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by Fr Aidan Nichols


The somewhat disorganised, not to say anarchic state in which Catholic theology found itself in the post conciliar period
encouraged Ratzinger to address the question of the foundations of theological activity. Although he did not produce a unified systematic work along those lines he offered what he termed Bausteine building blocks for such a work in the future.[1]

The foundations of dogmatic theology

In Ratzinger's view, there is one essential problem which underlies all the difficulties of dogmatic theology today. That problem is the nature of historical process in relation to the transcendence of God and his truth In a wide variety of cultures, the contemporary mind-set considers all being as
Gewordensein, 'having-become-ness'. By contrast, in the past, at least until the nineteenth century

the Christian reality had been conceived as the Absolute the self-manifestation of immutable divine truth But now it has to let itself be interpreted in terms of the categories of history, and of historicity - and that in such a way that, the more it involves itself in the problem of historicity, the more it seems that the absolute character of Christian truth is resolved into the process of historical becoming.[2]

Such a
reductio theologiae in historiam is one cause, at least of the 'crisis of the Christian fact'. Thought no longer leads back the process of historical transformation to the permanent truth of God, but turns even what is apparently stable into the process of historical transformation.

There are, nevertheless, so Ratzinger points out, two major declarations of the doctrinal magisterium of the Catholic Church which could indicate - if very generally - orientation in these realms. To begin with, there is the teaching of the First Vatican Council which, in opposition to theological evolutionism, affirmed that Christian doctrines are not teachings which little by little attain to their perfection through human efforts rather as might a philosophical system. Instead they form a divine deposit, entrusted to Christ's bride, the Church to be faithfully guarded and infallibly explained. One must preserve for the dogmas of the Church, therefore ' in perpetuity' that sense which on some one definite occasion, semel Holy Mother Church has expounded, not departing from it on the pretext of appeal to some higher criterion. [3] This frontal attack on what Ratzinger terms an 'ideological' concept of dogma, 'heterogeneous and modernising', did not exclude however, the possibility that faith has nevertheless a genuine history all its own.[4] For after all, the Council cited in just this connexion the Commonitorium of Vincent of Lérns speaks of a growth and deepening of understanding of dogma on the part of the whole Church, or of individuals within it, the meaning of the dogma remaining itself invariant. [5] Were not a self-identical element persisting unchanged in every transformation it would not be possible, indeed, to speak of a true history: a mere juxtaposition of unrelated data cannot be called such. And yet, by directing theological attention to the Gaulish semi-Pelagian monk who was so hostile to the later Augustine, the Council did Catholic theology a disservice. For Vincent's definition of Tradition as that which has been believed 'always, everywhere and by everybody' was not simply a 'specious rejection' of Augustine's inference from the Pauline Corpus, but also an attempt to constrict doctrinal development, sealing it within a snail's shell of rigidity.

The second magisterial intervention Ratzinger has in mind is the decree of Pius X's Holy Office Lamentabili, issued during the modemist crisis.[6] The individual articles of this document should not, Ratzinger suggests, be 'over-valued'. The value of the text lies simply in its condemnation of a 'radically evolutionist and historicist direction' for the interpretation of doctrine - in a word, and for want of a better word, 'Modernism The more particular assertions which fell under Lamentabili' s executioners axe may have, taken in themselves an acceptable sense but they ought not to be taken in themselves but taken rather as symptoms of a Weltanschauung And Ratzinger compares his own exegesis here to Ronald Knox's estimate of the condemnation of Quietism in Enthusiasm. [7] Unfortunately, though, in the theology of the turn of this century, when the great danger of relativising the assertions of faith pressed upon the Church, an anti-historical reaction led her to assume a defensive position in a precipitate and inflexible fashion. [8]

