Tuesday, January 24, 2023

“I Did Not Change; They Did!“ Joseph Ratzinger

“I Did Not Change; They Did!“ Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Rahner and the Second Vatican Council

(Plinthos first published this important article on Ratzinger’s epistemology on Tuesday, December 8, 2015, which he now provides, corrected and reformatted.)

by Oliver Putz, New Wineskins, Spring, 2007, 11-30.

ABSTRACT With their participation in the Second Vatican Council, two German theologians have been instrumental in shaping modern Catholicism like few others, namely Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger. Both were collaborators on a wide array of issues in theology and ecclesiology, but their ways were to part after the Council, and according to many observers, one of them, Ratzinger, was to undergo a significant and absolute change of heart. This change of direction does not cease to puzzle Catholics today, which makes it worthwhile to take a closer look at it. If indeed, Ratzinger not so much abandoned as developed further his already existing views, it would be of considerable importance for how we can think of the reception of the Council and its final documents. If, however, Ratzinger did change completely, the question could be what caused this change and how does the conversion affect the Church. By comparing the development of both theologians before, during, and after the Council, the present study wants to hypothesize that Ratzinger did not change as much as became more rigid in his already existing neo-Augustinian ideas, while Rahner probably underwent a far greater change following the Council.

“Si un hombre nunca se contradice, será porque nunca dice nada.“ Miguel de Unamuno


Ever since in the early days of the first session of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council the participating bishops refused to discuss the schemata presented by the largely curial preparatory commission, it has been the common perception that at the Council two monolithic blocs faced off in a clash over the future of the Church. According to lore, the attempts of ultramontanist traditionalists to maintain the status quo failed due to the overwhelming conformity among progressive reformers. While there is truth in this, the notion that the reformers agreed on virtually all issues is certainly an oversimplification. The documents of the Council remain notoriously ambiguous, and the fact that the very same decrees have been used to argue often diametrically opposed positions suggests that general agreement on broad issues at the Council did not translate into general accord on every detail. Unanimous votes on either side of the divide easily betray the great diversity of opinions that was present among the 2,500 bishops at Vatican II.

The persistent notion of a homogenous front of bishops and theologians trying to lead Catholicism into the (not quite so) new era of modernity against obstinate traditionalists makes it difficult to evaluate postconciliar controversies among former allies at the Council. How is it, one might ask, that previous reformers suddenly reversed course and advocated views worthy of a Cardinal Otaviani? It is, of course, a truism that the only thing in life that does not change is change itself, but to betray one’s earlier convictions in favor of former adversaries has the bitter aftertaste of selling out. Few have been accused of such an extreme volte-face as often and as bitterly as Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, who participated in the Council as peritus, and has shaped the Catholic Church for the past forty years like few others.(1)

For Benedict, Vatican II certainly marked a turning point in his already stellar career. By the time the Council began, he was 35 years old and had held professorships at two German universities, but it was with the Council that the young theologian attained an international reputation. He quickly became an outspoken supporter of the ressourcement movement and collaborated with those whose names were synonymous with the nouvelle théologie.(2) One name stands out in particular. Karl Rahner, 23-years Benedict’s senior, had already been widely known in Catholic circles when he came to the Council as a peritus. His new approach to theology had been generally well received, but among the predominantly conservative curia it had gained him sufficient animosity to endanger his participation at the Council, if not his entire career. Over the four years of the Council, both theologians emerged as influential voices, which left their mark on some of the major conciliar documents. They continued their fruitful cooperation that had begun before the Council and together published a series of milestone articles and books on pressing theological and ecclesiological issues. And yet, while their personal involvement was intricately associated with the aggiornamento theology of Vatican II, their paths in the postconciliar period could not have been more divergent.

To Rahner, the primary objective of all theology after Vatican II was to seek ways of conveying Christianity as meaningful to those who grew up in a world dominated by empirical knowledge. Forever the pastoral theologian and teacher, he pursued his goal in the dialogue with those outside the Church and by reformulating Christian doctrine in his theological writings. Ratzinger, on the other hand, grew increasingly uneasy about what he perceived as a misinterpretation of the Council’s intentions. Concerned that the Church would go too far in accommodating the modern world and thereby jeopardize its true Christian identity, he sought to maintain its original character. He eventually became bishop of Munich, received his cardinal’s hat, and soon after followed Pope John Paul II’s call to the Vatican as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). In this position, which Ratzinger was to hold for over 20 years, he made many unpopular and rather hard-line decisions that surprised the world and those who knew him at Vatican II. The two conspirators for a new Catholicism had drifted apart, and it seemed as if some major change had come over the younger Ratzinger.

Many blame the 1968 student revolts in Germany for this change of heart, a seemingly convincing argument, given the intense anger with which protest erupted then.(3) And yet, it seems surprising that only a few months of upheaval could have posed such a threat to the religious convictions of a man of Ratzinger’s caliber.(4) Hans Küng, who in 1966 vigorously supported and secured Ratzinger’s appointment to the prestigious theology department in Tübingen, saw in Ratzinger’s growing conservatism signs of a lust for power. Both explanations offer convenient solutions to the enigma that is Joseph Ratzinger, but it is unlikely they altogether do justice to this complex thinker. It is true; Ratzinger rose quickly through the ranks and assumed a powerful position as one of the closest advisers to Pope John Paul II. But can it really be that the historical context and the benevolent acts of the powers that be coincided so perfectly to corrupt Ratzinger completely and transform him into an old-school curial official? Or was Ratzinger perhaps right when, asked by Vitorio Messori whether his participation in the journal Concilium was a sin, he replied: “Absolutely not. I did not change; they changed.”(5)

The present paper revisits the perplexing relationship of Joseph Ratzinger and Karl Rahner to ask specifically whether indeed the former changed radically while the later remained true to himself. By examining the time before, during and after the Second Vatican Council, it will try to elucidate the evolution of Ratzinger’s thought and will argue that his biography shows far more continuation than is commonly acknowledged. When Ratzinger’s opinions, especially those articulated as the head of the CDF, are being interpreted as signs of conversion, it is most likely out of an overemphasis of the charismatic character of the Council, something that neither Ratzinger nor Rahner thought appropriate before Vatican II. I want to submit the thesis that while both men changed, it was indeed Rahner who underwent the more substantial, yet less surprising, change following the Council. Joseph Ratzinger, on the other hand, hardened by the events around him, increasingly reverted to ever more rigid patristic views he has always held in a genuine effort to save the Church he saw in critical danger of losing its true spirit.

