Photo of Joseph Ratzinger


From Theologian to Pope

A personal view back, past the public portrayals.

By Francis Schüssler Fiorenza

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope came as a surprise. Many expected the selection of a younger person. Others anticipated that the conclave might consider a population shift of Catholicism from Europe to the Third World and therefore select a candidate from a non-European country. Although Pope Benedict XVI’s appointment has been welcomed, he has unfortunately been depicted with slogans more suitable for bumper stickers than for informative insight, such as the “Church’s Rottweiler,” “Cardinal Panzer,” and even “theological neo-con,” all referring to his role, as Prefect of the Holy Office, in condemning certain theologians and theological trends. Others have countered with more favorable descriptions, but these are generally personal rather than substantive: a very warm and shy person, friendly, compassionate, and, above all, extremely intelligent. Still others say that the student revolutions of the 1960s in Germany profoundly influenced Ratzinger, changing him from a progressive theologian to a conservative one.

The negative slogans are wrong, the personal descriptions are true, and the biographical explanations are, in general, misleading. They overlook that Ratzinger has from early days had a consistent theological vision. This theological vision, moreover, clearly points to the directions that his papacy will take. Despite all continuities with John Paul II, Ratzinger’s theological vision is distinctive.


In 1963, as a young theology student, I won a fellowship to study in Germany with Karl Rahner, Germany’s most famous theologian, then appointed to the Romano Guardini chair in the faculty of arts and letters at the University of Munich. I soon learned, however, that the theological faculty at Munich had refused to allow Rahner’s students to receive doctorates in theology and that Rahner’s most gifted student, Johann Baptist Metz, and Joseph Ratzinger, had moved to the University of Münster.

At the last minute, I transferred my fellowship so that I could study with both Metz and Ratzinger and also have the advantage of a Protestant faculty at Münster. My decision was fortuitous. Münster had also just appointed Walter Kasper, now a cardinal and in charge of ecumenical affairs at the Vatican, who became a friend and a mentor to both my wife, Elisabeth, and myself. (Two years later, Rahner left Munich and came to teach at Münster with his assistant, the future Cardinal Lehman. Rahner resided in the dormitory where I lived, giving me the opportunity to know him personally as well as academically. Münster had a remarkable constellation of theologians: three became cardinals and one of them pope.)


Joseph Ratzinger’s lectures attracted 400-500 students . . . he had a knowledge of scripture and the history of theology that far excelled that of the other members of the faculty.

In the fall semester, Ratzinger began his teaching a few weeks late, delayed by his presence at Vatican II. His lectures, which I attended, attracted 400 to 500 students. He was clearly the most popular lecturer around. Moreover, he had a knowledge of scripture and the history of theology that far excelled that of the other members of the faculty. Ratzinger would arrive at class on his bicycle, having traveled from an apartment he shared with his sister, Maria. (He would show his lectures in advance to Maria, so she could tell him whether his students would understand them.) His lectures were so well crafted that, years later, as a beginning assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame, I found myself using Ratzinger’s lectures as the basis for my own, even though I was theologically closer to Rahner and Metz.

During that fall semester, Ratzinger gave the Advent lectures at the Münster Cathedral. This was a town event: the cathedral overflowed and the sermons were described in newspapers. His memoirs confirm the positive reception that he received in Münster from his colleagues, students, and the city. And throughout the years, Ratzinger has continued to publish his sermons, which are characterized by his use of the fathers of the church to illumine the scriptures.

One day, I met Ratzinger outside of class, because two Dominican theologians from the United States needed a translator. Wanting to make a good impression, I dressed up in my best suit, which was a black one. As a result, Ratzinger addressed me as “Father.” When I explained that I was a layperson, he pointed to my black suit, because at German universities priests did not wear clerical collars but regular black suits. During this meeting, after many other questions, one of the Dominicans asked, “Did Jesus have a vision of God in Mary’s womb?” At that point, Ratzinger looked surprised. He turned to me, and asked in German, “Did I understand that question correctly?” I nodded yes. Answering directly in Latin, Ratzinger quoted William of Ockham: Miracles should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Obviously, he knew more English than he let on.

In my view, Ratzinger’s modesty was related to personal shyness or reticence, and this came through in a practice that especially impressed me at the time. At Münster, the theological faculties had their own libraries, which were officially reserve libraries. In practice, however, professors treated the books as their own—students would often find a large wooden card in a spot indicating that a faculty member had removed a particular book, even if it was a volume of a theological encyclopedia. Several times, I found Ratzinger sitting in the reference room alongside students, taking notes on an encyclopedia article rather than removing the volume to his home or office.