Naturally as Ratzinger emphasises, this could not have come about without precedent of some kind. At the very beginning the modern era, the (Lutheran) Centuriators of Magdeburg had compiled a mass of historical documentation with a view to proving, over against the claims of the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation period, that the post-apostolic history of Christianity was nothing but a story of endless decline and deviation from primitive Gospel purity.
[9] Catholic spokesmen were obliged to show that, on the contrary, the present Church was identical with the Church of the apostolic age. The most erudite product of this effort was the Annales of the Oratorium cardinal and Librarian of the holy Roman church, Cesare Baronio.[10] There was, then, a built-in tendency to see dogma in static fashion, which not even the most historically sensitive students of doctrine, such as Joseph Tixeront, could fully overcome.[11] Whereas, post-Tridentine Catholicism thus appeared incapable of writing a genuine history of dogma, Protestantism, in sharp contrast, was incapable of not writting a history of Christian doctrine, though of a sort where the concept of development would inevitably take on a negative meaning. From Harnack's Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte [12] with its thesis of the unnatural Hellenisation of the Gospel, to Martin Werner's Die Entstehung des christlichen Dogmas [13] with its key-idea of the de-eschatologising of the original faith, this is exactly what we find, with the added refinement that, in the contemporary period, the notion of a decadent Catholicising of the primitive kerygma has been pushed back, by the use of Ernst Käsemann's notion of Frühkatholizismus, into the time of the New Testament writings themselves.[14]

Though Newman's
Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was a turning-point in Catholic appreciation of the positive side of the idea of historical change, it did not result in a really satisfying account of the meaning and task of the history of dogma, even if such an account might be said to be slowly taking form.[15]

Ratzinger's own contribution to the problem entails identifying three areas in which the non-historical theology of identity hitherto reigning might be overcome. In Christology, we learn that the earthly Jesus and the glorious, risen Christ who will come again are one identical person. From this we should see that Christian faith is turned both to the past and to the future, and so founds the possibility of 'a Christian history as the history of the Christian fact'.[16] Although the original event of the historical ministry of Jesus provides this 'Christian fact' with its definitive and permanent norms, the fact itself cannot be limited to the original event. As the Greek fathers loved to say, the movement of the Incarnation, whereby humanity is assimilated to the Godhead, is begun in Jesus Christ but does not reach its final term in him. Or, in more modern language, the encounter between man and God in Christ goes on until all its possibilities have been developed.

Again, in the theology of revelation, the biblical revelation is best thought of as an event which both happened once and for all in the past, and yet happens again, repeatedly, constantly for faith. For the believer, the God-man relationship has reached ultimate perfection already, in Christ. It cannot be transcended, yet it can be re-received time and again. In accepting the rule of faith, and the canon of Scripture, the Church submits herself for ever to a fixed interpretative norm. Yet the affirmations of the Creed and the Bible are not themselves the revelation, but in explication in the words of men.

Finally, in the theology of tradition where by 'traditional' should mean be meant:

the explication, in the history of the Church's faith, of the event
of Christ witnessed to in Scripture

In the primitive community, 'tradition' was that manner in which the New Testament commented Christologically on the Old, conferring on the inherited Scriptures of the ancient people of God their true meaning. This process continues today. The historian must accept as a constant of the phenomenon of Christianity which he is studying that, for the believer, such interpretation takes place under the guidance of the Spirit of the risen Christ. Historians investigate the human factors at work:
this explicative process, but they must also take note of this conviction, and of the identity which endures through all transformations.

As Ratzinger presents it, the history of dogma is neither a sad saga of decadence, nor is it a tremendous tale of ever-accelerating progress - as certain Catholic authors, like the learned A. M Landgraf in his Dogmengeschichte der Frühscholastik, would present it. For Landgraf, the pilgrimage of doctrinal history ascends steadily towards the temple mount of the Neo-Scholastic sancuary, firmly constructed as that is of 'solid concepts, joined together by a natural sequence of argumentation'.[18] In fact, that history, insofar as it is a human story is marked, and marred, by all those features which are typical of man's historical development. Nevertheless:

the believer, as a man of faith, must bear in mind that this all too human history is a demonstration of the potent originality of God, who not least in abasement and decadence can and does bring about the movement of conservation and assimilation despite everything that is changing and new.[19]

