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The Theological Genius of Joseph Ratzinger | An Interview with
Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D., author of Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience
of Our Age (A Theological Portrait) | Carl E. Olson
Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D., holds both a Ph.D. in Theology and is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of
St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Ireland. He is also a former doctoral student of Joseph Ratzinger, having studied under the man
who is now Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in the early 1970s. Twomey is the author of several books, including
an acclaimed study of the state of Irish Catholicism,
The End of Irish Catholicism?.
His most recent book is
Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait), recently published by Ignatius Press.
Rev. Twomey, both a former student and longtime friend of Joseph Ratzinger, wrote the book, in part, to answer the common
question he heard often after the papal election, "What kind of person is the new Pope?" Having often heard and read false depictions of both
the man and his thought, especially the image presented by the media as a grim enforcer, Twomey wished to set the record straight. Rev. Twomey
offers in his book a unique double-presentation of the man, Pope Benedict XVI--a "theological portrait" that encompasses both an overview of
the writings, teachings and thought of the brilliant theologian and spiritual writer, as well as the man himself, and his personality
traits and how he communicates with others.
Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently interviewed Rev. Twomey, and spoke to him about his former professor, the theological
vision of Joseph Ratzinger, and what he expects from the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How and when did you first meet Joseph Ratzinger? What was your impression of him?
Rev. Twomey: I
first met Joseph Ratzinger early in the new year of 1971, when he interviewed
me in Regensburg after I had asked him to be my doctoral supervisor. My first
impression was of an unassuming man with piercing eyes, a gentle smile, and not
the slightest touch of the arrogance of a Herr Professor.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What were some of the essential
formative theological influences on Joseph Ratzinger?
Rev. Twomey: The
immediate post-war situation of the Church in Germany exercised a huge
influence on the fledgling theologian. The Church had emerged triumphant after
the persecution under Hitler. There was a feeling of a new beginning, not least
in theology, where the neo-scholasticism of the previous half-century was more
or less abandoned in the search for a fresh approach.
Young theologians such as Henri de Lubac, who had a great
influence on Ratzinger, turned to the Fathers of the Church for inspiration and
found it. The Munich theologian Gottlieb Soehngen directed Ratzinger's doctoral
dissertation on Augustine's ecclesiology and his postdoctoral dissertation on
Bonaventure's theology of history. Augustine and Bonaventure are two major
thinkers whose profound influence on Ratzinger cannot be underestimated. He
came under the spell of Cardinal Newman thanks to his Prefect of Studies,
Alfred Laepple, who at the time was writing his thesis on Newman's
understanding of conscience and introduced his students to the writings of
perhaps the greatest theologian of the 19th century, who was also steeped in
the Fathers of the Church.
But, ultimately, it was Scripture that formed the basic
thrust of all his theology. He once said something to the effect that, in the
final analysis, his theology is a form of exegesis. And here his friendship
with the great German exegete Heinrich Schlier must be mentioned; Schlier's
attention to the precise terms of the original text of Scripture is echoed in
Ratzinger's careful exegesis. Josef Pieper, the most important German Catholic
philosopher, also exercised a great influence, as did Endre von Ivanka on the
philosophy of the early Church.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What attracted him to Augustine
and how has his early studies of the great Doctor of the Church informed how he
addresses contemporary controversies?
Ratzinger found the scholastics too cerebral. Augustine appealed to him as a
man of passion, whose whole life was dedicated to the search to know the truth
and articulate it. For neo-scholasticism, everything found its place in the
"system", but Ratzinger was instinctively aware that truth is more
than any system of thought could encompass, that it has to be discovered anew
in all its freshness from one generation to the next.
Augustine was more than a controversialist, but he was
still a remarkable controversialist, who was not frightened by any attack on
the faith, be it within the Church or without. Confident in the truth revealed
in Christ, he found the courage to take on all those who questioned that truth
or denied it. Ratzinger shows a similar courage. He is not afraid to face up to
the most difficult challenges to the faith, knowing that in trying to answer
them we discover the truth in all its grandeur and compelling nature. More
concretely, Ratzinger's studies of the ecclesiology of Augustine shaped his own
understanding of Church--including the role of the Eucharist at the core of the
Church--and her mission. They also prepared him for his later theology of
political life, since Augustine's ecclesiology also involved clarifying the
relationship between Church and State, between civil religion and faith.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What is unique or perhaps even
surprising about Ratzinger's theological methodology? How does it differ from
some of the celebrated Catholic theologians of the 1960s such as Küng and
Rev. Twomey: What
is unique to Ratzinger's theological methodology is, in the first place, its
originality and creativity. Despite all the influences I mentioned, Ratzinger
retained his distance and so retained his independence as a thinker, even with
regard to the great theologians he studied.