In that same fall semester, Ratzinger taught a seminar on Vatican II’s just-completed constitution of the Church. His teaching approach was such: After a student orally analyzed the text and raised questions, Ratzinger would open the seminar to further questions from the class. Only after the students had raised all their questions would Ratzinger answer them one after the other. While the memory—and overall intellectual ability—required to answer all questions in this way was impressive, any to-and-fro exchange, to which I had been accustomed in the United States, was missing. I have seen him perform similarly outside the classroom.

One major criticism that German students raised was the Vatican Council’s use of the scriptures. They argued that it failed to take sufficiently into account historical criticism. Ratzinger defended the council, and his defense revealed an important characteristic of his own theological orientation. Earlier, when Ratzinger had been in Bonn, Heinrich Schlier was his colleague. Schlier was a New Testament scholar and a student of Rudolf Bultmann (also teacher to Harvard’s Helmut Koester), who was known for having converted to Roman Catholicism and for his criticisms of Bultmann’s theology, Ratzinger, though knowledgeable of contemporary exegesis, sought to limit the role of historical criticism and, influenced by Schlier, was critical of any interpretation that appeared to be existential in the way that Bultmann’s theology was. Ratzinger’s opposition to Karl Rahner’s theology and his siding with Hans Urs von Balthasar came from his critical view of Rahner’s anthropocentrism, which Ratzinger negatively judged as too close to Bultmann’s theology. In contrast, I recall Rahner’s being proud of a card that Bultmann sent him, praising his work.

One debate within Vatican II concerned the relationship between scripture and tradition. Catholic theologians sought to reformulate the post-Tridentine view of scripture and tradition as two distinct theological sources. In the forefront in this was Josef Geiselmann, who attempted to retrieve the nineteenth-century Tübingen School’s notion of “living tradition,” in order to criticize the standard view of tradition as an independent source. His student Walter Kasper developed Geiselmann’s view further by emphasizing the critical function of scripture in that dogma stands under the Word of God. At that time Ratzinger and Karl Rahner were together editing a book on revelation and tradition. Whereas Rahner sought to relate concrete revelation to the more universal development of human consciousness, Ratzinger sought to correct Geiselmann’s views through a detailed exegesis of the Council of Trent. He argued that the relation between scripture and tradition according to the Council of Trent is such that the Spirit is present when an office holder in the hierarchy of the church interprets tradition as clarifying the meaning of scriptures. Ratzinger’s emphasis on ecclesial authority in the interpretation of scripture, his critique of the dominance of the historical critical approach, and his appeal to patristic resources for the interpretation of scriptures have remained constant features of his theological writings.

The significance of his view of scripture was brought vividly to my attention several months later. Ratzinger came to give a talk to students at the Catholic center where I was then living. I went to his talk, I must confess, not so much to hear him, because I was taking his classes anyway, but because I thought Elisabeth Schüssler might be there and I could offer to walk her home—I did not quite yet have the courage to ask her out on a date yet. Elisabeth was completing a dissertation on those passages of the New Testament texts that are the classical sources for the “priesthood of the faithful.” Arguing from New Testament affirmations that all believers are priests, she pointed to the possibility of the full ministry of women in the church. She and Ratzinger argued rather vigorously and at length. Whenever Elisabeth made a point, Ratzinger graciously smiled, as he often did and does, and conceded that her exegesis of the biblical texts was correct, but he maintained that the Roman Catholic position could not orient itself so primarily on scripture without taking account of the teaching authority of the church. In distinction to other faculty members, Ratzinger was adamant against the ordination of women—a position that he maintains today.


In my view, one can best understand Ratzinger by locating him within the movement known as la nouvelle théologie (the new theology). This movement, associated primarily with the Jesuit School of Studies in Lyon, France, and especially the work of Henri de Lubac, has several characteristics. It sought to reform the dominant neo-scholastic theology of its time by going back and retrieving both the theology (especially Augustine) and the liturgical practices of the patristic period. This retrieval focused not on the historical criticism of the scriptures, but on the multiple senses of the scriptures that the fathers of the church elaborated. In addition, this retrieval sought to modify the post-Tridentine liturgy through a retrieval of the liturgical practices of the early church.

Theologically, this movement emphasized the integration of nature and grace in such a way that it underscored the importance of a “Christian culture.” Locating Ratzinger within this movement is important because its shows how his theological development is in some ways similar. Just as Henri de Lubac became increasingly critical of the post-Vatican II directions, so too did Cardinal Ratzinger. The shift is not due to some personal traumatic event, but rather to the ambiguities of the movement itself.

