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Joseph Ratzinger, Christs Donkey


Born in Bavaria on Holy Saturday of 1927, Joseph Ratzingers life has been entirely within and for the Church, which, he is convinced, is the way of greatest service to the world. This and much else become evident in his remarkable account by Ignatius, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, which takes the reader from his childhood to his appointment as Archbishop of Munich. (note: this review was originally published in January 1999).


The years in Rome as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will, one hopes, be the subject of another memoir. But there is a great deal in this first installment that casts light on the mind and soul of the man who, next to the Pope himself, has had the greatest intellectual influence in shaping the direction of the Catholic Church over these past twenty years.

Tolstoy was wrong, I believe, about happy families all being happy in the same way. It is unhappy families that exhibit a dreary sameness deserving of todays dismal term "dysfunctional." There is a freshness and wonder in Ratzingers depiction of the happy family in which he was reared, under the shadow of the horror that was the Third Reich. Family and Church were, for him, inseparable, and he clearly saw Hitler as the enemy of both. Nazism was at its heart a religious movement that, by its own evil lights, had to attack a Church that championed a "foreign Jewish and Roman" faith. His father, a village policeman, saw this from the beginning. "With unfailing clairvoyance he saw that the victory of Hitler would not be a victory for Germany but a victory of the Antichrist which would surely usher in apocalyptic times for all believers, and not only for believers." Young Ratzinger had to spend some time in a military work brigade, always hoping for the victory of the allies, and being irritated by the way the Americans seemed to be taking their own sweet time in prosecuting the war. The chief lesson he draws from the war years, however, is a lesson about the Church. "Despite many human failings, the Church was the alternative to the destructive ideology of the Nazis. In the inferno that had swallowed up the powerful, she had stood firm with a force coming to her from eternity. It had been demonstrated: The gates of hell will not prevail against her."

From his childhood to the present, the Church is exemplified, above all, in her liturgy. This, his memoir suggests, is what has gone most seriously wrong since the Second Vatican Council. As a young boy, "It was a riveting adventure to move by degrees into the mysterious world of the liturgy which was being enacted before us and for us there on the altar. It was becoming more and more clear to me that here I was encountering a reality that no one had simply thought up, a reality that no official authority or great individual had created. This mysterious fabric of texts and actions had grown from the faith of the Church over the centuries. It bore the whole weight of history within itself and yet, at the same time, it was much more than the product of human history." As a seminarian and young priest he was a great proponent of the liturgical movement, and was later gratified to see its principles embodied in the Councils constitution on the liturgy. "I was not able to foresee that the negative sides of the liturgical movement would later reemerge with redoubled strength, almost to the point of pushing the liturgy toward its own self-destruction."

What happened is that the liturgy suddenly became something other than the lived experience of the Church through the centuries. The "new liturgy" of Paul VI was the product of liturgical experts imposed by official authority. Within half a year, the old Missal, which had its roots in "the sacramentaries of the ancient Church and had known continuous growth over the centuries," was almost totally prohibited. This "introduced a breach into the history of the liturgy whose consequences could only be tragic." The liturgy appeared "no longer as a living development but as the product of erudite work and juridical authority"; it became something "made," something within our own power of decision rather than something received as a gift. "I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today largely derives from the disintegration of the liturgy. . . . This is why we need a new liturgical movement which will call to life the real heritage of the Council."

Always a Questioner

Milestones testifies to a young mans spiritual and intellectual excitement in engaging theological, philosophical, and scientific movements that opened up new worlds. "Being young, we were questioners above all," he says. There were de Lubac and Danielou recovering the early fathers, Martin Buber and personalism, and in the sciences thinkers such as Planck and Heisenberg moving beyond the Enlightenments rationalist scientism and its hostility to religious thought. There was, above all, the encounter with Augustine, whom Ratzinger still calls "my great master." He cannot say the same of Thomas Aquinas, "whose crystal-clear logic seemed to me to be too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made." He allows that this is probably because he was presented with "a rigid, neo-scholastic Thomism," but, in any event, he thought Thomas "simply too far afield from my own questions."

He was most deeply engaged by biblical scholarship and writes that "exegesis has always remained the center of my theological work." His academic career was almost derailed when his Habilitation (the degree beyond the doctorate and necessary for teaching) was not accepted the first time around. He wrote on the concept of revelation in the High Middle Ages, and especially in Bonaventure, and offended a teacher who thought himself to be the expert on such questions. Much Catholic theology, he says, had fallen into the habit of referring to Scripture or to Scripture and tradition as "the revelation," as though it were a thing. From Bonaventure he learned that revelation is always an act. "The word revelation refers to the act in which God shows himself, and not to the objectified result of this act. Part and parcel of the concept of revelation is the receiving subject. Where there is no one to perceive revelation, no re-vel-ation has occurred because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires a someone who apprehends it."

Later, as a peritus (theological expert) at the Council, he would come to see the importance of recognizing the Church as the apprehending subject in revelation. Theologians at the Council began to speak of the "material completeness" of the Bible, and Ratzinger suggests that this "catchword" resulted in a curious and mischievous version of sola scriptura. "This new theory, in fact, meant that exegesis now had to become the highest authority in the Church," he observes. Everything was to be subjected to the judgment of biblical scholarship, and biblical scholarship was understood in "scientific" historical-critical terms. The consequence is that "faith had to recede into the region of the indeterminate and constantly changing that is the very nature of historical or would-be historical hypotheses." Although the idea of the Bibles "material completeness" was rejected by the Council, the after-life of the phrase has distorted the way in which the Council has often been understood. "The drama of the post-Conciliar era," Ratzinger writes, "has been largely determined by this catchword and its logical consequences."