Before the Council

When in January of 1959, John XXIII revealed his plan of an ecumenical council to a group of close associates, his proposal was met with utter silence.(6) Curial officials were not the only ones who reacted with a mixture of shock and suspicion. Indeed, the announcement of the Council surprised the entire Church. After the first session had ended, Joseph Ratzinger recalled his lingering hesitations with which he had engaged in the Council: “As one looks back trying to recall the events as they unfolded, it must be said that the beginning of the Council was dominated by a certain discomfort, a concern that the whole affair will reduce itself to little more than a confirmation of preconceived decisions, and thus, by disappointing the hopes of many, leaving them without courage, paralyzing the dynamics of the good, and by leaving all the questions the present time is asking of the Church once again unanswered, harm the Church more than benefit it.”(7)

Karl Rahner was equally doubtful, voicing his apprehensions in a lecture he gave to students in Innsbruck in 1959. Ominously entitled “On the Threatening or Imminent Council,”(8)the lecture was skeptical in tone, particularly regarding the practicality of the Council, its content, and its proclaimed ecumenical nature.(9) “Just imagine,” he said, “how difficult the Council would become when two thousand bishops show up; and once you invite the titular bishops you quickly reach a dimension that is technically unmanageable.”(10) Like others before him, Rahner contemplated the possibility of alternative forms that could substitute for the traditional Conciliar structure and nonchalantly suggested using written questionnaires like those which were used by Pius IX and Pius XII prior to the decision on the Marian dogma. As far as the unclear content of the Council was concerned, Rahner did not view this as reason for the euphoria that had taken hold of the public. Instead, he hesitated to join speculations and restrained himself to merely pointing out the disconcerting fact that little in this regard was known.(11) Finally, while ecumenism was of great importance to him, Rahner was unconvinced that the Council could have the same unifying potential like those of Lyon (1274) or Florence (1438-1445). Alternatively, he envisaged Vatican II as a potential chance for self-evaluation of sorts, which would allow clarifying the position of the Catholic Church in regards to other churches.(12) Looking back, it is easily forgotten that it was not only the ultramontanists who responded suspiciously, but also those who would eventually be so instrumental in shaping the Council.

The announcement of the Council instigated a general interest in the theology of councils that led to various systematic and historical treatments prepared by numerous theologians, including Rahner and Ratzinger. In his 1962 essay On the Theology of Councils,(13) which he based on the aforementioned Innsbruck lecture, Rahner primarily tried to moderate exaggerated expectations now held by many.(14) His assessment of the Council as primarily a governing body that did not represent the Charisms of the Church aimed specifically at relativizing excessive enthusiasm. Any notion of future democratic representation Rahner diffused by pointing out that the Catholic Church is a hierarchically-structured body under the leadership of the episcopate and the pope alike,(15) a hierarchy that to him was installed by Jesus himself. As such, Rahner’s position was soundly traditional and in line with magisterial teaching. But he then went on to investigate the concept of collegiality and its ramifications for the final power in the Church. Rahner affirmed collegiality vehemently and from that perspective reviewed the relationship of episcopate and pope. For him, neither the notion of the pope as ultimate judicial authority of the Church, nor the inadequate differentiation between the Council and the pope could hold up; following from collegiality the final authority had to lie with the council together with the pope as one body. As such, “the teaching authority does not only rest with the entire episcopate under and with the pope during the course of the council, when both form one body, or with the pope at times when the council is not in session, but rather always and at all times with the entire episcopate under and with the pope, even when the council is not in session.”(16) During the Council, this highest collegial governing body of the Church, which has always existed, comes together.(17) The reason for this is simple necessity; since the entire episcopate under and with the pope can act perfectly even when the council is not in session, it usually takes a particular reason to call for a council. Exactly this reason, however, was unclear for Rahner, since the content of Vatican II had remained somewhat elusive. Rahner’s essay marks an important understanding of the Council, namely the collegial continuation of the actions undertaken by the episcopate and the pope as the governing voice of the Church. Rahner affirms collegiality vehemently and from that perspective reviews the relationship of episcopate and pope.

Ratzinger presented his theology of council in a response to Hans Küng, who in Strukturen der Kirche identified the council with the representation of the Church.(18) Ratzinger, like Rahner, advocated collegiality and investigated how it affected the concept of the Council as “representation” of the Church. He elaborated on the notion of infallibility, presenting a position that was very much in line with Vatican I, even though not with the ultramontanist interpretation.(19) Accordingly, the infallibility lies not with the pope alone, but rather with the unified body of the entire Church. A pope, therefore, can only speak infallibly when he says what the entire Church accepts as infallible. As such, lay people partake in the infallibility of the faith of the entire Church.(20) The Council together with the pope constitute the highest judicial body of the Church that convenes whenever needed, which for Ratzinger is the case when the Church is divided on particular issues. Here now, it is the distinct responsibility of the Council to act preventive and protective. He writes later: “The Councils originated with the goal to protect the Church from wrong thoughts (Falschgeist) and out of the necessity for a comparison and unification of traditions, the collective order of the Church, and the need of mutual help in order to achieve proper guidance.”(21) The Council is thus an advising and deciding assembly, whereas the entire Church is far more. Charisms, for example, which are essential aspects of the Church, are not part of the Council. It is this difference that makes the Council synedrion and not ekklesia. (22)

In 1961, Rahner and Ratzinger published Episkopat und Primat together,(23) in which they negotiated their theological understanding of the relationship of council and pope. In spite of certain minor but significant differences, the two German theologians generally agreed on the secondary character of the Council.