But if the relation between history and dogma
is of the kind which these considerations suggest, then not only is a history of dogma in the Catholic context possible. More strongly, 'dogmatics is not conceivable except as the history of dogma'.[20]And indeed, this is how the Second Vatican Council proposed that doctrine should be studied: first in its biblical foundation, and subsequently in the building upon that foundation which doctrinal history reveals to us.[21]

But this nuanced acceptance of the historicity of dogma requires some underpinning by way of discussion of what a dogma is anyway. Ratzinger observes that the history of the changing forms of dogmatic declaration in the Church is one of the most important tasks for historical theology to carry out.
[22] Dogmatic affirmation, in his view, has its origins in the interrogation of baptismal candidates. Their threefold response to questioning about the mystery of Father, Son and Spirit formed the basis of the primitive creeds. These developed by way of the more complex credal statements of the ancient Councils into the creation of anathemata. In the mediaeval period, dogmatic assertions take the form of decrees and doctrinal chapters with relevant canons appended, of the sort which can be seen in their mature state in the Acta of Trent. Finally, in the modern period, we reach the genre of dogma as a single proposition, examples of which are the 1854 definjtion of Mary's Immaculate Conception, and its 1950 counterpart on her Assumption. To grasp what dogma is we must return Ratzinger advises, to the beginnings of this development: & baptismal dialogue.

'Dogma', that is, the self-engaging affirmation of faith, has its primary home in the event of baptism, and so in the liturgical sealing of a process of conversion wherein a man turns from belonging to himself alone and accepts in its place the bond of existence in the way of Jesus Christ.[23]

The pattern of the baptismal dialogue, where it is tl~ representative of the Church who identifies the content of th~ shared faith, and the individual candidate who appropriates thi with his 'I do believe', highlights what Ratzinger terms thi 'anthropological structure of faith' at large. Faith, as the Lettel to the Romans puts it, 'comes from hearing', that is:

not from reflecting (as in philosophy). Faith's essence consists in ~
the re-thinking (
Nach-denken) of what has been heard.... In faith, the word takes precedence over thought, whereas in philosophy thought precedes the word in a typical product of the meditation which seeks its own translation into words that are themselves secondary in relation to the thinking concerned, and so may be replaced by alternative terms as time goes On.[24]

Faith is not self-invented but comes to man from without in all its 'positivity' : the term Ratzinger had lighted on in his 'Reflections on the Creed'. For this reason, the word in which the message of faith is spoken, striking me and summoning me to response is ever 'pre-ordained and precedent to my thinking'.

Thus the language of dogma is, in its origins, a 'symbol' in the ancient sense of that word which passed into Christian currency to denote the early Creeds.[25] Dogma creates a unity of spirits through a unity in the word, all for the sake of the common service of God, communion in the sacred reality itself. Dogma is, then, an essential instrument for the life of faith. It is only an instrument, a means, yet it is an irreplaceable means. It is

not a closing-off, but an opening which places us on the right
road. Only by way of the infinite rupture of the Symbol can faith advance as the permanent self-transcendence of man towards his God.

And Ratzinger offers an example of this communitarian, liturgical and linguistic character of dogma by some comments on the doctrine of the Trinity. In the world of antiquity there was no direct possibility of expressing the 'relationality' of the triadic form of revelation together with the unity of the being of God, though these were two absolutely vital constituents of the biblical message. In the last analysis, the early Councils are stages in the elaboration of a regula loquendi in which these scriptural Contents could be expressed. By contrast, the early heresies are the resistance of human language and thought to those same Contents. Our situation is defined in part by the fact that this movement of dogmatic construction has already taken place, with ourselves as the gainers. Yet at the same time we are not exonerated from all further effort. Language has broadened its compass in the continuous explicative endeavours of the human spirit. Because of this, the presuppositions for the understanding of dogma are different now. And so we are obliged to penetrate anew, in language and concept, what the patristic dogmas truly signify.[27]The separating out of the two planes of ousia and hypostasis, and the counter-posing of persona to essentia enabled what had hitherto been inaccessible to thought in the divine revelation to become both attainable and capable of expression.[28] The particular manner in which this feat was executed was in itself fortuitous. Had the main missionary drive of the Church been to the Indian sub-continent, rather than the Greco-Roman world, the articulation of the tri-personal nature of God would have happened quite differently. Yet it is only because the process of articulation has been conserved in the patristic dogmas that our own permanent task of comprehending anew is possible. But Ratzinger stresses, in those cases where a transformation of the language of doctrine may prove necessary, that:

