He attended to the foundation: On the gift of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI

He believed that the Catholic Faith is the truth, and moreover, that it is the memory of the Church to be faithfully transmitted from one generation to the next.

Then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, is pictured in this file photo May 28, 1977, the day of his ordination as archbishop of Munich and Freising. (CNS photo/KNA); right: Pope Benedict XVI is pictured during his final general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this Feb. 27, 2013, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The name Joseph Ratzinger first came to my attention in 1985 with the publication of The Ratzinger Report. Reading The Report and other books by Ratzinger was life-changing for myself and many of my friends. We finally found someone at a senior level in the Church who had the courage to acknowledge that many of the pastoral experiments of the post-Conciliar era, for which members of my generation were the “guinea pigs”, were nothing better than “infantile claptrap”. We found a Cardinal who was prepared to condemn what he called “parish tea-party” liturgies and “pastoral pragmatism”. We also found someone who believed in truth and reason and who had the education to meet the highest standards of scholarship, someone who would not embarrass us in the most elite academic institutions of the world, from the Sorbonne to Cambridge.

Joseph Ratzinger clearly loved the high culture of the Incarnation and stood opposed to the movement to dumb everything down, especially the moves to dumb down the liturgy and religious education. He never thought Catholics were so stupid they needed to have their faith diluted from a full strength tradition to easy-to-digest slogans or “Gospel values”. He never thought that someone would struggle to appreciate the beauty of Gregorian chant simply because they were from a poor country, or would never be able to learn a Latin hymn because they were born somewhere outside Europe. For him the whole intellectual and artistic patrimony of two thousand years of Christianity was treasure to be shared by every Catholic of whatever nation or class. Simply because some element of the treasure had its provenance in old aristocratic Catholic Europe did not mean that it had to be trashed, suppressed, or otherwise withheld from future generations. Such policies would lead to a narrowing and lowering of the cultural horizons of everyone.

At the same time as he defended access to the cultural patrimony, he was not opposed to the documents of the Second Vatican Council. He believed that if read with what he called “a Christocentric accent” they could do a lot of good. Everything depends on the hermeneutical framework through which they are analyzed. A classic case was his reading of Gaudium et spes. He thought it was a sloppily drafted document and he even criticized one section for using what he called “Pelagian terminology”—but he also thought that some sections were really excellent. These sections offered what he called a “daring new theological anthropology” whose development became one of the major theological projects of the Wojtyła pontificate.

Since he was a peritus at the Council he knew the back-stories. He understood the theological and pastoral concerns driving the debates and various drafts of the schema. Since he was a scholar he could appreciate the shades of grey, the nuances.

As he and fellow peritus Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar were in agreement that there were some wild interpretations of the Council, in 1972 the trio founded the journal Communio: International Catholic Review. Communio became the foil to the journal Concilium, the flagship of some of the wild interpretations that sought to replace the classical Greek belief in reason/logos with the presuppositions of contemporary social theory.

The end result was that the journals Communio and Concilium became associated with two radically different interpretations of the Second Vatican Council. Underpinning this were different “choices” about the building blocks of fundamental theology, for example, different understandings of the significance of Scripture and the principles for its interpretation and different understandings of the relationship between history and ontology, nature and grace, faith and reason.

There was also an entirely different approach to the Proclamation of the Gospel and the relationship between theology and culture. Many of the Concilium authors were enthusiastic about the “correlationist” project associated with Edward Schillebeeckx and other theologians from Belgium and Holland. Their “solution” to the problem of secularism was to go in search of fashionable elements of the secular culture and then correlate the faith to them, rather than trying to understand how Christian cultures became secularized in the first instance.

Ratzinger was never in favor of this strategy. The Church, he said, was not a haberdashery shop that updates its windows with each new fashion season. Moreover, he noted that:

A Christianity and a theology that reduce the core of Jesus’ message, the ‘kingdom of God’ to the ‘values of the kingdom’ while identifying these values with the main watchwords of political moralism, and proclaiming them, at the same time, to be the synthesis of all religions – all the while forgetting about God, despite the fact that it is precisely he who is the subject and the cause of the kingdom of God’…‘does not open the way to regeneration, it actually blocks it’. (‘Europe in the Crisis of Cultures’, Communio: International Catholic Review, 32, 2005, 346-7).

Contrary to the whole orientation of Schillebeeckxian theology, Ratzinger rejected the principle of the priority of praxis. As he wrote in Principles of Catholic Morality: ‘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. Hence, it is fundamentally opposed to a praxis that first wants to produce facts and so establish truth.’ The idea that faith propositions do not matter, that we can forget all about the Creeds, that all we need is love and tolerance and inclusivity, both occludes and cheapens the paschal mysteries, above all the crucifixion. The idea that ethos might precede logos was described by Ratzinger as the “Hinduisation of the faith’.

His alternative approach was to argue for a complete Trinitarian transformation of the realm of culture where the key elements are grace, sacramentality, Eucharistic communion, the theological virtues (faith, hope and love), the transcendental properties of being (truth, beauty and goodness), and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit – (wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord). Such a Trinitarian transformation gives rise to a whole new culture, what St. John Paul II called a civilization of love, built upon the humanism of the Incarnation.