Meanwhile, their work on the theology of councils brought both theologians to the attention of the two cardinals and members of the preparatory commission, who would eventually take them to Rome as their respective periti. Ratzinger met Cardinal Joseph Frings in the late 1950s through an old friend and personal secretary of Frings, Hubert Luthe.(24) Impressed by a lecture on the theology of the Council which Ratzinger gave at the Catholic academy in Bensberg, Frings asked Ratzinger to read all the schemata for him and suggest improvements. Here, one gets further insight into how Ratzinger perceived the forthcoming council: “Of course I felt the schemata left much to be desired, but I found no grounds for a radical rejection as it was called for by many at the Council. Certainly, the biblical and patristic renewal that had characterized the preceding decades had imprinted these blueprints only moderately, making them appear a little rigid and narrow, too close to a theology of the academy, too much the thoughts of scholars and not enough of shepherds. One has to acknowledge, however, that they were absolutely solid and carefully crated.”(25)

Although this reminiscence was written thirty-two years after Vatican II, one nevertheless gets a sense for how Ratzinger perceived the initial schemata and how he envisioned the future direction of the Council. Quite obviously he was preoccupied with the integration of the results that previous research in biblical exegesis and the patristic writings had offered. Aspirations of relating the Church to the world, however, were apparently of lesser importance to him.

At the same time, Cardinal König of Vienna, whom Rahner had first met during the war, asked Rahner to review the schemata critically for him.(26) Unlike Ratzinger, Rahner received the schemata far more unsympathetically, even if some of the key issues that concerned him were similar to those that troubled his younger colleague in Bonn. In one of his letters to the cardinal, Rahner wrote: “The authors [of these schemata] very likely have never suffered the afflictions of the atheist or the non-Christian, who wants to believe but thinks that he cannot.”(27) And in another letter: “No, these schemata do not do all that they could do; they are elaborations of the leisurely secure who confuse their self-confidence with the firmness of faith… These are the elaborations of good and pious professors… selfless, yet unable to rise to the occasion of the current situation.(28)

Obviously, both Rahner and Ratzinger saw the need for adjustment and revisions, especially due to the highly intellectual nature and lack of pastoral tone of the schemata, but they differed in their evaluation of what was indeed needed. While for Ratzinger the problem lay with the lack of spiritual leadership, Rahner was deeply worried about those who found their genuine desire for faith simply irreconcilable with the world of today.(29) Where Ratzinger in the end saw sound and well-crafted documents, Rahner saw largely well meaning, yet on whole incapable attempts.

The significance of what may seem like negligible differences in focus and possibly wording must not be underestimated; both statements reflect the underlying theologies with which both theologians assessed the preparatory texts and which considerably shaped their participation at the Council. Already in his earliest works, Rahner develops the essence of his transcendental method that combined historical investigation of actual experience with a transcendental reflection on the conditions of its possibility.(30) The mere notion that God can be directly experienced, that the experience of everything finite moves us vis-à-vis the infinite horizon of the ultimate mystery that is God, reveals that for Rahner being historical and in the world could not be divorced from being human.(31) Ratzinger, on the other hand, early on assumed a rather world-denying theology that was characterized by a neoplatonic anthropology not much unlike that of his great theological role model and focus of his doctoral research, St. Augustine.(32) He wrote his Habilitationsschrit(33) on St. Bonaventure, who had not yet undergone the turn to the more world-affirming worldview so characteristic for Albertus Magnus or Thomas Aquinas. It does not surprise then that Ratzinger always returned to point out the importance of patristic theology and the pneumatology of the Eastern Church.(34) The neo-scholastic hyperintellectualism that was so characteristic of the Church after Vatican I (and after Leo XIII in particular) was for him, the Augustinian, who sought deep spiritual conversion rather than academic persuasion, always suspect. In many ways, he views such explanatory theology as an unnecessary apologetics behind which the Church “hides instead of trusting the truth that lives in freedom and is in no need of.”(35) In light of the fundamental differences between the two philosophical and theological positions what does surprise is that Rahner and Ratzinger collaborated so successfully at the Council.

At the Council

Ever since the Middle Ages, councils were inconceivable without the participations of theologians who would function as advisors to the bishops,(36) and Vatican II was not to be an exception to the rule. How individual periti exactly shape the trajectory of a council, influence episcopal opinion and the content of final documents is often not at all easy to determine. The historian here must rely entirely on personal accounts of either the periti themselves or other individuals present at the Council.

In Rahner’s case, the analyses by Karl Heinz Neufeld, Günther Wassilowsky and Herbert Vorgrimmler provide excellent insights into his activities not only at the Council, but also during its preparation, as well as of the times when the Council was not in session.(37) To my knowledge, Ratzinger’s particular contribution to the Council still awaits detailed investigation, but some can be reconstructed from his own writings as well as secondary literature on the Council. Here I will focus primarily on (a) Rahner and Ratzinger’s involvement in any work during the Council that indicates their idea of how to relate the Church and the world, and (b) their actual interaction at workgroups or during the time the Council was not in session.

Despite his previous difficulties with the curia and a reluctant reception by Cardinal Otaviani, Karl Rahner became a member of the theological commission and was actively and significantly involved in the preparation of Lumen gentium, Dei verbum, Gaudium et spes, and Perfectae caritatis.(38) But his influence reached further than the theological commission. He gave numerous lectures and could often be found in conversation with theologians and bishops from other commitees.(39) Certainly, this would not have been possible had it not been for the friendly relationship between bishops and periti that had existed from the very beginning: “One could perhaps say that if – not only me – but certain theologians had not been in amicable understanding with the bishops at the onset of the Council, the Council would have taken an entirely different direction than it inally did.”(40)

But aside from the good rapport between bishops and periti, there was also a strictly pragmatic component to this relationship. The bishops challenging the schemata presented by the preparatory commission were in need of alternative texts and theologically sound critiques of the proposed schemata. Consequently, many periti ended up working on alternative texts that could be presented to the Council fathers. Rahner’s work on Lumen gentium involved both his activity in the theological commission as well as, perhaps more importantly, conversations with bishops, lectures, and writing of statements Cardinal König would then present in the aula.(41) Once he had convinced the German and Austrian bishops of the problematic nature of the schema Depositum fidei, he immediately began to work on responses together with Ratzinger. Often, Rahner would not go to the aula, since he considered the discussions basically a waste of time, and worked on the schemata instead. Of this collaboration with Ratzinger, Rahner writes in his notebook: “I get along well with Ratzinger. And he has a good reputation with Frings.”(42)

On a whole, Rahner’s involvement was primarily in the realm of ecclesiology.(43) He was actively partaking in the shaping of the De Ecclesia schema, tried from the very beginning to get the issue of the deaconate included in the schemata on the Church, advocated an inclusion of Mariology into the conciliar ecclesiology, promoted collegiality and supported a theology of local churches. From September 1963 onwards, he was involved in the work on schemata XIII, the document later to be known as Gaudium et spes.(44) According to Cardinal König, Rahner’s particular interest lay with the development of Lumen gentium, but Yves Congar remembered that his influence on Gaudium et spes was of no lesser importance. The schemata had been proposed and affected considerably by the Avantgarde of French theology, and Rahner tried to moderate, in his eyes, an overly optimistic anthropology in the context of a cross theology.(45) Nonetheless, his theology remained world affirming and focused on his pastoral concerns of the modern human being in the world.