this does not happen by a merely personal judgment, even though it cannot take place without the co-participation of individuals in this struggle and suffering.... Such a change can only be enacted through the community (of the Church), though it does not dispense with the individual, with his courage and his patience.

The Foundations of Moral Theology

But if dogmatic theology is in need of steadying by a return to the foundations, so also, to Ratzinger's mind, is moral theology. Nor is it simply a matter of the methods by which moral theology is to reflect on its own materials: values, whether simply humane or additionally Christian. For the perception of those values is itself in flux. Writing in 1975, Ratzinger declared

This crisis of faith that is increasingly making itself felt among
Christian people is also revealing itself with increasing clarity as
a crisis which concerns the awareness of fundamental values in human living. It is nourished by the moral crisis of mankind, and
at the same time it intensifies this crisis.

Current moral theological discussion prompted by this wave of questioning is itself vastly heterogeneous. At one pole, some moralists exalt 'orthopraxy' over 'orthodoxy'. On this view, if Christianity wishes to contribute to a better world, it must come up with a better praxis: 'not seeking truth as a theory, but producing it as a reality'. At the opposite pole, others claim that there is no specifically Christian morality, the Church being obliged to draw its norms of conduct from the anthropological insights of its time. On this view:

Faith does not develop a morality of its own, but adopts the
practical reason of contemporary men and women.

Historical investigation appears on first viewing to back up this claim since there seems to be no single moral proposition found exclusively in the Old Testament that can be regarded solely as the fruit of faith in Yahweh; while, in the New Testament lists of vices and virtues in the apostolic letters reflect Stoic ethics. Consequently, what is significant about the moral reflection carried on in Scripture is not its content but structure: it points to reason as the only source of moral norms. These two types of ethical theory have little in common. Ratzinger comments, except their rejection of any right of Church authority to lay down specific moral norms on the basis of a divinely given commission.

What response does he make to these searching questions? He points out that the fact that the Bible's moral pronouncements can be traced to other cultures or to philosophical thought does not entail that biblical morality is a function of reason alone.


What is important is not that such utterance can be found
elsewhere, but the particular position they have or do not have
in the spiritual edifice of Christianity

What is 'original' in Christianity is not that which has come to be in clinical purity, without contact with 'other miheux'.

Christianity's originality consists rather in the new total form into which human searching and striving have been forged under the guidance of faith in the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus Christ[33]

Nor historically speaking did Israel simply take over lock, stock and barrel the morality of the surrounding cultures As these texts written by or about the prophets show, there was a struggle, often dramatic in its intensity, between those elements
of the juridical and moral tradition of the nations around Israel which she could properly assimilate, and those which she was bound to reject. The 'reason' of the nations, and the revelation of God, do not necessarily confront each other as pure paradox: there may well be an 'analogy' between them. In both Old Testament and New, the recipients of the revealed tradition are found making critical discernments, on the basis of faith, about the deliverances of (fallible) practical reason in their pagan neighbours. Take, for example, the case of Paul.

Anyone who reads the Pauline letters carefully will see that the apostolic exhortation is not some moralising appendix with a variable content, but a very practical setting forth of what faith means; thus, it is inseparable from faith's core. The apostle is in fact only following the pattern of Christ, who, in this central theme of his preaching, linked admission to the Kingdom of God and exclusion from it with fundamental moral decisions, which are consequences intimately related to the way God is conceived.[34]

In mentioning the apostolic exhortation, Ratzinger has moved beyond the discussion about the relation of faith and morals, and entered on to that of the teaching authority of the Church in the ethical domain. Drawing on the work of Heinrich Schlier. a former Lutheran exegete who became a Catholic through reflection on the ecclesiology of Ephesians, Ratzinger points out that Pauline moral exhortation comes
clothed with the Lord's authority, even when it does not appear in the form of a command or an official doctrinal decision.