One reason why Ratzinger was such a brilliant analyst of the pathologies inherent in Western culture is precisely that he was a child of the German academy. He grew to manhood in the epicenter of the cross currents of the secular humanism of the eighteenth century, its liberal and Marxist offspring, the radically anti-Christian humanism of Friedrich Nietzsche, the neo-paganism of Nazi Germany, and the Catholic humanism of the Incarnation that stood opposed to all of these currents. He understood the pathologies because they were part of the air he breathed.

It never once occurred to him that the way to make the Catholic faith popular would be to market it in the language of the fashionable ideologies on offer. He understood that the fight, so to speak, had to be on sacramental ground. Catholics must fight by amplifying the dimension of the Christian mystery, without cutting corners by pretending to be fashionable or confusing the Great Commission with a sales and marketing exercise. To put the idea differently, we do not want to beat the world of celebrity philanthropy (the fashionable ideology of our own era) at its own game. We want to play a different game that makes the celebrity philanthropy game look profoundly banal. This, at least, is my reading of Ratzinger’s approach to the theology-culture relationship.

Ratzinger not only breathed in the air of the contending ideologies in the intellectual and political life of 20th-century Germany, he understood that what failed in the trenches of the Somme and the gas chambers of Nazi Germany was not the humanism of the Incarnation and its culture, but what the philosopher Remi Brague calls the “exclusive humanism” of the eighteenth century. This culture was “exclusive” because the Christian God was expressly unwelcome. As he wrote:

‘I am convinced, in fact, that the crisis we are experiencing in the Church and in humanity is closely allied to the exclusion of God as a topic with which reason can properly be concerned – an exclusion that has led to the degeneration of theology first into historicism, then into sociologism and, at the same time, to the impoverishment of philosophy’. (‘What is Theology?’, 316).

Joseph Ratzinger believed that the Catholic Faith is the truth, and moreover, that it is the memory of the Church to be faithfully transmitted from one generation to the next. It is a sacred gift received via Divine Revelation, not some theory we construct for ourselves. As he wrote in the first chapter of Principles of Catholic Theology, the memory of the Church ‘exists through all ages, waxing and waning but never ceasing to be the common situs of faith…there can be a waxing or waning, a forgetting or remembering, but no recasting of truth in time’.

It was therefore important for Ratzinger that the Scriptures be interpreted within the horizon of this memory. As Chairman of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, he presided over the drafting of two significant documents on Scriptural interpretation: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993) and The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2002). These documents offer theological syntheses likely to be cited for generations to come.

Ratzinger will also be remembered by Orthodox Christians as a pope open to the integration of the best that the Eastern theological tradition has to offer, by Lutherans as the man who brokered the “Joint Declaration on Justification” and by members of the Ordinariates for former Anglicans as the pope who went out on a limb to acknowledge the value of their Anglican Patrimony and to provide a place for them within the Church. Traditionalists should never forget his gift of the July 2007 – his lifting of the bureaucratic barriers to a perfectly theologically legitimate Rite loved by many. He noted that those who loved this Rite had been treated like lepers and he was sympathetic to their grievances without sharing the narrative of some that the Second Vatican Council is responsible for every problem in the life of the Church. In Ratzinger’s own narrative the problems have multiple causes, some dating back as far as the 14th century.

Australian theologian Tracey Rowland, recipient of the 2020 Ratzinger Prize for her theological work, is pictured with retired Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in this November 13, 2021 photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation)

After spending a couple of decades of my life writing books and articles about the relationship between theology and culture that drew on the fundamental theology of Joseph Ratzinger, in 2020 I had the happy experience of being awarded the Ratzinger Prize for Theology. I sent Pope Benedict a thank you card that featured a cat sitting on a windowsill staring out into the night. Outside the window there were snow covered fields and in the distance the glow of light from a village church. I found it hard to condense my gratitude for the gift of his priesthood and scholarship into a few lines but I settled on ‘Thank you for having the courage to stand against the zeitgeist, and for bringing so much hope to younger generations who think very differently from the generation of ’68’. I also said his books would be for future generations what the works of Cardinal Newman are for the Catholic scholars of today. I wrote in German and apologized for any mistakes, explaining that I was initially taught German by a nun who learned German from the Melanesian people of Papuan New Guinea (“PNG”) who had been catechized by German missionaries. A few months’ later, a delay caused by the Vatican’s postal service, I received his reply. It included the words: ‘Of course the cat, looking pensively at the winter night, created a special joy for me, however, even more beautiful for me, was the story of how you learned German’.