Like Rahner, Ratzinger was not simply one of the many periti working silently for their respective bishops. Throughout the Council he gave lectures on relevant issues in Rome as well as in Germany when the Council was not in session. He organized briefing sessions for the Council fathers and published a renowned series of commentaries on the Council.(46) As John Allen wrote, “Although Ratzinger could not speak on the Council floor, he was a public figure in every other way.”(47) His involvement, as shown above, also included work on the actual documents, as was the case with the alternative text on revelation, which he prepared together with Rahner. On October 25, 1962, Cardinal Frings met with Cardinals Alfrink, Suenens, Liénart, Döpfner, Siri, and Montini, and asked Ratzinger to introduce to them the suggestions of the German-speaking episcopate.(48) Overall the reaction was positive, and Ratzinger must have made already then a deep impression on the fathers, in particular Montini, who later as Paul VI would make Ratzinger the archbishop of Munich and eventually raise him to the status of cardinal. Meanwhile, Ratzinger was no less interested in pastoral questions than Rahner. He was genuinely concerned for the people, but his main interest was not how to bring the Church closer to the world, but rather how to get the world involved with the Christian message. It therefore does not surprise that of all documents of Vatican II, Dei verbum was the one most influenced directly by Ratzinger.

After the Council

What makes it so difficult to gauge the Council’s impact on the life of the Church is not only the ambiguity of the documents and the diverse ways with which their contents have been implemented, but also the sheer volume of texts, lectures, conversations, and letters that were not included in the final documents. As Rahner once said about councils, “it’s like with the production of radium. One has to work through a ton of pitchblende to yield 0.14 grams of radium. And yet, it’s worth it.”(49)

As we work our way through the pitchblende that is the personal histories and developments of the Council’s major thinkers, it quickly becomes obvious that in one way or another the Council marked a turning point for all of them. Regardless of the ideas with which they came to Rome, virtually all of the participants transformed their views throughout the four years of the Council with its numerous discussions and exchanges. As such, the Council marked a conversion experience possibly for most, if not all who participated in it, including Ratzinger and Rahner. Both repeatedly spoke about their experience at the Council and about what the Council meant for them and for the Church. As the results of Vatican II gradually became implemented and the world lived through tumultuous times, their assessments not so much of the Council per se, but of the state of the Church today in light of the Council’s decisions took on different shapes. Only three years after Vatican II had come to a close this difference was quite apparent. What had happened?

It might help to put the question into a historical context. Both theologians were Germans, embedded in a particular social context, equipped with culturally shaped means of assessing a situation and responding to it, and it is crucial to elucidate their particular situation in order to interpret their conclusions. The years after the Council in West Germany like elsewhere in the western hemisphere were characterized by social unrest. But unlike in the US, where students directed their anger primarily against the quickly escalating situation in Southeast Asia, German students faced the altogether different problem of dealing with Germany’s recent history. After World War II, many of the same individuals who had held influential positions of responsibility during the reign of terror of the Hitler regime once again had managed to come into public offices, including chairs at universities.(50) The German student movement gained momentum and quickly assumed a more violent character when on June 2, 1967, at a demonstration against the Shah of Persia on a visit to Berlin, 26-year old Benno Ohnesorg was shot dead by a policeman. From now on, demonstrations were an almost daily event; students boycotted classes and took over lecture halls so that teaching became impossible. For professors used to being respected by their students, the situation was entirely unprecedented and difficult to deal with. Some joined the discussion, trying to either argue their views in opposition to the student demonstrators, others agreed with the content, but not necessarily the means. The turbulence also affected the theology department at the University of Tübingen, where Ratzinger taught at the time.

Herman Häring, a former student at Tübingen, describes the situation as one quickly leading to polarization.(51) In a recent article, Ronald Modras makes the case that “student unrest “at Tübingen should not be confused with the violence that characterized the situations in Paris and Chicago of the same year, and that students who attended Ratzinger’s classes were a far cry from the Maoists that disrupted classes in other departments at Tübingen.(52) Nevertheless, the disruptions, blockades of classes and sit-ins surely made an impression. In 1968, theology students initiated a declaration for the freedom of theology that was signed by 1322 students. One year later, theologians from Tübingen published a letter in which they demanded that bishops were to be elected and their office to be limited to a time period of eight years. The faculty responded differently to the students’ demands. Hans Küng, for example, equally appalled by some of the goals of the protesters as Ratzinger, sought the direct confrontation and engaged in discussions with students from which he emerged with his respect intact. Others, like Ernst Käsemann of the Protestant faculty, dealt with the situation more delicately, and likewise never lost their students’ esteem.(53) Ratzinger, altogether a more quiet and shy man, withdrew and avoided all conversation. Instead, he focused on his writing and in 1968 published his most renowned book, Einührung in das Christentum.(54)

