982 and is made up of previously published and unpublished writings of the author from 1969 to 1981. The Preface is dated, “Holy Saturday, 1982,” the author’s movable birthday.

The author admits in the Preface that this collection is “but building stones, not a finished structure . . . a tentative sketch, a preliminary draft.” Probably he was being over-modest, but the book could have used more editorial work to smooth over the joints; some chapters contain sections that obviously weren’t written to go together. Others were originally speeches and could have used some reworking for their present status as book chapters. Still, the effect is more of a book of essays than a textbook.

One can’t help but read these essays in light of the developments and controversies of the last forty years. For example, Ratzinger writes of the Creed “that the ‘I’ of the credo-formulas is a collective ‘I,’ the ‘I’ of the believing Church, to which the individual ‘I’ belongs as long as it believes. In other words, the ‘I’ of the credo embraces the transition from the individual ‘I’ to the ecclesial ‘I.'” (23) One could wield this passage in support of the recent re-translation of the Nicene Creed to “I believe” from “We believe,” or even use it to argue that the previous translation was acceptable. This also is a common theme in Ratzinger–the receptive quality of Christian existence, the acceptance of the gift rather than the construction of something that feels comfortable. This applies most obviously in infant baptism, which he explains as “neither the imposition of burdens about which we should have been allowed to make our own decision nor acceptance by a society into which we have been forced without being consulted in advance but rather the grace of that meaning which, in the crisis of self-doubting mankind, can alone enable us to rejoice in being human.” (43) A similar theme is his appreciation of simplicity, which he illustrates with the diary entries of Pope John XXIII in The Journal of a Soul, apparently plain and even banal, but “it is precisely in pursuit of this way, of this simplicity and this patience with the daily routine, which can succeed only if one lest oneself be changed daily–it is precisely in pursuit of this way that that spiritual simplicity finally grows to maturity which enables one to see and which can make a short, fat, elderly man beautiful by reason of the light that radiates from within.” (66)

Still, the reader who didn’t live through those forty-plus years as a theologian has some catching up to do in order to put these essays in context. Like radiation left over from the Big Bang, old disputes leave a faint sign of what was once loud and immediate. A chapter on “short formulas of faith” obliterates the attempts of Karl Rahner and others to use the language of modern advertising as a more relevant substitute for the ancient Creeds. Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith also feels the pressure of Ratzinger’s close attention, which shows how the so-called “anonymous Christian” (Christian merely by being human, without having heard the Gospel or submitting to baptism) is a solution to Christian particularity that does away with Christianity altogether. If “he who accepts his existence says Yes to Christ,” then there is no longer a “sign that is rejected.” (Lk 2:34.) Refreshing as this may be to the theologian weary of disputes and eager for ecumenical progress, the “anonymous Christian” may well wonder, “What’s the point of religion, then?”

A related essay traces the beginning of the term “salvation history” in Catholic thought and attempts to show that it does not mean an alternative to fact, nor does it require, as with some Protestant theologians, an elevation of Paul and John over Luke, so that only those Scripture passages that stress the meaning of salvation are to be valued and the particular events of the life of Jesus, his incarnational accidents, are of little account.

With regard to ecumenism, Ratzinger carefully describes the difficulties for a reunion of East and West. Despite the high hopes for something great after the meeting of Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras and the removal of the excommunications, nothing much happened after that other than some warming of relations. Nearly fifty years on, no realistic prospect of reunion is in sight. Reunion with Protestant communities will be even more difficult because of the varieties of beliefs and practices among these groups. (There is a provocative section on using the Augsburg Confession as a common creed.)

This leads into several essays regarding the priesthood and the concept of “community” vs. the “Church,” which has implications for intra-Catholic relations. Ratzinger had seen an overemphasis on the “Gemeinde” (community) in German Catholic practice, specifically criticizing the new rite of Baptism, in which the minister is to say, “The Christian community welcomes you . . . .” He comments: “According to this ritual, the catechumen is not baptized into the one Church that transcends time and space but is made a member of a parochial congregation and is signed with the sign of the Cross in its–and only in its–name.” (308) This comment is especially interesting in that the new rite has just been amended so that it now says, “The Church of God welcomes you . . . .” This was one of the last initiatives of Benedict XVI, put into effect by Francis.

The reader a half-century after the last Council can scarcely appreciate the chaos of the time. This peritus who ghost-wrote the famous speech of Cardinal Frings of Cologne criticizing the preliminary Council documents, drafted by a Curial committee, soon found that the freedom granted was being used as an opportunity for fresh theologians to move beyond good and evil. In a chapter near the end of the book, written in 1975 but never previously published and circulated only privately, the author contrasts his view of the Council at its beginning as a “new Pentecost” with his more sober belief that, nine years after its close, the Council proved right Gregory of Nazianzen, who declined to attend the First Council of Constantinople, explaining, “To tell the truth, I am convinced that every assembly of bishops is to be avoided, for I have never experienced a happy ending to any council; not even the abolition of abuses . . ., but only ambition or wrangling about what was taking place.” (368)

Ratzinger’s summary of what went wrong links the ecclesiastical with the political:

“The Council understood itself as a great examination of conscience by the Catholic Church; it wanted ultimately to be an act of penance, of conversion. This is apparent in the confessions of guilt, in the intensity of the self-accusations that were not only directed to the more sensitive areas, such as the Reformation and the trial of Galileo, but were also heightened into the concept of a Church that was sinful in a general and fundamental way and that feared as triumphalism whatever might be interpreted as satisfaction with what she had become or what she still was. Linked with this excruciating plumbing of her own depths was an almost painful willingness to take seriously the whole arsenal of complaints against the Church, to omit none of them. That implied as well a careful effort not to incur new guilt with respect to the other, to learn from him wherever possible and to seek and to see only the good that was in him. Such a radical interpretation of the fundamental biblical call for conversion and love of neighbor led not only to uncertainty about the Church’s own identity, which is always being questioned, but especially to a deep rift in her relationship to her own history, which seemed to be everywhere sullied. In consequence, a radically new beginning was considered a pressing obligation. The second point to which I referred stems from this fact: something of the Kennedy era pervaded the Council, something of the naive optimism of the concept of the great society. We can do everything we want to do if only we employ the right means. [Here he drops a footnote to Being a Christian by his former colleague, Hans Küng.] It was precisely the break in historical consciousness, the self-tormenting rejection of the past, that produced the concept of a zero hour in which everything would begin again and all those things that had formerly been done badly would now be done well. The dream of liberation, the dream of something totally different, which, a little later, had an increasingly potent impact on the student revolts, was, in a certain sense, also attributable to the Council; it was the Council that first urged man on and then disappointed him, just as the public examination of conscience at first enlightened and then alienated him.”

One sees here the rare combination of plain speaking and deep insight that made Ratzinger so attractive to so many, and so threatening to others. In 1975, he was still a professor in Regensburg, and not yet a bishop.

Bl. Pope John XXIII with Mrs. Kennedy

Pope St. John XXIII with Mrs. Kennedy

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