The 'substantive basis' of Christian ethics lies in the development of such apostolic exhortation as a normative tradition, but
vis à vis particular situations whose contours change with the movement of history itself. The Church's teaching authority, which, so far from coming to an end with the age of the apostles, is a permanent dominical gift, includes the task of 'making concrete the demands of grace and of working them out in detail with regard to the contemporary situation'.[36]

The proponents of the orthopraxy model are right in this: Christian faith involves a praxis, which is nourished by faith own essence: the grace which appeared in Jesus Christ and appropriated in that primordial sacrament of Christ that is the Church. But in this, contrary to a concept of orthopraxy whit would fain leave orthodoxy behind, faith's praxis

depends on faith's truth, in which man's truth is made visible and lifted up to a new level by God's truth.[37]

At the same time, those who see ethics as basically an exercise in rational reflection also have a point: since the Redeemer God also the Creator, grace and faith will be concerned with the protection of the created order, and thus enter spontaneously into happy relations with reason which is created spirit's reflection on itself. As Ratzinger puts it:

Since grace refers to both the creation and the Creator, apostohc exhortation (as a continuation of Old Testament admonitions), is involved with human reasons.... There must be a correspondence with basic insights of human reason, even if these insights have been purified, deepened and broadened through contact with the way of faith.[38]

On the other hand, reason is not absolute in the moral sphere; or rather, that reason which is absolute, since it manifests the reason 0f God, must be distinguished from apparent reason, the defective rational endeavours of each age. For this reason needs faith, just as faith needs reason. Indeed:

faith . . . finds its language in communication with the reason of the nations through a process of reception and dialectic.[39]

In this, as in every significant process of discernment in the Church, three agencies are at work. First, there is the Christian and human experience of the Church at large; second, there is the work of scholars; and third, there is the 'watchful attention, listening and deciding undertaken by the teaching authority'.[40] The last, which is the one most keenly under question in the Church today cannot be sacrificed without losing hold on the apostolic tradition itself.

It is not difficult to correlate these three agencies with the three elements that a contemporary British historian of the '
making of moral theology' has found in the attaining of ecclesial judgment about ethical questions.[41] Two of these are Comparatively uncontroversial. The first or experiential element functions in seemingly intuitive fashion as a 'global instinct' of faith for what is right and proper. The second, or learned, element, consists in the exploration, by moral philosophers and theologians, of the possibilities of rational argumentation in this area. It is the third or magisterial element whose task in relation to the other two is currently in dispute. For Ratzinger, the role of the magisterium is, in continuity with the ethical element in the original apostolic preaching, the assessment of the consonance, or coherence, of moral norms proposed in the Church community with the vision of creation and redemption provided by revelation as a whole. Pope and bishops, when offering authoritative guidance on questions, actualise in the realm of ethics the distinctive charism of episcopal and papal office. That charism is not meant to substitute for the exercise of the experiential and learned elements in the Church but to 'place' the results of the latter within a wider whole: the apostolic Church in its response to apostolic revelation. This does not preclude the development of. doctrine in morals; but it does not presume its necessity either. The spirits must be discerned. In this way, Ratzinger's attempt to re-call moral theologians to the foundations of their discipline (as he sees it) echoes his appeal to their dogmatic confrères. In each case, what is at stake is the cognitive, and not simply canonical, relation of the individual to the community in its diachronic as well as synchronic dimensions, spread out in time as well as space, and entrusted to the care of pastors who cannot truly be in the 'apostolic succession' unless they are simultaneously doctores, teachers of the faith.


1. Compare the sub-title of his essay collection on fundamental-dogmatic theology:
Theologische Prinziptenlehre. Bausteine zur Fundamentaitheologie (Munich 1982) cited TP.