Based on lectures he held in 1967, the book gives an important insight into Ratzinger’s theology as well as in his views on the current situation; already the preface leaves no doubt that the book was to be read in the context of its days. “The question of the actual content and meaning of the Christian faith,” Ratzinger writes, “is today enshrouded in a fog of uncertainty as it has never been before in the history of Christianity.”(55) Unlike the witless, who blindly accept all things new for novelty’s sake, those who have watched the development in the Church over the past decade with concern may be reminded of the Grimm Brothers’ tale of “Lucky Jack,” who exchanges the lump of gold he had earned with hard work for increasingly worthless things, until he finally ends up with nothing but a grindstone. Losing that too, Hans finds himself free of any burden and happy. For Ratzinger the euphoria with which Vatican II was received by the faithful is reminiscent of Hans’s happiness; each new interpretation resembles for him a trade in which true Christianity is shortchanged. And so, the former peritus presents his understanding of Christianity, ready to conserve what those infatuated by change are willing to give away. Hans Küng’s words come to mind: “Joseph Ratzinger is afraid. And like Dostoyevsky’s great inquisitor he fears nothing more than freedom.”(56)

What makes this book so revealing is that throughout Ratzinger presents an altogether Hellenistic philosophy underlying his theology. In a review, Walter Kasper identified immanent traces of a Greek dualism that run through the entire text like a red thread.(57) Ratzinger warns of a new historicism, in which facts rule and only that of which the causes are explained is accepted as knowledge, just as Descartes in his distortion of Aristotle had suggested.(58) Inevitably, the turn to scientism followed, Ratzinger argues, and with that a “turn to a reality, in as much as it is doable.”(59) Theology, he goes on to say, has tried to respond to this reductionistic historicism by reconstructing faith historically, a move that initially seemed promising but soon collapsed under its own weight and with the dethroning of history by science.(60) And so, instead of fact, theology turns to faciendum and conflates faith with political act, as the works of the likes of Moltmann and Metz show.(61) Neither fact nor faciendum are for Ratzinger un-Christian; on the contrary, they are part and parcel for every Christian. But, and here the whole depth of his dualism emerges, in the end it is in the act of saying Credo–I believe–that man does neither the one nor the other.(62) And this credo can only be spoken on the basis of truth, or else it would be meaningless. In the end, it is understanding and not knowing that maters, and understanding does not originate with a scientific-technological knowledge, but grows alone from faith.(63) From this he concludes: “That is why theology as a speaking of God in an understanding, logos fashion (= rational, reasonable and understanding) is a primal mission of Christianity. It is in this fact that the indissoluble right of the Greek in Christianity is grounded. I am convinced that at the deepest level it was no accident that the Christian message in its genesis entered first in the Greek world and here fused with the question of understanding and truth.”(64)

As Hermann Häring points out, here Ratzinger makes Hellenism the touchstone for a Church that becomes universal. But simultaneously this position also makes it very difficult to allow for an inculturation as Vatican II certainly suggested, at least implicitly, and as it has become commonly discussed in the Church. Truth is not a function of culture for Ratzinger. As Lieven Boeve writes, “Ratzinger atempts the task to show that there exists a truth that will always remain true regardless of all cultural negotiations, simply because it is true.”(65) For some, this somewhat Neo-Platonic position is what characterizes the new Ratzinger and his hardened theological and ecclesiological perspectives. But traces of a fascination with Greek philosophy and its influences on the early Church are evident already in his earlier writing. What frustrated him about the new situation in the Church was less the demonstrating students than an opening towards the world that to him jeopardized true Christian values. Already in 1966, two years before the climax of the student revolts, Ratzinger presents a very dark assessment of the outcome of the Council at the German Katholikentag in Bamberg. He bemoans the tendency of postconciliar developments in liturgy to either be paralyzed by a “certain archaism” or get carried away too far by the spirit of modernization.(66)

For Karl Rahner, the late 1960s marked an equally important period characterized by an active engagement in the renewal of the Church, which he often pursued in conversation with those outside the Church.(67) Through interdisciplinary dialogue he sought new ways of interpreting traditional doctrines in a way that would be reconcilable with insights from other disciplines, and thus become meaningful to atheists and non-Christians. What characterized his approach in those days was an openness of which his biographer writes: “The openness and vitality at an age where others seek retirement, the courage for new outlines, for further quests, for the expansion into new disciplines and areas he was not even familiar with…, all that earned him admiration and gratitude, since it gave courage at a time when many traditional means of orientation were deteriorating.”(68)

Two publications of this time exemplify this openness to the world. In an article he co-authored with J.B. Metz in 1968, Rahner identifies three major issues the Church has to address after Vatican II.(69) First, there is the question of God vis-à-vis atheism in a time of increasing secularization. Second, Rahner sees the developments in Christology as a source of problems, where the right balance between a Christology “from below” and “from above” has to be negotiated. Finally, there is the problem of salvation that could be paraphrased in the question, “Is there for me in my unique and concrete existence a graceful God?” For Metz, however, this constitutes merely an Apologia ad extra; troubled by how contemporary society has largely subscribed to a post-atheistic humanism that hardly asks the question of God anymore, he emphasizes the importance of an Apologia ad intra.(70) Rahner agrees, in particular since such an internal apologetics could help prevent the emergence of new heresies in the Church, which to him seems inevitable in any process of renewal.(71) Moreover, it would be a means to establish the pluralism in theology and Church life that is urgently needed.(72) While he agrees that pluralism is important, and that truth therefore has to be negotiated, Rahner nonetheless holds that certain fallacies must be declared as such. For example, in case of a christology overemphasizing Jesus’ humanness at the price of his divinity the Church has a responsibility to intervene.(73) This willingness to continuously negotiate an understanding of God and Church without ever giving in to relativism where anything goes is quite diferent from Ratzinger’s quest for an absolute and infinite truth.

