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What it was like to learn from Joseph Ratzinger in the 1970s

How my life and thought were profoundly marked and shaped by my six years studying under Ratzinger at the University of Regensburg.

(Images: Catholic News Service)

My six years at the new University of Regensburg, sitting at the feet of Joseph Ratzinger in the 1970s, profoundly marked my life and thought.

When I went there in 1971, I did so at a time when the growing divide among theologians in their interpretation of Vatican II—between the so-called progressives and conservatives—was becoming increasingly evident (though less so than in other German universities). Thanks to the presence of Joseph Ratzinger, who was Professor of Dogma and the History of Dogma (and was also for a time Dean of the Faculty), such tensions were largely muted.

His own unpolemical approach to theology—together with the regard in which he was held by his fellow-theologians and other academic colleagues—promoted dialogue among all factions and disciplines. This was above all evident in his seminars and doctoral colloquium, where he promoted an openness and frank exchange of ideas that I had never experienced before and have not seen since. He had the ability to let fledgling theological students find their own voice and listen attentively, if critically, to the voice of others.

His opening lectures each semester drew students and professors alike from all faculties. His introduction to his chosen topic (Creation, Christology, etc.) was a tour de horizon of contemporary thinking. He sketched the relevant questions raised by today’s world—questions not limited to theology but which ranged from politics to science, philosophy to literature and art. To respond, he had recourse to Scripture and its interpretation by the great Church thinkers down through the centuries, thinkers such as Irenaeus, Basil, Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and Newman.

Then he outlined his own synthesis, which was marked by its clarity and profundity as well as by its eloquence. It was liberating.

We, his doctoral students, were given compete freedom in our own research projects. His pedagogical principle was simple: teachers shouldn’t impose their own ideas on their students but allow them to discover the truth for themselves. His doctoral colloquium was unique. Participants included students from all over the world, as well as visiting scholars, such as Christoph Schönborn and Charles MacDonald.

The whole spectrum of views, from progressive to the more traditional, were represented. Biweekly sessions were held in the Diocesan Seminary (originally the twelfth-century Irish Abbey) on topics ranging from the Fathers of the Church through the Scholastics to modern writers such as Camus. At the end of each academic year, we repaired to a monastery in the Bavarian Woods for a weekend. Guests such as Karl Rahner and Wolfhart Pannenberg discussed their current research with us. Lauds and Mass began the day, which ended with a get-together over wine and beer, when Ratzinger was at his most relaxed.

These experiences shaped my thought and my teaching method. When I was appointed to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to teach dogmatic theology, Ratzinger’s theology of the sacraments opened for me a new approach by exploring the anthropology of ritual. I introduced the seminar style a la Ratzinger, and the students flourished. This method continued wherever I taught afterwards.

After teaching dogma at the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) faculty near Vienna, I was appointed to teach moral theology at St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, near Dublin, Ireland. Ratzinger’s writings on politics gave me the impetus for my own theology of political life. His writings on conscience and contemporary moral issues were inspirational. But what perhaps most shaped my life was the many times I was called to defend Ratzinger in the public forum, when his person and teaching were pilloried.

His teaching witnessed to the truth. And the truth is rarely, if ever, popular, so rejection and ridicule can be expected (cf. Mt 5:11-12). But it is the truth that makes us free.

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About Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, SVD 13 Articles
Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. holds a Ph.D. in Theology and is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Ireland. A former doctoral student under Joseph Ratzinger, Twomey is the author of several books, including The End of Irish Catholicism?, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait), and Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae. His most recent book is The Dynamics of Liturgy—Joseph Ratzinger's Theology of Liturgy: An Interpretation (Ignatius Press, 2022). In 2011, Benedict XVI awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal to Fr. Twomey for outstanding services rendered to the Church and to the Holy Father.


  1. Maybe its best to also hear from another doctoral student of Joseph Ratzinger who did not embrace his theological panorama but instead took a different and even opposing stance: Leonardo Boff.

    • Yes, Joyce, it is good to consider Leonardo Boff, who did not embrace the theological beliefs and perspective of Joseph Ratzinger: by their fruits you shall know them.

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