My knowledge of German came mediated by people who little over a century ago belonged to a culture where cannibalism was common. Through the agency of heroic, self-sacrificial missionaries who left behind the cobbled streets of German towns for the muddy tracks of tropical PNG, Papuans learned the language of Goethe along with the faith of the Apostles. Through their agency I was eventually able to make my way through Ratzinger in the original. This is an example of the culture of the Incarnation operating at optimal levels. The Trinity, the sacraments, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and self-sacrificial love were all working in tandem for the sanctification of souls and the edification of peoples, even those living in parrot festooned Pacific island rainforests and in the arid Australian bush. There was no dumbing down.

It has often been said that Ratzinger’s spirituality was quintessentially Benedictine with its key hallmarks being a deep love of solemn liturgy coupled with a life of scholarship. This is certainly true, though in his final years there was a strong Carmelite dimension and I would argue that throughout his life there was also an Ignatian element at play. Balthasar alluded to the quintessentially Carmelite spirituality in his statement that those who withdraw to the heights to fast and pray in silence are ‘the pillars bearing the spiritual weight of what happens in history. They share in the uniqueness of Christ, in the freedom of that nobility which is conferred from above; that untamed and serene freedom which cannot be caged or put to use. Theirs is the first of all aristocracies, source and justification for all the others, and the last yet remaining to us in an unaristocratic age’. (Geschichte, 92).

Benedict’s retreat to the monastery inside the Vatican gardens was his very Carmelite moment, though many wish this had never been. Whatever of that issue, the fact remains that this side of eternity we have no way of knowing how many graces he obtained for the Church during those years of withdrawal to fast and pray in silence.

Balthasar’s “aristocratic” motif is also a link to the Ignatian dimension of Ratzinger/Benedict’s spiritual life. The total surrender of the soul to God embodied in the prayer of St. Ignatius – ‘take Lord, receive, all my liberty, my memory, my entire will’, is a difficult surrender for anyone intellectually gifted to make, especially for someone as young as Ratzinger was when he joined the seminary. Having discerned his vocation he never went into reverse. He never became so absorbed with his own intellectual achievements that he started to second guess the teaching of the apostles as so many of his generation did. In the life of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI we have a synthesis of the radically aristocratic (“all or nothing”) temperament of Ignatius combined with the Benedictine affirmation of beauty, the Thomistic dedication to truth and Carmelite self-sacrificial love.

There is so much more that could be said about the life and legacy of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. Suffice to say that when the dust finally settles on the ecclesial crises of our times it is likely that Ratzinger will be declared a Doctor of the Church, that is, a saint whose specific contribution lay in the resolution of theological crises. His publications (some 86 books and 471 articles), in addition to all his magisterial documents, will provide future generations of Catholics with a theological road map out of the mess in which we are now entrenched. Although he did not have time in his life to write a systematic theology, he did write about almost every crisis zone in fundamental theology. This means that future generations will be able to do the integration work because he has attended to the foundations.

May his soul forever rest in peace and glory.

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About Tracey Rowland 17 Articles
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a past Member of the International Theological Commission. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of several books, including Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), Catholic Theology (2017), The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (2017), Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (Angelico Press, 2019), and Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (T&T Clark, 2021).


  1. I loved him. He was a Holy Father. He led me and taught me that God is always reasonable, because a loving father is always reasonable.

    Thank you God, for the gift of this good shepherd and father.

  2. From the writings listed, three telling quotes:

    “…without a view of the mystery of the Church that is also supernatural [italics] and not only sociological [italics], Christology itself loses its reference to the divine in favor of a purely human structure, and ultimately it amounts to a purely human project [!]: the Gospel becomes the Jesus-project [italics], the social-liberation project or other merely historical, immanent projects that can still seem religious in appearance, but which are atheistic in substance” (“The Ratzinger Report,” 1985).

    “…we must be far more resolute than heretofore in opposing rationalistic relativism, confusing claptrap and pastoral infantilism. These things degrade the liturgy to the level of a parish tea party and the intelligibility of the popular newspaper” (ibid.)

    “The arrogant certainty with which Cervantes burned his bridges behind him and laughed at an earlier age has become a nostalgia for what was lost. This is not a return to the world of the romances of chivalry but a consciousness of what must not be lost and a realization of man’s peril, which increases whenever, in the burning of the past, he loses the totality of himself” (last page of “Principles of Catholic Theology: Building stones for a Fundamental Theology,” 1987).

    “The totality of himself!”

    As contrasted with Cardinal Grech’s “expanded grey area,” and Cardinal Hollerich’s “sociological-scientific foundation” for overturning even our elementary human sexual morality in the Natural Law and (therefore) in the Catechism…A synodal plebiscite, anyone?

  3. A most excellent article and tribute to a saintly man who fully and humbly understood what the mission and duty of the Roman Pontiff is, and that’s why in his capacity as the leading teacher of the faithful, his clear and insightful teaching did not and does not require a gaggle of spinmeisters to try to reinterpret his statements so they align with the timeless and unchangeable truth of Catholic teaching. Echoing a sentiment set forth in the article, it is hoped that Benedict will indeed be rightly declared a Doctor of the Church very soon.

  4. At 9:34 p.m. Rome time this morning Jesus Christ opened the gates of Paradise to Joseph Ratzinger – “Welcome home thou good and faithful servant.”

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