In the other essay,(74) Rahner calls Vatican II the first council of the World Church and investigates the ramifications of such an event. Doubtlessly, this term of the World Church is heavily influenced by the notion of “inculturation,” which for Rahner has become more important than ever after Vatican II. Nothing will reflect this development as much as the liturgy. Eventually, for Rahner, the liturgy would not simply be translated into vernacular from Latin but rather become a local expression of worship shaped by local theologies.(75) While the new Christian pluralism that is implied by the documents of the Council may seem like a desperate attempt to accommodate the secular modern world, a restriction from abusing power is actually in the true nature of the Church, Rahner argues.(76) It may very well be that some bishops or laypeople will be tempted to force their views of an unchangeable truth on others both inside and outside the Church. But after Vatican II such “clerical-fascistic”(77) tendencies to constrain the freedom of the faithful in the name of the one truth held by orthodoxy alone are no longer possible. With the Council the Church has voluntarily and irrevocably relinquished absolute power in favor of an inevitable pluralism because this is her true nature. Rahner acknowledges that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith more often than not responds to change with a defensive theology that “warns and bans.” “But,” he writes, “the Congregation does not have to be forever what it is now, and so the entire Church will not be driven back behind those limits that were overstepped in Vatican II.”(78) Theology will evolve and increasingly transform from an export of European notions into a true world theology, like liberation theology. Such local non-European theologies Rahner does not see as a danger for the task of theology in the Old World; on the contrary, the contemporary situation demands a turn towards those in the West who have abandoned faith, who have grown estranged with Christianity.(79) What has to be accepted is that the concerns of the Church are not the same all over the world. Finally, Rahner turns to ecumenism and emphasizes that the Church has come a long way from Augustine’s notion of “massa damnata.”(80) Instead, salvation is universal and the grace of God is being offered to free human beings, even if they decide against accepting it. Salvation, so Rahner, prevails.


The present paper set out to investigate the relationship of Karl Rahner and Josef Ratzinger, as well as the infamous change of heart the later is said to have experienced in the aftermath of Vatican II. It has tried to argue that while Benedict was certainly affected by the Council and the changes it provoked, his later views were not at all essentially different from his views with which he came to the Council. Rahner and Benedict certainly shared many concerns about the meaning of the Council, the role of the episcopate, and a wariness of the hyper-intellectualized theology of neo-Scholasticism. But in the end, they differed in their views on how the Church should engage with the modern world. After the Council it was these basic differences that determined the opposite trajectories of both men’s subsequent developments. While Rahner emphasized the need of the Church to change towards an opening towards the world and those “who want to believe but thinks that they cannot,” Benedict demanded a return of the Church to the true meaning of Christianity. For Benedict, the way many interpreted the Council was far from the Council’s true intention, namely the restoration of the true Church.

That today their collaboration at the Council is often interpreted as an overall harmonious conformity might be the result of a romanticized view of the Council itself. It is very tempting to see the Holy Spirit at work at the onset of the Council, driving the majority of participants into a unified effort to change the Church from the very beginning. However, neither Rahner nor Ratzinger would have felt comfortable with this view, given that they both viewed the Council as secondary and considered it not the place for the Church’s charisms to be active. When today we try to assess how the Spirit was at work at the Council, we need to execute a certain level of affective historical consciousness and remind ourselves that we do so with the words of the Council fathers in mind, who throughout the Council came to experience what they interpreted as the immanence of the spirit.

Rahner and Ratzinger were two German theologian at Vatican II, and it is this cultural background that predestined them for a particular response to the Council and its questions. It seems that Rahner was quite aware of this particular hermeneutic position, while Benedict to this day insists on the primacy of a Latin, largely Augustinian theology. In that regard, Benedict is right; it was not he who changed. What drives his theology is not the same courage and trust so characteristic for Rahner, but rather fear; i.e. that the Church may go into the wrong, more world-oriented direction,(81) Ratzinger took harsh steps to maintain the status quo and return to a more spiritually oriented Church. The events of 1968 may have played a somewhat catalytic role, but were certainly not the origin of his postconciliar position.

Rahner on the other hand saw change as part and parcel of any continuous tradition. Consequently, his views on ecclesiology underwent a constant reformulation. One only has to recall how before the Council, while affirming collegiality, democracy in the Church was absolutely unthinkable for Rahner. Later on, however, he was able to entertain the thought, even if only as a thought, and was far more willing to go beyond anything he had thought possible back in 1962.(82) If one of the two men experienced a deep conversion and changed dramatically, I would want to argue it was Rahner. And his road to Damascus was the Second Vatican Council.

After all, I think it unfair to reduce Ratzinger, a theologian of great depth and intelligence, to merely a power-hungry politician. His concerns are genuine and heartfelt. But they are also in contrast to what emerged from the Council that was not an endpoint but, as Rahner insists, a transition into something new. The Council could not foresee what reactions its decisions would foster, and it certainly made it more difficult to negotiate what is “right” and what is “wrong.” But in the end, it has allowed for the Church to step once again into the world and engage actively in the Kingdom.

1 See for example J.L. Allen, Jr., Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger (New York: Continuum, 2005).

2 Some do not see Ratzinger as a proponent of the nouvelle théologie. In fact, he himself today is rather critical of the movement. However, see Francis Schüssler Fiorenza (“From Theologian to Pope: A personal view back, past the public portrayals,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 33, No. 2 [2005]), who argues the same point I am making here. On the other hand, according to Herman Häring, Ratzinger adopted some of the important aspects of the nouvelle théologie introduced by Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, or Küng, without ever fully embracing its methods (Cf. Hermann Häring, Theologie und Ideologie bei Joseph Ratzinger [Düsseldorf: Patmos-Verlag, 2001], 30.)

3 Even Hans Küng was shocked by the intensity and violence of the student protests. Cf. Christ sein (München: Piper, 2004, [1974]), particularly 38 f.

4 To be fair, the student demonstrations in Germany did not begin and end in 1968, but like elsewhere in Europe and the United States were the culmination of a process that began in the early 1960s. I will return to this later, but let it suffice to say here that it may very well have taken Ratzinger longer than the summer of 1968 to reach a point of frustration and disenchantment that manifested itself in his increasing rigidity. Benedict, when asked whether his participation in the journal Concilium was a sin, replied: “Absolutely not. I did not change; they changed.”

5 V. Messori and J. Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985).

6 Cf. X. Rynne, Vatican Council II (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2003), 4; P. Hebblethwaite, “John XXIII,” in Modern Catholicism: Vatican II & After, edited by A. Hastings, pp. 27-34 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

7 J. Ratzinger, Die erste Sitzungperiode des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils. Ein Rückblick (Köln: Verlag T.P. Bachem, 1963). (This and all following translations from the German and Dutch are my own.)

