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Ten theological principles from Pope Benedict XVI for the current crisis

Tracey Rowland offers a helpful, succinct guide to Benedict XVI’s thoughts on “fundamental theological issues” that “are tearing communities apart.”

(Image: legabbiedelcuore/

Over the past three months, the men’s reading group I’ve helped lead for 19 years has been discussing The Divine Project: Reflections on Creation and the Church (Ignatius Press, 2023) by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Our group usually spends one or two months on a book, so it was unusual that we spent so much time on a book shy of 175 pages in length. But, as all the men remarked, in various ways, the book is bursting with so many insights into Scripture, theology, politics, and current events.

Current events? The book consists of six lectures given nearly 40 years ago, in 1985. But, first, the crises we face today—over authority, morality, sexuality, politics, and more—were already coming to fore decades ago, and Ratzinger saw it; secondly, the truth is the truth, whether in 1985 or 2023, and the constant pressure to cave in to the myth of inevitable progress must be rejected, as Ratzinger indicates in various ways. As he notes, in the conclusion of the chapter titled “Theology and Pluralism,” “…the final result of relinquishing the truth is not liberation, but uniformity.” And, really, uniformity in the service of abject conformity is certainly a goal of the technocrats, ideologies, deviants, and so many secular and ecclesial leaders today.

Tracey Rowland, who is one of the finest theologians writing today (and a contributor to Catholic World Report), has penned an essay titled “Ten Theological Principles from the Benedict XVI Treasury,” that captures some of the themes and basic insights found in The Divine Project. She writes:

At this moment in the life of the Church divisions over fundamental theological issues are tearing communities apart.

One of the reasons why Benedict XVI may be declared a Doctor of the Church is that he understood that a mistake at the base of a theological system can destroy the whole system. If we now have Catholics whose world view seems to be indistinguishable from that of Meghan Markle, and thus, contrary to two millennia of Christian teaching, then we do need to be looking at the fundamental principles.

In the midst of this dark night in the soul of the Church, there are at least 10 principles to be mined from the intellectual treasury of Benedict XVI that can help us to navigate our way through the crisis.

I highlight just two of the ten here.

First, the priority of logos over ethos:

1.     Logos Precedes Ethos

The first is that logos must precede ethos. Yes, this sounds really esoteric! It was however a principle that the great Romano Guardini was fond of emphasizing and it was taken up by Ratzinger/Benedict. Another way to put this is that truth precedes praxis. Our practices need to embody the truth. Many theologians want to flip this order of precedence and make ethos, or what Marxists call praxis, take precedence. Ratzinger/Benedict was totally opposed to this approach to theology. In his Principles of Catholic Theology (1987) he wrote:

“If the word ‘orthopraxis’ is pushed to its most radical meaning, it presumes that no truth exists that is antecedent to praxis but rather that truth can be established only on the basis of correct praxis, which has the task of creating meaning out of and in the face of meaninglessness. Theology becomes no more than a guide to action, which, by reflecting on praxis, continually develops new modes of praxis.” (p. 318)

He concluded that when praxis takes priority, truth becomes a product of man and man himself becomes a commodity.

This trajectory is evident in celebratory pop culture where people create their own narratives which may have very little if anything to do with reality—that is, with the truth—and then, on the basis of the self-constructed narrative, set about selling these phony “selves” to the world.

That theme, by the way, is examined in depth by Ratzinger in Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, which was written not long before Ratzinger was elected pope, and is one of my favorite books by the late pontiff.

Secondly, on synodality:

8.     Understanding of Synodal authority

Synodality is an equivocal concept. Ordinary synods are gatherings of bishops at regular intervals. Extraordinary synods are meetings to discuss some particular issue, such as the Synod on the Word of God held during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. What is currently at issue are questions such as: How are synods to be structured? Who is qualified to be invited? What authority do participants have? What weight of magisterial authority do decisions of synods carry? Although these questions are issues for ecclesiology, they are fundamental in the sense that they reach down into the deepest seams of Catholic theology such as: What is the Church? What is a bishop? What is the relationship between the ordained ministry and the lay apostolate?

Speaking of the idea of a permanent synodal structure of mixed lay and episcopal membership in his Demokratie in der Kirche essay, Ratzinger declared:

“The idea of the mixed synod as a permanent supreme governing body of the national churches is a chimerical idea in terms of the tradition of the church as well as its sacramental structure and its specific goal. Such a synod would lack any legitimacy and therefore obedience to it has to be decisively and unequivocally denied.” (p. 31)

In the same essay, Ratzinger pointed to the unrelenting conflicts unleashed in the Church of England by the permanent synodal processes and to the unpopularity of experiments undertaken by Catholic groups on German university campuses designed to democratize ecclesial governance. He praised students in Cologne who “resolutely rejected” the “synodal conspiracy” (synodale Komplott) since they wanted their community to be bound together by the one thing they had in common—“the gospel of Jesus Christ, as the faith of the church professes” (p.33).

This is not to say that Ratzinger was against synods, but he was against the idea of governing the Church by way of a permanent synodal process in the manner of the Church of England. Synodality has the capacity to become a weasel word in the sense that it is given a different content by different theologians and ecclesial leaders. Underpinning some versions of it is Newman’s concept of the sensus fidelium. The International Theological Commission’s 2014 document, “The Sensus fidei in the Life of the Church,” outlined the kinds of dispositions required by members of the laity before they could be relied upon to possess the sense of faith. Not just anyone who happens to have been baptized can be assumed to have this sense. St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all stated that the sensus fidei is not synonymous with some kind of majority position opinion poll. However, many popular proponents of the concept do market it as an opinion poll akin to referenda on controversial social issues in democratic countries. Work needs to be done to separate the wheat from the chaff in this area of ecclesial governance experiments.

Read Rowland’s entire essay at the “What We Need Now” Substack.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Under the two Principles summarized, two axioms would be:

    (1. Logos precedes Ethos) the Ten Commandments–natural law and moral absolutes (Ratzinger’s hand in “Veritatis Splendor,” 1993)–governs the “pastoral” Cardinal Grech’s “expanding the grey area,” and the alchemist Cardinal Hollerich’s “sociological and scientific” foundations for upending the Sixth and Ninth; and

    (8. Understanding Synodal Authority) like Church councils, synods also are what the Church DOES, not what the Church IS (adapted from “The Ratzinger Report, (1985).”

  2. SARC ALERT!!!

    When Pope Benedict XVI died, someone asked Pres. Biden, who claims to be ‘catholic’ what he and the late Pope had discussed the last time they spoke, and Joe’s answer was “Thomas Aquinas.”

    That’s today’s knee-slapper.

  3. Ethos in its Greek origin meant a man’s character. What best shapes, tempers [measures behavior or hardens like steel] reveals than Logos. Guardini deserves the credit you give him in 1.
    Each person’s character when first [or later post conversion] receives the radiance of the Word, is [becomes] a prism unique in himself from others, emanating in his comportment, appearance some feature of the beauty of the Word. A warm glance toward someone naturally, without posture carries within it the spiritual. That nuance of difference is perceived by the recipient.

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