The theologians representing la nouvelle théologie interpreted Thomas Aquinas from the perspective of Augustine. Ratzinger sought a much more direct retrieval of the Augustinian tradition. He wrote his first dissertation on Augustine’s understanding of the people of God and his “habilitation” (a second dissertation) on St. Bonaventure’s theology of history. His theological writings often underscored Augustine’s emphasis on spirituality, the role of the cross, and Christian charity toward the neighbor. His sermons explicated the scriptures with reference to patristic images and themes. In this way, Ratzinger’s writings contrasted sharply with the more arid scholasticism of his day. For this reason, he was perceived as a progressive theologian. But the Augustinian emphasis made Ratzinger much less favorable toward Metz’s work on secularization and political theology, for example, and led him to question Rahner’s understanding of Christianity.

Ratzinger’s indebtedness to la nouvelle theologie comes to the fore in regard to the patristic interpretation of scripture and the retrieval of Augustine, but also in an emphasis on liturgical renewal.

Ratzinger’s indebtedness to la nouvelle théologie comes to the fore in regard to the patristic interpretation of scripture and the retrieval of Augustine, but also in an emphasis on liturgical renewal and a focus on the centrality of the Eucharist for the life and missions of the church. These emphases are constant in Ratzinger’s writing, and in this regard he is actually much more of a “traditionalist” than Pope John Paul II, who on occasion orchestrated Eucharistic celebrations as mass-media events with contemporary, even rock, music. John Paul II’s liturgies often replaced Gregorian chant and polyphony with music and dances from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Ratzinger has been critical of such celebrations, and his own inaugural Mass clearly demonstrates a return to a more traditional celebratory form, just as his writings on the liturgy have questioned some of Vatican II’s reforms, for example, the celebrant facing the people.

Understanding the theological vision of the relationship between nature and grace as well as Christianity and culture that was central to la nouvelle théologie is crucial for understanding what Ratzinger’s goals and direction as pope will be. In one of his earliest writings on the topic of nature and grace, Ratzinger argues that the focus upon grace perfecting nature should not overlook the cross of Christ and should not neglect that grace also challenges and stands in critique of nature. Ratzinger makes this explicit in his understanding of the relation between Christian faith and culture. In his view Christian faith is not something that exists simply as a set of propositional doctrines; nor does it exist as sheer abstract religion. Instead, religion and culture are concretely intertwined and cannot be separated. Therefore, one cannot simply think of Christianity independent of culture. Instead, one has to ask: How is the Christian community a distinctive Christian culture? Because the Christian faith entails a stance about the meaning of human nature and the affirmation of certain values, it entails a culture of meaning and values. Christianity exists as a social and cultural community called the people of God. Such a community is its own distinctive culture whose beliefs and values stand in tension with other cultures.

From there, one can readily compare Ratzinger’s position with the theological appropriation that Hans Frei and George Lindbeck of Yale have made of the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Clifford Geertz in order to understand Christianity as a community with its specific narratives and language—indeed within a specific cultural linguistic framework. Ratzinger’s theological vision is in some ways similar, though he gives a much more foundational role to a metaphysical view of human dignity and to the importance of truth claims. In his view, democracy, pluralism, and human rights rest upon such claims. Ratzinger has argued that such a view of Christianity points to the possibilities for dialogue in a democratic and pluralist world. Such a vision, he argues, is pluralist but not relativist, because it affirms basic values.

Such a vision underlies some of the more recent controversies. His confrontation with liberation theology makes the important point that religion can become an ideology of political policy unless it is mediated through a political ethics and assessed in terms of Christian values. Likewise, he insists that in inter-religious dialogue, one has to keep in mind the possibility of the ideological distortions and consequences of religious beliefs. Hence, such a dialogue involves more than mutual acceptance; it requires mutual critique as well. Ratzinger has developed a rather nuanced, complex vision of the relationship between Christianity and culture that the more polemic controversies do not allow to come to the fore.

It is this vision of Christianity as community with a distinctive culture that stands behind Ratzinger’s choice of Benedict as the name to express the direction of his papacy. Just as Benedictine monasteries were resources of Christian culture, seeding Christian culture throughout Europe, so too today the Catholic Church should be a community of a clearly identifiable Christian culture and tradition. Only as such can the Catholic Church act positively, as a sort of countercultural community, and take a creative and critical role to contemporary cultures. Such a theological vision differs sharply from views that seek to develop a transcultural vision of Christianity, whereby it can distance itself from its cultural heritage and identity. Ratzinger fears that such transcultural visions would entail a loss of the distinctive Christian identity.

Likewise, any attempt to engage in religious and cultural dialogue has to proceed out of a community with its own clearly defined cultural identity. In contrast to some of the negative portrayals of him, Benedict XVI does envision the Catholic Church in dialogue with others, but he is convinced that such dialogue should not rest on some generic understanding of religion and culture. Instead, it should stem from a community that brings its vision into the dialogue.

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza is Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School.

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