8 Rahner taught at the time in Innsbruck. The lectures were presented in the context of a lecture series held every Friday evening on current issues in theology, called Questiones quodlibetales. According to J.B. Metz, Rahner used these colloquia to present in every-day examples how the relevance of theology can be made clear very concretely, as in “How do I explain it to the man on the train?” Cf. J.B. Metz, “Widmung und Würdigung. Karl Rahner, dem Sechzigjährigen,” in Got in Welt. Festgabe für Karl Rahner, Bd. I., edited by J.B. Metz, W. Kern, A. Darlap, and H. Vorgrimler (Freiburg: Herder, 1964). The lecture on the Council was transcribed by students and can be found in the Karl Rahner-Archiv in Innsbruck. All quotes here are taken from G. Wassilowsky, “Karl Rahners gerechte Erwartungen ans II. Vatikanum (1959, 1962, 1965),” in Zweites Vatikanum – vergessenes Anstöße, gegenwärtige Fortschreibungen, edited by G. Wassilowsky, pp. 31-54 (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 2004).

9 Wassilowsky, 2004, 33 f.

10 Wassilowsky, 33.

11 Wassilowsky, 34. Nothing changed in this regard, and three years later Rahner wrote: “It is probably no exaggeration to say that there has never been a Council that – at least for those looking on from the outside – kept its content so shrouded in mystery as this one.” Cf. K. Rahner, “ Zur Theologie des Konzils,” Stimmen der Zeit, 169 (1962): 321-339. The essay was also published in: K. Rahner, Schriten zur Theologie, Bd. V, Neuere Schriften (Einsiedeln: Benziger Verlag, 1962). For an English translation see: “On the Theology of the Council,” in K. Rahner, Investigations V (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966), 244-267.

12 Wassilowsky, 2004, 36. Rahner envisaged Vatican II as a chance for the Church’s self-evaluation of sorts.

13 Rahner, 1962. Wassilowsky shows that Rahner presented the lecture repeatedly over the years prior to the Council, which gave him the possibility to improve upon earlier versions. By the time he published his paper, his thought had assumed a very thorough and elaborate state. Cf. Wassilowsky, 2004, 38-39 (footnote 19).

14 H.J. Sieben, Katholische Konzilsidee im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1993); Wassilowsky, 2004, 41. An example of the hopefulness among theologians at the time is H. Küng’s Strukturen der Kirche, in which Küng emphasized the representative nature of the Council. Küng was possibly inspired by numerous historical studies on conciliarism in the 15th century. The Council of Constance as the end of the Great Schism certainly comes to mind. Also, Küng stressed the importance for ecumenism. See: H. Küng, Strukturen der Kirche, Questiones Disputatae 17 (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 1962); Sieben, 1993, 258.

15 Rahner, 1962, 280.

16 Rahner, 1962, 281. Emphasis added.

17 Rahner, 1962, 289.

18 Cf. Sieben, 1993; J. Ratzinger, “Zur Theologie des Konzils,” Catholica, 15 (1961): 292-304.

19 Cf. F. Oakley, The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

20 Ratzinger, 1961, 294.

21 J. Ratzinger, Das neue Volk Gottes. Entwürfe zur Ekklesiologie (Düsseldorf: , 1969).

22 J. Ratzinger, 1969, 159/160.

23 K. Rahner and J. Ratzinger, Episkopat und Primat (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 1961).

24 J. Ratzinger, Aus meinem Leben. Erinnerungen (1927-1977) (Stutgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1998).

25 J. Ratzinger, 1998, 101.

26 Cardinal F. König, “Der Konzilstheologe,” in Karl Rahner. Bilder eines Lebens, edited by P. Imhof and H.Biallowons, 60-64 (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 1985); idem. “Erinnerungen an Karl Rahner als Konzilstheologen,” in Karl Rahner in Erinnerungen, edited by A. Rafelt, 149-164 (Düsseldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1994).

27 König, 1994, 152.

28 König, 1994, 152.

29 As mentioned above, this for Rahner was the essential problem of theology in the 20th century: “Theological disputes should deal with the one question that is of central importance for all believing Christians today: How can a modern person live and proclaim to the non-Christians in his country an authentic Christianity in such a way that it does not appear to them as a merely formal spiritual museum piece? This is the pressing duty of all confessions.” Interview with John A. O’Brien, Chicago 1964, in Karl Rahner im Gespräch. Band 1: 1964- 1977, edited by P. Imhof and H. Biallowons (München: Kösel-Verlag, 1982), 22.

30 L.J. O’Donovan, S.J. “Preface,” in A World of Grace. An Introduction to the Themes and Foundations of Karl Rahner’s Theology, edited by L.J. O’Donovan, S.J., vii-xiii (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1995); see also O. Muck, “Thomas – Kant – Maréchal: Karl Rahners transzendentale Methode,” in Die philosophischen Quellen der Theologie Karl Rahners. Questiones Disputatae 213, edited by H. Schöndorf, 31-56 (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 2005).

31 K. Rahner, Grundkurs des Glaubens. Einführung in den Begriff des Christentum (Freiburg i. Br: Herder, 1976).

32 M. Fahey, “Joseph Ratzinger als Ekklesiologe und Seelsorger,” Concilium, 17 (1981): 79-85.

33 Admission thesis to the position of professor in Germany.

34 H. Häring, “Eine katholische Theologie? J. Ratzinger, das Trauma von Hans im Glück,” in Katholische Kirche – wohin? Wider den Verrat am Konzil, edited by N. Greinacher und H. Küng, 241-258 (München: Serie Piper, 1986).

35 See quote in Fahey, 1981, 80.

36 R.N. Swanson, Universities, Academics and the Great Schism, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Third Series, Volume 12 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

37 K.H. Neufeld, Die Brüder Rahner. Eine Biographie (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 2004); G. Wassilowsky, Universales Heilssakrament Kirche. Karl Rahners Beitrag zur Ekklesiologie des II. Vatikanums (Innsbruck: Tyrolia-Verlag, 2001); H Vorgrimmler, Karl Rahner. Goteserfahrung in Leben und Denken (Primus Verlag, 2004).

38 König, 1994, 153-154; Wassilowsky, 2001, 98. Yves Congar remembers that the periti were seated at one wall of the room during meetings of the theological commission. There were four microphones, three of which were shared by the periti. According to Congar “Rahner had rented one of them;” more than anyone else he spoke, and if we can trust Congar his contributions were always substantial and helpful. Y. Congar, “Erinnerungen an Karl Rahner auf dem Zweiten Vatikanum,” in Karl Rahner. Bilder eines Lebens, edited by P. Imhof and H. Biallowons, 65-68 (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 1985).