His methodology is to take as his starting point
contemporary developments in society and culture, then he listens to the
solutions offered my his fellow theologians before returning to a critical
examination of Scripture and Tradition for pointers to a solution. He is not
satisfied to analyze a topic, but, having dissected the issue, he then attempts
a systematic answer by seeing the topic in the context of theology as a whole.
Unlike Küng, who is always in tune with the latest fashion, Ratzinger is not
afraid to be unfashionable. Unlike Rahner, who produced a full systematic
theology, Ratzinger's theology is fragmentary--filled with brilliant insights
into almost every subject of theology and yet not a fixed "system".
Using the best findings of academic theology, Ratzinger
goes beyond them to create something new and original. He is more than an
academic. He is an original thinker, whose scattered writings on a host of
subjects are "seminal", awaiting development by others. Finally,
unlike either Küng or (especially) Rahner, Ratzinger writes with a clarity and,
at times, literary beauty, that never fails to impress.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the
introduction to your book you wrote about how it was an "unsettling sight"
to see, in April 2005, "the familiar face of my former teacher in hundreds
of posters everywhere." In what ways, do you think, has being elected Pope
brought out or highlighted little-known aspects of Benedict XVI's personality?
Before he was elected Pope, it has to be admitted, few theologians or others
were interested in his writings--he had been effectively sidelined. In
addition, his task as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
was such that he was seen in a very negative light as the Grand Inquisitor, or
Dr No. Theologians, it would seem, are as influenced by the media as anyone
else. Few were even aware that, while Prefect, he had continued to publish as a
private theologian. It came as a great surprise to many that, in his homilies
and talks since his election, the main topic he stressed was joy--the joy God
intends to bring into the world through the Church. Now many are reading
Ratzinger for the first time and are often quite overwhelmed. The media had
presented Ratzinger's frowning face, when announcing some unpalatable decision
of the Congregation. Since his election, the whole world has been captivated by
his smiling face. That says it all.
do you think are the most misunderstood aspects of Benedict's person and
thought? How have some of those misunderstandings come about?
Generally speaking, Ratzinger was written off as a conservative, if not a
reactionary, primarily because few bothered to read his writings--but also
because of his task as Prefect, which was to determine the boundaries of
theological investigation and discipline certain theologians. His
dialogue with Habermas in Munich in 2004 came as a huge surprise to Catholic
intellectuals, who were unaware of how far Ratzinger was open to the heritage
of the Enlightenment. It was not a surprise to secular thinkers, who had
learned to treat Ratzinger with respect. The French Academy honored him as the
apt successor to Andrey Sacharov, the dissident atom physicist during the
tyranny of the Soviet Union. It was their recognition of a courageous thinker
who was in effect the great "dissident" under the "dictatorship
of relativism" that has swamped Europe and American over the past
IgnatiusInsight.com: A common mainstream media
portrayal of Joseph Ratzinger, especially during his days as head of the CDF,
was that he was rigid, dour, ultra-conservative, and closed to dialogue with
those he disagree with. How far off the mark is that depiction? Why do you
think, in particular, there continues to be this idea that Benedict is close
off from ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, in spite of years of writings
that emphatically state otherwise?
Rev. Twomey: As
already mentioned, it is completely off the mark to portray Ratzinger as rigid,
dour, etc. As I point out in my book, what marked Ratzinger as a professor was
his ability to promote genuine, open discussion and dialogue, as well as his
dry wit and gentle humor. He enjoys a good joke and a humorous story. All his
life, he has been engaged in ecumenical dialogue. His critical appreciation for
non-Christian religions can be traced back to his earliest writings as a young
theologian. Perhaps it was the document Dominus Iesus, on the oneness
of Christ and his Church and the relationship of the Church to the other
Christian denominations and the non-Christian religions, and more recently his
Regensburg lecture, that gave rise to the idea that Benedict is opposed to
inter-religious dialogue. His true, positive yet critical attitude can be found
in his book Truth and Tolerance.
book was already in production when Benedict gave his now famous Regensburg
Address that created a furor around the world. What was your reaction to the
address? What do you think of the criticisms of those Catholic critics who said
that Benedict wasn't properly diplomatic, didn't understand that he was now
Pope and not a professor, and that he doesn't really understand Islam thought
Rev. Twomey: My
own reaction was positive, since the main thrust of the lecture was to
criticize European thinkers for leaving God out of the picture, of using a
limited notion of reason that excluded the Transcendent, much to the
impoverishment of society, and how poorly Europe was prepared to enter into
dialogue with Islam as a result. It should be remembered that the lecture at
the University before an assembly of academics and scientists received a
standing ovation. The lecture, surprisingly, has resulted in a genuine dialogue
between Christian and Muslim scholars (now that the air has been cleared) as
well as what seems to be the beginning of a dialogue between secular and
Christian thinkers (the latter being the main concern of his lecture). The
Pope's visit to Turkey, especially to the Blue Mosque, should have put an end
to any doubts about his attitude toward Islam.
of the seven chapters in your book deal with the issue of conscience and its
vital place in the theological work of Ratzinger. What are the origins of his
theological interest in conscience? Why has it been such an integral part of
his writings over several decades?