Scripture and Magisterium

The crisis in biblical interpretation was the Cardinals subject when we invited him to give the Erasmus Lecture here in New York in 1988 (see Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on the Bible, Eerdmans, 1989). In the present book he puts it this way: "Scripture is the essential witness of revelation, but revelation is something alive, something greater and more: proper to it is the fact that it happens and is perceived otherwise it would not be revelation. Revelation is not a meteor fallen to earth that now lies around somewhere as a mass of rock from which you can take rock samples and submit them to analysis in a laboratory." The historical-critical method is the "analysis of rocks," while the life of the Church is the tradition that apprehends the truth, and that apprehending subject is essential to what is meant by revelation.

In discussing other theologians with whom he worked in the university, Ratzinger has nothing but generous things to say about Hans Küng, who would later become the most famous of theological dissidents. Early on he worked with Karl Rahner, perhaps the most influential academic theologian in the post-conciliar period, on a number of projects and came to realize that "Rahner and I lived on two different theological planets." Although they agreed on many things, including the above-mentioned question of Scripture and exegesis in the life of the Church, their approach to theology could not have been more different. Despite Rahners reading in the patristic literature, "His theology was totally conditioned by the tradition of Suarezian scholasticism and its new reception in the light of German idealism and Heidegger. His was a speculative and philosophical theology in which Scripture and the Fathers in the end played no important role and in which the historical dimension was really of little significance. For my part, my whole intellectual formation had been shaped by Scripture and the Fathers and by profoundly historical thinking." It was only a matter of time before his "parting of the ways" with Rahner became evident to all.

Ratzinger was gratified by the decisions of the Council, but how they were being perceived among theologians was another matter. "The impression grew steadily that nothing was now stable in the Church, that everything was open to revision. More and more the Council [was viewed] as a big church parliament that could change everything and reshape everything according to its own desires. Very clearly resentment was growing against Rome and against the Curia, which appeared to be the real enemy of everything new and progressive." The theologians at the Council were seen, and appeared to see themselves, as the real authorities in the Church, eclipsing the teaching office of the bishops. "In his time, Luther had exchanged his priestly robes for the scholars gown in order to show that the Scripture scholars in the Church were the ones who had to make the decisions." Something very similar was happening again.

Later, during the student turmoil of 1968, the entirety of the Christian tradition came under scathing attack from Marxist ideologists in the university. Ratzinger suggests that he was naive in assuming that the theology faculties would be a bastion of sanity: quite the opposite turned out to be the case. While his own lectures continued to be well attended and well received, many of his theological colleagues were all too eager to get on the good side of the putative revolution. At this point he began to discover what would later be called "the ecumenism of the trenches," as he made alliances with Evangelical (Lutheran) colleagues who appreciated what was at stake. "We saw that the confessional controversies we had engaged in up until now were small indeed in the face of the challenge we now confronted, which put us in a position of having to bear common witness to our common faith in the living God and in Christ, the incarnate Word."

In the mid-1970s he was embarked on the ambitious project of writing a dogmatics when his academic life was disrupted by his surprise appointment as Archbishop of Munich (actually, Munich and Freising). His reflection on the way he was received as bishop echoes his earlier description of the response of the people when, as a young man, he had been ordained priest. "So many people were welcoming my unknown person with a heartfelt warmth and joy that could not possibly have to do with me personally, but that once again showed me what a sacrament is: I was being greeted as bishop, as bearer of the Mystery of Christ. . . . The joy of the day was something very different from the acceptance of a particular person, whose capacities had still to be demonstrated. It was joy over the fact that this office, this service, was again present in a person who does not act and live for himself but for Him and therefore for all."

He does not live for himself but for Him and therefore for all. That would seem to pretty well sum up the life of Joseph Ratzinger. Not long after his appointment to Munich, the Pope asked him to come to Rome as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Augustine, his great master, had also chosen the life of a scholar but was called to be a bishop. Augustine wrote, "I am a draft animal for you, and it is in this way that I abide with you." Ratzinger concludes his memoir with this: "I have carried my load to Rome and have now been wandering the streets of the Eternal City for a long time. I do not know when I will be released, but one thing I do know: I have become your donkey, and in just this way am I with you."

Milestones makes it poignantly evident that, if he had had his way, Joseph Ratzinger would have fulfilled his lifes work as an academic theologian. The choice was not between being an academic theologian or a church theologian, for his understanding of his work in the academy was always to serve the Church. It was a question of how he would serve the Church, and he believes that was a decision for the Church to make and for him to obey. Some of his critics no doubt wish he had remained in the academy. Many of his admirers think his appointment as prefect of CDF deprived the Church of the enormous contribution he would have made through writing and teaching. Yet others are immeasurably grateful that John Paul II called him to a universal classroom where, in a time of darkened confusion, he has encouraged students beyond number in rekindling the lights of theological inquiry in service to Christ and his Church, and therefore in service to the world.


Order Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, an Ignatius Press paperback here.


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Richard John Neuhaus. "Joseph Ratzinger, Christ's Donkey." First Things 89 (January 1998).

This article is reprinted with permission from First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. To subscribe to First Things call 1-800-783-4903.

The Author

NeuhausNeuhaus4 Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was a prominent Catholic priest, Editor-in-Chief of First Things and the author of many books, including As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy", Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, The Best of "The Public Square": Book One, The Best of "The Public Square": Book Two, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, and The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.


Copyright © 2004 First Things

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