39 Like other periti, Rahner was not only working for König alone but also for other German-speaking bishops, which further extended his influence. Cf. Wassilowsky, 2001, 92.

40 K. Rahner, Im Gespräch mit Meinold Krauss (Hamburg: J.F. Steinkopf Verlag, 1991).

41 Neufeld, 2004, 243.

42 Neufeld, 2004, 243.

43 Wassilowsky, 2001, 95.

44 Wassilowsky, 96.

45 Wassilowsky, 97.

46 For an English translation see J. Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II (New York: Paulist Press, 1966).

47 Allen, 2005, 55.

48 Allen, 2005, 55. See also K. Rahner and J. Ratzinger, Offenbarung und Überlieferung. Questiones Disputatae 25 (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 1965). Writen in 1964 in Rome, the text presents some of the research the two men undertook and that made its way into their text that was distributed among the bishops at the Council and significantly influenced Dei verbum.

49 K. Rahner, Das Konzil – ein neuer Beginn. Vortrag beim Festakt zum Abschluß des II. Vatikanischen Konzils im Herkulessaal der Residenz in München am 12. Dezember 1965 (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 1966).

50 Proclaiming their motto “Unter den Talaren, der Muf von tausend Jahren!” (“Under their robes is the stench of a thousand years!”), students in Germany were pointing fingers at those who once again were in power despite their Nazi history. One cannot but sympathize with the demonstrators, or grant them a genuine political motivation; but at the same time the conflict at times took on an altogether different character. As Bernhard Schlink has his protagonist Michael Berg muse, the altercation over the Nazi past may very well have been only the expression of a generational conflict. Cf. B. Schlink, Der Vorleser (Zürich: Diogenes, 1995), 161.

51 Häring, 2001, 23f.

52 R. Modras, “In his own footsteps. Benedict XVI: from professor to pontiff.” Commonweal, 133, vol. 8 (2006): 12-16.

53 Käsemann had his students, who wanted to partake in the generation of the curriculum, teach classes, which unfortunately quickly ended in them running out of intellectual steam. Käsemann had to safe the lectures by once again taking over, often after only ten minutes. Cf. Häring, 2001, 25.

54 J. Ratzinger, Einführung in das Christentum. Vorlesungen über das Apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis (München: Kösel-Verlag, 1968).

55 J. Ratzinger, 1968, 9.

56 H. Küng, “Kardinal Ratzinger, Papst Wojtyla und die Angst vor der Freiheit (1985),” in Katholische Kirche – wohin? Wider den Verrat am Konzil, edited by N. Greinacher und H. Küng, 389-407 (München: Serie Piper, 1986).

57 W. Kasper, “Das Wesen des Christlichen,” Theologische Revue 65 (1969): 182-188.

58 Ratzinger, 1968, 37.

59 Ratzinger, 1968, 40.

60 Ratzinger, 1968, 41, 42.

61 Ratzinger, 1968, 42.

62 Ratzinger, 1968, 43.

63 Ratzinger, 1968, 51.

64 Ratzinger, 1968, 51.

65 L. Boeve, “Kerk, theologie en heilswaarheid. De klare visie van Joseph Ratzinger,” Tijdschrift voor Theologie, 33 (1993): 139-165. (Boeve’s emphases.)

66 Fahey, 1981, 81.

67 Neufeld, 2004, 279.

68 Neufeld, 2004, 282-283.

69 K. Rahner and J.B. Metz, in Die Antwort der Theologen. Rahner, Metz, Schoonenberg, Congar, Daniélou, Schillebeeckx zu Hauptproblemen der gegenwärtigen Kirche, by K. Rahner, J.B. Metz, P. Schoonenberg, Y. Congar, J. Daniélou, and E. Schillebeeckx, 9-35 (Düsseldorf: Patmos-Verlag, 1968).

70 Rahner and Metz, 15.

71 Rahner and Metz, 13.

72 Rahner and Metz, 16.

73 Rahner and Metz, 19.

74 K. Rahner, “Die bleibende Bedeutung des II. Vatikanischen Konzils,” in Schriten zur Theologie. Band XIV. In Sorge um die Kirche, 303-318 (Zürich: Benziger Verlag, 1980).

75 Rahner, 1980, 305.

76 Rahner, 1980, 306.

77 Rahner, 1980, 307.

78 Rahner, 1980, 309.

79 Rahner, 1980, 310.

80 Rahner, 1980, 314f.

81 H. Küng, “Kardinal Ratzinger, Papst Wotyla und die Angst vor der Freiheit (1985). In: N. Greinacher and H. Küng (eds.), Katholische Kirche – wohin? Wider den Verrat am Konzil, pp. 389-406. München: Serie Piper, 1986.

82 Ratzinger was unable to follow him here. See: J. Ratzinger and H. Maier, [1970] Demokratie in der Kirche. Möglichkeiten und Grenzen. Limburg-Kevelaer: Topos Plus Verlagsgemeinschat, 2000.

Oliver Putz received his Master of Arts degree from JSTB and is currently working on a PhD in systematic and philosophical theology at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. His research focuses on the doctrine of the imago Dei vis-à-vis current evolutionary and behavioral biology.

Plinthos comment: Ratzinger actually admits his radical change of perspective regarding truth and the centrality of truth in philosophical and theological science, here.

And there are articles on the temporal nature of the Ratzinger project.

"It is ironic that Benedict the 'traditional' pope committed what is undoubtedly the greatest papal novelty of the modern era—the resignation of the papal office, an event that ushered in so much mischief for the Church. Whatever Benedict's physical condition, it is hard to imagine our situation today would not have been better had he stayed the course. Dr. Kwasniewski has said somewhere that, while we cannot know the mind of God, history seems to suggest that the Lord does not look kindly on papal resignations. The past nine years has been an unremitting train of catastrophe; it is difficult not to see these disasters as directly proceeding from Benedict's resignation. The pope may have been buried this week, but he died in 2013."
These thoughts lead one to think that perhaps Joseph Ratzinger, in the end, never really gave up his Hegelian bent.

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