2. J Ratzinger
Storia e dogma (Milan 1971) collects (in Italian) some of his more crucial articles on the relation of dogma to its history. It will be cited below as SD, and is here found at p. 14.

3. H. Denzinger - A. Schonmetzer,
Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitonum et Declarationum de rebus fidei et morum (Freiburg 1967[34]), 3020. This reference work will be cited below as D.-S.

4. SD p. 15

5. Commonitorium 2; PL 50, 640.

6. D.-S. 3421-2.

7. R A. Knox,
Enthusiasm A Chapter in the History of Religion (Oxford, 1950) P.311-314

8 SD p. 16

9. P. Meinhold, 'Flacius', LexThK 4 pp. 161ff .

10. See A. Cesare Baronio.
Scritti varri(Sora 1963), with full bibliography.

11. On Tixeront, see C.E. Podechard, Joseph Tixeront (Lyons 1925).

12. A von Harnack,
Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte I (Tübingen 1931 [5]),pp. 34off.

13. M. Werner, Die Entstehung des christlichen Dogmas (Bern_Tub g~ I9532).

14. E. Käsemann, Exegetische Versuche mid Besinnungen I (Gottingen 1960), pp.214-223; II. pp. 239-253. On the whole controversy about the decadence of the Church
vis-á-vis the Gospel, see A. Grillmeier, 'Hellenisierung und Judaisierung des Christentums als Deuteprinzipien der Geschichte des kirchlichen Dogmas', in Scholastik 33 (1958), pp.321 355; 528-558

15. 'Ratzinger points out that it is, in one sense easier to write a series of monographs on the development of various Christian doctrines, as in the Handbuch der Dogmengeschichte edited by M. Schmaus and A. Grillmeier than to give an account of what is going on in such development. Among surveys of theories on development, he lists H Hammans, Die neueren katholischen Erklärungen der Dogmenentwicklung als Geschichtlichkeit (Essen 1965), and W. Schutz, Dogmenentwicklung als Geschichtlichkeit der Wahrheitserkenntis (Rome 1969), not least for their extensive bibliographies.

16. SD p.22.

17. lbid. p.26.

18. A. M. Landgraf, Dogmengeschichte der Frühscholastik (Regensburg 1952-1956), I. 1 p. 13.

19. SD p.28.

20. Ibid p.29.

21. Optatam totius 16.

22, SD P.42.

23. Ibid

24. Ibid. p. .43.

25.See above Chapter Six.

26. SD p .44.

27. Ibid. p.46. For Ratzinger's view of the consensus patrum as the crucial element in the Church's reception of biblical revelation and thereforc authoritative for all later faith, see his 'Die Bedeutung der Vater im Aufbau des Glaubens', in TP pp. 139-159.

28. Cf. J. Ratzinger, 'Zum Personverstandnis in der Dogmatik', in. J Spec (ed), Das Personverständnis in den Pedagogik und ihren Nachbarwissenenschaften (Münster 1966), pp. 157-171.

29. SD p.48. For the inter-relation of faithful, bishops and theological specialists in this task, see, if briefly, 'Kirche und wissenschaftliche Theologie' TP pp. 339-348, and especially p. 348

30. See J. Ratzinger, H. Schürmann, H. U. von Balthasar,
Pninzipien christlichen Moral (Einsiedeln 1957); ET Principles of Christian Morality (San Francisco 1975), cited below as PCM, and here at p.47.

31. PCM p. 49.

32. Ibid pp. 53-54.

33. Ibid. p.53.

34. Ibid p.65.

35 Ibid. p. 67; ef. H. Schlier,
Besinnung auf das Neue Testament (Freiburg 1964), PP 340-357

36. CTAFM pp.69-70.

37. Ibid. p.70.

38. Ibid pp.70-71.

39. Ibid p.71.

40. Ibid p.73.

41. J Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology. A Study of the Roman Catholic tradition (London 1987), pp. 280-289 especially.

Section Contents Copyright ©; Mark Alder and Fr Aidan Nichols 1988, 2001

Version: 30th March 2001


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