THE THEOLOGY OF JOSEPH RATZINGER
by Fr Aidan Nichols
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.  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. 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.  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. 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.  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. 
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'. 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:
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:
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'. 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 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:
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. 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
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.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. 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:
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
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:
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 'original' in Christianity is not that which has come to be in clinical purity, without contact with 'other miheux'.
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
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
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:
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:
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'. 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.
4. SD p. 15
5. Commonitorium 2; PL 50, 640.
8 SD p. 16
11. On Tixeront, see C.E. Podechard, Joseph Tixeront (Lyons 1925).
13. M. Werner, Die Entstehung des christlichen Dogmas (Bern_Tub g~ I9532).
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.
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
33. Ibid. p.53.
34. Ibid p.65.
36. CTAFM pp.69-70.
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