Rev. Twomey: In
the background is the rejection of any kind of fixed system of thought or ideology
(even of a theological nature, "orthodox" or liberal) and a
corresponding insight into the highly personal nature of truth. As mentioned
before, his exposure to Newman as a young student of theology brought him into
contact with one of the great modern thinkers who had thought deeply about the
nature and centrality of conscience as a "co-knowing" of the truth in an
age ofgrowing skepticism about knowing truth.
But also his study of Augustine, the great explorer of the
human soul and its relationship to God, alerted him to the subjective aspect of
grasping objective truth. Augustine, too, had to overcome the skepticism
of his day that denied the possibility of knowing the truth. More generally,
"conscience" is the term used today to justify the subjectivity that
underlines relativism, not only in the moral sphere--it is in the air. As a
result, Ratzinger, who is highly sensitive to every current of contemporary
thought, must of necessity confront the question as to the nature of conscience
and has done so consistently. Finally, an erroneous notion of conscience has
penetrated deeply into Catholic moral theology, which Ratzinger has on occasion
subjected to a radical criticism.
writing of potential liturgical changes that Benedict may implement--and which
have been rumored for many months now--you wrote that Ratzinger knows that
"restoration ... must of necessity be creative, rooted in theology, and
concerned with essentials, not the accidentals." Based on your knowledge
of the Holy Father and his writings, what are some of the creative actions you
think he might take to help restore the beauty and reverence that many
Catholics believe has been largely lost over the past four decades?
Rev. Twomey: The
Pope will first teach by doing--by the way he celebrates the liturgy. If he
issues the Moto Proprio on the Tridintine Mass, then it will not
be an attempt to restore that rite but to insist on the continuity between that
rite and the present rite, but also in the hope that future generations will
learn from that wonderfully rich rite, as many liturgists are now learning from
the Eastern Orthodox rites. Liturgy must grow organically; it takes time to
ripen, as it were, and changes must be introduced gradually. (The great mistake
with the new liturgy, it seems to me, was the way a completely new rite was
suddenly imposed on the Church from above.) According to the Post-Synodal
Instruction on the Eucharist, the Pope has requested the relevant Congregation
to examine some changes. Liturgy is about great and marvelous things happening
under the form of little actions and words. Each work and ritual is
significant. Any change affects the whole.
your opinion, where does Joseph Ratzinger stand in the pantheon of great
Catholic theologians of the 20th century? What sort of influence might his
theological works have on future generations?
Rev. Twomey: This
question is difficult to answer. I see Ratzinger as one of the great original
thinkers of the 20th century. His pastoral tasks as Archbishop of Munich and
his disciplinary tasks as Prefect of the CDF and now as Pope, prevented and
prevents him from that writing project which would have produced a magnificent
opus. And yet he has produced a vast corpus of writings on almost every topic
in theology--mostly of a fragmentary nature, but capable of inspiring future
generations to develop his seminal insights.
What is unique to Ratzinger is his ability to speak to all
levels of society and to inspire all. Rarely has a theologian been able to
speak to people's minds and hearts in such a way that their lives can be
changed as a result. His latest book, Jesus of
Nazareth, produced, like most of his work, in his spare time,
is likely to set the parameters for theological debate on the nature of
exegesis and the person of Jesus Christ for generations to come.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:
Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Author Page for Henri de Lubac
Author Page for Hans Ur von Balthasar
Author Page for Josef Pieper
The Courage To Be Imperfect | The Introduction to Pope Benedict
XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait) | D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.
A Question of Fairness | A Review of Cardinal Ratzinger:
The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith, by John Allen | D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.
Faith in the Triune God, and Peace in the World | Joseph Ratzinger
The Truth of the Resurrection | Joseph Ratzinger
"Primacy in Love": The Chair Altar of Saint Peter's in Rome | Joseph Ratzinger
Why Do We Need Faith? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Benedict XVI's Rookie Year As
a Priest | From Milestones:
Memoirs 1927-1977 | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Are Truth, Faith,
and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Ratzinger
What in Fact
Is Theology? | Joseph Ratzinger
More excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI and his writings
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